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Murders in the Rue Morgue
Tonight's Feature Presentation

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1971)

Starring: Jason Robards, Herbert Lom, Christine Kaufmann, Adolfo Celi, Maria Perschy, Lilli Palmer

Written By: Christopher Wicking, Henry Slesar Directed By: Gordon Hessler

The Short Version

Was this supposed to be Poe or Leroux?

Jason Robards just does not belong in this movie, and he knows it.

Murders in the Rue Morgue has so little atmosphere that it might as well have been filmed in a vacuum.

It doesn’t have much in the way of suspense, either.

Murders in the Rue Morgue is just too dull to be worth the effort.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

TOMME DES PYRENNES.

Relatively bland cheese made in its namesake region, which happens to mark the line between France and Spain.  (And hey, in this movie, Spain pretends to be France!)


Pairs Well With...

THE HOUSE RED WINE.

Nothing special, nothing expensive; reasonably forgettable stuff that probably tastes just a tad acidic.

“You needn’t worry.  That was no murder.  He already has a death certificate.”


Once upon a time, American International Pictures did very well with a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations.  Those films also tended to have the advantage of featuring Vincent Price and being made under the watchful eye of Roger Corman.

You’ll notice that AIP’s Murders in the Rue Morgue features the talents of neither Vincent Price nor Roger Corman.

Uh-oh.

As our story begins, we find a man gloating before a woman he has tied to a table, promising her that she will beg for death just as he once begged for her kisses.  However, before he can make good on his threat, the giant ape caged on the other side of the room escapes, and after a quick scuffle, the ape has somehow freed the woman and begins to carry her up the stairs.  The scene becomes even more confused when the police burst onto the scene, at which point the ape sets down the woman and proceeds to attack the man.  When all is said and done, we find that the ape has chopped the man’s head off with an axe.

An audience applauds.  It turns out that we’ve been watching a stage play that alleges to be of Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” even though if it is, the adaptation must be a fast and loose one.  Maybe that’s supposed to be a hint.

With the play over, the actors retire to their dressing rooms.  The astute viewer will surmise that all is not well when the gent in the ape costume removes his mask only to reveal another one.  This suspicion is confirmed a moment later, when the actor then casually places the ape mask atop the bloody corpse of the man who was actually supposed to be wearing it in the first place.

Needless to say, that is but the first of many corpses that will be appearing courtesy of the man in the mask; that strange phantom, one might call him…

Murders in the Rue Morgue has far less to do with Edgar Allan Poe’s story of the same name than it does with Gaston Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” and the screenplay goes off on so many tangents that one must realistically consider the title to be for marketing purposes only.  Poe’s signature detective character of Dupin (who was, indeed, the first true detective character) is gone, the plot is entirely changed, and at the end of the day, the only real similarity is that people get killed in the vicinity of the Rue Morgue.  (By the way, for those who speak no French, the Rue Morgue is not a morgue; it’s a street.  “Rue Morgue” basically means “Mortuary Avenue.”)

Of course, Poe fans are used to this; rarely if ever do we encounter a filmed adaptation that is even half faithful to the title it picks up, so that’s just par for the course.  Accepting this, what’s left?

What’s left, unfortunately, is almost the antithesis of Poe’s work.  Unlike Poe’s story, Murders in the Rue Morgue carries no real atmosphere, and no mystery whatsoever.  Even the restored cut that returns eleven minutes of footage removed from the theatrical release fails to deliver on either account, even though it’s generally agreed that the restored footage actually helps the story to make more sense.  Murders in the Rue Morgue is, in fact, the worst kind of disaster.  It’s not bad.  It’s boring.

The general aura of boredom has several causes.  Near the top of the list is the fact that the film’s lead actor, Jason Robards (Raise the Titanic), looks bored.  It’s said that AIP’s Poe mainstay, Vincent Price,was the original choice for the leading role here, and that Robards was an afterthought.  What’s beyond dispute is that Robards himself thought he was miscast in the role, which makes one wonder why he bothered to take it, because it’s more than obvious to anyone watching this performance that Robards just doesn’t care.  That he is indeed miscast cannot be denied – Jason Robards, a French stage thespian? – but once he took the check, he should have at least put some effort into the role.  Instead, he phones it in, clearly acting as though he feels the part is beneath him and that he’d prefer to be anywhere else but on this set, even if it involved dental procedures. 

A bored lead tends to take luster away from everyone else, and the one who suffers the most is Christine Kaufmann (Virgin Killer) as Madeline.  The already creepy story arc of Robards’ character marrying Madeline after being unable to woo her mother is made even worse by the fact that Robards is too disinterested to create any chemistry with the rest of the cast, particularly the actress playing his young wife, and when that’s gone, one of the central pillars holding up the entire story of Murders in the Rue Morgue is gone.

Not that you might notice, because one of the other elements that serves to make the film so uninteresting is that director Gordon Hessler (Cry of the Banshee) seems to be doing his level best to put the audience to sleep.  Considering the source material he has to work with – whether he ultimately decides that he’s adapting “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” or “The Phantom of the Opera” shouldn’t matter at this point – it should be next to impossible to not create a decent gothic atmosphere.  Nevertheless, not only does Hessler fail to deliver on the gothic atmosphere, but he indeed fails to deliver any atmosphere at all.  I don’t think even that greenest student could manage to film a boisterous French gala complete with can-can dancers and not project at least some sort of thrill or excitement the audience’s way, and yet Hessler performs this exact feat.  He also manages to make axe wielding and vitriol tossing about as exciting as standing in line for groceries.  It’s not that the movie is photographed or directed badly, per se, but it has no passion to it whatsoever at any time.  It’s as though the chair was given to a robot that knew all the technical skills but none of the finesse.

Perhaps Hessler figured that if he couldn’t force his biggest American name actor to give a damn, he needn’t bother either.

It doesn’t help that the screenplay provides no room at all for suspense.  The audience knows who the killer is from the very beginning, and it’s made clear that most of the characters do, too, even as they’re loudly declaring that he’s been dead for a dozen years.  The killer’s motive is also made plain early on, as is the fact that he has an accomplice.  At that point, Murders in the Rue Morgue becomes an exasperating exercise in waiting for the next victim to be dully killed, waiting for the cops to be too late, and waiting for Jason Robards to once again act like he would rather be in a different movie.  Even the alleged “shocks” have no shock value to them; if you don’t know the real truth behind the events of a dozen years past at least a half hour before you’re told, I can only conclude that the dull direction got the best of you and you fell asleep.  The same holds true if you don’t know who’s coming up the stairs for the “creepy ending.”  Everything is either explicitly spelled out for the audience well before it is “officially” revealed to the relevant characters, or it’s so heavily telegraphed that it might as well have been.  Suspense?  That’s something that happens to other movies, I’m afraid.

It’s really too bad, too, because with just a few adjustments – like, say, a different director and a lead actor who actually gave a damn – Murders in the Rue Morgue could have been a decent film.  As it stands, technically speaking, it still isn’t bad, but it’s just so boring that it would actually have been better if it was bad.  At least then there’d be something to laugh at.

Bottom line, Murders in the Rue Morgue is just too dull to recommend to anyone.  If you want to get your Poe fix, I suggest one of AIP’s older offerings done under the watchful eye of Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price.  Those two men, at least, are guaranteed to never cause an audience to fall asleep.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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