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Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Bela Lugosi, Sidney Fox, Leon Waycoff, Betsy Ross Clarke, Bert Roach

Written By: Tom Reed, Dale Van Every, John Huston, Robert Florey (adaptation), Edgar Allan poe (story)

Directed By: Robert Florey

The Short Version

This is the movie that Bela Lugosi wanted to make instead of Frankenstein.

It suits him better, really, and he does a marvelous job in it.

The rest of the movie fails to live up to his standard on any level.

Regular horror fans know that Poe wouldn’t recognize the story anymore.

It’s heavily flawed, but Bela Lugosi makes Murders in the Rue Morgue worth watching.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Apparently a staple of the starving student’s diet even back in 1845.

Pairs Well With...


If the waiter says it’s French, demand to see the label.  Whether it is or not, you may want to just drink straight from the bottle or a carafe.

“Rotten blood!  Your blood is rotten!  Black as your soul.  You tricked me!  Your beauty was a lie!”

In the year 1841, Edgar Allan Poe wrote a short story called “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”  In the span of just a few pages, he not only told an astounding tale about a murderous orangutan, but he also just so happened to invent modern detective fiction as we know it.

By the time that a horde of Universal Studios screenwriters and script doctors (including none other than John Huston, who’d go on to adapt and direct The Maltese Falcon) got through with Poe’s work, very little remained but the title and the primate, while lots of elements from other tales that were popular at the time got tossed in instead.  This is, of course, something that Poe’s fans are used to when they go to the movies, for rarely if ever is the great man’s work adapted faithfully, and the end results are always a crap shoot.  So, what did the filmmakers roll here?

Allow me a little license to call it “ape eyes.”  But thanks to the guy holding the primate’s leash, it’s still a watchable roll of “ape eyes.”

Our story takes place in the heart of Paris in the year 1845.  The carnival is in town, and many a young couple has taken the opportunity to make a date of it and see what there is to be seen.  One of these couples consists of a blithering but brilliant medical student named Pierre Dupin (Leon Waycoff, The Thin Man Goes Home) and his ladyfriend, Camille (Sidney Fox, Midnight).  They find themselves drawn to the tent of Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi, The Wolf Man), who speaks of science and evolution and the kinship between man and ape… like the ape he has up on stage, for example.  Though much of the dimwitted crowd quickly disperses, calling Mirakle a “heretic,” Pierre and Camille step forward to say “hello” to the creature, who seems to take a particular liking to Camille that results in a minor scare and a ruined bonnet.

Meanwhile, the local gendarmerie is baffled by a series of murders near the Rue Morgue.  Could there be some connection between these murders and a certain gentleman at the carnival?  Don’t think too hard now…

After Universal Studios hit paydirt with Dracula in 1931, the boys in charge wanted to keep playing the hot hand and cast their big hit’s star, Bela Lugosi, as the monster in their upcoming horror feature, Frankenstein.  Lugosi, however, wasn’t very keen on the idea.  He saw himself as more of a dashing leading man type, and didn’t like the thought of being covered in heavy makeup and – even worse – not being allowed to speak.  Instead, he pointed to Murders in the Rue Morgue as the type of project he really wanted to do… and in the end, he got his wish.

On the one hand, I agree with Lugosi’s assessment: he really wasn’t right for the part of Frankenstein’s monster, but he’s perfect as Dr. Mirakle.

On the other hand, most of the rest of Murders in the Rue Morgue isn’t very good, and as a result of this particular career choice on the part of Mr. Lugosi, a previously unknown actor named Boris Karloff would become one of Hollywood’s biggest names, while Lugosi’s own star began a very rapid descent that would have him essentially begging for crumbs in very short order.  Good for Boris, bad for Bela.

As for the audience, this is where it’s important to ask yourself why it is you’re going to be watching Murders in the Rue Morgue.  If you’re approaching this film as I did – from the standpoint of a Bela Lugosi fan – then there’s enough worthwhile stuff for you here, though you may want to have a drink on hand.  If, however, you’re not interested in what Bela Lugosi is up to… then you really need to have a drink on hand, because there’s not much to recommend here beyond that guy playing the villain.

The hero, for example, is a disgrace.  Instead of Poe’s Auguste Dupin, the first modern detective in literary history and the forerunner of Sherlock Holmes, we are given “Pierre” Dupin, a foolish romantic of a student who simply isn’t believable as a genius of any sort, or even a man of the mild intelligence required to outwit Universal’s standard “moronic police force” stock.  He is, instead, a “Bohemian Artist” type taken from Central Stock and force-shoved into a completely different role, made worse by an actor who clearly seems to be quite happy playing the Bohemian while being quite lost whenever he’s asked to do something smart.  The inspiration from which all modern detectives sprang?  Not by a longshot.  And barely tolerable in any case.

It doesn’t help that this poorly written and poorly played character has been thrust into an utterly nonsensical plot.  As noted earlier, far too many hands played at the typewriter on this one, and the result is an unpolished, incoherent mess that I seriously don’t think even the director quite understood.  (I’m pretty sure it would have ended up involving a woman having sex with a gorilla, though.  This could explain why no one actually wanted to come out and just say so.  But then again, who knows?)  Flashes of true brilliance (Mirakle’s lament up top, for example) are surrounded and overwhelmed by nonsense, with one of the few moments that really does draw from Poe’s story – the quibble about the accents –reworked and ground into poor comedy that not only goes on for way too long, but which in fact plays out as an absurd distraction from the screenplay at hand.  You really don’t want to think too hard about either the plot or the dialogue here, folks; it will give you a headache if you do.

Except, that is, when Dr. Mirakle is talking.

It’s not that his schemes make any sense, mind, but when his best moments of dialogue are taken simply as the monologues they are and nothing more, they become flashes of inspired genius, especially as delivered by the one and only Bela Lugosi.  The rest of Murders in the Rue Morgue may be questionable crud at best, but Lugosi is in prime form, giving his all to a role that frankly doesn’t deserve him.  He says his lines with gusto, and delivers a superb physical performance that stands well alongside those of any of the era’s great mad scientists.  Lugosi plays the part of Mirakle as though he’s running off a wall socket, providing plenty of extra energy that the rest of the film is in dire need of.  When it comes to Murders in the Rue Morgue, it really is all about Lugosi.

And that really is the bottom line here.  If you’re a fan of Bela Lugosi, then Murders in the Rue Morgue is absolutely worth your time despite the fact that the rest of it is a barely coherent mess.  If, on the other hand, you don’t like Bela Lugosi for some reason (shame on you), then you’re probably best off skipping this picture and moving along to the next one.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2012

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


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