A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 21): The Testament of Dr. Cordelier (1959)

Fun fact: the primal tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde arose from a true story. In the late 1700’s, a woodworker of impeccable craftsmanship, one young furniture maker by the name of William Brodie, rose to such professional esteem around his hometown in Scotland, he became Deacon of his local guild – and a man morally untouchable. His honor was in such high standing, local leaders entrusted him with the keys to their estates, so he could go in while they’re gone and touch up the furniture. But Deacon Brodie was also a talented locksmith. How strange was it, then, when their stuff started disappearing under cover of night. This was, as it turns out, thanks to Brodie’s talent for copying keys, and an insatiable coveting of his neighbor’s wares. He was eventually hanged in 1788 (they say, on the gallows he built). Brodie’s was a double life: one of aristocracy by day, and orchestration of nefarious plots with a cadre of miscreants by night. He was a bit of Dr. Mabuse, a pinch of Professor Moriarty. And Robert Lewis Stevenson was aware of the story: as a young boy, an ominous cabinet sitting in his bedroom was crafted by none other than the same villain, Deacon Brodie.

The origin for Stevenson’s novella, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is a bit of this history, and a hint of the legend, but intermingled in a nightmare. Stevenson once told a reporter the idea for the story came to him during a dream, where “all I dreamed about Jekyll was that one man was being pressed into a cabinet when he swallowed a drug and changed into another being.” In the same alchemy by which coal, under enough pressure, can be transformed into a diamond, man, left to his own devices and with enough pressure, can find himself transmutated into another state. It is a curious thing that Stevenson dreamt of a cabinet, and that probably Brodie’s cabinet: an internal hiding place for a person’s external items; a holder of trinkets that can, visually, transform a man naked into a man of means. The source of the Jekyll and Hyde story is an agent built to perpetuate propriety, built by a criminal.

This elemental angle to man’s internal states is what no doubt inspired Jean Renoir’s take on Stevenson’s narrative, with his television film, The Testament of Dr. Cordelier (yikes, remember that Dr. Mabuse name drop, from before?). In other filmed versions of the classic tale (I am thinking primarily of the Barrymore version), the evil in Jekyll personified in Hyde is almost an external force of nature – a demon invited into the heart by weakness in man’s soul, and let loose in the property – the Evil is not, ultimately, his fault. In the aforementioned silent version, Hyde is set upon the sleeping Jekyll as if by a spider casting its web – Jekyll is merely a fly caught in a larger intrigue attacking his spirit. But Renoir gives us no such moral safety net. His Jekyll, Dr. Cordelier, is eventually revealed (in his Testament) to be as despicable as his Hyde, Mr. Opale. Renoir’s version becomes a means to explore the inherent state of human Evil; but here, the pressure, the drug, the catalyst, is social propriety’s suppression upon men, and the violent expression that this eventually reveals. Evil begets evil. The evil in society begets the evil in men.

Renoir’s film begins with Dr. Cordelier (Jean-Louis Barrault) revising his will to leave his inimitable estate to an unknown character – and new assistant – by the name of Opale. Cordelier’s lawyer, Joly (Teddy Bilis), is an old friend so does as he says, but is baffled by this turn of events. Smelling a blackmail attempt, Joly inserts himself into his friend’s plot to save his friend’s reputation, and unravel the relationship between this new assistant of his and the Good Doctor. Within only a few minutes of tailing Opale, the strange, apelike Opale picks up a young girl off the street and beats her with his cane. The brutality of the sequence, really does, come out of nowhere. Which is kind of the point. The tailend of this scene is a chase through the streets, leading straight to Dr. Cordelier’s residence. In the most French propriety moment possible, the lawyer Joly covers for his friend’s assistant – and scandal to Opale’s employer – by paying off the beaten girl and placating the crowd. They see this as virtuous: a girl was beaten, but at least a scandal was averted! “He did a good thing,” says a member of the incensed mob.

Joly eventually comes to one of Dr. Cordelier’s “colleagues”, one emotionally volatile Dr. Severin, who has fallen out with Cordelier over the nature of his experiments. Cordelier’s aim is to unlock consciousness – and change the soul – by introducing an outside agent, allowing his patients to literally change any deficiencies in their preterconscious character. Severin believes consciousness and the soul are one and the same; while Cordelier believes the soul lies somewhere else, and moreover, can be mutated. In a beautiful reversion of dialogue, Severin tells Cordelier he should be “burned at the stake” for “blaspheming” against Claude Bernard, and Charles Darwin, and sophist moralism. Cordelier’s belief offends the gods of science, but not necessarily the Gods.

How little do both the scientists actually know of the eventual transformation from Cordelier into Opale. Renoir’s Hyde is not a man torn in two between Id and Ego, but a perverted harmony between the two. In a tape-recorded statement that frames the second half of the film, after Opale is discovered as Dr. Cordelier by Joly, we learn the whole sordid tale. Dr. Cordelier is a self-hating hypocrite. In a flashback, he rebukes one of his patients from sleeping with the family Maid; but Cordelier is in a love affair with his own. He scolds his colleagues who take advantage of the young girls under their care, but eventually, he succumbs to this temptation (the result hints of rape). His experiments with drugs, hoping to heal these deficiencies in his soul, actually release the part of it in hiding for so long.

Cordelier actually has some unholy agency in his Opale disguise, and it’s this revision of the Jekyll and Hyde story that is most shocking. His slimy charade is merely a physical mask he can use to not get caught for the satisfaction of his innermost, deplorable, state. (At one point we are introduced to Joly’s favorite whorehouse, and what is left unsaid is quite a grave silence for a television film. “He’s a monster,” the girls say.) Opale is not a demonic reflection of the man; just a reflection. Perhaps a reflection through a cleaner mirror.

Renoir made use of minimal sets and a traditional lighting setup for this film, so The Testament of Dr. Cordelier relies instead on the strengths of the moral fable at hand, and the actors to tell it. It took me two viewings to realize Barrault was both Cordelier and Opale, which is a deficiency in my own viewership, perhaps, but also a real compliment to his work. Opale’s physicality, however, is quite troubling – he has a Chaplinesque Tramp buffoonery, but a look that has the subtext of an immigrant caricature. This would not be surprising for a popular production, but it comes from Renoir. So giving the benefit of the doubt, something more is at play. The music cues that fallow Opale on his rampages may be considered humorously out of place, but again, this is Renoir we’re talking about. Perhaps Opale is a bumbling correlative for his society’s worst and most childlike impulses. Regardless, at the end of the film, Barrault gives his Opale a sympathy reserved for a sick and dying dog, one you know you have to put down to save it any more pain.

But there is no such sympathy for Cordelier, and this is probably Renoir’s purpose. It is a clear indictment of the state of society that confines men to untenable standards (a running theme from Renoir works including, Boudu Saved From Drowning, The Grand Illusion, The Crime of Monsieur Lange), but also an indictment of society’s disposition toward leaving the dark corners of men’s spirits unchecked – merely pressing them down into the cracks and recesses, instead of ever truly healing them. Like Jekyll against Stevenson’s cabinet, if you keep pressing, eventually, a man’s true character is revealed.

Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!

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