Sunday, January 29, 2012

37. PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE (1954)

I'll always remember this movie, which I first discovered on local commercial television as a child, as the first horror film that disappointed me. Consequently I've always had a bias against it, as well as a quixotic hope that I'll revisit it someday and discover the worth in it.

Directed by Roy Del Ruth (who went from this to THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE at 20th Century Fox), PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE was Warner Bros.'s 3-D follow-up to their successful HOUSE OF WAX (1953), but it lacks the senses of atmosphere and period menace of its predecessor. In its bold colors, its unconvincing sense of place (the Eiffel Tower is seen only in the stage d├ęcor at a Can-Can performance), its bland casting (Steve Forrest as Paul Dupin, here a doctor rather than the medical student and amateur detective of the original) and its overt tastelessness, it's so relentlessly wholesome that its mystery reeks of melodrama, its morbid suspense of robust adventure. Its idea of inspiring horror in its audience is to bring the camera as close as it can get to a pretty, screaming face. Karl Malden, his voice always booming like that of an evangelist or a carnival pitchman, is our villain Dr. Marais (one imagines he would have been Dr. Gabin, had the film been made a few years earlier), and there's nothing in his performance to evoke villainy other than his dialogue and misdeeds. Patricia Medina is the heroine, dark-haired, dark-eyed, and a blank slate.

The movie is not without its graces, though they are hardly enough to save it. Charlie Gemora, who played Erik the ape in the original MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) here plays the ape Sultan, and his performance and gorilla suit compare well with contemporary ape suits and acting almost 60 years later; his work is exceptional, and one wishes the film had the imagination to do more with him. The film also has a memorable highlight in Sultan's skylight-crashing attack on an artist's model (Viola Vonn), whose languorous portrait -- the kind typically seen hanging on the walls of saloons in westerns -- is suddenly, violently splashed with what appears to be her blood. It is a tremendously shocking moment for 1950s horror, albeit one that is immediately defused as the shot cuts to the model, still perfectly well and trying to escape the room, which exposes the red splash as red paint -- although why the artist stored it by the bucketload rather than in tubes goes conveniently unexplained. Also, much as HOUSE OF WAX played a role in jump-starting the Italian horror film in the mid-1950s, this film seems to have inspired one of Italian horror's basic tenets: the resemblance of the heroine to another woman long dead, her likeness immortalized in a portrait.

One imagines that Universal must have prevented Warners from using the title MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, because the resentment is palpable. Most unusually, a credit for Poe's story immediately follows the film's title, even before the names of the actors appear; the word "murder" is all but hammered into the viewer throughout the opening scene; and the film closes with know-nothing Inspector Bonnard (Claude Dauphin) filing away the last clue of the solved case in a drawer labelled "Murders in the Rue Morgue," upon which the camera lingers for an inordinately long time. The supporting cast -- fraught with such French faces as Anthony Caruso, Paul Richards, and Henry Kulky -- features a young Merv Griffin as an early victim's suitor, looking pleased as punch to have a part in a real movie.

Viewed on Turner Classic Movies.

2 comments:

  1. Tim, I'm loving this new blog of yours. I disagree with you at least as much as I agree, but your intelligent, straightforward approach is ALWAYS appreciated.

    PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE wasn't the first horror film to disappoint me (unfortunately), but disappoint it did. I don't think I've seen it in 30 years and I'm not rushing to correct that.

    But, unless you're inferring something I'm missing -- THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE was not a Universal film, it was Fox. Isn't that right?

    Anyway, keep it up, 'cause I'm seriously loving what you're offering us here.

    Rick P.

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  2. Thanks, Rick -- for the comment and your correction.

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