Criterion Prediction #3: The Testament of Dr. Cordelier, by Alexander Miller

7 Oct

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Title: The Testament of Dr. Cordelier

Year: 1959

Director: Jean Renoir

Cast Jean Louis Barrault, Teddy Bilis, Michele Vitold and Sylvane Margollé

Synopsis: The titular doctor is a renowned psychiatrist whose practice is has been abandoned for a “secret research project.” Clearly, the doctor is up to no good. His close friend and lawyer Maitre Jody is concerned when he finds Cordelier’s entire estate is left to an apparent stranger by the name of Monsieur Opale. As it turns out, Opale happens to be a misshapen brute who stalks the streets, mercilessly thrashing women and children to death. Why would the celebrated Doctor leave his savings to a derelict brute? Could they be connected to his secret operation? What kind of sinister scheme is Cordelier involved in?

Critique: My immediate reaction to hearing about this film was “What the hell? Jean Renoir, already an established filmmaker at the dawn of the New Wave directed a horror film for television?” Lots of great directors flirted with television during the first great golden era of but you don’t think the director of The Rules of the Game, and Grand Illusion was among them. With a great opening scene where Renoir plays himself – echoing the warning preamble as if he were a combination of Edward Van Sloan (whose prelude to Browning’s Frankenstein is infamous) and Rod Serling – appearing on a news broadcast, aping the role of the cautious narrator, This strange meta opening irons out this revised Jeckyl and Hyde tale spun by one of cinemas masterclass directors. It’s easy to make the Jekyll and Hyde connection to Cordelier however this tale is more dimensional, pulpy and contemporary, and yet it is actually one of the more faithful adaptations of the Stevenson story. It’s not the best Renoir film, but we’re also talking about the director of Rules Of the Game, Grand Illusion and The River, so what some might consider his “lesser” film is still an achievement in its own right. Creepy, well-paced, economic and even funny (intentionally), The Testament of Dr. Cordelier aka Experiment in Evil is a strange but enjoyable turn from one of cinema’s renowned artists.

Why It Belongs in the Collection: Unless you have a region-free DVD player and feel like buying a six disc set (which actually consists of some great films), you’ll have a hard time finding a decent version of The Testament of Dr. Cordelier. Which is all the more reason to hope for an eventual Criterion release, right? This wouldn’t only be a stand out title given that it’s a very strange (but cohesive) film from a prominently featured director in the collection, it would also expand their French horror films, which are limited to two titles if you count Eyes Without a Face and Black Moon. As a lesser known Renoir film, there must ample information and production notes to learn about, which is of course synonymous with Criterion’s restorative process.

If you were perusing that lovely area in the Barnes and Noble that is strictly Criterion DVD/Blu-rays and saw a macabre looking horror film, only to find out it was a Renoir picture, I think that would qualify as an instant buy. And if you’re familiar with Criterion’s catalog, I’m sure you’d react with the same impulse. That’s why it belongs in the collection.

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