Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
“Edgar Allan Poe’s dramatic story of the horrors of Paris”
Director: Robert Florey
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Sidney Fox, Leon Ames
Synopsis: A mad scientist seeks to mingle human blood with that of an ape, and resorts to kidnapping women for his experiments.
Bela Lugosi, freshly established as a major star after working in movies in his native Hungary and Hollywood for thirteen years, plays Dr Mirakle (it rhymes with ‘crackle’) in Robert Florey’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. He’s a fluffy-haired, uni-browed sideshow entertainer with probably the least entertaining act ever seen. Basically, Mirakle’s act consists of standing on a stage next to ‘Erik, the Ape Man’ and, after claiming he (Erik) is ‘the first man,’ holding a short conversation with his simian sidekick in a foreign tongue. Of course, the ape’s side of this conversation is just a series of squeaks and grunts which Mirakle ‘interprets’ as Erik’s expression of sadness and loneliness at having been snatched from his homeland. Then Mirakle goes into his theory about how man has evolved from apes and that he intends to prove this theory by mixing the blood of an ape with that of a woman, which presumably serves as a metaphor for his intention of mating Erik with some luckless wench.
Present at one of Mirakle’s shows is young medical student Pierre Dupin (Leoan Ames, in the days when he was Leon Waycoff) and his girlfriend Camille (the 4’11” Sydney Fox). After most of the disappointed crowd have filtered out of Mirakle’s tent, Pierre and Camille and their friends remain behind to get a closer look at Erik, who is played by a real orang-utan in close-up, but by a man in a monkey suit in long shots. Erik takes a shine to Camille and her bonnet, which she gives to him, but when Pierre gets a little too close to Erik’s cage, the ape tries to throttle him. A small case of jealousy, perhaps? Probably so in light of what happens later in the story. While Mirakle angrily chastises Pierre for slipping his throat between Erik’s meaty paws, he also offers to purchase Camille a new bonnet if only she will furnish him with her address. Naturally, Erik’s too sharp for that old chestnut and huffily turns down Mirakle’s offer on Camille’s behalf. Undeterred, the good doctor has his sidekick Janos (Noble Johnson) follow the couple to the home Camille shares with her mother.
As if we weren’t already suspicious of Mirakle, his true nature becomes apparent when we see him witness a fog-shrouded knife fight between two low-lifes over a prostitute who also looks on. When the two men slay one another, Mirakle steps in to practically force the wench into his carriage. In the next scene, we see the unfortunate semi-conscious woman tied to crossed beams as Mirakle works feverishly at his test tubes and frothing beakers. It’s a remarkable scene, one which would never get past the censors just a couple of years later, which is typical of the film’s murky Gothic atmosphere. Mirakle rants over the woman’s ‘bad blood,’ presumably a metaphor for gonorrhoea or syphilis, and to be honest if he’s going to pluck his test subjects from the City’s prostitutes he can only expect to find diseased blood. When the poor woman finally snuffs it — and let’s face it, the fact she’s tied to that beam suggests she’s been submitted to more than just a blood test pinprick — Mirakle has Janos drop her into the Seine.
It’s not long before the police fish her body from the river — she’s one in a line of missing prostitutes to emerge face down in the Seine — and who should turn up at the morgue asking for a look at her body? None other than our monkey-baiting friend Pierre who, as well as being a medical student, is apparently something of an amateur sleuth. Pierre bribes the coroner (D’Arcy Corrigan) into providing him with a sample of the victim’s blood, as he has done with the previous victims, and after studying the sample he correctly arrives at the conclusion that a foreign substance introduced into her bloodstream is what killed her. Of course, what he doesn’t yet realise is that Mirakle is lining his girlfriend up to be Erik’s next partner whether she likes it or not. And let’s face it — she’s not going to like it.
With a running time of just over one hour, the pace of Murders in the Rue Morgue never lets up, but it doesn’t have the feel or look of a quickie. Lugosi was still a major attraction, and the relatively respectable budget is reflected in the set design, which is almost expressionistic at times. The narrow streets of Paris seem perpetually shrouded in a semi-mist, and the old buildings loom over the streets at improbable angles. Lugosi hams it up as he always did, but somehow the movie would be less without his peculiarly mangled style of acting. He’s certainly the most memorable thing about the movie, which, of course, bears only a passing resemblance to the Edgar Allan Poe story, when really it’s the ape that should be the one we remember. Unfortunately, director Robert Florey fights shy of showing us too much of him (which might be down to the abysmal monkey suit) or of his methods of murder.
(Reviewed 13th September 2013)