While Universal’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue wasn’t as successful as either of their 1931 horror entries, Dracula or Frankenstein, then or now, it was a popular 1932 release that seems to be gaining in appreciation today.
The Poe story was both adapted for the screen and directed by Robert Florey, with legendary cinematographer Karl Freund on hand to provide his visual touches. Before the year was out Freund put his stamp on another Universal horror classic, The Mummy, this time as director. On a more minor note, Rue Morgue also features some early dialogue work from young John Huston, who was just getting started in Hollywood. The movie that resulted is often compared to hit Universal horror predecessor Frankenstein in terms of story, while visually, thanks to Florey and Freund, it is often linked to German Expressionistic masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Criticism usually centers on how far removed it is from Poe’s original 1841 story. Entirely true, but I’d much rather watch this movie than any more literal adaptation.
In the 1932 film, set in Paris, 1845, medical student Pierre Dupin (Leon Waycoff, later known as Leon Ames) attends a carnival with his sweetheart, Camille L'Espanaye (Sidney Fox), his roommate Paul (Bert Roach), and Paul’s girlfriend, Mignette (Edna Marion). A barker calling from the shadow of some wild poster art draws them in to see Erik the Ape Man, “the beast with a human soul.” The attraction seems far less exciting than the advance sales pitch, just an ape on display while his strange looking handler, Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi), spouts evolution theories to an unreceptive crowd.
After his lecture, Mirakle welcomes the crowd up for a closer look at Erik. Most of the disgusted patrons depart, but Dupin, Camille, and company scooch over to the caged creature, who soon steals Camille’s bonnet. “You have made a conquest, mademoiselle,” says Dr. Mirakle, interrupted when Erik grabs hold of Dupin and tries to make mincemeat of him. “You fool,” Mirakle says to Dupin, but the doctor catches himself in time to apologize about Camille’s bonnet and offers to send along a replacement. He just needs her address, which Dupin is smart enough to have her withhold.
While Dupin romances Camille on her rooftop, Dr. Mirakle happens upon a Paris knife battle that leaves a traumatized prostitute (Arlene Francis) alone and ripe for the taking. Mirakle overcomes the shocked woman, practically pushing her into his coach. In one of the greatest scenes of all classic horror, Dr. Mirakle is soon upset to find the woman does not meet the qualifications of his experiment. After she dies bound to a set of huge wooden crossbeams, Mirakle has her body cast into the river below. Her corpse resurfaces at the morgue, where medical student Dupin soon visits. Dupin notices that this latest victim has marks on her body similar to those found on two other women who had passed through the morgue earlier that week. He bribes the morgue keeper (D’Arcy Corrigan) for a sample of her blood and then retreats into a world that even the annoying Bert Roach can’t penetrate, as he studies samples under his microscope in the hope of discovering a scientific link between the recent murder victims.
Meanwhile, Dr. Mirakle stalks Camille and eventually sends her a new bonnet to replace the one Erik had destroyed. As Dupin’s suspicion of Dr. Mirakle grows, Mirakle becomes more aggressive in his pursuit of Camille. A visit that presages plans to snatch Camille ends when she shuts the door on Dr. Mirakle, asking, “Are you insane, monsieur?” Mirakle then beckons Erik into action and the film takes on its greatest resemblance to Poe’s story during the resulting murder scene and subsequent questioning of the other apartment dwellers by the Prefect of Police (Brandon Hurst). It all leads to Rue Morgue’s invented yet exciting climax featuring Erik the Ape Man clutching his prey as he scurries atop the Paris rooftops with our hero in hot pursuit.
The complaint at the time was that the story barely resembled Poe’s original, in which the eccentric Dupin character is perhaps the most influential master of deduction in the history of the written word. And, oh yeah, there was no Dr. Mirakle.
While the tinkering with Dupin may be a mistake, the 1932 film is otherwise a major improvement on the 1841 story, which would be impossibly boring if ever literally transferred to the screen. The film adds an everyman quality to Dupin by making him over as a young medical student to aid in the romance angle with Camille, who he was not personally connected to in the story. Unfortunately, Dupin reads like anything but an everyman in the original Poe, which is often credited as the first detective story. Poe’s Dupin is typically named as inspiration to later fictional detectives such as Arsene Lupin and Sherlock Holmes.
But if the change in Dupin was a miscalculation, and I'm not positive that it was, then the addition of Dr. Mirakle is a fine compromise. Poe’s sailor, absent from the 1932 film, is included in the slightly more literal 1954 adaptation, but even so he is only a red herring, not so much for the gorilla, but for another human character with villainous intentions. While a traditional villain isn’t necessary to a Rue Morgue adaptation, one certainly helps beef up in the intrigue and, in the case of 1932, the scares. The trouble with making a film more closely following Poe’s story is that the original twist is too well-known. By now, and even by 1932, we needed more than, “the gorilla did it” (or orangutan, if you prefer). Whether or not its 1932 audience had already seen Lugosi establish his reputation for villainy in the previous year’s Dracula, and no matter their level of familiarity with Poe, the actor’s first appearance as Dr. Mirakle is an easy hook, leaving all viewers to wonder where the movie will take this character. Dr. Mirakle’s intrigue holds today for first time Rue Morgue viewers, regardless of their familiarity otherwise with Lugosi or Poe.
Far from a one-dimensional movie villain, Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle is a scientist just as mad as Dr. Frankenstein, though given the nature of his obsession, more directly in tune with the current headlines. Filmed only seven years after the Scopes Trial, Dr. Mirakle tells his audience “the story of man” as he evolved from the sea over the aeons until the time he eventually walked upright. While this villain now seems bold and modern, Dr. Mirakle was then intended as yet another warning about man usurping God’s role in the universe, similar again to Colin Clive’s scientist in Frankenstein. With the film set in 1845, over a decade before publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), the Parisian carnival crowd heckle and hiss at Dr. Mirakle. One man charges Mirakle with heresy, allowing Lugosi to respond in a tone both bemused and defiant: “Heresy? Heresy? Do they still burn men for heresy? Then burn me, monsieur ... Light the fire.” Lugosi’s words are punctuated by the intimidating intonations already familiar from his Dracula, though his message reveals Dr. Mirakle as more educated, sophisticated, and worldly than the provincial carnival crowd. It’s Lugosi, so we know this can’t turn out well, but it’s easy to root for him at this early point of the movie.
In their review of Murders in the Rue Morgue, Photoplay said of Lugosi, “folks who like the repressed school of acting will get a little annoyed with his tactics, he is, nevertheless, the perfect type for this sort of film.”
He may have been the only type for this particular character, at least as he played him. As Tom Weaver and the Brunases wrote in Universal Horrors, “Like so much of Lugosi’s playing, the question isn’t ‘is it good acting?’ but ‘does it work?’” (51). You bet! It’s that previously mentioned mix of bemusement and defiance (“Light the fire.”) that really make Lugosi’s portrayals stand out. When his villains or monsters are on the ropes, about to lose as they inevitably must, he’s convincing, though not nearly as unique as he is on the way to his defeats. It’s on that journey, when he often has the upper hand, that Lugosi is as convincing a villain as there is in screen history. I think it’s because of his effort, which even seems visible when delivering his English lines, mixed with the pure delight and intensity that he manages to convey when doing evil deeds. He’s laughing at his victims, he’s laughing at us, because his characters are driven by natural impulse more than right or wrong, though those impulses usually make a Lugosi character at least believe he is in the right. He’s selling evolution in Rue Morgue’s carnival, but his wicked sense of humor strikes back not against ignorance, but intolerance.
While the censors keep Dr. Mirakle from completely spelling out his ultimate goal, the path that the evolution-obsessed pseudoscientist pursues is aligned with the ideas from his carnival lectures, and so his (mis)deeds make sense, even if the big picture is purposefully kind of vague. In 1932, Variety doesn’t seem quite sure of Mirakle’s actual intentions, but they do seem to believe the worst:
“To make things warmer, the blood injection angle isn’t exposed until a good number of feet have unwound. Until then, it can be easily assumed by any auditor that the doc’s idea is to mate the women with the ape. But nobody can prove it, or bluntly declare that to be the purpose.”
After injecting the ape blood into the Paris prostitute played by Arlene Francis, Dr. Mirakle is frustrated by the results. He moans before getting up from his seat to scold her: “Your blood is rotten. Black as your sins. You cheated me. Your beauty was a lie.” Later, when Dr. Mirakle finally gets his hands on the heroine, Camille L'Espanaye (Sidney Fox), he performs the same experiment and is delighted to find, “Her blood is perfect!” Perfect for what? The “blood injection angle” isn’t the experiment, it’s just the qualifying round. The finale that then unwinds is the only thing that saves us from Mirakle making good on his ultimate plot, which probably is what we all, Variety included, think it is, “to mate the women with the ape.”
The invention of Dr. Mirakle and, especially, Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of the character are the highlights of The Murders of the Rue Morgue. I can’t quite claim them as the universally regarded highlights of the film, because director Robert Florey actually thought Lugosi and the character should have been cut from Rue Morgue (Mank 97, Weaver 49).
The lowlight remains the strange and distracting decision to edit in close-ups of an actual screeching chimpanzee instead of simply relying on actor Charles Gemora in his gorilla-suit, as Erik is more often shown throughout the film. I was taken aback by Variety’s claim that, “Several switches from the real gorilla to a costume double are neatly veiled.” Are you kidding? Florey could have given Bela Lugosi a sick day and put another actor in Bela mask for key scenes, and I don’t think it would have been any more jarring than his misguided usage of Erik. I know Gemora has his fans, and his gorilla suit is by far my preferred version of Erik, but either version of the ape looks kind of silly. Best to stick with one or the other. But any illusion achieved by Gemora is wasted the moment that the real chimp pops up and usurps his hard work.
For a change, I won’t rip Sidney Fox. I usually find her so bad that she’s a distraction (at least I do in The Bad Sister, The Mouthpiece, and Once in a Lifetime). The funny thing is, Murders in the Rue Morgue is her best known film appearance, and others tend to rip her for it. But Fox’s job this time is simply to look pretty and fragile, while not getting in the way of the action, so mission accomplished. I thought she was quite good in her key scene, which finds her helpless in bed and terrorized by Erik’s visit. Of course, all she does is scream and faint in that scene, so that may be a bit of a backhanded compliment, but she does pull it off well. She also stands out when trading dialogue with Waycoff from a swing that Freund attached a camera to, a scene I found both stunning and heavy-handed, but not at all hurt by Fox.
In one of his first film roles, Leon Waycoff makes a decent leading man, reminding me a little of John Boles, who was very popular himself at this time despite an underwhelming role in Frankenstein, a movie I must admit, does keep coming up.
While Screenland fudged a bit in claiming young Waycoff was a well-known Broadway star of such productions as The Wild Duck, Broadway, and The Trial of Mary Dugan, in actuality, Waycoff had been working with a Cincinnati based stock company prior to his film career and did not reach Broadway until 1933, after Murders in the Rue Morgue. Universal tried to get him to change his name to Leon Adams for Rue Morgue, but relented for one reason or another before the movie was released. Waycoff would take a new screen name in 1935, and it was under this name, Leon Ames, that he achieved his longest lasting fame. On the big screen he is best remembered for playing the father in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), while baby boomers fondly recall him as the neighbor on TVs Mr. Ed. His romantic scenes in Rue Morgue threaten to cast him as just another forgettable leading man, but his intensive medical research at home and a one-on-one encounter with Lugosi credit Waycoff/Ames with at least a couple of memorable scenes.
The movie relies on Poe’s original in a couple of key scenes, even if some of the details are altered. One is the startling discovery of Camille’s mother (Betty Ross Clarke) shoved up the chimney feet-first. While this was the daughter’s fate in the story, the movie couldn’t very well kill off its love interest. In a scene that surely aroused the local censor boards as much as any perceived blasphemy, we gasp along with Waycoff when her body is revealed. After the initial, more graphic, appearance of Madame L'Espanaye‘s face, the focus shifts to the still grisly view of her tangled hair hanging down from the chimney, an image we’re allowed to dwell on longer than I expected.
I was disappointed to see Universal Horrors, my top go-to source on all things Universal horror, refer to the other scene that heavily relied upon Poe as, “the film’s low point” (51).
This comes when the Prefect is questioning the apartment dwellers about what they heard from the apartment and a German, an Italian, and a Dane each disagree over what language the killer spoke. The German thinks it was Italian; The Italian thinks it was Danish; The Dane says it was German. Of course, none of the three has ever actually heard these languages spoken, and in actuality, it was ape-speak, so the scene breaks down into an over-the-top argument between the three lodgers. It sounds old hat, but the confusion over the accent is included in Poe’s story, even if the witnesses aren’t actually on hand to get into any argument. It was the only portion of the story that I found myself chuckling at as I read, so I was happy, and probably a bit reassured, when Florey saw the same humor in the situation.
In the movie, the laughs are even accentuated for an experienced audience through usage of familiar character bit players, Herman Bing, Agostino Borgato, and Torben Meyer, in the three roles. We were primed for comedy a few moments earlier when another of their ilk, Harry Holman, has a few moments to do his nervous dimwitted shtick, but following him with Bing and his exaggerated accent, absolutely queues the audience for laughter. That’s how it worked for me, and I’d imagine these faces served their purpose even more clearly for a 1932 audience.
Murders in the Rue Morgue was well-reviewed in 1932 and appears to have generated decent crowds as well. Gregory Mank put the profits at $63,000 on the $190,000 production in his classic Lugosi and Karloff volume (105), which I’ll add is every bit as indispensable as the other book I’ve mentioned. Rue Morgue made money, but it didn’t make Dracula-Frankenstein money, which was the goal. Reviews tended to recognize it as the latest film of the cycle, lumping in Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with the three Universal titles when doing so, and were positive enough. The general message was that if you liked the other fright films, then this one was also worth a shot. Photoplay magazine actually included it among “The Best Pictures of the Month” in their March 1932 issue, alongside titles such as The Hatchet Man and, somewhat ironically given Rue Morgue’s detective roots, Arsene Lupin.It’d go too far to say Murders in the Rue Morgue is all Lugosi, but it wouldn’t be far off to call it Lugosi-plus. Plus some strong visuals, plus solid romantic leads (unremarkable, but they don’t distract), plus a few scenes of effective horror, plus a bit of sex. I can’t help but to mark it down some for the ridiculous dueling gorilla imagery. While what is good about Murders in the Rue Morgue seems to improve every time I watch it, but that footage from the zoo only becomes more painful to bear.
Murders in the Rue Morgue was released as a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R by Universal as part of their “Vault Collection” in 2012, but you’d do much better (and as of this writing, pay about the same price) to pick it up in its original 2005 DVD release as part of The Bela Lugosi Collection, which also includes Bela (and excepting Rue Morgue, Boris Karloff) in The Black Cat, The Raven, The Invisible Ray, and Black Friday. Universal has released several horror sets over the years, but this collection of formerly rare to video titles is my own favorite of the bunch.
Lindsey at the motion pictures blog also compares the 1932 film adaptation to Poe’s 1841 story in THIS POST, which includes more details about the book than I’ve included.
Danny at Pre-Code.com covered this one last year. Murders in the Rue Morgue gets a “Like” mark at his place in THIS POST.
In case you passed over the link I included in my paragraph about Sidney Fox, the Classic Images website has posted the best biography I’ve yet to read about her, no surprise since it was written by Gregory William Mank, who’s already been cited in this article for other work.
- Mank, Gregory William. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, with a Complete Filmography of Their Films Together. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.
- Review: Murders in the Rue Morgue. Variety. 16 February 1932: 24, 33.
- “Screen News.” Screenland. February 1932: 95.
- “The Shadow Stage.” Photoplay. March 1932: 48.
- Weaver, Tom, and Michael Brunas and John Brunas. Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946. 2nd ed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007.