I was free but you take me away. You chain me. Hurt me. Make me like man. Why? To make me happy? No. to make you big doctor.
Dr. Renault's Secret (1942) is a good example of a successful and fun B movie. Not the most memorable and probably not quite the cult gem one searches old movies for, but worth a look for fans of its type (old black and white mystery/thrillers).
There was a time a long time ago when an afternoon or a night at the movies really meant it. There'd be newsreels, cartoons, intermissions, a feature, and one, sometimes two secondary movies (at least three hours worth). The main feature was the draw. It had A-list stars, a good budget and production values. These are the ones that are best remembered. The second (or second and third) movies were often quickies, movies made to fill out the bill to complete the evening's entertainment: lower budget"B movies"without the celebrity-type stars, often genre films. Westerns, thrillers, crime dramas, horror (though these types of genres are not exclusive to B movies, they predominate).
B movies were not "important" movies. They weren't epics or musicals, "serious" drama, rarely romance. Those are the movies (with the stars) that brought people to the theater, the B movies were just there to add value for the price of admission. Even if the B movie wasn't a genre flick, it was one with the second or third string actors and lower budget. That said, these B movies are often far more fun. Less pretense of being "important" and less time spent on being "significant" or showcasing a star for the sake of selling the studio's films. And sometimes working with limitations inspires creativity in both actors and those behind the camera.
Opening in the rain outside the Le Chat Noir ("'The black cat,' huh? That's a good omen for me."), a bus stop/inn/tavern, a young Dr. Forbes has arrived to wed the niece of Dr. Renault. This takes place in France. The makers of the movie make sure the audience doesn't forget that (though the setting has virtually nothing to do with the story). Part of the fun is that all of the major and supporting roles are filled by people who clearly are not French (the butler is the single exception). There's American accents (of various sorts), a slight English one, another (Noel's) that will be explained in a bit, and an inspector who has a bit of an Irish brogue. Things are inserted to remind the audience it's France, like the little flags strung up in the inn because Bastille Day is coming up.
Forced to stay a night at the inn before going to the Doctor's chateau (because a bridge conveniently washes out), Forbes gets to meet the other characters. There's the bartender. There's a suspicious gardener who has a shady past and is shown sitting at a darkened table in a pretty well lit bar. He's played by the memorable "heavy" Mike Mazurki, known for playing thugs and gangsters and who had a nice role in 1944's Murder, My Sweet, one of the best of the Raymond Chandler adaptations (with all due respect to Mr. Bogart, Dick Powell was a better Philip Marlowe). (Murder, My Sweet was an adaptation to the novel Farewell, My Lovelya perfectly fine titlethat was mainly used for the US release. The fairly good 1975 remake with Robert Mitchum used the correct title.)
The most important character is Noel, the slow, deliberate, seemingly mentally deficient handyman of Renault. Played very well by J. Carrol Naish, veteran of almost 200 films. Like Noel, most of those roles were as Hollywood stereotyped nonwhites. He was a sort of anyman for whatever devious oriental, eastern, Slavic, Latino, Arab, American indian, Italian (et cetera) was needed. Hollywood exoticism and menace. And a solid actor despite the nature of the roles. And of all those films and television (most of the "B" variety, but he did work with John Ford in 1950's Rio Grande), he seems to have played a character of his own heritage (Irish, though born in New York City) only a couple times. Naish's performance is a big part of what makes the movie work.
Who is Noel? As it turns out he is the secret of title. Hints about his origin are scattered throughouta topic Renault deliberately leaves off the table. It is explained later that he is from Java, though that only partially explains his broken English and ruddy appearance. A series of murders takes place that seems to point toward Noel, though Mazurki lurks around a bit to play red herring. It becomes evident fairly early on Noel is doing the killing but it takes the rest of the film to explain why.
Renault is played by character actor George Zucco, a man well acquainted with the B movie. Also like Naish, he was one of those actors that put in solid, professional performances regardless of the role or the picture. And as the other part of the title's equation he does an exemplary job, never taking away from Naish who is the real subject, going from a kindly uncle to a cruel scientist in the course of the short film.
The director, Harry Lachman, didn't do a huge number of films (for that era) but had worked from the days of the silents up through this film. Mostly small budget, if not poverty row type movies. He did a few of the better Charlie Chan films, so he did know about mystery (he also has the first actual "French Connection" in that he made several films in France where he had spent some time as a painterthis was his last film before returning to art). Lachman's work here is quite good.
Another difference between the A and the B films is that the latter tend to be shorter. Dr. Renault's Secret clocks in just under an hour. But that works for it. The movie moves along (not too fast) but the pace keeps the action going and there's no lag. He also seems to have brought his skills as an artist to the picture, using shadows (and the rain) to good effect and even using the occasional odd camera angle (something that was a no-no in a "classy" picture). The fight at the end takes place at night, in the rain, in and around an old mill. It's done well enough to have been in one of the big budget gangster films. It ends without the typical resolution scene where things are tied up. No platitudes or a short statement to sum things up in a eye-rollingly bland statement about mankind or love or whatever. It makes the ending more striking.
The director and Naish turn Noel into something that is far more real than the stock character he would be in most of these movies. Noel is at once ignorant and clever. He can be caring yet explode into violence if provoked. In truth, he is the only really developed character in the movie and certainly the most sympathetic. Noel's speeches about his predicament are given an emotional substance rarely seen in similar tales of similar "secrets."
There is a final "French Connection." The movie is an adaptation of a novel (Balaoo, already adapted in 1913 and 1927) by Gaston Leroux, best know for his oft-filmed novel Le Fantôme de l'Opera ("The Phantom of the Opera").1
A short little entertainment piece to munch some popcorn to. Better than one would expect but primarily for devotees of the genre.
1Just how often? These for sure, possibly others: 1925, 1943, 1960 (television series), 1962, 1974 (an updating and reworking of the story called Phantom of the Paradise), 1983 (television movie), 1989, 1990 (two television movies), 1991(television series), 1992 (an updating and reworking of the story called Phantom of the Ritz), 1998, and another in post-production as of this writing intended for 2004 release. There was also that Andrew Lloyd Webber musical from 1987.
Sources: the movie taped from a late night showing on American Movie Classics (AMC) and much help from the indispensable Internet Movie Database.