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(Film Only Review of 1932 release by Universal Studios)
'Murders in the Rue Morgue' made is 1932 is a lose adaptation of a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, which has been adapted for film on numerous occasion before and since. The story is set in Paris 1845 where young women are being murdered and dumped in the Seine. The authorities believe these to be simply drownings but a young medical student Pierre Dupin believes otherwise. Frequently visiting the morgue for his studies he notices that each woman has strange scratches on her arm. When Dupin and his fiancée Camille visit a carnival they see a sideshow featuring the mysterious Dr Mirakle and his ferocious gorilla. Mirakle expounds his theory of human evolution from apes and believes that a further evolutionary step can be taken by merging apes and humans this is met with consternation and derision by the crowd but Dupin is intrigued and he and Camille accept Mirakle's challenge to meet his gorilla at the end of the show. Inevitably the ape takes a fancy to Camille and when Mirakle tries to find out where she lives, Dupin senses that Camille might be in great danger unless he can uncover what Dr. Mirakle is really up to.
In common with all the Universal studio horror features of this period this movies in influenced by the German expressionist style of early German silent cinema, going back to 'The Cabinet of Dr Caligari' and 'Nosferatu'. The sets are lit with directional lighting producing lots of elongated shadows seen from odd angles. This film features some wonderful set designs; Dr. Mirakle's laboratory is especially impressive including a torture rack with a trap door leading to the basement to easily dispose of unwanted corpses.
This style is visually very striking and has become a trademark for the Universal studio horror films. In contrast the reproduction of 19th century Paris is rather generic, we get a lot of night scenes faintly illuminated by lamplight and plenty of thick fog, you could very well be in Holmes's Victorian London but there are some nice painted Parisian backdrops and at the at the end film we see a very elaborate and convincing set featuring a frantic chase across the rooftops.
The performances in the film range from overly theatrical to simply awful. Bela Lugosi stars as the mad Dr Mirakle sporting one of the best monobrows in film history; it almost takes on a life of its own as Lugosi embarks on his many speeches directly at the camera. Lugosi like many of the stars of the early movies learnt his trade as a serious actor on the stage and his gestures and movement belies this training. He uses his facial gestures and physicality more than modern actors would and some may find his acting too 'hammy'. His strong Hungarian accent is as always impenetrable and at times quite comic.
Because of 'Dracula' a year earlier, Lugosi was a superstar at this time, although his success in 'Dracula' was to prove a double edged sword for the rest of his career in that he was from then on forever typecast as the horror villain. In later years he would have problems with drugs ending his life a sad figure still making low budget movies but virtually penniless, however in this film he is still in his prime. Just like in his biggest role Dracula the director Robert Florey uses close up of Lugosi's face slowly advancing on the camera as the main technique to inducting fear in the audience, at the time it was apparently very scary, women would faint in the cinema! It doesn't produce the same effect now. Foley had missed out on directing 'Frankenstein' and was given this project as consolation and he made the best of it. Despite many faults the film is still well remembered and is considered by many to be a minor classic.
Unfortunately one of the faults is our hero Pierre Dupin played as a blundering idiot by Leon Ames an actor in one of his few starring roles on this evidence you can see why. Ames is guilty of overacting every line and some of his delivered dialogue is excruciating to listen to. The way his character is portrayed is more baffling still when you take into account that in the original story Dupin is actually the first real detective in fiction, a predecessor to Holmes and Poirot, like them he solves the murders by using his intellect. This would be hard to believe of the Dupin in this film.
Sidney Fox a young Universal starlet in the role of the unfortunate heroine is fine although not outstanding, apart from her loud shrill scream. After a promising start to her career in films alongside Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis she was being groomed by Universal for real stardom, sadly she only managed a few films before dying tragically young aged 34.
The rest of the cast is adequate but again the rather stagy acting style is rather jarring to a modern audience.
'Murders in the Rue Morgue' is bit dated in its style even when compared to other Universal films of this period. Apart from the very showy and theatrical acting style it also suffers from some very bad acting. Technically in terms of set design and cinematography it is very good although the gorilla suit is comical. Although the film cannot be describes as scary it does include one still disturbing scene where a prostitute Mirakle has kidnapped is tied up and experimented on, eventually dying screaming.
The film is an interesting addition for any fan of Lugosi or the early horror genre and since it lasts just over an hour it won't take too much of your time. If you come to watch this film as non-fan of this genre it will seem rather tame but there are still many elements to admire. Lugosi's presence on screen is still powerful and the story although not that faithfully adapted is intriguing and a little shocking.
CAST AND OTHER DETAILS
Sidney Fox ...Mlle. Camille L'Espanaye
Bela Lugosi ...Dr. Mirakle
Leon Ames ...Pierre Dupin (as Leon Waycoff)
Bert Roach ...Paul
Betty Ross Clarke...Mme. L'Espanaye
Brandon Hurst...Prefect of Police
D'Arcy Corrigan...Morgue Keeper
Noble Johnson...Janos the Black One
Arlene Francis...Woman of the Streets
Directed by Robert Florey
Written by Edgar Allan Poe (original story), Robert Florey (adaptation), Tom Reed and Dale Van Every (screenplay) and John Huston additional dialogue.
'Murders in the Rue Morgue' can be bought as an import from the US or from Amazon UK as part of the Bela Lugosi collection also including The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936) and Black Friday (1940) for £14.11 (free delivery).