As much fun as I’m having watch these old classics, I have to admit it’s a lot harder to be as frightened by them as I might have been when I was eight. I have been wishing for one of those moments when I am held completely in suspense as the actions on the screen unfold. I didn’t quite get there yet with Murders in the Rue Morgue, but it was the first time I found elements of the film truly disturbing.
This film may have more in common with its source material than the other recently-viewed Poe adaptation, (1935’s The Raven) but the resemblance is largely superficial. Unlike the short story, the film does away with the idea of building up to the revelation of the killer in favor of showing us the villainous machinations that lead up to the murders.
Bela Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle is a madman who flaunts his pre-Darwin evolutionary theories while exhibiting his gorilla, Erik, in a travelling carnival. For reason known only to him, he dreams of creating a gorilla / human hybrid, and he attempts to reach his goal by kidnapping women and injecting them with Erik’s blood. In quite a brutal scene, a woman is strung up by her arms as Mirakle observes the effects of the gorilla blood on her system; he screams at her for disturbing his studies by moaning and pain, and when she dies he briefly shows something resembling remorse by making the sign of the cross before summoning his servant to “get rid of it” by dumping her into the river. Unsettling to watch, and according to the trivia page for the film's imdb entry, much of the original footage was censored. Later on, knowing what Mirakle is capable of makes his creepy stalking of the lovely Camille, the girl he believes will be the perfect match for Erik’s blood, all the more menacing.
Another riveting performance by Lugosi in downright demonic hair and make-up and some stunning art direction and camera work make it easy to overlook the film’s less impressive elements. Sidney Fox’s charming portrayal of Camille L'Espanaye is awkwardly offset by Leon Ames’ (billed as Leon Waycoff) dull take on Pierre Dupin. (Dupin, a man of Holmes-like reasoning in Poe’s story, is here a student with a knack for putting two and two together.) Erik, the gorilla, is clearly played by a costumed actor in the wideshots and by a chimpanzee in close-up. (In fact, the ape in the original story is an orangutan.) Yet the film is always visually impressive with expressionistic sets and frightening scenes played out in nightmarish shadow. However, there was one scene where the artful camera work left me feeling a bit queasy and it had nothing to do with mad scientists or killer apes. At a picnic where Pierre pushes Camille on a swing, the camera stays with her, so that the background swings in and out of frame while Camille stays in focus. (But my rum and Coke might be more to blame for the disorientation than the camera work.)
Lugosi makes a great madman, but I hope somewhere in my list of film he gets to play someone likable as Boris Karloff finally got to do in Night Key. He got to play sympathetic in his brief role in The Wolf Man, and I believe we’ll see him in more sympathetic roles in the later Frankenstein films, but just once, I’d like to see him do heroic.
This week’s supporting features:
Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam in Hare Trigger (1945)
The Our Gang short Shivering Shakespeare (1930)
I’m taking next week off for my wedding anniversary, the following week’s film will be:The Phantom of the Opera (1925) starring Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin