Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” published in 1841, is considered by many scholars to be the world’s first detective story. Although I haven’t researched it extensively, it’s probably safe to say that “Murders” is also the first instance of a great ape — in this case, an orangutan — being the culprit in a “locked room” murder mystery. Why an orangutan? It’s elementary my dear reader– gorillas weren’t discovered and described by western science until 1847. Of course, once the noble yet fearsome gorilla penetrated western consciousness, there was no stopping its appropriation and exploitation by popular culture. Here was a supposed real-life monster tailor-made to scare children and adults in countless stories and films. Only relatively recently has society at large recognized the gorilla’s high intelligence, its sophisticated social life, and kinship with humankind. It’s hard to look at the world famous Koko cradling a kitten and ever again think of gorillas as lurid monsters.
But there’s no doubt that for many, many years the gorilla’s public image was one of a dangerous, ravening monster. (While I love vintage movies and always get a kick out of seeing men in furry suits trying their best to look like apes, I have to acknowledge the possibility that these very images, by both trivializing gorillas and making them into monsters, may have in some small way contributed to a culture that has nearly driven this great species into extinction.) Universal’s adaptation of Poe’s infamous story certainly exploits the image of the murderous ape, but it (and the original story) is also tempered with pathos and sympathy for the beast. In Poe’s story, the orangutan unwittingly kills by imitating the behavior of his master. In Universal’s version, the ape is cruelly manipulated by a human who is the real monster, and eventually turns on him, refusing to help carry out his evil designs. In contrast, many contemporary movie monsters are relentless, remorseless and unfathomable– crude plot devices to get the bloodletting and gross-out effects going.
Universal’s translation of Poe’s tale into film (some might say exploitation) can be a real eye-opener for those who think adult themes, suggestiveness and even outright depravity didn’t make it into popular movies until sometime in the 1960s. The studio took Poe’s tale of “ratiocination,” dropped most of the ratiocinating, and turned it into an hallucinatory, expressionistic horror thriller complete with a wild-eyed, unkempt mad scientist (Dr. Mirakle played by Bela Lugosi).
The cast is small and the plot simple. Set in Paris circa 1845, medical student Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames) takes his girl Camille (Sidney Fox) and friends to a carnival, where they encounter the highly eccentric Mirakle and his sideshow attraction Erik, a great ape “missing link” in mankind’s evolutionary chain. Mirakle drives away most of the audience by floridly insisting that he will “prove your kinship to the ape.” (Mirakle is somewhat ahead of his time, considering that Darwin didn’t publish On the Origin of Species until 1859). Dupin, being a medical student and reasonably open-minded, convinces Camille and friends to stay and see Erik up close. The ape, smitten with the coquettish Camille, reaches through the bars of his cage and steals her bonnet, then almost strangles Dupin when he tries to grab it back. Mirakle (looking very bestial himself with his bushy unibrow), also becomes smitten with Camille, but for a different reason. It seems he needs nubile young women to help him in his experiments to prove the connection between apes and humans.
The film dispenses with Poe’s locked room mystery in favor of a mad scientist tale (shades of the previous year’s Frankenstein!), with the harried Paris police fishing the unfortunate victims of Mirakle’s mad experiments out of the Seine. Erik the ape is largely saved for the climax, where he takes off across the Paris rooftops with his unconscious love interest tucked under his arm. What makes the film stand out is Karl Freund’s beautiful, darkly atmospheric black and white photography, and some gratuitous scenes that seem out of place for the era. At the very beginning of the movie, two insouciant male carnival goers are ogling a gaggle of exotic belly dancers:
Man #1: Do you think they bite?
Man #2: Yes, but you have to pay extra for that.
The most shocking scene, however, takes place in Mirakle’s lab. A scantily clad young woman is tied to crossbeams, Roman crucifixion-style, pleading for her life as the madman putters with his lab equipment, muttering to himself. He then jabs her violently with a syringe, and she slumps down, unconscious. (Scenes like this helped usher in the Production Code Administration in 1934, which required all films to be certified before being released. The first cinematic era of daring experimentation and shocking conventional sensibilities for the sake of bigger audiences was over.) Florey deftly supplements the shocks with small, surreal touches, like showing the gorilla riding along with his master in an ornate carriage through the dark Parisian streets.
Murders is let down by the weak acting of its romantic leads (Sidney Fox is particularly cloying), and some ill-advised comic relief (especially involving Dupin’s bumbling roommate) that slows down the film’s pace and adds nothing except viewer irritation. Also distracting and amateurish is alternating footage of a real chimpanzee in close-ups and a man in a gorilla suit in long shots. Still, this is a small price to pay to see a wild-haired, primitive-looking Bela hamming it up outrageously in a near-depraved, fractured-fairy-tale version of Poe’s classic tale.
- Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
- Universal Pictures
- Directed by: Robert Florey
- Cinematography by: Karl Freund
- Starring: Bela Lugosi (Dr. Mirakle); Leon Ames (Pierre Dupin); Sidney Fox (Camille)
- Check out: The Bela Lugosi Collection
Fascinating Factoid #1: French writer-director Robert Florey was originally slated to direct Universal’s Frankenstein with Bela Lugosi as the monster, and got as far as shooting test footage with Lugosi wearing an early version of Jack Pierce’s makeup. Before production began, the studio shoved Florey aside in favor of James Whale, who had recently directed a couple of hit dramas, Journey’s End (1930) and Waterloo Bridge (1931). Whale’s final product follows Florey’s original treatment very closely, although, to add insult to injury, American releases of Frankenstein gave the Frenchman no credit. Murders in the Rue Morgue was Florey’s “consolation prize.” Lugosi reportedly was happy at the time to be rid of the Frankenstein role, but supposedly became jealous later on when the film propelled Boris Karloff to super stardom. (Tom Weaver, et. al., Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946, 2nd Edition, McFarland, 2007)
Fascinating Factoid #2: At the height of the 1950s 3D craze, Warner Bros. released their take on the Poe classic, Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954; the title was changed slightly to avoid tangling with Universal’s lawyers). 3D couldn’t save this largely dull and plodding version with colorless Steve Forrest as Dupin, and Karl Malden as a preening villain. The modicum of interest that it does generate stems from its clever incorporation of modern psychology in the plot, and the very realistic (and frightening) gorilla costume (which was worn by the same man, Charles Gemora, who played the ape in Universal’s version).
For more reviews of obscure but worthwhile B horror and sci-fi films, see my blog, Films From Beyond the Time Barrier.
See also Films From Beyond on YouTube.