Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Study In Hollywood Expressionism

Murders In The Rue Morgue(1932)
Director: Robert Florey
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Sidney Fox, Leon Ames

Murders in the Rue Morgue was the consolation prize given to Robert Florey and Bela Lugosi, after both were dropped from Frankenstein. In alot of ways, it was a better move for Lugosi, who benefited from a more fitting role as the mad scientist, Doctor Mirakle. For Florey, it was his chance to mimic the German silents that he had adored so much and providing a glimpse into what his Frankenstein would have been like. Murders in the Rue Morgue is a fascinating film, appearing like the direct descendent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with it's rich use of shadows and distorted sets and imagery. However, it is also one of the most controversial and least loved of all the Universal horror classics. From the top billing of Sidney Fox to the poor comic relief and the half hearted conclusion, Murders in the Rue Morgue has always been an easy target for film fans who expected more from Lugosi's follow-up to Dracula. It was based off of the Edgar Allen Poe short story about a detective after a Parisian killer who turns out to be an orangutan with a switchblade! The film followed the story very loosely, though a 1986 version with George C. Scott did capture that narrative for those interested.

The film begins with a carnival in Paris during the 1830s. We are introduced to two couples that include Pierre Dupin(Leon Ames) and his girlfriend, Camille(Sidney Fox). They are directed by a carnival barker to a tent with a great ape cutout as the entrance! Inside the tent is none other than Dr. Mirakle(Bela Lugosi) who has a fantastic evolutionary chart behind him, years before Darwin even wrote The Origin of the Species and this guy knows all about evolution! He even has an ape named Erik, whom he keeps in a cage and can speak his language, even if it dosen't sound anything like the chirps and coos made by the ape. Mirakle believes that he can prove humanity's kinship with the ape, but is laughed off by the crowd, not willing to comprehend his theory. Pierre and Camille are invited to see Erik and the ape nearly strangles Pierre when he gets to close to the cage and even destroys Camille's bonnet, which Mirakle insists on replacing. The next scene is a foggy night and is the film's most notorious and celebrated sequence. It depicts a foggy bridge and two men fighting over a prostitute(Arlene Francis), who eventually kill each other. Mirakle arrives by carriage and offers his assistance, only to lure her back to his lair for a gruesome experiment where he collects tissue samples and blood to try and mate her with an ape! This was pretty strong stuff for 1932 and even now, is a pretty taboo subject. The victim is tied to a cross like structure as Mirakle sneers and prods her, eliciting ear-piercing screams, until she expires. Distraught and sorrowful, Mirakle falls to his knees, in a strange bit of religious imagery and demands that his henchman, Janos(Noble Johnson in white face!) cut down the corpse, which falls into the river. Mirakle remarks as the camera pans back for a beautiful shot of the laboratory, "Will my search never end?"

The prostitute's bosy is pulled out of the river by the police, who recognize it as another slaying, as there have been several mysterious ones in area. She is taken to a very creepy, expressionist morgue that is run by D' Acy Corrigan , who was a regular gargoyle in many silent terror films. He provides most of the real humor in the film, looking like a creation out of Poe and Dickens, spouting off pieces of gallows humor that keeps the film afloat. Pierre, who is a medical student, wishes to examine a body and has samples sent to his apartment. In between his investigation of the murders, he also has some truly awful romantic scenes with Camille. They seem to go on forever, and not to say that I do not enjoy romance, because I do, but they tend to work better when the characters are more engaging, which Pierre and Camille are not. Pierre also has a few "comical" moments with his friend, Bert(Bert Roach) who appears a long way from The Crowd(1928). Mirakle is kept out of most of the action, though we do learn that he sent Camille a new bonnet and has developed something of a crush on the cutie, whom he would also like to mate with Erik. There's that notorious swing scene, where all these lovers are romancing in a park, and Camille(and the camera) sway back on forth on a swing. It's a nice piece of camerawork, but feels unneccesary and distracting in the context of the film. Mirakle appears one evening to invite Camille out, but she refuses, so Mirakle sends in Erik to capture her, which he does, but not before shoving Camille's mother up a chimney, which is a scene straight out of Poe's story. A pointless scene follows where the police chief(Brandon Hurst) accuses Pierre of the crimes, a ludicrous suspicion since Pierre was at the head of the crowd as the police were rushing towards the scream filled apartment! A group of suspects, all from different countries, try to relate what language the killer spoke, which results in a very silly scene that drags on far too long, before we are back at Mirakle's laboratory, which is actually the redesigned watchtower set from Frankenstein.

Mirakle prepares for his experiment with Camille, and attempts to extract some blood from Erik, who though complacent with Mirakle for the entire movie, decides to turn on his master and break his back! The police arrive and Janos is shot trying to hold them back and Erik escapes to the roof with Camille, just like the conclusion of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Pierre follows, stealing a pistol, and shoots Erik off the roof and into the river, saving Camille. Films ends in morgue as bodies of Mirakle and ape are brought in for a comic close with the undertaker.

Murders in the Rue Morgue is one of the more fascinating films from the golden age of horror for so many different reasons. Despite it's glaring flaws, the film is Hollywood's purest homage to expressionism ever concocted. If anything, the sets designed by Charles D. Hall, who made most of the horror pictures, are absolutely fantastic and it's easy to get lost in this eerie shadowy world. Karl Freund, who had photographed most of the great Expressionist classics in Germany, deserves alot of the credit here, with his very mobile camerawork.Sadly, despite all the distorted fun of the backgrounds, the foreground leaves much to be desired. Focusing largely on a romantic plot undermines the film's many horror elements and dates it badly. What should have been a realm of nightmares and madness, soon becomes syrupy and insipid under the direction of Robert Florey, who proved himself incapable of directing actors, just sets. He was even reported to say at a later date, that the film would have fared better without Lugosi! Most of the cast perform amateurishly, particularly the leads, Fox and Ames, who use gross theatrical gestures that should have remained on the stage. Fox is pretty, but wholly undeserving of her star billing, which many believe was because of her affair with studio producer, Carl Laemelle Jr. She appears vacant and dull throughout, making most of us wonder, why so many men are so interested in her in the first place! Ames is very inexperienced and it shows, reminding us of the worst excesses of David Manners in other horror classics. He fails to make a good audience identification character and spark any real life into his performance. Watching the film again, with the still recent memories of The Old Dark House still lingering behind, makes me wish that Melvyn Douglas had recieved this role as well. The comedy relief is often arbitray and out of place, making this already slow picture move at glacier pace. The near slapstick moment with the three witnesses could have been excised and Roach's character certainly should have been more restrained. Some unintentional comedy does take the form of some post production tampering that involved replacing closeups of Charlie Gemora's ape costume(which is an effective suit) with truly bizarre soft focus shots of a chimpanzee! Not just do they seem out of place with the film stock, but with the character, who is clearly a gorilla! And that wasn't the only poor re-editing. Originally, the film was to begin with Lugosi encountering the prostitute and her subsequent discovery in the river. This would then be followed by the carnival scene, making for a much more suspenseful film. Some historians have attempted a re-edit of this like Florey envisioned and it's a shame that it was never made more official, for it certainly makes the film more effective by comparsion.

The chief reason to see this film is of course, Bela Lugosi. Setting the template for scores of mad scientist roles to follow, including his own and others, Lugosi's Dr. Mirakle is one of the actor's finest roles. This was a Lugosi still confident of a career in Hollywood, proud and bombastic. He looks terrific, too, sporting a bushy wig and wild eyebrows that make his career appear savage at times as he gives his great soliloquy about evolution and the origin of mankind to his baffled carnival audience. You absolutely believe every word he sells you about his ability to talk to apes and even his theory of mating ape and woman, which makes his character all the more disturbing. His character looks like a character out of a Poe story, very gothic and shadowy, the camera particularly effective when he lurches forward through the fog towards Arlene Francis. For some reason, this is one of Lugosi's least discussed performances and that's a shame, because i'd rank it well in his top six of all time. It's probably his best mad doctor portrayal, being both passionate and creepy, even suggesting what his Dr. Frankenstein may have been like had he been able to acquire that role as he originally wanted. If anything, Lugosi's performance is reason enough to track down this film and that alone ranks this among the essentials of classic horror.

Murders in the Rue Morgue was not the box-office success of either Dracula or Frankenstein and served as a nail in the coffin for both Bela Lugosi and Robert Florey. In some respects, it's not totally fair, considering the film does contain some truly excellent moments of classic horror. The scene with Lugosi experimenting on Arlene Francis is certainly one of the great moments of 1930s horror and Lugosi's performance is among the best mad doctor performances of all time. Yet, to this day, Murders in the Rue Morgue is a tough film to love for a great many people. It's dated qualities and stilted acting have ages it badly, even though similiar shortcomings are often overlooked of such contemporary work like the same year's White Zombie, which also can be seen as dated, but wisely utilized what it had to it's advantage, including Bela Lugosi and some wonderful borrowed sets from Universal. Murders in the Rue Morgue is in essence, like a great lost Universal classic. It may not stand as tall as it's other more celebrated contemporaries, but has enough interest to lure the classic film fan in for a unique hour of shadows and fun with one of the genre's greatest actors.

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