Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
First impressions on viewing The Murders in the Rue Morgue, will no doubt, concern set design and the delightful artistry of the feature. With sets consisting of a foggy, studio based, rendition of nineteenth century gas-lit Paris streets the film is certainly an atmospheric one. Furthermore, it also provides one the key clues to where the film is coming from both stylistically and thematically. With an eye for a particular askew geometry and a particular emphasis on shadow it is very clear that this is a film that seeks to move into the territory of German expressionist cinema. This is a point that gets further underscored when skylines reveal the crooked roofs, spires, windows and chimney stacks of the world of Caligari. This success, it must be said, can be laid at the door of Herman Rosse. Rosse, student of The Royal College of Art and an architect by trade, was responsible for what is clearly the product of an immersion in European silent cinema. For, through its sets, Murders in the Rue Morgue lives and breathes expressionism. This is despite the fact that Rosse was not credited with any film work until his arrival with his wife, a landscape architect named Sophia Helena Luyt, in the United States. Nevertheless, he would hit the ground running and would win an Oscar for the art direction in his cinematic début The King of Jazz, 1930. However, the similarities with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari do not begin and end with the art department. For, despite being nominally based upon an Edgar Allen Poe classic, Robert Florey's adaptation strays into the realms of the Robert Wiene's familiar material. Here, however, while the sideshow theme is common to both features a trained gorilla under the control of a manipulative scientist replaces the familiar somnambulism theme. Murder in the Rue Morgue was initially crafted as a further attempt to continue with the success of both Dracula and Frankenstein, two earlier Universal horror films upon which Herman Rosse would work. The film would, just like the aforementioned Frankenstein, play upon popular fears of the direction of travel of science. In a period where Darwinism would be increasingly associated with later discredited notions such as eugenics, here the scientific method of experimentation comes down to attempts by Bela Lugosi's humorously named Dr. Mirakle to inject the blood of a great ape into the bodies of women. In this, as with Frankenstein, the whole mad-scientist ran amok is central to the whole feature. It is all, in inception as well as realisation, pretty sinister stuff. It also has slight Jack the Ripper undertones. There is no doubt that the film was an influential one and while it is indeed possible that later imagining of The Murder of the Rue Morgue return to Poe's source material the film, that features an ape carrying a woman up the side of a building, certainly finds its echo in giant creature feature King Kong. Beyond this Jess Franco would direct a similar crucifixion in his Succubus while Paul Naschy's Hunchback of the Morgue would feature a similar grubby villain's laboratory. Dario Argento, another director with a body of work that, like Murders in the Rue Morgue, places a strong emphasis on hyper-stylisation, would also feature an intelligent ape doing the bidding of his scientist master in his Phenomena. The film, which in effect is a sort of a detective story, eschews the whodunnit approach by signposting, early on, the nature of the deaths of a number of women. While the film could have potentially have been a mystery to rival the most convoluted of giallo, the rejecting of this approach can only be considered a missed opportunity. Even the delightful locked room theme that has been used successfully on countless occasions including, most memorably, in the eerie Sherlock Holmes thriller The Spider Woman, is here wasted as the whole brilliant killer monkey angle is revealed far too early. This is not the only criticism that can be laid at the door of Murders in the Rue Morgue. Because, as much as direction, set design and cinematography are the stars pretty much every actor, and actress, seems intent on being hammy. Painfully so. The whole idea of using a chimpanzee in close-ups interspersed with longer shots of what appears to be a man in a chubby gorilla suit also, spectacularly, fails to convince. Deficiencies aside, and despite being very much a product of its time, Murders in the Rue Morgue represents an incredibly atmospheric way to spend an hour or so and the film, not least because of its brevity, certainly does not outstay its welcome. It is worth a look.