Le Testament du Docteur Cordelier (1959)
aka The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment or according to IMDB, Experiment In Evil.
Taking a page from the career of Hitchcock and Castle, this enjoyable take on the Jekyll and Hyde theme is introduced in a prologue by the film’s director, Jean Renoir. Renoir arrives at a television studio to see the broadcast of his latest effort and promptly begins the narration of this thriller set in modern day Paris of 1959.
Far and away more daring than any North American production on the subject of Jekyll and Hyde, this take on the Stevenson story will be steeped in sexual deviancy and kinky practices that will come to fruition as the tale unfolds. Starring in the leading role of Doctor Cordelier and his alter ego, Mr. Opale is Jean-Louis Barrault. As Cordelier, Barrault will arrange to have his will altered leaving everything to a mysterious Opale with his friend and lawyer as played by Teddy Bilis.
It’s shortly afterwards that Bilis will witness an attack upon a little girl late at night outside of his home. He’ll track the perpetrator to the home of his dear friend Cordelier. The mystery of his friends benefactor will only increase when the police are called and Opale isn’t to be found. Psychiatrist Cordelier insists that the mystery man is a patient whom he is hoping to help. Not long afterwards, Opale will once again appear on the streets at night attacking a mother and child, spy on a pair of lovers and beat an elderly man to death with his walking stick. A crime that cannot be overlooked which brings the police in establishing a city wide manhunt.
It’s at this point topics that would be taboo in North America begin to surface. The police follow the clues to a flop house where the implication is clearly made a prostitute is employed by Hyde/Opale. She’s questioned about her client and the room is scattered with whips and other fetishes. The trail will lead to another Doctor’s office who is a critic of Cordelier’s work and beliefs that sees a second death. Privately, Cordelier swearing off his alter ego.
We’re all familiar with the story and know that isn’t going to be. Opale will soon take over Cordelier and become the dominant personality. Through the use of flashbacks, we’ll see more depravity in the past and lawyer Bilis is going to discover the Cordelier was no saint either and it’s his sexual hang ups that led to the birth of Opale.
The highlight of this film is without a doubt Barrault’s impressive turn as Hyde/Opale. Considering the character has been done by many an actor prior to this version from Barrymore to March to Tracy, it’s a tribute to Barrault that he brings a fresh interpretation to the role. It’s so Chaplinesque in it’s delivery. Unable to control his evil tendencies, you can’t help but find yourself wishing he wasn’t going so far and proved to be just a likable troublemaker. His body movements are perfectly matched with a quirky soundtrack when he’s strolling the streets or raising hell on some unsuspecting victim. The fact that he seems to have such fun in his devilish pranks only endear him to the viewer in his oversized coat and pants. You see this Hyde is a smaller man than the Doctor who has given birth to his evil twin.
Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch but imagine a Charlie Chaplin like character with all the movement of Chaplin combined with for me what appeared to be a doppleganger of sorts in the guise of Bob Dylan. That’s the way I see the wonderful performance from Mr. Barrault.
Don’t you just love watching an old film and the Doctor prescribes a cigarette to one of his patients. “That will soothe you.” says Dr. Cordelier to one of his patients that he might soon be taking unfair advantage of….. I’ll let you make the discovery for yourself. Honestly I had no idea this film existed as a variation on the Jekyll Hyde theme and with head bowed down, I didn’t even know I owned it. I guess it’s true. I just have far too many films to keep them straight.
I picked this up about two years ago in a collection of Renoir titles and finally took a closer look at what was included. Glad I did as this is one I’d like to recommend should you get the chance to give it a look.