Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

*. “Based on the immortal classic by Edgar Allan Poe.” Well, I guess. Though I’d have gone for “inspired by” or “suggested by” ahead of “based on.” There isn’t much Poe here. Even the character of Dupin (Leon Ames) isn’t a detective but only a medical student.
*. Poe has received indifferent treatment at the hands of filmmakers. This was to be the first of a trilogy of Poe-inspired horrors by Universal, the next two being The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935). Neither of them had much to do with Poe. Nor did Roger Corman’s Poe cycle. Or the P.O.E. movies. He was really just a name to conjure an audience with. Much like Lovecraft.
*. This is a movie with an interesting back story. Originally Robert Florey was to direct Frankenstein, with Lugosi as the star. That fell through for various reasons and this movie became a kind of consolation prize. It was not as big a hit with audiences or critics, and today is far less well known. Nevertheless it does have some admirable qualities.

*. These come courtesy mainly of cinematographer Karl Freund. Freund was a pioneer of the moving camera, and that opening dolly shot taking us into the carnival is quite impressive. More than that, however, the movie ha a rich visual atmosphere that makes heavy use of strange sets, lighting, fog, and shadow. Strange, but not as exaggerated as in parts of Frankenstein, or, more obviously, that landmark of German expressionism The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
*. In his book The Monster Show film historian David J. Skal calls this movie “the purest homage to the Caligari style that Hollywood would ever produce.” Yes, and it’s more than just style, which is expressionist but restrained. The story here is also far more Caligari than it is Poe, with a weirdo sideshow barker named Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi) being the master not of a homicidal somnambulist but an ape named Erik. This ape can be sent, like Cesare, off to kidnap women and carry them back to Dr. Mirakle to perform his experiments on.

*. The nature of these experiments is hard to figure out. As I understand it he wants to inject the kidnapped women with ape blood, which will then allow him to breed them (the women) with Erik as a way of demonstrating the truth of the theory of evolution. Strange, and more than a little sick. Though while censors objected to a lot of what was going on (this was pre-Code), I’m not sure they flagged this. Perhaps they didn’t understand any more of it than I did.
*. The absurdity of the plot should just be ignored though, as I think everyone ignores the plot of Caligari. This is a great movie to look at, much more so than Dracula or even Frankenstein. And the effects are up to snuff as well. The monkey business, for example, is rendered by mixing in close-ups of a chimp’s face with full-body shots of a man in a gorilla suit. I know it sounds silly, but it’s surprisingly effective. And the process work on the rooftop at the end is first-rate as well. Just as good as stuff being done decades later.

*. Bela Lugosi. I’m sorry, but I’m not a fan. I’ve read a lot of praise for his performance here but he only seems to me to be hamming it up as he usually does, this time behind a truly remarkable unibrow. (He’d have a similar brow as Murder Legendre in White Zombie, which came out the same year. I don’t know if he just kept it on.) Not that Dr. Mirakle is a character with any depth anyway.
*. Some interesting side notes. John Huston is credited with “added dialogue” but he later confessed that he only tried to give the script more of a period feel and that Florey rejected most of what he wrote as being too stilted. Bette Davis auditioned for the part of Camille but was rejected by Carl Laemmle Jr. due to her “lack of sex appeal.” So much for those Bette Davis eyes. The role would go to Sidney Fox, who is very good.
*. There have long been rumours that it was heavily cut but the AFI apparently looked into this and couldn’t find any proof that it ever ran any longer than 62 minutes, which is the version we have now. I found it quite a lot of fun, but as I’ve said it’s a movie to be looked at rather than followed for any kind of story or because any of the characters hold our interest. Definitely worth checking out, but you can see why it missed becoming a classic.


24 thoughts on “Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

  1. fragglerocking

    Hmm, breeding women with apes doesn’t appeal at all, blimey they got away with some stuff back in the day. What with Dix’s Virgin Soldiers and your sleazy apes it’s turning into a licentious morning read here on the WP4 movie sites. Good job Booky is taking the day off, he’d be appalled.

    1. Alex Good

      I don’t think the people who came up with this storyline even really understood the business of how crossbreeding was going to work. But in 1934 that level of scientific literacy was probably pretty low among the general public. You had to ask your doctor how babies were made.

  2. tensecondsfromnow

    Is that a picture of you, Alex, with the uni-brow?

    Missing out on Poe is a big miss; I like the character of Po in Kung Fu Panda, but it’s got very little to do with the author of The Raven.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        That sounds like one of those new Star Wars characters. I got out after Return of the Jedi. Also didn’t see Kung Fu Panda. I have seen some Parker Posey movies though.

      2. fragglerocking

        Surely you know of Lugné-Poe the famous French actor/director/ producer in the late 1800’s, doing experimental symbolism with French writers and painters? He was an admirer of Edgar Allen and appropriated the surname for himself. I thought this 18-1900’s crap oops sorry, stuff, was your speciality Alex?

  3. Over-The-Shoulder

    Good afternoon Alex, or good morning, depending on your personal preference. How you doing today? I apologise for my later than usual comment – I was trying to haggle with Fraggle (rhyme intended) over her very classy Fiat 500. Do you know a man? I would love to get my hands on one…

    Ape-women? I could see it. It does stretch the imagination, but so does this film. I’ll be taking a miss.

    1. Alex Good

      Those cars are sassy, but not that useful for large families.
      This is a good movie! The ape-breeding stuff is weird, but obviously not gone into very deeply.

      1. Over-The-Shoulder

        The Telegraph has described the Fiat as “a cheerful runabout for the style-conscious” and we all know how reliable and spot on the Telegraph are. And who needs large families? Not me. Bad for the environment. And is this a good film? Fun and good are two different things. Godzilla Vs Kong is fun, but is it good? I’ll just have to wait for a review around here sometime.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        You may have to wait a while for a GvK review, as I usually only watch these things when they come out on DVD. But hopefully before the end of the year. If it’s fun I’ll be satisfied, but I have my doubts based on the rest of the franchise.
        Yes, cars and families are both bad for the environment. You should get rid of both.

      3. Over-The-Shoulder

        Cars are bad for the environment. That’s true and ruined my arguement. How do you ‘get rid of’ a large family? Your not suggesting… no… you can’t be saying… I won’t believe… you’re not suggesting… injecting them with ape blood?

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