Music: Heinz Roemheld Cinematography: Karl Freund
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Leon Ames, Sidney Fox and Bert Roach
Murders in the Rue Morgue is probably as close as Hollywood ever came to an out-and-out Expressionist horror film. Sure, Frankenstein had some very Expressionistic sets, but it also had a lot that weren’t. And while Son of Frankenstein would seem to be the quintessential example, it used more of a minimalist set rather than pure Expressionism. This film opens with a carnival that is immediately reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the only purely Expressionist film ever made. But there are lots of other influences at work here, the least of them, unfortunately, Edgar Allan Poe, whose story was supposed to be the inspiration for the film. Jack the Ripper is evoked by the young women who disappear and wind up in the river, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher” makes an appearance when bodies begin disappearing from the morgue, and the old man who runs the morgue is positively Dickensian.
The first part of the film is almost science-fiction, as far as that goes. The mad Dr. Mirakle, played by Bela Lugosi, is doing Darwin in 1846 in Paris, over a decade before The Origin of the Species was published. Of course the sideshow patrons think he’s a lunatic for believing that man evolved from apes. They are right about the lunatic part, however, as Lugosi attempts to impress an audience that contains medical student Leon Ames and his girlfriend Sidney Fox by showing how he can communicate with an ape in the animal’s language. After nearly being killed by the ape, however, the couple leaves in a hurry, but Lugosi sends his henchman, Noble Johnson, to find out where she lives. After that Lugosi goes out into the foggy night, kidnaps a streetwalker, torturing her in order to extract her blood and kills her in the process. When Ames learns that several bodies have been found, all with the same markings, he begins to investigate. As he studies the foreign substance found in the women’s blood, Lugosi makes a desperate attempt to kidnap Fox and it’s only here that the Poe story comes into play at all.
What is instantly impressive is Karl Freund’s beautiful and fluid cinematography, his camera following the crowd at the carnival and moving effortlessly along the street tracking Lugosi’s carriage, while crane shots move from the street to the second floor balcony and back again. And the camera attached to the swing is the same device that was used in William Wellman’s Wings from 1929. But it’s the sets that are probably the best part of the film. The heavy use of shadows in the lighting is very well done, reminiscent of Murnau’s Nosferatu, and the way the sets are painted and constructed are all strongly Expressionist. Put together with Freund’s moving camera it gives the exteriors a real three dimensional quality that is rarely scene in films from the thirties. The special effects, when used in the finale, are also very well done and only barely distinguishable as such.
When viewed exclusively from the production aspect, the film is incredibly good, one of the best films made in the early thirties. Unfortunately the rest of it is not very good. Abandoning Poe for the majority of the story and then bringing it in at the end just doesn’t work. Poe’s story is a locked room mystery, not a horror story. And the plot was much better rendered in the Technicolor remake titled Phantom of the Rue Morgue with Karl Malden in 1954. Ames is okay, but Lugosi’s part just isn’t very interesting. He does a decent job, but it’s a goofy script that doesn’t come close to matching the visuals surrounding it. For Lugosi, his career immediately began to descend from the heights he had reached in Dracula. Part of that was his refusal to star in Frankenstein beneath the heavy makeup for the monster which, ironically, Robert Florey had also been originally tabbed to direct. For all that, Murders in the Rue Morgue is a must-see film for production design and Karl Freund’s camera work, just don’t expect a story to match it.