“You chain me, hurt me. Want to make me like man. Why? To make me happy? No. To make you big doctor.”
Larry Forbes (Shepperd Strudwick) is engaged to Madelon Renault (Lynne Roberts), the niece of Dr. Robert Renault (George Zucco). He comes from America. He is to get a ride to Renault’s estate at the local inn. A rainstorm has washed out the bridge to the Renault home so he stays the night at the inn. Also at the inn are Renault’s gardener Rogell (Mike Mazurki) and the Renault handyman Noel (J. Carrol Naish). When Larry goes to bed he finds a drunken guest has mistakenly fallen asleep in his room so he takes the drunks room instead. During the night the drunk is murdered.
The next day, Larry goes on the Renault house. Waiting for him are his fiancée Madelon and her uncle Robert. Larry is curious about Noel. There is something about him that Larry finds strange. His appearance is unusual and his mental capabilities are slow. He also has an attachment for Madelon that is almost like worship. A stray dog that Madelon adopts suddenly attacks Noel. That night the dog is killed.
Renault confronts Noel about the dog. Noel denies he killed it. Renault tells Noel that he is now a man and not an animal and he should act like a man. Noel is a creation of Dr. Renault. He was an animal that Renault experimented on and turned into a man. Renault is afraid that Noel is acting too much like an animal so he locks him in a cell. Noel escapes from the cage. There is a carnival in the village that Madelon promised to take him to. Noel follows her to the carnival. In the village Noel is teased by a couple of the villagers. They end up dead.
Larry investigates Renault’s laboratory. He finds the records detailing Renault’s experiments in turning Noel from an Ape to man. In the meantime Rogell kidnaps Madelon, intent on ransoming her.
“Dr. Renault’s Secret” was released in 1942 and was directed by Harry Lachman. From the first time you see him it’s rather obvious the Noel was not born a man so from the start you pretty much know what Dr. Renault’s secret is. That’s not the point. The point is who exactly is the monster here? Rogell the bully who only thinks of what he can take from life and anyone in his way? Perhaps Dr. Renault?
Renault, in typical mad scientist hubris, takes a gorilla out of the jungle and through experimentation, fear and basically torture turns that gorilla into a man. Renault’s sociopathic behavior does not take into consideration that perhaps Noel is experiencing confusion, animal instincts, and a myriad of human emotions in trying to fit into a world he does not really belong. All he cares about is that his ‘experiment’ is a success. And he will use whatever tool or weapon he has to, to ensure the results he wants.
There is no wonder that Noel’s devotion to Madelon is so deep. She is the only person who treated him with kindness and care. She spent time and patience with Noel to teach him to talk and, in a way, taught him that humans are not all violence and pain. In her way she is as protective of Noel as he is of her. She is mother to his new birth as a man and not an animal and he will guard her with his life.
All the external stimuli that bombards Noel everyday is bound to confuse him in how he is supposed to act and feel. Reversion back to his animal instincts is a buffer for him. It is a way to comfort himself when he doesn’t know the proper way a man should respond. Noel, even among people, is apart from what is going on. You see him only respond when he is directly addressed. He is aware of the people around him and the conversation but he is not part of it and does not look directly at anyone until someone says his name and brings him into the conversation. It is another way he copes with this world that he should never have been a part of.
It is a testament to the talents of J. Carrol Naish that he can bring all these aspects of his character to the surface. It may be a silly little low budget “B” movie with not much of a plot, but I think it’s one of Naish’s best performances and as such deserves more attention than it’s gotten. Sure there are aspects of the movie that don’t gel. For example, who exactly killed the drunk guy in the Inn? Rogell mistakenly thinking it was Larry and wanting to rob him or Noel knowing it was the drunk and wanting to kill him? After all if he can smell a dog around the corner he can smell a drunk guy in a room. Regardless of the flaws the film is an interesting introspect on what it means to be human. Are we so different from animals? We like to think so, but Noel may disagree.