The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Universal Pictures 1932
Director: Robert Florey
Starring: Sidney Fox (as Camille), Bela Lugosi (Dr Mirakle), Leon Ames (Pierre Dupin), Bert Roach (Paul), Charles Gemora (Erik the Gorilla)
Over at the #1932book sign-up, John at Noirish recommended I look for some 1932 movies on YouTube, and I picked on Murders in the Rue Morgue.
The film opens at a busy Parisian fairground in 1845. Two medical students, Pierre Dupin and his friend Paul, are squiring their young ladies around the various sideshows and displays of ‘savages’ and exotic dancing. The tone is gratingly jocular. Paul gets lines like, ‘We can continue our studies of anatomy, much nicer than visiting a morgue’.
The mood changes when they accept a barker’s offer to view Erik the Ape Man, ‘the beast with a human soul’. Erik’s keeper is Dr Mirakle (Bela Lugosi, on full-beam creepy). Mirakle is an early evolutionist, touting Erik as the first man and shocking the audience with his heretical ranting.
‘My life is consecrated to great experiment… Erik’s blood shall be mixed with the blood of man.’
The evening almost ends in a riot. Dupin and his friends go backstage to take a closer look at the ape. Unfortunately, Erik takes a fancy to Dupin’s girlfriend Camille after grabbing her bonnet and giving it a bit of a chew. Dr Mirakle puts her straight onto his shopping list. Dr Mirakle, you see, is engaged in some deeply sinister experimentation requiring plenty of young women.
Is Rue Morgue anything like Edgar Allen Poe’s original story? I can’t tell you without dropping some spoilers. Obviously all of the components are there, but there are plenty of extra bits put in by the writers.
There is one obvious difference I can point out. Dupin is not at all the ratiocinating genius described by Poe. He is a bit of a young man about town, marked out only by his interest in conducting after-hours autopsies down at the morgue (an oddity emphasised by his evident interest in Dr Mirakle’s theories – and of course by the morgue-assistant’s home visits).
Dupin and his girlfriend Camille (played by Sidney Fox) have some pretty wooden flirtation scenes. This is a genuine quote:
‘You’re like the song the girls of Provence sing on May Day, you’re like the dancing in Normandy on May Day, and like the wine in Burgundy on May Day. Oh Camille, I love you.’
Mr Lover Lover. Who could resist?
Meanwhile, Dr Mirakle is a great baddie, completely obsessed with his weird theories and driven to experiment over and again. The scene in his laboratory is surprisingly shocking for its time, despite being largely seen in silhouette.
I’m not sure I have ever actually watched an entire Bela Lugosi movie before but he has to be the creepiest man in history. His Mirakle is flat-out unnerving – I think it’s to do with the pace of his lines as much as the accent and the stare.
The look of this film is incredible – very striking use of shadow and atmospheric fogs (unless that was just YouTube picture quality). The tone is uneven, though: the horror elements are strong, but the comedy and romance come across as ham-handed and stilted.
Having said that, here is a final mention for the funniest line in the film. A nervous boatman brings the body of a prostitute to the morgue.
‘Cause of death?’
[Looks round to check]
Pre-code.com: Between White Zombie, this, and Dracula I think the main difference between all of the Lugosi characters is the angle of their eyebrows. There are personality differences, too, but in all we have Lugosi as the amoral creature preying upon the supernatural to subversively rob the souls of those he deems unworthy.
Fright.com: What immediately strikes one about this movie are the stunningly textured black-and-white visuals. The artfully distorted set design and shadowy photography are redolent of German expressionism–specifically the type seen in THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920)–while also foreshadowing the look of the American film noirs of the 1940s. No wonder: cinematographer Karl Freund also photographed expressionist classics like THE GOLEM (1920) and METROPOLIS (1927), as well as Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931). The level of onscreen violence is also startling for a film made in 1932, in particular the early crucifixion.