Murders In The Rue Morgue

US (1932) Dir. Robert Florey

It’s always the ones you least suspect. The evidence might be pointing in one particular direction but then the discovery of one vital clue changes everything, even if it sounds a little difficult to believe. But this is murder we’re talking about.

Paris, 1845, a few friends attend a travelling fair, including medical student Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames) and his fiancée Camille L’Espanaye (Sidney Fox), are drawn to an exhibition boasting an intelligent ape. Inside the tent, a Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) and his assistant Janos (Noble Johnson) present Erik (Charles Gemora), an ape capable of understanding and communicating with humans.

Erik takes a shine to Camille but attacks Pierre, frightening Camile but Pierre is more concerned with Mirakle’s plan to create a mate for Erik by mixing human and ape blood. Soon after, local women go missing and their bodies are later found in the river, with Pierre spotting marks where they have been injected. He notices the traces of ape DNA in the blood, just as Mirakle sets his sights on Camille.

Following the success of Dracula in 1930, Universal slated its star Bela Lugosi to make Frankenstein with director Robert Florey but gave it to James Whale and Boris Karloff instead. So Florey fell back on a previous suggestion he made to the studio to adapt a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, Murders In The Rue Morgue, although adapt is a term used very loosely here, as about 95% of the story is unrelated to Poe’s.

This was partially to accommodate Lugosi’s presence in the film, and stemming from the arguments between Florey and the studio over keeping the period setting when they wanted a more contemporary one. There are also inconsistencies with the dialogue, which flits between 19th century and modern talk; trivia note: one of the writers was none other than John Huston!

More problems were abound as Florey left the production at one point but returned, whilst the success of Frankenstein forced the studio up the budget and demand some reshoots as well as adding more scenes. Fans of Poe’s original story will no doubt be aghast at how little of it remains here, something others wouldn’t notice. This doesn’t make it any less enjoyable but the plot holes and confused scripting is quite evident.

Dr. Mirakle was a film only creation to justify having Lugosi on board, the first of his many mad scientist roles that would surpass his being synonymous with vampires. With his bushy eyebrows, crooked smile and exotic Hungarian accent, he is made for the part and the stand out on the performance front, though like everyone else he is hampered by a weak script.

As the antagonist, Mirakle does something rather odd in telling the crowd at the fair of his plan to instigate interspecies pollination which fails to shock them, unless they didn’t understand what he was saying, or took the ambiguous “mixing of blood” at face value (since this was pre-code but still a long way from relaxed rules). They only get scared when Erik gets a bit restless in his cage and flee, save for Pierre and his friends.

Considering in the original story Pierre, the actual main character, was also an amateur detective so he should have guessed when prostitutes were going missing and turning up dead at the same time Mirakle was in town that something was afoot. There is an interesting subversion when Mirakle gets angry at a prostitute (or “woman of the night”) having “infected blood”, since they couldn’t say STD in 1932.

Luckily, Camille is pure and Erik likes her but no amount of charm offensive from Mirakle is going to make her volunteer to become a monkey’s missus. It is only when Erik pays Camille and her mother (Betty Ross Clarke) a visit that Pierre makes the connection, causing a stir for the police, as they are unable to figure out how the intruder was able to get in and out of the flat which was locked from the inside.

One of the few bits that survived the alterations, Pierre solves the mystery after finding a clump of gorilla hair in the mother’s dead hands, although even this has the police in a state of disbelief and arrest Pierre. The ending is also devised solely for the film and remarkably predates King Kong by a year as Erik flees the rooftops of Paris with Camille in his arms.

Keen eyed viewers will notice an influence of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari in the climax too, in the angular definition of the rooftops and the composition of the shots which are similarly framed like Wiene’s film. Much of this can be attributed to the camerawork of the legendary Karl Freund who worked on many classic German expressionist films and lifts this one beyond its limited budget and lacking script.

Unusually for this period, the camera moves a lot which in the early days of talkies was deemed impossible but Freund made it work and the benefits are evident, certainly in boosting the creep factor which is barely there. That the camerawork is more dynamic than most of the cast might seem cruel to say but this new HD Blu-ray transfer brings this to our attention more than it should.

Something else exposed by this remastered print is the gorilla suit. From a distance, it looks convincing enough and Charles Gemora, who would carve out a career as “King Of the Gorilla Men”, has the authenticity of the movements down pat. However, for close up shots they used the face of a chimpanzee, a completely different ape, which may have fooled audiences in 1932 but not today.

But for all its flaws, Murders In The Rue Morgue has a curiosity factor about it the more well know entries in the Universal Horror lack for being so overlooked. It might be the long forgotten cousin of this celebrated oeuvre but is worth a watch.

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