Friday, December 9, 2011

Saturday, March 20, 1971: Murders In the Rue Morgue (1932) / Secret Of the Chateau (1934)

Synopsis: Medical student Pierre Dupin (Leon Waycoff) is at a carnival with his beloved Camille L'Espanaye (Sidney Fox). They enter the exhibit of Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) who has a gorilla named Erik.  Mirakle claims to be able to speak Erik's ancient simian language, then goes on to talk about his personal theories about evolution. 

At the end of his presentation he urges Camille to come closer to Erik, but when she does so Erik lunges at her, grabbing her and stealing her bonnet.  Dr. Mirakle apologizes and tells her that if she gives him her address, he'll send her a new one.  Pierre is suspicious and tells her not to do so.

But Mirakle will not be deterred. He has Camille followed and gets her address anyway.

Meanwhile, the police are baffled by a series of prostitute killings, and we learn Dr. Mirakle is the culprit. Picking up streetwalkers and bringing them home, Mirakle injects them with gorilla's blood, with the stated intention of finding out the "true connection" between humans and apes. 

But the blood of prostitutes is "dirty", according to Mirakle; he needs a woman with pure blood. And so he plots to kidnap Camille and use her to prove his theory of human - ape kinship....

Comments: Robert Florey had a long career in film and television.  He directed over a hundred features, everything from musicals to comedies to thrillers (including the Peter Lorre vehicle The Face Behind the Mask, which has popped up a couple of times on Horror Incorporated).  Nevertheless, he is perhaps best-remembered as the guy who almost directed Frankenstein.

Florey was a key player in bringing Mary Shelly's novel to the screen. He performed major surgery on John Balderston's script, and no doubt felt he'd earned the right to helm the project.   It must have been a blow to him to see the movie handed off to James Whale instead.

Universal assigned him to Murders In the Rue Morgue, based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story that lacked three important screen elements: an antagonist, a romantic subplot and a discernible three-act structure.

Florey dutifully added all three.  For an antagonist he created scientist / sideshow barker Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) whose scientific theories would have been recognizable as quackery even to audiences in 1932 (the gorilla, which was revealed in the original story to be the culprit, becomes Dr. Mirakle's henchman as well as his scientific muse).

The romantic subplot was achieved by pairing Dupin up with Camille L'Espanaye, who had simply been a crime victim in the original story.

The three-act structure emerged from the first two elements; Dr. Mirakle, improbably, becomes obsessed with Camille, and in order to connect his interest in her to his own proclivities, Mirakle is made to lust after Camille's blood for one of his diabolical experiments.  Dupin puts it all together and we have a fairly straightforward mystery / thriller of the time.

Unfortunately, the result is rather dismal and confused.  Mirakle's motives are never coherent; and in the end we're forced to conclude that he's just a nut.

The problem isn't that Poe's story can't be made into a Hollywood feature (it's an intriguing story, if a brief one), but that Poe's story can't be made into a conventional Hollywood feature.   The short story was subversive because its brutal double homicide  can only be solved by a man who views the whole thing as nothing more than an afternoon's diversion.  When he solves the crime he is rewarded only with the sullen resentment of the police.  And Dupin couldn't care less.

The cinematic Dupin cares all too much -- for Camille, for the murderer's victims, for the people of Paris. He is a bland and earnest fellow, and in the hands of Leon Waycoff he becomes an intolerable bore.  Moreover, Waycoff and Fox are a dreadful screen couple.   There's not the slightest hint of a spark between them.

The only character that manages to hold our attention is Dr. Mirakle, played by a wildly over-the-top Bela Lugosi.  The only reasonable motivation for Mirakle is that he's crazy, and Lugosi goes there.  Boy, does he go there.   By today's standards his performance is incredibly hammy, but there are moments when it does work for him.  His rantings at the terrified prostitute he's holding prisoner, for instance, are convincingly disturbing even today.

Speaking of the terrified prostitute, she was played by a very young Arlene Francis, who was a staple of daytime television from the 1950s through the 1970s.  You may remember her as a longtime panelist on What's My Line.  I sure do.

Secret of the Chateau

Synopsis: When a prominent collector of rare books dies, his impoverished family decides to sell off the collection.  This task is entrusted to book dealer and family friend Monsieur Fos, and as the movie opens an auction is underway at Fos' bookshop in Paris.

Chief Inspector Marotte (Ferdinand Gottschalk)  visits Fos and tells him that in spite of press reports to the contrary, the collector had been murdered.  Furthermore, Marotte believes the murderer is his old nemesis, a master thief named Prahec.   He warns Fos that Prahec might attempt to kill him in order to secure the most valuable pieces in the collection.

Fos suggests that Prahec might be in attendance at the auction, and while Marotte acknowledges this might be true, he insists that it would not help lead to the master thief's capture.  No one has even seen the elusive Prahec; in fact, no one knows if Prahec is a man or a woman.

Attending the auction is a struggling painter, Paul De Brunay  (Clark Williams) who turns out to be an heir to the estate.  He meets young Julie Verlaine (Claire Dodd), and Paul invites her to the family chateau to view a priceless Gutenberg Bible that he is trying to sell.

We learn that Verlaine has a talent for thievery, and has made off with a valuable book from the auction.  On the street she's accosted by Inspector Marotte, who reminds her of her recently-concluded prison sentence.  Marotte suspects that she knows the identity of Prahec, though he has no proof; but when he accuses her Verlaine eludes him easily enough.

Back at her flat, Verlaine finds her boyfriend Lucien has let himself into her apartment.  Verlaine tells him that she wants to end her life of crime, and tells her thuggish paramour that their relationship is over.  Nevertheless, Lucien confirms that a Gutenberg is hidden at the chateau.  He suggests that he and Verlaine conspire to steal it, but Verlaine says flat out that she will do no such thing.

It's clear, however, that this is not a relationship built on trust.  Verlaine soon arrives at the chateau to find the fatuous Monsieur Bardou lording it over the household.  Also present are Paul DeBrunay, his buddy Armand (George E. Stone), Paul's aunt Madame Rombiere (Helen Ware), and Paul's ex-girlfriend Didi (Alice White) who is waiting around to be paid 2,000 francs she claims Paul owes her.  Soon the renowned Professor Racque (William Faversham) shows up expressing an interest in buying the Gutenberg as well.

Rooms are prepared for the guests, and everyone retires for the evening.  But soon a bell is heard clanging in the abandoned chateau tower.  As the guests gather in the hallway, a nervous Madame Rombiere tells the others that according to local legend, the ringing of the tower bell always presages a death....

Comments: This is Horror Incorporated's first broadcast of Secret of the Chateau, a modest drawing-room mystery that is interesting more for what it isn't than for what it is.  

It isn't a horror film, though (like many Universal thrillers of this era) the marketing campaign doggedly tries to convince you otherwise.  It isn't directed with much verve or imagination -- in fact, for most of its running time it feels like a stage play, with characters assembling themselves in polite semi-circles and delivering their lines as though they were performing in a proscenium.  It isn't remarkable in the areas of cinematography and set design; every scene is shot with the ambition of a poverty-row cheapie.  And with a couple of exceptions, it isn't particularly well-acted, with a gaggle of contract players trying to make their stock characters stand out.

The first murder doesn't even occur until nearly two-thirds through the films' 66 minute running time.   The early scenes are padded with dreary comic-relief bits, like the character of Armand  accidentally bidding 25,000 for a rare book, and later trying to oil a squeaky door with salad dressing; or the verbal fencing between stuffy Madame Rombiere and gum-chewing good-time girl Didi:

Madame Rombiere
In my day, nice young ladies didn't drink and smoke.

In your day, they used to bury their dead.  Now they let them sit around on terraces, tutting.

Madame Rombiere
Why, I've never been so insulted in my life!

Stick around, I can do a lot better.

But like the rain after a drought the murders finally begin, and Chief Inspector Marotte shows up to turn the proceedings into a fairly standard whodunit.

If anything makes Secret of the Chateau seem like a ghost story, it's the presence of Clark Williams, a leading man so insubstantial you'll swear you can see light shining through his skin.  But I did enjoy Claire Dodd's performance as the crafty and conflicted Verlaine, and Ferdinand Gottschalk manages a certain playfulness as Marotte, the entertaining but ineffectual detective ("Everyone has answers!" he snorts with annoyance at every alibi).  Osgood Perkins, who is dryly amusing at the butler, Martin, had a long career in supporting roles, though he is best-known today as the father of Anthony Perkins.

This is the first "new" film we've had on Horror Incorporated for a while.  It might seem surprising that we haven't yet run through all 52 titles in the Shock! package, but it's true: 19 have not been broadcast.  A glance over the titles suggests we're not missing much, though Man-Made Monster and Night Key would be welcome additions to the line-up.  As for Son of Shock!, we've seen all but four, with Black Friday the most promising no-show to date.


kochillt said...

I must admit to a certain fondness for Sidney Fox as a beautiful woman, but as the actress top billed on screen (but not in the ads) over Bela Lugosi, she is really a travesty (proof that the casting couch was in session at Universal). Leon Waycoff, making his film debut as the hero, later changed his name to Leon Ames; he's a little stiff, but likable enough (this was his only starring role in a Uni horror). I actually put together a video recording of this feature with the foggy night attack kicking things off, followed by the prostitute's death, then Leon Ames' first scene at the morgue, and finally the carnival sequence showing the evil Mirakle at his day job. It really flowed much better, with things moving more rapidly toward the conclusion, until the inexcusable, interminable interrogation between the three ethnic tenants, who all disagree about what they heard in the locked room where the girl's mother died. Stalking the diminutive heroine to her own home, Lugosi's character truly comes off as a real creep, his physical appearance and risible dialogue completing the embarrassment. SECRET OF THE CHATEAU was somewhat surprising, but from what the ads promised, a real cheat. A rather ordinary whodunit with a nice little twist ending, blessed by the rare starring role for lovely Claire Dodd, who later graced IN THE NAVY, THE BLACK CAT, and THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET. Clark Williams was also invisible in WEREWOLF OF LONDON, since he entered the forbidden valley with Henry Hull's Dr. Glendon, but was mysteriously passed over by the howling moon beast. CHATEAU is one example of a SHOCK! title that may never find legitimate release (THE SPY RING and A DANGEROUS GAME don't deserve one; I'm partial to DANGER WOMAN due to its fine cast).

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