by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Charles and I ran another from the classic Universal horror collections: Murders in the Rue Morgue, one of the unsung masterpieces of the Universal cycle and one of Bela Lugosi’s two best-ever starring vehicles (along with White Zombie, made the same year, also filmed at Universal but for an independent producer who was just renting the space). Oddly, the film began as a consolation prize for its star, Lugosi, and its director, Robert Florey (an actual Frenchman directing a story about Paris — what a novelty!) because Lugosi had turned down the original Frankenstein (supposedly because he didn’t want to play a part without any actual dialogue — a claim supported by the fact that when he finally did play the Frankenstein monster, in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, he signed for the film on the basis of a script in which the monster does speak, though the monster’s lines were erased from the final release) and Florey had been taken off the project in favor of James Whale, the British wunderkind who had had hits with Journey’s End (which he’d previously directed on stage) and the 1931 version of Waterloo Bridge.
Florey originally wrote a script for the film that stuck closely to the original 1843 story by Edgar Allan Poe (which was actually an episode in his detective-mystery series featuring the hero, C. Auguste Dupin — called “Pierre Dupin” in the film and played by Leon Waycoff, later known as Leon Ames, who as I once joked to Charles was the one degree of separation between Lugosi and Judy Garland!), but the “suits” at Universal turned it down because they wanted a horror film rather than a mystery, so Florey and his credited writers, Tom Reed, Dale Van Every, Richard Schayer and John Huston (credited with “additional dialogue” — he’d got a screenwriting job at Universal because his father, Walter Huston, was making two films there and wanted him on the writing staff, and this was the first film on which John Huston was credited that did not involve his dad), came up with a mélange of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi) is operating a concession in a carnival sideshow that features an ape called “Erik” (Charles Gemorra, doubled in some scenes by Joe Bonomo and in others by a real chimpanzee, even though the character is supposed to be a gorilla), whom he is exhibiting as proof positive of the theory of evolution. (The setting is 1845, two years after Poe published the original story and 14 years before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species.) Mirakle wants to mingle Erik’s blood with that of a human woman in order to prove his theory, but so far he’s experimented with two women, unsuccessfully, and disposed of their corpses via a Sweeney Todd-ish trap door under his experimental setup — which actually involves chaining the unfortunate women to an X-shaped cross that looks more like something you’d find in an S/M dungeon than in a scientific laboratory. The film opens with a series of traveling shots through a Caligari-esque Paris (this film is probably the closest a mainstream Hollywood producer ever came to the Caligari look; the art directors, Charles D. Hall and an uncredited Herman Rosse, went all-out to suggest the Expressionist sets of Caligari), with buildings that slant and hang uncomfortably over the people who walk by them, before we discover the carnival and see Dupin there with his girlfriend, Camille L’Esplanaye (Sidney Fox, top-billed — according to Bette Davis, she and studio head Carl Laemmle, Jr. were having an affair, which meant she got quite a few parts that were beyond her abilities, including the lead in Strictly Dishonorable for which Davis had been brought to Hollywood and Universal in the first place), his comic-relief roommate Paul (Bert Roach, who unlike most of the “comic relief” figures in these movies is actually genuinely funny) and his girlfriend Mignette (Edna Marion). Not surprisingly, when Dupin and Camille see the gorilla, the beast takes a shine to Camille (even taking the bonnet off her head and cradling it) and an instant aversion to Dupin, “planting” a Beauty and the Beast-like attraction between the two that almost exactly mirrors the plot of the as-yet-unmade King Kong.
In the next scene, Mirakle picks up a character identified only as “Woman of the Streets” (a truly bizarre credit for Arlene Francis — and, aside from a part in Orson Welles’ never-released filmed inserts for the play Too Much Johnson in 1938, she didn’t make another movie until All My Sons, also for Universal, in 1948!) and, right after two men have killed each other over her (it’s that kind of movie, getting its shocks as much from the amorality of the overall setting as from any specific scene), Mirakle takes her to his dungeon, straps her to the S/M cross and gets ready to perform his experiment, only first he looks at her blood under his microscope and declares it unsuitable: “Your BLOOD is as BLACK as your SINS!” Lugosi thunders in his most hysterically anguished tones (obviously, in this “pre-Code” film, we’re supposed to read this as an infection with syphilis or some other similarly intractable STD), and just then the “Woman of the Streets” expires and Lugosi’s manservant Janos (Noble Johnson) throws the switch on the trap door and pitches her body into the Seine. In this version, Pierre Dupin is a medical student who bribes the coroner to get interesting specimens from the morgue so he can study them, and he’s the one who makes the connection between the latest victim and the previous two; he sees the injection marks (which serve the same purpose in this film as the throat punctures in Dracula) and realizes, once he examines the victims’ blood under his microscope, that they died from a reaction from the ape’s blood injected into them.
Meanwhile, Camille receives a replacement bonnet from Mirakle — indicating, since she’d refused to tell him where she lived, that he’s been stalking her — and one night Mirakle sends Erik to kill Camille’s mother (Betty Ross Clarke) and abduct her. In the one major incident of the film actually taken from Poe’s story, Camille’s mother is shoved up the chimney of her room and three witnesses, having heard the chatter of an ape, insist that the killer spoke Italian, Danish and German, respectively. Dupin has to fight off a stupid police prefect (Brandon Hurst) who wants to arrest him, but eventually he figures out that Camille has been kidnapped and taken to Mirakle’s redoubt in the Rue Morgue, whereupon he chases him there with a squad of gendarmes in tow, and Dupin rescues Camille just before Mirakle can inject her with the ape serum, Erik kills Mirakle, Dupin kills Janos and Erik and, in the end, Mirakle’s body is received by the coroner.
Murders in the Rue Morgue is notable not only for its audacity — its links of sexual perversion and murder are pretty strong stuff now and an indication of some of the things Hollywood’s kinkier directors could get away with in the early 1930’s — but also the other, later films it influenced: King Kong (in this one the ape is normal-sized, but certainly the theme of an ape who runs wild through a city and can only be tamed by a woman is common to both films!), The Mummy and Mystery of the Wax Museum (also about demented geniuses who kidnap women and not only put them through procedures that will kill them but seem convinced that they're doing these women a favor by doing so!), as well as all those dreary mad-scientist movies Lugosi would ultimately make at PRC, Monogram and even cheaper studios. Though somewhat hamstrung by the lack of a music score, Murders in the Rue Morgue is a far better film than the 1931 Dracula: the writing is sharper and wittier, the direction more assured (Florey keeps the camera in almost constant motion, propelling us into the action instead of forcing us to watch it at a distance) and Lugosi’s performance — perhaps because he wasn’t playing a part he’d done on stage for two years — fresher and more vital.