18 December 2008

Bela Lugosi Collection: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Directed by Robert Florey. Starring Bela Lugosi, Sidney Fox, Leon Ames, Burt Roach, Noble Johnson

Done with one DVD horror movie set, on to another. As I close up the new Hammer movie collection from Columbia, I now switch over to the classic Universal Horrors of the 1930s and ‘40s and the five-movie compilation The Bela Lugosi Collection. The five films don’t belong to any of the famous monster series—no Draculas or Frankenstein Monsters or Wolf Men—but still contain a few genuine classics that deserve more attention.

The title of the collection is a touch deceptive. If you’re purchasing the set only because of the Lugosi name, you might find yourself disappointed that he isn’t the lead in all of the movies. In The Invisible Ray he has a supporting part, and he’s in the bottom of the cast in Black Friday. Horror rival/partner Boris Karloff appears in these films almost as much as Lugosi, and he’s missing only from Murders in the Rue Morgue. However, if you think of this set as a way to round out the corners of the Universal Horror “Legacy Collections” and grab some lesser-known classics, you more than get your money’s worth. The Black Cat and The Raven make the collection worth your dollar bills, and the rest are pretty good as bonuses.

Although Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi (born Bela Blasko, later adopting the name of his hometown of Lugos for his stage name) is today one of the unassailable icons of the screen, his actual career peaked and tapered off rapidly in the early 1930s. Dracula thrust the actor into the spotlight, but his heavy accent limited the number of roles he could take on, and he soon found himself typecast. According to his son, Bela Lugosi Jr., he was frustrated by the range of roles he was offered because they wasted his talent. By the middle of the decade, Lugosi had slipped into supporting roles and lead parts in programmers, and Boris Karloff had eclipsed him the horror-viewing public’s mind. Three of the films on this double-sided DVD capture Lugosi during his short period of leading-man status, while the last two show him slipping into the fringes.

The first movie in the set is an oddity of historical importance, and it’s also great if you ever wanted to see Bela Lugosi ride around nineteenth-century Paris at night in a carriage with an ape.

We owe the success of Frankenstein (1931) for the continued interest in Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. French director Florey was originally slated to direct Frankenstein, Universal’s hotly anticipated follow-up to their smash Dracula. Yet, for reasons not preserved for posterity, Universal removed Florey from the film and replaced him with James Whale. As a consolation project, Florey received this lesser-budgeted horror film, a loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story. Bela Lugosi, originally to star in Frankenstein either in the role of doctor or monster, moved with Florey to the new film. Conventional wisdom for years accepted that Lugosi turned down the role of the monster as not glamorous enough, but this isn’t certain. His removal may have some connection to Florey getting dumped from the project.

The screenplay for Murders in the Rue Morgue (with “additional dialogue” from some young Turk named John Huston) presents an extremely loose interpretation of Poe’s seminal early detective story about a killer orangutan, although more of Poe’s original survives here than in the two other Universal adaptations that followed, The Black Cat and The Raven. Florey changes the detective story into a mad-scientist horror yarn, a sort of ersatz Frankenstein with Lugosi as a murdering doctor who infuses kidnapped girls with the blood of a crazed ape named Erik as part of some unexplained exploration into evolution. It’s a silly plot, and if you focus on it and the outrageous scenes of the simian on a rampage (played alternately by a man in a dopey ape suit and close-up footage of what appears to be a chimpanzee yawning), the film is impossible to take seriously. Just try to listen to the scenes where Lugosi speaks to Erik in his “native” ape language without laughing.

But Florey and cinematographer Karl Freund, who would make his own directorial debut the same year with The Mummy, keep the picture busy with atmospheric photography in imitation of the German Expressionist style. Freund was one of the key photographers in the German movement, so he knew what he was doing. This doesn’t make Murders in the Rue Morgue an especially great film, but it sure looks great.

The story borrows prominently from the 1920 expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari both for its angular, shadowy look and for its story. Like the German film, Murders in the Rue Morgue opens at a carnival where a weird doctor shows his strange creation and boasts of its powers, who then later sends the creation out to kidnap a woman. Caligari shows off Cesare, the somnambulist, while Dr. Mirakle displays Erik the Ape. Both Erik and Mirakle find themselves infatuated with petite Camille (Sidney Fox), a giggly girl who is dating medical student Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames). Although Pierre shares the last name of the detective in the original story, C. Auguste Dupin, he hasn’t much in common with him.

Before Dr. Mirakle gets down to the business of sending Erik to kidnap Camille, he takes another prostitute off the street and tests her blood for his experiments. This scene in the original script was the first scene, but as either shot or edited, it was shuffled to come after the carnival opening. For both pacing and mood, this was a mistake, since it’s one of the more atmospheric and brutal in the film and would have made a superb opening rather than the sad comic affairs going on in the carnival.

Aside from the visuals, Lugosi offers the most pleasure in the movie with a stylized madman performance that fits well with the film’s general design. Lugosi’s face compliments the look of the movie; it works so well with the strange lighting and weird chiaroscuro sets. It seems odd that Lugosi might have turned down the role of Frankenstein’s Monster because of its lack of glamor, only to then play the unappealing Dr. Mirakle in a wacky fright wig and silly mono-brow. This makes me more certain that Frankenstein rejected Lugosi and not the other way around.

The rest of the performances are either unmemorable or plain bad. Burt Roach’s “comedy” as Pierre’s irritable and fussy roommate is painful to watch. Starlet and historical footnote Sidney Fox somehow got top billing over Lugosi for her frail ingĂ©nue part. Lugosi would suffer quite a few other indignities like this during his career.

Photographer Karl Freund is the real star of this movie, and he creates some stunning shots and a few intricate camera moves. The streets of Paris have a dark fairy-tale quality, and some of the compositions have the feel of etchings. Mirakle torturing a streetwalker (played by Arlene Francis) on a cross projected as a shadow on the filthy wall is an unforgettable image and the sort of horror that would vanish from movies under the Hays Code later in the decade. Freund does go a touch over the top when he fixes a camera onto Camille’s swing in the park, an example of a cinematographer showing off to no purpose other than to give the audience motion sickness.

The comedy sequences are not among the handful of effective scenes. James Whale had a deft hand mixing humor into his stories, but Florey applies a ham-fisted approach to this. Pierre’s roommate is the sort of comic-relief character you want to slap, and one scene between witnesses to a murder arguing about what language the murderer was speaking goes on forever: “Italian!” “Danish!” “German!” (Strangely, this is one of the few scenes to come straight from Poe’s pen, although he didn’t use it for comedy.) However, other scenes are unintentionally funny, such as the ape-suit Erik clumsily wandering around and attacking Camille’s mother in close-ups that make me wonder what the ape is actually doing to her. (Please don’t make me think about this any further.)

The rooftop chase at the end (an ape climbing buildings with a girl in hand a year before King Kong!) echoes the finale of Metropolis and features some nice effects work from John Fulton to combine the angular sets with beautiful backdrops. It’s a fine ending that lets you ignore the clumsy ape suit and those repeated cuts to the chimpanzee yawning roaring.

Murders in the Rue Morgue didn’t light the box office on fire, but Frankenstein did, which made sure Florey would never rise to the heights of James Whale, and that Lugosi would spend the rest of his career in the shadow of Boris Karloff, only escaping from it in his post-mortem legacy.

Up next, one of Lugosi’s finest films, The Black Cat.