Murders In The Rue Morgue

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Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932) is the first in a cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations made by Universal Studios. Murders In The Rue Morgue was re-cut and censored when it was first released so what survives today isn’t a fair representation of the film. Director Robert Florey had to fight with producers to keep the film as faithful as it is to Poe’s story.

Murders In The Rue Morgue has all of the nineteenth century orientalism, pseudo-science, and jingoism one would expect. The atmosphere of Poe’s writing permeates the film affectively. Florey’s direction amplifies the macabre, immersing the viewer in a bygone age when so much of the science we take for granted now was viewed as either mysticism or heresy. The fear that Murders In The Rue Morgue provokes is the fear of the unknown; that which lurks just around the corner, a step beyond current scientific progress. This paranoia resonates throughout nineteenth century fiction from Poe to Shelley to Conan Doyle.

Given the censorship of the film, its unevenness is to be expected. Scenes of comic relief (the police station scene) feel ill timed and generally disruptive to the tension Florey is trying to build. Florey also had to contend with a shoddy gorilla suit. To gloss over the artificiality of his ape, Florey cuts to close-ups of an actual gorilla whenever a reaction is called for. As resourceful as Florey is, it is Karl Freund that makes Murders In The Rue Morgue exceptional.

Karl Freund lenses Murders In The Rue Morgue beautifully. Before coming to the states, Freund worked as a cinematographer in his native Germany, pioneering the “entfesselte Kamera” technique that was essential to F.W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924). Freund’s work for filmmakers like Murnau and Fritz Lang is echoed in the Expressionistic compositions of Murders In The Rue Morgue.

All of Florey and Freund’s work to make Murders In The Rue Morgue a visually exceptional piece of genre filmmaker is really in the service of the film’s star Bela Lugosi. Universal relied on Lugosi as much as Karloff to keep audiences coming back for more macabre adventures. The pre-code Murders In The Rue Morgue offered Lugosi the chance to really play his mad scientist as an out of control psychotic and he relishes it. Murders In The Rue Morgue looks amazing, but it is Lugosi one always remembers.