40×40: Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932)

Directed by Robert Florey.

“After the carnival last night, I performed an autopsy.”

Why Did I Get This?

This was a bit of a treat to myself a few years ago when Eureka released a lovely Blu Ray collection of three pre-code horrors based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe and starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff (part of their Masters Of Cinema collection). As I’ve said before, I love a bit of Lugosi and Karloff was far and away the best ever Boris, so I splurged and took a punt on three very old movies I’d never seen.

Watching them at the time, I was struck by just how grim some aspects of the films were and how well-made they were – some of the camera work in this one in particular was a genuine eye-opener for me.

While this isn’t the oldest disc on the Late Review shelf, I’m pleased to be revisiting it. Just a heads up too, in case you’re curious to see it – the whole thing is available on YouTube, and the quality is far better than the trailer below.

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will contain spoilers for the movie. If you want to avoid them, scroll straight down to the next heading!

Mad scientist Dr Mirakle (Bela Lugosi), and his enormous ape Erik are part of a touring circus visiting Paris in 1845. Mirakle angers the public with his talk of evolution and desire to create a perfect specimen mixing the blood of the primate and a human woman. Four women are found dead in one week, each with an unusual and unexplained mark on their arms, so it’s up to medical student Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames), to work out what’s going on and save the life of his fiancee Camille (Sidney Fox).

When the opening credits of a film from the 1930s state it’s ‘Based on the immortal classic by Edgar Allan Poe’ and produced by Carl Laemmle Jr, you know you’re in for a good time. Throw in Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist and a fella in an ape suit, and I’m 100% on board from the get-go.

What struck me most about this one was that elements of the 90-year-old film were more impressive, even daring, than some movies I’ve seen from the last couple of decades.

The sets were huge, beautifully designed, detailed and bustling with extras. The camera was rarely static, instead it glided easily through crowds, dollied and tilted between characters at street level and on balconies (and back again!), and even spent some time rocking on a swing in a shot which blew my tiny little mind the first time I saw it. These cameras were enormous, heavy and primitive, yet Florey and his crew found a way to do things with them in 1932 that would probably receive critical praise in 2023 if done with a handheld digital camera.

There’s also a wonderful Expressionist vibe to much of the movie, with the Paris skyline a mishmash of tilted rooftops and jagged buildings. Mirakle’s lab feels like your classic Universal set by way of Fritz Lang or FW Murnau, complete with disfigured but loyal sidekick Janos (Noble Johnson) and towering walls and shadows at off-kilter angles.

As for the daring elements, there are belly dancers in the opening scene, accompanied by risque jokes about anatomy and taste which wouldn’t have got past the censors long after this was released. I also loved the disgusted reaction of the Parisian cognoscenti to Mirakle sharing the theory of evolution, but his plan to mix the blood of his intelligent ape with that of a human woman to create some sort of super creature feels like something that would’ve been completely off the cards for Hollywood movies just a couple of years later.

Add to that his stalking of sex workers along the banks of the Seine, before kidnapping them, strapping them to a giant wooden cross for experiments, then dumping their corpses through a trapdoor straight back into the river, and you’ve got yourself a surprisingly grim little movie.

I thought Lugosi was terrific in this. His monobrow, tight suit, twisted cane and wild hair make for a striking appearance, but he’s less over the top here than in 1941’s The Wolf Man – yes, there’s a maniacal speech here and there, but like all the best baddies, you get the sense he really believes in what he’s doing. When his experiment on his latest unfortunate victim fails, he drops to his knees in front of her bound corpse and seems genuinely crushed that he cannot complete the work in which he believes so strongly.

As for the ‘good guys’ in the movie, Leon Ames was fine as Dupin, though if I’m being totally honest it took me a while to get past how similar his appearance was to Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. I think it’s the moustache, but seriously, give it a watch and tell me I’m wrong. Sidney Fox was good too, and it wasn’t much of a stretch to see the two of them as a couple in love, while Bert Roach as Dupin’s roommate Paul gave good comic sidekick, albeit a little broad for the tone of the film.

More in-keeping with the tone was the grim humour found at the titular morgue, where mortician D’Arcy Corrigan and police prefect Brandon Hurst make sly nods to the professions of the latest unfortunates to come through the doors feet first – they’re subtle and slightly off-colour gags, but they feel like appropriate gallows humour for the film.

Verdict

From the opening carnival to the closing rooftop chase, this is a great way to spend an hour. Apparently, Florey didn’t have a great time making this movie, but to my (admittedly untrained), eye, he did a great job and I’d say the end result is a good watch.

Yes, I’ll admit your mileage may vary on how much you can forgive cutting between stock footage of a chimpanzee and what is clearly a bloke in an ape suit, although in fairness, it’s a very good ape suit, especially for 1932. Mirakle’s obsession with Camille was genuinely creepy (Lugosi gives brilliant desperation, pride and menace), the shadowplay as he sends Erik into her room is terrific, and the discovery of a corpse stuffed into a fireplace is a great reveal.

If you’re a fan of the Poe story, classic Universal horror, or just like seeing Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?), this is definitely worth 62 minutes of your time.

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