Monday April 12, 2021
Movie Review: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Kong before Kong, when he was just Erik.
I’m probably the only person in the world who watched this early Universal horror film because of Arlene Francis.
Francis was a frequent game show participant in the 1950s and ’60s, sharp and sardonic, and she played the same as James Cagney’s wife in Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three,” and did it fabulously. So I was curious what other movies she made. Sadly, not many: 19 actress credits, of which only seven are feature films. This was the first. She plays a bit part: “Woman of the Streets.” Yes, Arlene Francis. That’s what led me here.
The movie is one hour and one minute long, and it’s not much. Based on an Edgar Allen Poe short story, it’s got Bela Lugosi hamming it up a year after “Dracula,” and Leon Ames as the boyfriend-hero a decade before he played the stuffy father in “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
Ames is Pierre Dupin, a medical student and amateur detective, who, while investigating the recent, mysterious deaths of young women, takes his fiancée Camille (Sidney Fox) and their friends to a carnival, where they visit the sideshow of Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi) and his caged ape. During the show, the ape grabs Camille’s bonnet and tries to strangle Pierre. Mirakle tries to make it up by offering to replace the bonnet and creepily asks for Camille’s address. They pass. But he has them followed.
Everything is related of course. In his investigations, Pierre discovers the same foreign substance in the blood of all the victims, and it’s something Mirakle injects into the victims to see if they’d make a good mate for the ape. I think. As for why Mirakle is looking for a human mate for his ape, the movie is silent. He just is. Cuz mad scientist.
A couple things stand out for me. One is personal:
Apparently Erik with a k was big for creepy villains in the 1920s and '30s: that Phantom, this ape. Now it’s big in the Marvel universe for villains whose dastardly schemes make sense: Magneto, Killmonger. I'll take the upgrade.
The police don’t come off well. Mirakle sends Erik to abduct Camille, Pierre hears her screams, bursts in and finds empty room. So the police arrest Pierre. Then we get the second thing that stands out for me: the most digressive bit of ethnic-based comedy I’ve seen in a horror movie. Three witnesses tell the gendarmes they heard screams and someone speaking in a foreign language, but each disagrees on the language: the German says it was Italian, the Italian says it was Danish, the Dane says it was German. The bit goes on for minutes until someone discovers Camille’s mother stuffed up the chimney, dead, with what looks like ape fur clutched in her fist. That, as they say, puts an end to the comedy routine.
By now Mirakle has discovered Camille will make a perfect mate for Erik. But then he’s surrounded by the cops, Pierre’s pounding on the door, and Erik does the monster-movie thing of killing his maker. That leads us to the third standout moment: Erik the ape grabs Camille and carries her over the rooftops of Paris as he’s pursued by the police. It’s like a mini-version of “King Kong” a year before “King Kong.” In the end, of course, Pierre shoots Erik, Erik falls into the Seine, the lovers are reunited.
“Rue Morgue” was directed by Paris-born Robert Florey, whose career began with a 1920 silent short named “Isidore a la deveine,” continued with the Marx Bros.’ first feature, “The Cocoanuts,” and whose last credit is an episode of “The Outer Limits” from 1964. Think of that span and the technological changes within it. Somehow he navigated it all.
Sidney Fox’s career was a great deal shorter. She was discovered by Universal in several Broadway comedies, was named a “Wampas Baby Star” of 1931, but never quite caught on. Her marriage to writer Charles Beahan was tabloid fodder, she tried Europe for a bit, but by 1934 her movie career was over. She killed herself with sleeping pills in 1942.
Overall, in these early films, it’s the oddities I like. The ruts of Hollywood storytelling hadn’t been dug deep yet. They were still throwing things on the wall to see what stuck. This didn't. Moments did.