Going Ape

Dr. Renault’s Secret is a hybrid about a hybrid: it’s Murders in the Rue Morgue crossed with The Island of Dr Moreau, a blend of noir horror and weird (very) science. Much of the film is shot in a gorgeously dark, velvety noir style, with silver light cast on shadowed faces and black-steeped shadows etched onto grey walls. Virgil Miller’s cinematography picks out such details as the sleek, oily sheen on a wet slicker, or the rough-textured skin of Mike Mazurski’s face, as ridged and pitted as the surface of the moon. No doubt the director, Harry Lachman, knew the film was a B-product (and rather dumb B-product at that), but he took care with his direction, such as staging shots with foreground objects to give a sense of depth penetrating into space. The film had the advantage of being produced by a major studio, 20th-Century Fox, which had the dollars to lavish quality even on minor fare. Golden-age Hollywood really could be golden at times.

Some of those golden dollars in Renault were extended toward the elaborate creation of the film’s overtly hybrid character of Noel, who’s also the title secret. We’re not told right away what Noel is. He’s introduced as the shambling, shy handyman of the titular Dr. Renault, but audiences can easily guess that the secret lies within that handyman’s odd, misshapen body. It turns out that Renault, played by George Zucco with his almost patented lip-curled disdain, had captured an ape on the island of Java and operated on him to turn him into a human. The experiment has mixed results. While seemingly docile, Noel is loutish and slow and unaware of his own strength. He also doesn’t comprehend human teasing, which frequently riles his temper. When several grotesque murders happen, suspicion focuses on Noel, particularly since the victims were observed to have recently roused his anger…

The film’s Dr. Moreau half is obvious (monkey made into man via mad monkeying around). But as for Rue Morgue? There are the murders, of course, but there’s also the alliance, if you will, between Renault and his not-quite pet. They’re bound by their secret, not only of Renault’s God-manqué tinkering with nature, but, as with Bela Lugosi in the 1932 Rue Morgue, by how man and ape are both implicated in crime. Per the Renault DVD’s featurette, the film is based on a Gaston Laroux novel, Baloo, about a doctor who brings an ape to Paris. transforms it into a human, and then sends it out on a crime spree. How many mad-monkey movies has this plot inspired? At least two (silent) films were made from Leroux’s novel before 1942’s Renault; there are also several adaptations of Rue Morgue (one even in 3-D), which, like Leroux, concerns a monkey’s murderous doings. You can toss in the British horror-camp classic Konga (which I wrote about here), which added size increase to the mix (not to mention Zucco having another whack at ape-adjusting in The Monster and The Girl). Poe and Leroux may have written the Ur-mad-ape-texts, but it was cinema that created a mini-avenging-ape-genre. Gone a bit ape, you might say.

The difference with Renault is that J. Carrol Naish as Noel is not play-acting in a gorilla suit. He’s enacting a semi-human, whose very flesh and features have been almost literally carved out of his primate being. I’ve got to hand it to Naish, who pulls a Lon Chaney here. He carries as much wadding, hair, wire, and collodion as the Fox make-up department could pile onto their star without his collapsing under the strain. Naish appears to be wearing pounds of padding on his back and shoulders, his nose and eyelids are thickened, his cheeks broadened and built up, his eyebrows plastered with shaggy tufts, and his hair covered by a bristly wig. You’re almost too aware of the costuming, of all the stuffing, glue, and facial sculpting needed to achieve simianesque features. It can’t have been comfortable. I know actors suffer for their art, but how much of Naish’s look of silent agony was due to acting, or to patient suffering beneath the make-up crowd’s greasepaint binge?

But what Naish does as an actor is quite good. He gives his Noel a stooped, lumbering posture, with heavy, swinging arms and bowed head—a crude simulacrum of humanity, left unfinished by a careless Creator. More tellingly, Naish gives his character a limited emotional palette. His Noel feels a sadness he can’t express—a sense of something lost, half-remembered, never to be regained. In a scene with Renault, asking the doctor as to why he couldn’t have been left in his natural state, Noel doesn’t rant or rage. Instead he’s subdued and puzzled. He suffers without knowing why. Naish keeps his body still and his voice slow and soft; he talks like someone who translates in his head before speaking. Mostly he uses his eyes—moving them without really seeing, as he shifts between incomprehension and a barely grasped awareness of cruelty. He’s knows only that life was once simple and good and now it’s unbearable. The very lack of expression gives Noel his poignancy; it’s the pain of a mute, helpless animal.

Being that it’s stuck in the middle of B horror, Naish’s performance is not one to attract attention, but he does bring imagination and sympathy to the role. As a horror character, Noel is not as known, nor as recognized, as other 1930s-40s B-movie monsters. He’s not iconic like the Frankenstein Monster or the Wolfman; you probably won’t be buying a Noel mask to wear to your Halloween party. But like (the iconic) Karloff, Naish manages to transcend his creature’s get-up. His eyes supply the real horror, displaying something that harrows one’s very soul. And beyond all the masks and make-up, that’s what should stay with us.

Happy Halloween.

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