Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

It was around 7th Grade that I became enamored with science fiction, horror, and mystery stories. Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison were three of my favorite science fiction authors. Then, horror meister Stephen King arrived on the scene with his first groundbreaking novels like Carrie, Salem's Lot, and The Stand. At some point in reading horror stories, the name Edgar Allen Poe came into my consciousness. Poe, the tragic, grand American author of the macabre. I had to have Poe and my Aunt Mary answered my call at Christmas by giving me The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe. I have to admit some of Poe's prose went over my head in tales like The Fall of the House of Usher or The Masque of Red Death. But other Poe stories were terrifying and I loved them like The Tell-Tale Heart or The Black Cat. A little known fact about Edgar Allen Poe is his contribution in creating the first detective fiction story with the perfectly creepy short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue published in 1841.

Naturally, Hollywood discovered Edgar Allen Poe as a source of material for films.  Surprisingly, it was director/producer Roger Corman and American International Pictures that showcased Poe's works in the 1960's in films like HOUSE OF USHER (1960), THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), and TALES OF TERROR (1962), starring veteran horror film giants like Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Vincent Price. But Universal Studios took the first chance with a Poe story when they made MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932), their third horror film after the classics FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and DRACULA (1931).

I decided to reread the short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue  before watching the film as it had been years since I had crossed paths with literary's first detective C. Auguste Dupin. I remembered the key mystery of who or what committed the murders but little else. It's a fantastic story. There is no doubt that author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes owes his origins to Poe and Dupin. Doyle even uses the same device as Poe of the detective's friend as narrator of each mystery. Because the Poe tale is a short story, Universal Studios mucked up the film version of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE by having to stretch the story, bringing a mad scientist element to the film that wasn't in the short story and making Dupin a curious medical student instead of the brilliant nobleman in Poe's mystery. MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE had four writers involved including director Robert Florey, Tom Reed & Dale Van Every and even some additional dialogue by renowned writer/director John Huston (THE MALTESE FALCON, THE AFRICAN QUEEN).

But MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE does maintain many of the best elements from Poe's story. It's got the great Bela Lugosi in the lead role and director Florey is inventive with his camera work and German Expressionist sets, helped by the great cinematographer Karl Freund who also shot DRACULA and then directed THE MUMMY (1932). MURDERS opens at a carnival in Paris in 1845 full of exotic dancers, a Buffalo Bill type with Indians, and the main attraction Erik the Ape, a gorilla from Africa trained by the mysterious Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi). Erik grabs a bonnet from Mademoiselle Camille L'Espanaye (Camille Fox). Her boyfriend, the medical student Pierre Dupin (Leon Waycoff later Leon Ames) tries to get it back and Erik nearly strangles him before Dr. Mirakle intervenes. But both the gorilla and Mirakle are smitten with the beautiful Camille.

Dr. Mirakle walks the streets of Paris at night in top hat (a bit like Jack the Ripper) and kidnaps a streetwalker (Arlene Francis, who later in life was a celebrity panelist on TV game show WHAT'S MY LINE?) with the assistance of his henchman Janos the Black One (Noble Johnson). He takes her back to seemingly abandoned house in the Rue Morgue where he performs strange experiments , injecting the gorilla's blood into the woman, trying to bridge the gap between man and ape. But his experiments always end with the woman dying. Janos disposes of the body in the river but the police find it. Dupin, visiting the morgue for his work, becomes intrigued as he discovers three dead women all with the same mark on their arm. Further investigation by Dupin reveals each prostitute's blood has a foreign substance in it. He later concludes it's the gorilla's blood mixed with the women's blood.

Dr. Mirakle is convinced that Camille has the right blood. He invites her to his tent to read her future but Dupin shows up instead, eager to learn more about Mirakle's experiments.  Mirakle sends Erik the gorilla to kidnap Camille. Erik grabs Camille in her apartment. A crowd hears Camille's screams and rushes to her apartment where they find Camille missing and Camille's mother, Madame L'Espanaye (Betty Ross Clarke) dead, her body stuffed up a chimney.

The local French Prefect (Brandon Hurst) suspects Dupin but Dupin insists it's Mirakle and leads them to Mirakle's lair. Erik the gorilla escapes, strangling Mirakle and carrying Camille to the roof tops of Paris. Dupin steals the Prefect's gun and chases after the gorilla, finally shooting the ape who tumbles (pre-King Kong) into the Seine River. Dupin and Camille are reunited.

The film version of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE makes some strange deviations from Poe's story. Poe wrote the story in 1841 but the film is set in 1845 for no apparent reason. The main character Dupin's first name is changed from Auguste to  Pierre, Universal probably believing Pierre sounded more French. In Poe's story, the ape is described as an Ourang-Ourang which is what they called an orangutan back then. An orangutan is mysterious and exotic, perfect for Poe's story. But the film chose to make the creature a gorilla, a more visually familiar creature for audiences. Actor Charles Gemora wears the gorilla suit and director Florey shoots Erik mostly in long shots and fleetingly so we don't realize it's a man in a gorilla suit. It works in the beginning. For close-ups though, Florey shoots a tight head shot of a real chimpanzee for reactions, an entirely different ape. He gets away with it but just barely. Ironically, Gemora would don the ape suit again in a later 3-D remake of the Poe story called PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE (1954) as Sultan the Ape, which also stars Karl Malden and a young Merv Griffin of all people.

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE has some shocking moments that if the film had been made a year or so later may not have made it past the conservative Hayes Code. The scene where Mirakle tortures the streetwalker in his laboratory is horrifying. The prostitute bound to two poles resembling an X-cross as Mirakle takes her blood, actress Arlene Francis's terryifying screams is Edgar Allen Poe-like in its gruesomeness. When the streetwalker dies, Mirakle's assistant Janos disposes her into the Seine via a trapdoor, her life anonymously over. It's a tragic, powerful scene. The discovery of Madame L'Espanaye stuffed up the chimney is Poe-licious and a perfectly visualized moment from Poe's story. The film doesn't hold back from this hideous discovery either as her upside down head is exposed to all.

I had never heard of director Robert Florey but the French born director shows a visual flair in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE.  In one scene, he mounts the camera to a swing with Camille as she swings back and forth, chatting with Dupin. And he uses the Universal Back Lot nicely with German Expressionist matte paintings of the Paris skyline in the 19th Century. Florey even throws in the typical Universal horror staples of an angry mob in the finale and a sinister henchman (Janos) to assist the lead villain. Florey was a prolific director who directed over 50 films between 1929 and 1950 including the Marx Brothers in THE COCOANUTS (1929) and one other horror film THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1946) before he directed a boat load of television shows.

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE is Bela Lugosi's first film after his successful performance as the Prince of Darkness in DRACULA. Besides Boris Karloff, Lugosi would rule horror films in the 30's. Lugosi would have a nice run besides MURDERS appearing in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932), WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), THE BLACK CAT (1934, with Karloff), MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935), and SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939, again with Karloff) before his career began to fade in the 40's and 50's. I liked Lugosi's curly hair as Mirakle, a nod to the look of Edgar Allen Poe perhaps, a far cry from his Dracula's widow peak. Lugosi conveys Mirakle's torment effectively as he tries to make a breakthrough in proving man evolved from ape. But success escapes him.

Actress Sidney Fox is easy on the eyes as Camille. She even gets top billing in MURDERS over Lugosi although Lugosi is clearly the star. Poor Ms. Fox would have as troubled and sad a career as Lugosi. Bert Roach, a former Keystone Cop in Mack Sennett's silent comedies provides the comedy as Dupin's roommate Paul. Two key supporting characters who add to the sinister nature of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE are actor Noble Johnson as Janos the Black One, Mirakle's assistant in kidnapping streetwalkers for his blood transfusions and actor D'Arcy Corrigan as the corrupt Morgue Keeper. Johnson, an African American actor who also appeared in THE MUMMY and KING KONG (1933) seems almost zombie like as Janos. Corrigan's long, gaunt face is perfect as the keeper who will let anyone inspect the dead bodies for a small gratuity. Corrigan would make uncredited appearances in THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935).

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE is a good example of how the original literary material, in this case Poe's short story, changes as it's adapted to a longer medium like film. In Poe's story, the murders were random and the killer unknown until the end. The orangutan's owner was a sailor who had acquired the creature on a voyage to Borneo and then lost the creature while at port in Paris. How Dupin figures this all out is what makes Poe's story so delicious and inventive. But it is a short story. Film is longer. Although I'm not crazy about the mad scientist plot line, director Florey and his writers throw in enough interesting elements (the carnival, the morgue, Paris at night) along with keeping several key pieces from the original story that it's an engaging but flawed adaptation of Poe's short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

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