Wednesday, 24 February 2016


By 1932, Universal Studios were on the lookout for more suitable fuel to feed the hungry new engine of cinema horror they had unleashed on the world with such stunning success. Having mined a little of the English gothic from Shelley and Stoker it was only a matter of time before they would discover the rich vein in home-grown writers of the macabre and fantastical.

In 1841, Graham’s Magazine of Philadelphia published the first fictional detective tale in modern literature. Even more impressive was its author, Edgar Allen Poe, who had only just taken over the editorship and released the tale amongst his highly-regarded literary criticisms years before his poem The Raven made him famous as both gamekeeper and poacher.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue and its central character, the amateur sleuth C Auguste Dupin is an enjoyable, clear precursor to the British Sherlock Holmes stories some decades later in its narrative style, main characters and format. Poe’s story is set in the Paris of that period, recounted by an unnamed everyman (possibly a wealther, idealised Poe himself) who is blessed to develop a close friendship with Dupin, a man of almost superhuman powers of observation and deductive reasoning. Like Conan Doyle’s Dr Watson, our narrator is immensely impressed by his friend’s skills and indulgent of his reclusive habits, indeed both men habitually hide themselves from the world to indulge in the life of the mind. Venturing out one night, after demonstrating his perceptive ability to read our reporter’s thoughts, Dupin’s laser-like focus is taken by an intriguing case involving the bodies of two women murdered in an upper-floor room with no apparent means of escape or motive. The younger woman had been strangled and charmingly stuffed legs-first up her chimney, whilst her mother was been brutally throat-slit almost to decapitation. The room’s contents are strewn all over but all of their savings are left untouched, and there are clumps of coarse grey hair on the floor. The police are further baffled by the sealed windows and the accounts of three men of varying nationalities who heard the assailant yet cannot agree on the language spoken by him.

Dupin channels his peculiar talent for what Poe called ‘ratiocination’ (the reasoned focusing of thought), upon the evidence allowing nothing to distract him including the by-the-book narrowmindedness of police methodology. He warns his friend: “I wish you therefore to discard from your thoughts the blundering idea of motive”. Before you can put on a Deerstalker, he’s deduced that only an escaped Orangutan with a straight razor can be the culprit. An ad placed in the newspaper pinpoints with frightening accuracy a Maltese sailor as the owner and the case is closed. The Dupin character was successful enough to reappear in two more Poe sequels: The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (1842) and The Purloined Letter in 1844.

The same extended life was not sadly granted to the film version. Universal offered the director slot to Robert Florey to compensate him for his embarrassing dismissal in favour of James Whale before production of Frankenstein the previous year. A similar gesture invited Bela Lugosi on board to smooth over his treatment during pre-production on the same film. Aggrieved at being considered for the title role, then switched to the monster, ultimately poorly- received test footage caused him to walk away citing the mute creature as an insult to his talent.

The film of Murders in the Rue Morgue bears little relation to the source material. The studio built their plot around a contrived new role for Lugosi as Doctor Mirakle, a hypnotic sideshow performer reminiscent of Dr Caligari. Instead of a somnambulist human servant, the curly-wigged, beetle-browed showman shares his act with a gorilla, Eric. The sequences with the ape are slapdash, laughably cutting between two totally different breeds of ape - close-ups of a real chimpanzee and wide-shots replacing him with Charles Gemora in a gorilla-suit. Laurel and Hardy fans will recognise his amusingly humanoid appearance from their classics Swiss Miss and The Chimp – though here the combined effect with the chimp is a ‘missing link’ of credibility. Gemora was known by the Republic serial-esque nickname: ‘King of the Gorilla Men’ for cornering the market in such monkey business.

Dupin (Leon Ames) is now a slightly more sociable scientist with a fiancé, Camille, played by Sidney Fox and the story’s narrator Paul (Bert Roach) affords lily-livered, gentle comic relief. When the friends take in the Doctor’s show, Mirakle takes a sinister shine to Camille owing to his secret experiments in blood transfusion to supply Eric with a mate. After Eric swipes Camille’s bonnet, he attempts to throttle Dupin for trying to retrieve it. Dupin is wise enough not to allow Camille’s address to be given to the over-insistent entertainer under the circumstances. No matter thinks Mirakle, and dispatches his bearded servant Janos ‘the Black One’ (an unnecessary label if ever there was one for the Afro-American Noble Johnson) to locate her.

One remarkable scene of sadism drenched in religious imagery follows in which Mirakle has a prostitute lashed, crucifixion-style, to beams in his laboratory while he injects her blood with that of Eric. Karl Freund beautifully shadows the opening tableau of them, and an atmosphere of suitable dread hangs in the air till Lugosi snaps, backhanding away his microscope and furiously cursing the poor girl for betraying him with her unworthy corpuscles: “Your blood is RRRATTEN! Black asss your sins! You cheated me. Your beauty was a lie!” Such insane passion arouses brief interest for the viewer in the midst of the humdrum plotting so far and his sudden conversion to regretful bowed prayer before her crucified body is a moment of sublime Christ-like framing. If only this kind of memorable care could have been injected into the bloodstream of the whole film.

The prostitute’s body is then pulled out of the river – referenced in The Mystery of Marie Rogêt - a discarded reject from Mirakle’s evil bride-hunting. Dupin’s scientific curiosity is aroused. He bribes the Morgue Keeper to draw blood for his analysis, which confirms the presence of foreign entities, linking her to other unsolved murders. Mirakle tries to doorstep Camille in her apartment, but when she refuses his heavy persistence, he activates his primate pal to climb up to snatch her. Both mother and daughter vanish. The locked-room murder puzzle element of the novel is kept somewhat intact, yet weakened considerably by the fact that we already know ‘whodunnit’, making the three ear-witnesses’ confused testimony now a redundant clue. Also, the body found forcefully rammed up the flue is now the mother not the daughter. 

To keep Mirakle still integral to the plot, the police and Dupin race to his lair where Eric dispatches his master by strangulation and makes off with the live Camille across the roof-tops a year before King Kong would scale the dizzier heights of New York. Henchman Janos is blown away by the police as he runs interference and Dupin heroically shoots Eric to save his fiancé.

Murders in the Rue Morgue may only bear trace elements of Poe but it bore the imprints of other talents. Celebrated cinematographer Karl Freund was allowed freer reign to develop his stylish use of shadows and composition from Metropolis (and Tod Browning’s relinquishing of control to him for the look of Dracula). The script, adapted by Robert Florey hurriedly in a week and written by Tom Reed and Dale Van Every contained additional dialogue by a young John Huston.

Where it does have archive value is as one of the earliest translations of Poe to the screen (many years before Roger Corman vividly embraced his wider work). More importantly, there was that continuing fascination with the world of the freak-show performer – a morbid obsession with the dark side of show-business was still a strong influence on American cinema even a decade on since the Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari crossed the Atlantic. Four years earlier, imported genre star of the film Conrad Veidt came to give Universal the poignancy of the carnival freak in The Man Who Laughs. M-G-M jumped on the bandwagon and invited the rubes to gather round Rex Ingram’s The Magician and their controversial Freaks, (Tod Browning’s third circus skulduggery picture) was released at the same time as Murders in the Rue Morgue.

The mesmeric bravura entertainer was still not to be trusted, yet was anyone truly heeding the warning? Germany in 1933 elected one of them to become Chancellor, an uprising of Svengali evil that critics such as Siegfried Krakauer saw predicted in the country’s most sensational horror films years before - The Golem, Nosferatu and Caligari. Adolf Hitler would hypnotise millions to do his bidding, a salesman whose brand of snake-oil would carry a pandemic venom to poison the world.

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