Tuesday, October 05, 2010

DR. SHOCK'S HALLOWEENIE MOVIE OF THE DAY: MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932). Only the third Universal talking horror film, RUE MORGUE follows the one-two punch of DRACULA (1931) and FRANKENSTEIN (1931); if those two films were home runs then MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE is more like a bunt. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Please excuse the baseball reference, I swear it'll never happen again.) Of course, the film is (very loosely) based on Edgar Allan Poe's groundbreaking detective story which created the entire genre of detective fiction already. But the real behind-the-scenes story of the film is really a lot more exciting than the actual movie. Of course, we all know that after DRACULA was such a big hit for Universal Studios (in fact, pulling them from the brink of bankruptcy), Bela Lugosi was slated to appear in the follow-up FRANKENSTEIN as the monster with Robert Florey directing. The now-legendary screen test of Lugosi in monster makeup reminiscent of THE GOLEM (1920) seems to have been criminally lost to us. Then at some point, Bela turned down the role of the monster because there were no lines. Actually, at that point it was probably a wise thing for Lugosi to do. It was only later when Universal removed Florey and installed James Whale in the director's chair that the role morphed into something which would make Boris Karloff a star. But by then it was too late. Robert Florey was given MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE as a "consolation prize" and Lugosi was tapped to star as the maniacal Dr. Mirakle.
The movie itself, as I've already hinted at, is not a classic. However, there are several things going for it. First and foremost, of course, is the performance of Bela Lugosi in one of his most memorable characterisations; sadly there are great stretches of the film in which Lugosi does not appear. That would be one of the things going against it. These scenes are left to be carried by top-billed (!) silent film holdover Sidney Fox as the rather insipid heroine Camille and the slightly better Leon Ames (before he changed his screen name from Leon Waycoff) as Pierre. Admittedly the script doesn't give them a lot to work with but both actors are still clinging to the over-emphasized silent screen style of acting. Another of the film's plusses is the often superb cinematography by maestro Karl Freund who squeezes every ounce of chiaroscuro mood as possible out of every scene. Universal staff art director Charles D. Hall also provides some quite stylised (almost surreal at times) sets for Freund's camera to sink it's teeth into. Another plus seems to be the "additional dialogue" credit of a young pre-director John Huston. The film is sprinkled with very witty lines which I suspect must be the work of Huston. The job of directing by Robert Florey is somewhat more problematic to judge since the current cut of the film is not what Florey intended; the studio recut the film and shuffled scenes into different running order. This may be why the film itself seems to play rather oddly when one watches it. In fact, the opening scene of the film was supposed to be the celebrated foggy-night street fight witnessed by "woman of the street" Arlene Francis (decades before her regular stint as a panelist on "WHAT'S MY LINE?") where Lugosi's carriage (driven by Noble Johnson) pulls up and abducts her. This scene is pushed forward a good 15 minutes and has to wait until after we see the carnival scenes where Fox, Ames et. al. go to see Erik the Ape in Dr. Mirakle's sideshow. With that knowledge, one can now see how the particular camera shots which reveal both Noble Johnson and Bela Lugosi in the foggy night fight scene are specifically filmed like they are the first introduction of the characters in the film. Which they originally were. The opening carnival scenes with Lugosi are, truth be told, also quite good and atmospheric, but they certainly don't "introduce" Lugosi the way the "carriage" shots did. And the fact that the abduction and subsequent torture and murder of Arlene Francis (strapped to an almost-crucifix) were scenes originally meant to play BEFORE the carnival scenes where Erik snatches Camille's bonnet, any real sense of dread has been largely dissipated. If we the audience had seen what Dr. Mirakle was capable of in his elimination of Arlene Francis BEFORE his encounter with Sidney Fox, we would feel a lot more uneasy upon seeing Lugosi's newfound interest in young Camille.
All that having been said, the plot of course concerns Dr. Mirakle's quite dotty attempts to prove man's descent from the apes by mixing the blood of humans (make that the blood of sweet young thaaaaaangs) with the blood of Erik the Ape. As if THAT ever had any real chance of scientific success! As I've said, lovers Pierre and Camille (accompanied by their dippy posse) see Mirakle and Erik at a sideshow where the ape takes Camille's bonnet. Later Mirakle encounters a prostitute on the street, whisks her back to his secret laboratory and sadistically tries to mix her blood with the ape's. Unfortunately, the hoyden's blood is "bad" (she does habitually do the nasty, after all) and her dead body is dumped through the floor into the Seine to be discovered by police. Here is another instance where the studio reshuffle of scenes doesn't work. The death of the prostitute with bad blood (who "spoiled" Mirakle's experiment) should come first since now the doctor has realized he must search for some "pure" (read that as "unsullied by the naughty embrace of men folks") blood. THEN his interest in Camille upon seeing her at the sideshow takes on major overtones which are non-existent in the current cut of the film. Anywho, after the murder of the "woman of the streets" and the discovery of the body, the movie hits a brick wall of boredom with several scenes devoted to the wet romance of Pierre and Camille. But before that, one of those nice little dialogue things happens as the police pull Arlene Francis' body from the Seine. An old gypsy woman watching nearby soliloquises: "Life is hard. The river is kind. The river is soft. It rocks them to sleep." Things pick up greatly, however, when Mirakle finally decides to send Erik into the apartment Camille shares with her mother and kidnap the young lady. During the abduction, Mother is killed. However, when Pierre and the local gendarmarie bust down the door only minutes later, the apartment is completely empty. A nice bit of business involving conflicting witnesses stating they heard the kidnapper's voice follows: they all swear it was a foreign language. A German man swears it was Italian, an Italian man swears it was Danish and a Danish man swears it was German. It's been many moons since I've read the Poe short story but my dim memory seems to tell me this scene was taken directly from the story. This is a nice touch. Pierre insists that, while one of the women must have been carried off by the kidnapper, the other must have been murdered and is still somewhere hidden in the apartment. Eventually, they find Mother's corpse stuffed upside-down inside the chimney; the shot of her hair streaming down works extremely well and is probably the only real "shock" in the film. The gendarmes and Pierre quickly track down Erik carrying Camille over the Parisian rooftops (a full year before a similarly hirsute-albeit-larger resident of Skull Island carried another ingenue to the top of another building) where the ape is shot dead, tumbles to the Seine and the status quo (for 1845 Paris) is restored.
In comparison with most of the other classic Universal horrors of the same era, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE must necessarily suffer. It's simply not in the same league as DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, THE INVISIBLE MAN or THE BLACK CAT. However, when watched on its own -- and not in the company of those other films -- it is watchable (especially if one fast-forwards through the courtship nonsense about a half hour in). Truth be told, however, RUE MORGUE actually IS on a par with something like THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON in the second tier of the first wave of Universal horror. And in that alone it's a welcome viewing edition to the Halloween season.

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