Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

[Mild Spoilers]

To start in a less than obvious place:

This happened back in 1986, when CBS announced their latest TV movie, a version of Edgar Allen Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue starring, of all people, George C. Scott.

Yes, the same George C. Scott who seems to be playing the same stolid and unexciting character in every movie he made.  I just couldn’t figure out where in the world he would fit into a short story written by Edgar Allen Poe, featuring one of the strangest heroes of detective fiction, the young and eccentric C. Auguste Dupin.

So my movie-loving Dad said, “Maybe he’s playing the mad scientist.”

Now for those of you who didn’t find that hysterically funny, I would point out that you need to read more and should start with this short Poe story.  But for those of you unwilling to do your homework, it should be enough to say that Poe’s story is about a mysterious murder, solved by an eccentric genius.

No mad scientist.  Technically no murder, either, but that’s minor.

So why would my well-educated and highly-intelligent father believe that this mostly routine detective story with a few horrific details involved a mad scientist?

And the answer is very simple:

Because of this impressive 1932 film.

However, looking at Bela Lugosi’s career in Hollywood, you have to wonder if Murders in the Rue Morgue was the beginning of his decline in Hollywood.  Yeah, I know everyone usually credits Boris Karloff’s decision to switch roles in The Raven and The Black Cat, but you have to remember that Universal’s original plan was that Lugosi would play the Monster in Frankenstein, with Robert Florey directing.  Lugosi rejected the role because his face would be covered by makeup, and he and Florey made this film instead, while James Whale and the nearly unknown Boris Karloff took over Frankenstein.

Nor does it help that nearly twenty minutes got cut out of this film.  It was just too horrible and sensational for its day and age and as far as I know the footage is now long lost.

In some countries, even the hour long cut of the film had to be edited, particularly the scene where Mirakle ties a girl big wooden “X” (well, her arms, at least.  I suspect they realized they couldn’t get away with tying her legs to the lower arms of the “X.”  That would be way too obvious.  However, this creates problems later in the scene, when she dies but is rather obviously just standing there).

Mind you, if you look at the film from the standpoint of the 1930s, it seems almost calculated to upset a lot of people, from Dr. Mirakle’s lectures on Darwinism and common descent, to the hints of sex and…

Well, you know what.

Dr. Mirakle works at a carnival sideshow in Paris back in 1845, displaying his gorilla, Eric.  However, he insists that he is no mere carnival entertainer, but a scientist, carrying out his great experiment to prove conclusively that man descended from the apes.

And he hopes to prove this by proving that it is possible to mix the blood of man and ape.

I’ll point out that this involves beautiful young girls and let you reach the obvious conclusion.

He does this by kidnapping women and experimenting them, leading to a long string of deaths.  However, when he encounters young medical student “Pierre Dupin” and his beautiful young fiancé, Camille, he realizes that he has finally found the girl he needs…

Like a lot of Edgar Allen Poe films, Murders in the Rue Morgue has little to do with Poe.

It is true, that about two-thirds of the way into the film we finally get Poe’s story worked into the film.  However, it has been crammed into a radically different sort of film and no longer fits.  It’s hard not to agree with Dupin’s protests that these events are just wasting time, and the whole business with the local magistrate could easily have been eliminated without any effect on the rest of the film.

In fact, it would all work far better if you cut it all out — or reduced it to the discovery of the dead woman’s body.

However, we know that Poe’s name is on there to sell the film (yes, the studios were doing that even back in the Thirties!) so they had to tie it in somehow or other.

What is obvious, if you remember when this was made, is how they are deliberately pushing their boundaries and suggesting far more than they could actually get away with showing.  Note, for example, how we are told the girl Mirakle kills in his experiment is found naked — even though she was wearing a floor-length undergarment when last seen.

It is also rather strange to see the weird unibrow they gave Lugosi: I’m sorry, but it just looks fake.  Very fake.  I suspect they wanted to make him look as different from Dracula as they could, but he really never looks sinister.

Particularly not with that shaggy haircut.

Another strange choice that just doesn’t work is the way the film portrayed Eric: yes, as you would expect from a Thirties killer gorilla movie, Eric is a man in an ape suit.  Except, however, in the closeups.  There he suddenly becomes footage of a real ape’s face (or is it a monkey? We are clearly not talking about either a Gorilla, a Chimpanzee, or an Orangutan.  Nor does it look particularly large).  This forces them to shoot the Gorilla from a distance whenever they have to use the man in the suit, and despite this it is hard not to notice that the head on the suit does not match the closeups.

And, while we’re mentioning flaws, Dupin’s comic relief roommate feels like he’s been crammed in because that sort of thing was expected at the time — and to give Dupin someone who will listen to him expound on what’s going on.  The character works reasonably well when we first see him at the big carnival, but not so much later on.

However, you can’t fault the incredible art design here and the decidedly Expressionist version of Nineteenth Century Paris.  The sets here must have been massive, as we get a lot of street scenes, and a long chase across the rooftops at the end.

Perhaps the best set is the forced perspective city skyline we see from Celine’s room.  It is obviously quite large, seen through a balcony window which covers the entire wall, and the buildings are all lighted.  It is also quite moody, as it is backed by a beautiful late-evening sky.  The effect is stunning, and it really makes you long for the days when Hollywood could still create this sort of Expressionist art.  When you see a scene like this, it comes as no surprise to learn that Karl Freund did the camera work.  He got his start in Germany during the Expressionist era, and his work graced a lot of Universal’s best horror films.

I like this one.  I’ll admit it.  I was cold to it in the past because it butchers the original story, but this time around, I ignored that and enjoyed it for what it is:  one of the best-looking and most enjoyable Universal horrors.  It is an outstanding entry into the early series, before the combination of lower budgets, routine plots and the Hays Office conspired to drag it all down.  I love the busy and joyous Carnival atmosphere at the beginning of the film, and the elegant period costumes.  Many of the shocks stand out, particularly the matter-of-fact disposal of the body of one of Mirakle’s victims.  Lugosi is on form, and he gets some good moments, notably his rather arrogant sideshow presentation and a creepy scene where he visits Camille’s apartment.

Frankly, I think this would have been a better film if they’d just ignored Poe altogether.   And it is a lesser film compared to Universal’s other early Horror classics.

But it is still a lot of fun.

Oh, and that 1986 TV version of the story?  It was perhaps the closest version of the story ever filmed except for one rather inexplicable change:

George C. Scott played a very staid and stolid middle-aged version of Poe’s impoverished dilletante detective, only he had somehow turned into a former police inspector, with a daughter.


Oh, well.  Hollywood.  What did you expect?

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