Murders in the Rue Morgue buries the ledes a little too often. First, it hides it’s Expressionist until we get to Bela Lugosi’s mad scientist lair and then the production design is absurdly Expressionist. There’s eventually a scene with Noble Johnson (who I thought was in white face, but I guess not based on his billing) blocking this little door to keep the cops out and you’re wondering where you are on the Wonka factory tour. It’s at least interesting set design (Herman Rosse, uncredited) and director Florey is much better at showcasing it than any of his actors.
Florey is real bad with the actors.
Like, Lugosi’s definitely better than lead Leon Ames—Ames is actually the second buried lede—but only because Ames is indescribably bad. Though neither of them can really make the “walking with a fashion cane” thing work. I thought Lugosi was going to pull it off after Ames is so awkward with his cane strut, but Lugosi just lifts and carries his cane too.
Anyway. The second buried lede.
So, although I’m not a fan of Poe’s Dupin, I am familiar with the original story and its place in detective fiction history. Somehow I missed third-billed Ames having the Dupin surname—he’s Pierre not C. Auguste—and the first scene at a carnival is all about Lugosi and his pet ape, not about Ames taking out lady friend Sidney Fox. But then Ames heads to the morgue to investigate dead girls and gives his name… seems like it’s going to be more of a straight adaptation. Except Ames isn’t a porto-Sherlock Holmes deductive reasoner… he’s just some horny French dude.
Maybe the best part of the movie—outside the sets—is D'Arcy Corrigan as the disinterested morgue keeper. He seems to understand the movie he’s in better than anyone else.
Also, the original story does not have a mono-browed (but with two different hair textures) villain named “Dr. Mirakle” (Lugosi) who’s out to prove evolution from apes by interbreeding one with a human. Good to know there’s precedent for terrible naming pre-Star Wars but also not.
Worst part of the movie—outside Ames—is when they try to do comedy to kill time. The movie runs barely an hour and there are multiple comedic time fillers. If you’re familiar with the original story, there are certain memorable plot points, so you’re waiting for those set pieces. Except they just keep doing bad comedy.
Like Bert Roach. He technically maybe be the original story’s unnamed narrator (Watson to Holmes) but doesn’t actually participate in anything interesting, just whines about Ames not studying hard enough for school or eating his lunch. Of course, Ames isn’t solely obsessed with his extracurricular morgue studies—he’s always got more than enough time for Fox—he just doesn’t have time for his girl, his studies, and his obsession with drowned women. And doesn’t care when Roach makes him special lunches to help with his resolve.
It’s all fairly dreadful. Roach is bad. He goes away after this weird Pre-Code horny French boy montage where all the couples are at a picnic and they’re all trying to talk their ladies into impropriety. Though that sequence, which has Florey aping (no pun) some Abel Gance Napoleon shots, is the last time there’s anything like character development. Or ambitious shots. Florey doesn’t ask a lot from Karl Freund’s photography in the rest of the film, other than making sure to keep the crosses lighted well. Because there’s apparently a Christian message to the ape not understanding Lugosi didn’t mean he’d get to mate with the girl, just like, have their blood commingle successfully in a beaker.
Yes. I buried the lede. The lede Murders doesn’t bury—it’s about an actual ape out to rape an actual human girl. Pre-Code style. See, Lugosi translates for the ape—who talks in ape—but by the end it’s fairly obvious the ape hasn’t been understanding Lugosi’s hard professional limits.
You feel bad for the real ape they use as the inserts. It’s mostly a not great, pseudo-orangutan costume, but the close-up inserts are this chimp (maybe) yelling or making faces. It’s not an effective device. And even if it somehow did work better, Milton Carruth’s editing is fairly bad on everything so he’d have screwed up the cuts no matter what.
If Murders were a silent, it might actually work out. Carruth’s cutting would still need some work but Lugosi, Ames, and Fox would no doubt be more effective without hearing them delivery their dialogue and Florey certainly seems to be directing a silent.
Sure, you’d lose an impromptu singing scene with Fox but in that case, “wouldn’t suffer through” is the more accurate phrasing.
Murders in the Rue Morgue is a very long sixty-one minutes. It peaks really early and really low. It’s just a fail and not even a messy one. Start to finish, there’s always one thing or another going very wrong.