Written by: Harold Medford & James R. Webb (screenplay), Edgar Allan Poe (short story)
Directed by: Roy Del Ruth
Starring: Karl Malden, Claude Dauphin and Patricia Medina
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Mad passions, madder deeds in the Edgar Allan Poe chiller!
It’s been said before, but it bears repeating that studios have been in the business of recycling for decades; it’s not a new phenomenon no matter how much we want to point to Hollywood’s recent rampant cannibalization as incontrovertible evidence of its imminent decline. Case in point: in 1954, Warner Brothers had already updated The Mystery of the Wax Museum to great success with House of Wax, so they looked to continue cashing in on familiarity by tackling Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which got a pretty shaky adaptation in the form of a Bela Lugosi vehicle from Universal 20 years earlier. Warner’s take turned into Phantom of the Rue Morgue and, like House of Wax, it arrived in theaters with the latest gimmick: 3D (see, this really could just be a story from 2012).
Like most Poe adaptations (including Universal’s film), Phantom only has the skeletal setup of the original short story and jumbles around some of the particulars. In Paris’s Rue Morgue, a series of murders have baffled the locals and aroused the attention of Inspector Bonnard (Claude Dauphin). His investigation leads him to professor Paul Dupin (Steve Forrest) and his associate, Dr. Marais (Karl Malden), both of whom offer up their services. However, as the body count continues to mount, Dupin comes under scrutiny, much to the dismay of his fiancée (Patricia Medina).
This is the story about a killer ape, of course, so you might imagine that strange things are afoot when Dupin is quickly fingered as the prime suspect. It would seem that just about everyone involved in making the film assumed the audience’s familiarity, as the script lays everything rather bare once Malden’s Dr. Marais shows up with the odd combination of expertise in zoology and psychology. He’s also quite proud of his Pavlovian ability to harness an animal’s urge to kill by manipulating them with a bell; after showing off once such experience, a jump cut takes us from one of his bells to another around the wrist of a would-be damsel, so only the particulars need to be worked out as Phantom of the Rue Morgue creeps towards its conclusion.
Which is not to say that the film isn’t without some surprises; in fact, the screenplay really plays havoc with Poe’s original conception of Dupin. The character was revolutionary as literature’s first detective (in fact, the word detective hadn’t even been invented at the time), a shrewd, calculating individual whose reliance on logic and deduction laid the groundwork for Sherlock Holmes; here, the Dupin name is attributed to a completely different character and is replaced by the bumbling, nigh buffoonish Bonnard, a quack inspector full of crackpot ideas (he supposes that criminals can be detected by their lack of ear lobes, for instance). He often overlooks details and concocts elaborate theories; for example, he’s sure that Dupin (a lean but considerably average fellow) fled a murder scene by swinging his way from building to building and even goes so far to employ a trapeze artist (!) as evidence to disastrous results. Bonnard (played with oafish condescension by Dauphin) is really the anti-Dupin that gives Phantom of the Rue Morgue a sort of wry, humorous element--he’s so laughably wrong at times that one assumes the wild missing of the mark here has to be intentional comedy to play off of the familiarity with the story.
Just about all of the film’s revelations are stumbled upon and unraveled by other characters, particularly Medina’s character, who makes the mistake of taking Malden’s mad scientist up on an offer to visit his house. At this point, Phantom of the Rue Morgue enters Rebecca territory, and the mix of tragic melancholy slides right into the gorgeous, gothic vibe that Roy Del Ruth slathers the film in. Like House of Wax, the production is lush and beautiful, vibrantly rendered by the combined forces of Warner Color and Technicolor. Del Ruth often harkens all the way back to the stuff of German Expressionism, particularly during the sequences where the killer skulks through the sharp-angled and dramatically lit Parisian skyline. Phantom of the Rue Morgue is wedged between two eras; it’s a leftover from the previous decade’s gothic murder mysteries and arrived just as theaters were beginning to be overrun by atomic age monsters and aliens. However, it’s difficult not to see both this and House of Wax as stylistic antecedents to the garish productions from AIP and Hammer a decade later.
Likewise, the film’s stark violence foreshadows those later films. A scene that features a model being slashed to death is brilliantly realized by having some nearby crimson paint stand-in for the implied, splattery bloodshed, and the resulting image is staggering. The film even goes out of its way to pad the body count, as an aside involving Dr. Marais’s cock-eyed sailor assistant (Anthony Caruso) takes a page out of the “Cask of Amontillado” playbook, only the encounter ends with a violent thud rather than the creeping terror and madness of that short story. The scene feels a little extraneous--it ultimately has a bit of a point--but it almost feels like an excessive detour to up the viscera quotient a bit, which was fairly novel for 1954.
Released in the wake of House of Wax, Phantom of the Rue Morgue apparently never escaped that film’s shadow; while the Vincent Price film is certainly superior, the two make for quite a twin bill of films that feel unstuck in time--one could easily imagine these films being released by Universal in the 40s (alongside stuff like Phantom of the Opera) or by AIP or Hammer in the 60s. Phantom is a real oddity. Laced with humor, ghoulishness, bloodshed, and melancholy, it’s quite unfaithful to the plot of Poe’s original story; however, these qualities effuse throughout the Poe canon, making Phantom of the Rue Morgue a fine tonal fit for the author’s work. It may have been hatched as a studio inevitability after the success of House of Wax, but the film is well-realized with strong performances (particularly from Malden, who goes from lovelorn to deranged within one scene) and a handsomely mounted production. Warner Brothers itself has treated it as the forgotten film of this duo, as it’s never been released on DVD; it has, however, popped up on Turner Classic from time to time. Keep a look out for it. Buy it!
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