J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Simian Verite: Murders in the Rue Morgue

It basically started the time-honored tradition of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations that bear at best a minimal resemblance to the stories whose titles they have appropriated (Roger Corman was slavishly faithful, by comparison). C. Auguste Dupin is considered the original template of the mercurial, ambiguously anti-social deductive genius that later spawned classic sleuths like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Nero Wolfe. However, Universal turned him into a love-struck medical student. Clearly, the studio had little understanding of the story’s evergreen appeal, beyond the murderous orangutan. Yet that would be enough to assure classic status for Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (trailer here), which screens during Anthology Film Archive’s recently launched Simian Vérité film series.

The carnival has come to 1840s Paris, amid the turbulent era of the “July Monarchy,” but you wouldn’t know it from carefree Pierre Dupin, his sweetheart, Camille L’Espanaye, and their shallow friends. Dr. Mirakle causes a sensation with his trained gorilla Erik and his scandalous lectures in support of Darwinism. L’Espanaye also makes a strong impression on Mirakle, and an even more so with Erik. Dupin can tell there is something off about Mirakle, but he is distracted by the mysteriously murdered women, whose corpses start turning up in the morgue (his favorite late night hang) shortly after the arrival of the carny.

Typically, the lily-white romantic interests are the weakest link in vintage Universal monster movies, but Leon Ames (then billed as Leon Waycoff) and Sidney Fox are especially awkward as Dupin and L’Espanaye. Not for one second do we believe his foppish act and her childish state of arrested development could ever be remotely compatible.

On the other hand, Bela Lugosi and the killer monkey go together like love & marriage and a horse & carriage. King Bela was at the peak of his popularity at this point—and he gives fans the arched eye-brows and diabolical line-deliveries they craved. Yet, he also seems genuinely hurt inside when L’Espanaye stands him up.

Almost as important as Lugosi was the presence of cinematographer Karl Freund, who shot The Golem and Metropolis in Germany and would soon helm the original classic Mummy. He helps Florey decant some of the old German Expressionist magic. The Parisian rooftop scenes remain particularly evocative, in a dark fable-ish kind of way.

It is always a nostalgic joy to watch Lugosi at the peak of his scenery chewing powers. Despite the drippiness of its romantic leads, it remains a fascinating example of the homicidal ape sub-genre. Arguably, it has yet to receive proper due for its lasting influence. Frankly, we can see echoes of Erik dragging the swooned L’Espanaye as he scales walls and leaps from building to building in the mack daddy of all killer ape movies, King Kong, which released the following year—not to mention the iconic Robot Monster.

Nonetheless, as Poe non-adaptations go, the cult classic The Black Cat, also starring Lugosi, is far superior. Still, it is good clean fun watching the great Hungarian actor and a dude in a gorilla suit terrorize Paris. Recommended for old school Universal fans, the one-hour Murders in the Rue Morgue screens with the amusing but fannish short doc, I Created Lancelot Link, featuring a reunion of the chimp show’s creators this Monday (6/19) and the following Monday (6/26), as part of Simian Vérité at Anthology Film Archives.

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