Monday, October 23, 2023

Ten Days of Terror!: Murders in the Rue Morgue

Film: Murders in the Rue Morgue
Format: Internet video on Fire!

When a novel is turned into a movie, most of the time, large parts of the story are removed. We lose subplots and detail simply because of time. Even larger projects do this—watch (for instance) any adaptation of Dune and we lose tons of nuance, even in the miniseries version. The reverse is true when it comes to short stories. With something like he 1932 adaptation of Murders in the Rue Morgue, a bunch gets added to the basic story. This is true even in the case where the movie just barely creeps over the hour mark.

I’m going to spoil the original story here, and I’m going to do this unapologetically—it was written more than 180 years ago. The original Edgar Allen Poe story essentially invents the modern detective tale. We’re introduced to a detective who solves a bizarre crime of terrible murders where witnesses identify the language being spoken by the perpetrator as a variety of other languages—one person thinks the killer is German, another says Italian, etc. In truth, the murders are being carried out by an orangutan.

But that’s not enough for a pre-Code movie that wants to put behinds in theater seats by giving people something prurient and salacious. So naturally, we’re going to have to throw in weird science, women of low character, and kidnapping. And we’re going to do this by sticking Bela Lugosi in a role that seems designed for someone with an unusual accent and who made his bones (pun intended) as a macabre undead creature.

What this means is that we’re going to have some murders committed at least in part by a gorilla (not an orangutang), but that there’s going to be a lot more going on behind it. Our hero, as it were, will be mid-19th Century medical student Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames under the name Leon Waycoff) and his beloved Camille (Sidney Fox) are walking through a traveling carnival. It is here that they encounter Doctor Mirakle (Bela Lugosi), who, attempting to avoid the obvious “miracle” cognate, pronounces his last name with the emphasis on the middle syllable. Mirakle has an ape named Eric (Charles Gemora) who he claims is evidence of evolution. Because of the way stories like this work, Mirakle, his assistant Janos (Noble Johnson), and to some extent Erik become enamored with Camille. Erik snatches her bonnet, and Mirakle wants to replace it, hoping to get her address for the delivery, but Pierre prevents this from happening.

What it turns out, of course, is that Mirakle is attempting some weird science. His goal is to find a mate for Erik by more or less reverse engineering a woman to become more ape-like. Naturally, he has decided on Camille, especially when his latest victim (Arlene Francis!) turns out to be unsuitable (read, dies from injections of gorilla blood). Naturally, that means that he’s going to attempt to kidnap Camille while Pierre, as a medical student, works to solve the case of what is happening.

We’re going to get moments from the story, like a trio of men accusing each other of speaking the language that they heard when Camille was kidnapped. We’ll get the same bit when Camille’s mother is discovered dead and stuffed up the chimney. But everything else is going to smack of the sort of movie science of the era, where things happen based on a vaguely formed and misunderstood version of the prevailing scientific ideas.

Here's the thing: Murders in the Rue Morgue runs just under 61 minutes, so it dives into the story as directly as it can. However, a movie of this length could have been easily made on the original story as written by Poe. The issue with that, though, is that it’s not nearly salacious enough to get people interested, or at least that wasn’t the case in 1932. You might be able to get away with it today. Honestly, it’s more likely that the original story would make a pretty good episode of a murder-of-the-week show. It would have been a solid episode of Elementary, for instance. But instead we’ve got to sexy it up to get the butts in the seats.

We know exactly where we’re going here, though. Bela Lugosi’s presence names him the bad guy immediately, simply because of his typecasting, although his accent at the time certainly adds to that stereotype. If you’ve seen a dozen movies in your lifetime, you’re going to be able to predict just about every step in the plot.

A significant issue here is that our hero, Pierre, is bland and forgettable. He’s less interesting than his friend Paul (Burt Roach), who, along with his girlfriend Mignette (who does not appear in the credits) are also set up to be victims that actually get us to care about what is happening. Instead, they’re forgotten, and we’re given a guy who is less interesting than everyone else on screen.

Ultimately, this is a curiosity and worth seeing for that, but probably not more than once.

Why to watch Murders in the Rue Morgue: It’s a classic Poe story in an early incarnation.
Why not to watch: Because it really goes off script from the story.