May 17, 2016
Secrets of the French Police is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink oddity that flings together police procedurals, adventure serials, and a horror villain with hypno-murder powers. Never settling into one genre for more than a few scenes, it’s totally incoherent and bizarrely entertaining, as it absorbs influences from the famous French Inspector Bertillon to Dracula and The Mystery of the Wax Museum. This RKO programmer from 1932 is now on DVD as part of the Warner Archive’s Forbidden Hollywood Volume 10, and is recommended for those with attention deficit disorder.
Alphonse Bertillon was a turn-of-the-century French detective who pioneered modern investigative techniques, including ballistics testing and criminal identification, which he systematized through a series of biometric measurements. RKO was keen to adapt his story to film, and their text was the series of articles written by H. Ashton Wolfe for American Weekly Sunday Magazine, arranged under the title Secrets of the Surete. Wolfe claimed to be a pupil of Bertillon’s, and was promoted as a “famous British investigator,” but his expertise would come under scrutiny. Per the AFI Catalog, RKO discovered that Wolfe was a fraud and “wanted on swindling charges in France and England at the time of this production.”
The timing of all this is unclear, but it is reasonable to assume they discovered Wolfe’s dissembling in pre-production, whereupon they had writer Samuel Ornitz (a devoted leftist and future member of the Hollywood Ten) do surgery on Wolfe’s material. Ornitz took two of Secrets of the Surete stories, involving a mad sculptor who embalms his models in his art and a deformed thief who steals jewels through hypnosis, with chunks of his unpublished novel The Lost Empress, about the Princess Anastasia. These are improbable, impossible elements to combine into one script, but Ornitz plowed forward, and RKO approved. Presumably the timing was tight and they needed something, anything to film, so voila, here we have Secrets of the French Police, directed by Edward Sutherland.
The Wolfe character is turned into St. Cyr (Frank Morgan), a Bertillon-type who uses newfangled technology to track down killers, including a facial recognition technology that provides one of the more striking images of the film. He is investigating the kidnapping of flower girl Eugenie (Gwill Andre), who is being held by the mad Russian-Chinese hypnotist/sculptor Hans Moloff (Gregory Ratoff), who speaks in an unexplained Dracula-accent. Moloff’s plan is to hypnotize Eugenie into thinking she is Princess Anastasia, thereby gaining access to her royal fortune. And yes, he kills and embalms models inside wax sculptures as a hobby. Eugenie’s boyfriend Leon (John Warburton) is an infamous thief, but he teams up with St. Cyr to rescue Eugene and take down Moloff.
Despite writing the above paragraph, I have no idea what happened in this movie. It is all packed into less than an hour of runtime, so when we are ready to settle into a police procedural with Frank Morgan as your amiable Sherlock Holmes knockoff, it turns into a baroque horror movie with secret underground chambers and evil laughing madmen. Time is relative inside Secrets of the French Police, as characters are introduced and then immediately killed off (or just forgotten) — at a certain point inside Moloff’s torture mansion I forgot St. Cyr was still investigating a murder. It’s a pleasurable collision, a Frankenstein’s monster of mismatched movie parts. But what parts!
Frank Morgan does a fine pantomime drunk routine while trolling for information at a rooming house, and then strolls into his super-cool crime lab as his beehive of assistants assemble a gigantic portrait of Eugenie from a hodgepodge of descriptions. It is the most striking image of the film, a romantic portrait conveyed in giant puzzle pieces of cardboard on a police station’s wall. St. Cyr could be a superhero if he only had the powers; he already has the acting chops and the sweet high-tech lair. And Moloff could be a formidable villain with his mesmerizing eyes and murderous sculpting powers. He is no great shakes at long-time planning, however, as there is no plausible endgame to his Anastasia ruse. Why would the Romanov family ever believe that this narcotized Parisian flower girl was their relative? Moloff would have been better off hypnotizing bank prison guards and robbing the vaults. But I digress. What Moloff IS very fine at is murdering models and embalming them in wax casts, a routine suspiciously repeated that same year in Michael Curtiz’ Mystery of the Wax Museum. One suspects that RKO execs or Ornitz read the Wax Museum script and incorporated some elements from it into their already overstuffed feature.
Moloff’s most impressive killing is neither of the hypnotic or sculpting variety though, but an insanely elaborate back projection illusion set-up on a country road. Moloff’s goons set up a back projection rig inside of a billboard on a country road. When a car comes near, the projector is triggered, throwing up a gigantic image of a car bearing down directly toward oncoming traffic. The target, thinking there will be a head-on collision, makes a hard right turn, and crashes off a bridge into a stream. A needlessly elaborate way to kill someone, perhaps, but incredibly impressive all the same. Moloff is the king of all media when it comes to murdering people. Secrets of the French Police is an impossible film and a lovable one, displaying all the ingenuity and limitations of the studio system. Faced with a looming production deadline the RKO writers and technicians had to throw something on-screen, so faced with an impossible task, they made an impossible film.