Murders In The Rue Morgue
USA 1932 Directed by Robert Florey
Universal Blu Ray Zone B
As part of the Eureka Masters Of Cinema
three film Lugosi/Poe slipcase edition.
Murders In The Rue Morgue was one of Edgar Allan Poe’s great and much loved tales... and a fairly important one at that. A classic (indeed, the classic) locked room mystery tale, it is considered to be the first ever detective story. Indeed, I seem to remember that it’s quite overtly referenced in the first of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. The central character, one C. Auguste Dupin, an amateur detective, appeared first in this short story and then in two further Poe stories... The Mystery of Marie Rogêt and The Purloined Letter... making him, I think, Poe’s only ever recurring character (if I’m wrong on that, please let me know in the comments section below but I don’t remember him having had any other recurring characters... although it’s been a long time since I revisited his works).
The 1932 ‘adaptation’ of the story, and I use that in its loosest term, was almost a consolation prize of sorts. Florey and the central star Bela Lugosi (who was fresh off his iconic role as Dracula, a part he’d played numerous times on stage and finally on screen, reviewed here), were supposed to be making Frankenstein next but, they were removed from the picture when James Whale wanted to make it and so they were assigned this movie instead. It was heavily cut down to 61 minutes after some reshoots and, I assume, the original (and I suspect far stronger) version of the story, is lost to either time, wilful destruction or vinegar syndrome.
This version of the tale really isn’t a version of the tale at all, although it kind of keeps the murder scene of the story but reveals ‘how it was done’ at the same time... with the ‘trained ape’ culprit being seen right from the start here when the hero of the piece, the bizarrely renamed Pierre Dupin (and remade as a medical student to keep him on the trail of the film’s main antagonist), takes his girlfriend to a street carnival and they see the ape man and his master, Dr. Mirakle, played by Bela Lugosi. Mirakle enthusiastically believes in Darwinism and is up to mad experiments which have him killing various ‘ladies who won’t be missed’ in an effort to somehow fuse his pet chimp with human DNA. It’s a far cry from the Poe short and when the chimpanzee/orangutan (depending on if you are close up or long shot... when close ups of a real chimpanzee are cut against long shots of a man dressed in an ape costume) grabs the leading lady (played by Sidney Fox) and makes off with her after a ‘version’ of the original crime scene from the story, quite near the end of the picture... it would probably re-enforce a feeling you might already have. That being that, it's for sure Florey’s version of Murders In The Rue Morgue is more or less a remake of the hugely influential The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari, with Lugosi’s sinisterly single eyebrowed Mirakle standing in for Caligari and the ape standing in for Cesare The Somnambulist.
Indeed, shots of the town in which it is set, seen through windows earlier in the picture, are slightly twisted, very artificial looking sets and painted backdrops very closely aligned to the German Expressionist movement as depicted by The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari and, there’s almost an attempt to make things look even weirder, by having a passer-by casually riding a big penny farthing cycle across the set in one shot (although, to be fair, the period is right for this). Also, some of the way the shots are fragmented by verticals and horizontals to section and highlight characters is very interesting. The staginess of one of the sets, where Lugosi’s bound victim is disposed of by a trap door, makes me think of this little sequence as being inspired also, perhaps, from the Grand Guignol theatre performances in France (the film is set, we are told, in Paris of 1845, before those shows were performed but... I definitely see the influence of these here in 1932).
The film has a lot to offer in terms of creativity away from the sets too... although the props do let themselves down a bit when Dupin’s illustrated medical notes are bolstered by facsimiles of exactly the same sheet of paper duplicated to make it look like there are more of them. The camerawork is magnificent including a truly gobsmacking (for 1932) extended sequence where the leading lady is swinging back and forth on a big swing with the camera somehow rigged to the swing and looking slightly down at her, as she stays central in the shot and we perceive the landscape around her (and us) moving around violently. Another great moment is when the fourth murder is being committed. From the outside of the locked door, as the screams are loud and fierce, we see a bunch of people gathered on the stairwell of the apartment building and the camera cuts to very rapid close up reaction shots of various figures in a quite extraordinary moment of what is almost Eisensteinien ‘typage’.... but sped up to almost overload the perceptions and create a very sinister feeling. It’s an amazing couple of seconds.
I last saw this movie as part of a US DVD boxed edition decades ago but, I have to say, the Blu Ray restoration of it here by Eureka Masters Of Cinema is truly stunning. It looks like the thing was shot last week. Such a crisp and blemish free experience... this is absolutely the best way to see this film (and I suspect their accompanying treatments of The Black Cat and The Raven will be similar revelations). The film is presented both in it’s original version, with pretty much no background music (as was in keeping with this period... this lack of an underscore being thrown out as an idea just a year later when King Kong proved that you could successfully still heighten drama through music in a talking picture) and also with a version where Universal has added some more underscore (which I eschewed watching in favour of looking at it properly). There are, however, two very interesting uses of music on the opening and closing titles. The film opens with exactly the same musical opening as The Mummy from the same year, similarly falling back after the opening bars on the Swan Lake music which marked similar Universal Horror branded pictures of the times. The end title music will be especially familiar to people who remember the third episode of Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe (reviewed here), when Dr. Zarkov leads a rescue party for Flash and his colleagues, who have been buried under an avalanche... this is the same piece of scoring used here, although what it’s originally from I have no idea, although I always loved this music as a kid (it’s not from Les Preludes, as was a lot of the music from certain sections of that serial).
And that’s me done on this one. Murders In The Rue Morgue is a film which, like the other two films in this set, owe very little and bear not much relation to the Edgar Allan Poe tales that they purport to be adaptations of, quite prominently, in their marketing. It certainly owes much more to The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari and it’s great if you love watching movies of Bela Lugosi playing mad scientists (of which he did a fair few, from what I can remember seeing over the years). If you like these films, this new Blu Ray transfer is absolutely amazing and definitely worth the price of admission, to be sure.