MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE—–“My life is consecrated to great experiment. I tell you I will prove your kinship with the ape. Eric’s blood will be mixed with the blood of man!” So declares ‘Dr.Mirakle’ in one his passionate spouts of lunacy that are scattered through the 61 minutes of this age-clunky but still thematically perverse 1932 chiller.
Coming on the heels (or squeals) of Dracula and Frankenstein, this ended as sort of consolation job for star Bela Lugosi (the not-good Doctor) and director Robert Florey, as both had been slated for Frankenstein until Universal honcho Carl Laemmle Jr. pulled a switch. Four writers contributed to Florey’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story, which had an abused orangutan ‘going ape’ in Paris, savagely (yet paradoxically innocently) killing people. An amateur sleuth uses ratiocination to solve the crime. Poe’s story is considered the first fictional detective tale and had a profound influence on literature.
Florey & Co. downplayed the mystery solver ‘Pierre Dupin’ (Leon Ames) in favor of giving the simian (now an undifferentiated ape—mixing footage of a large chimp and a guy in a hairy suit) a handler in the form of Bela Lugosi’s belfry-batted mad scientist/carny barker/kidnapper/general degenerate.
Editing nearly twenty minutes of the more objectionable nastiness down to the brief running time still leaves room for the disturbing abduction-torment of a streetwalker, trussed to a crosslike rack and being bled, her apparent v.d. provoking Bela to go from cooing a not reassuring “Be patient” to shouts of “Rotten blood!” The hapless hooker is Arlene Francis, 25 in her debut, 18 years before becoming a fixture of What’s My Line? You’re still left with visualizing the ape shoving an ill-fated matron feet first up a chimney.
Florey starts the movie with the recognizable theme from “Swan Lake”, fixing a period-gone-by mood. Aside from Lugosi’s decided weirdness (his spectral blend of electric presence, sinister accent and tendency to ham) the acting doesn’t impress (Ames excepted) and the dated comic relief is pretty pitiful. What does hold up nicely is the German Impressionist style of the set design, and the cinematographic skill of Karl Freund.*
The ‘eeww, yuck!’ factor is amped by the idea of the wackjob Mirakle seeking ‘pure’ female blood coursing through his victims in veins that can then be injected with plasma from the hairy beast, with eventual ‘mating’ (make that, uh, ‘rape’) on tap. Sick enough? It has to do with Evolution, at least according to Dr. Mirakle. The camp dialogue and Bela’s Hungarian dialect keeps the quease skids coated with demented chuckles. One of the writers, uncredited, was 25-year old John Huston, contributing dialogue on his third assignment. His comment: “I tried to bring Poe’s prose style into the dialogue, but the director thought it sounded stilted, so he and his assistant rewrote scenes on the set. As a result, the picture was an odd mixture of 19th-century grammarian’s prose and modern colloquialisms.”
Reviews at the time were dismissive and it failed at the box-office: time has given it a luster denied in its day. It was previously adapted twice as a silent, again in 1954, then several times for TV. No doubt some blood-splashing young producer looking to shock into the big-time will revamp it again for the sensation-besotted crowds of the current scene.
With Sidney Fox, Bert Roach (357 credits), D’Arcy Corrigan (the icky morgue keeper), Noble Johnson, Iron Eyes Cody and Charles Gemora–as ‘Erik’, in the gorilla suit.**
*The Bohemian emigre behind the camera for Metropolis, All Quiet On The Western Front and Dracula, Karl Freund worked until the late 50s, directing The Mummy, winning an Oscar for cinematography on The Good Earth and becoming the dean of developing TV camera style, shooting 126 episodes of Our Miss Brooks and 150 for I Love Lucy.
** Sidney Fox, the petite 4’11’ brunette according top billing and hitherto always criticized for her mannered performance saw her once hopeful career flounder into footnotes. She died from an overdose of pills in 1942, at 34. “My greatest cross is that my face and body don’t match my mind and soul. People expect me to be an ingenue, a baby doll, and they’re terribly disappointed when they find I’m not. At parties, I’ve seen men ask to be introduced to me, and I knew they thought I was attractive, but after talking to me a few minutes they’d turn away in dismay. Men, in Hollywood especially, don’t like intelligent women.”
Filipino stowaway Carlos Cruz ‘Charles’ Gemora first found outlet for his sculting talents on the 1923 version of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. He gained under-radar fame and steady work playing in ‘gorilla suits’ in 42 features and shorts, as well as a long career as a makeup artist. His studied and dexterous costume capers may be his main claim to fame, but his makeup skills enhanced such prestigious films as Island Of Lost Souls, Gunga Din, The Grapes Of Wrath, A Place In The Sun, The Ten Commandments and One-Eyed Jacks. With his daughter Diana he helped design the Martian creature getup for The War Of The Worlds. A long way from the jungle-clad island of Negros, Charlie Gemora passed away in 1961, at 58.