Sunday, March 18, 2012

Saturday, June 26, 1971: Murders In the Rue Morgue (1932) / Behind the Mask (1932)

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: The stories of Edgar Allan Poe are justifiably famous, but they tend to be long on atmosphere and short on plot. For this reason, films based upon them take plenty of liberties. We’ve already seen what Hollywood did with The Raven and The Black Cat; and tonight we get to see what they make of “The Murders In the Rue Morgue”.

Like a lot of adaptations this one comes off better if you’ve never read the story it’s based upon. Understandably, a lot of changes had to be made in translation. But this adaptation is particularly distressing because it throws out everything that made the short story interesting and memorable.

That story – widely credited as the first detective tale – was published in 1841. It describes how a brilliant, penniless young man named C. Auguste Dupin solves a sensational double homicide that has baffled the Paris police department. The circumstances surrounding the murders are what we would describe today as a classic “locked-room” mystery: two women are found dead in their home, one nearly decapitated and the other beaten and strangled, her body pushed up the chimney by an enormously strong assailant. The door is locked from the inside, and the only windows the killer could have escaped from are nailed shut, also from the inside.

Dupin solves the mystery simply by applying his keen, disciplined mind to the problem, identifying and rejecting irrelevant clues and logically working his way through the facts until he arrives at the correct solution. That an amateur easily, almost effortlessly, solves this “insoluble” mystery is one thing. That he does so basically as a lark is quite another, and it makes C. August Dupin one of the most fascinating and enigmatic characters in literature.

But for the screen adaptation, the writers felt it was necessary to dismantle the elaborate puzzle-box that Poe had constructed and sand down the rough edges from their protagonist. Camille L’Espanayle is no longer one of the two murder victims. She has been pulled from the chimney, brought back to life, and transformed into Dupin’s girlfriend. Dupin (inexplicably renamed Pierre) is now a poor medical student, rather than an eccentric bohemian.

And the screenwriters, needing an antagonist, dreamed up a character named Dr. Mirakle, played with scenery-chewing zest by Bela Lugosi, an actor who was still basking in the success of the previous year's Dracula. Mirakle's motivations are shaky throughout -- he seems to find Camille herself alluring, yet also wants her blood for his experiments proving human-ape kinship. This all figures (or is supposed to figure, somehow) into his theories of evolution. That Darwin's On the Origin of Species would not be published until 1859 is apparently ignored. And why not? Mirakle's motive doesn't make sense anyway.

Lugosi is at least amusing as Dr. Mirakle; the same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the other principles. Leon Waycoff's Dupin is an insufferable and ineffectual dullard, only a pale shadow of Poe's creation. Diminutive leading lady Sidney Fox is certainly cute, but sweetness seems to be the only quality she can project.
As for Erik the gorilla, we get a man in a suit for the distant shots, and a chimpanzee for the close-ups. Movie audiences in 1932 were apparently much more forgiving in those days.

The Murders In the Rue Morgue can be found on the Universal DVD set The Bela Lugosi Collection. It's available on Amazon.

Behind the Mask

Synopsis: A Sing Sing inmate named Quinn (Jack Holt) is plotting an escape. His cellmate Henderson (Boris Karloff) advises against it, claiming that powerful friends will spring both of them soon if they are patient. But seeing that Quinn will not be deterred, Henderson tells him how to get in touch with his associate on the outside, a man named Arnold (Claude King).

Quinn’s escape is successful and he travels to Arnold’s mansion in the country. Arnold seems afraid to assist Quinn, but is too frightened of his employer, the mysterious drug kingpin Mr. X, to refuse. He employs Quinn as his chauffer, and Quinn becomes enamored of Arnold’s beautiful daughter Julie (Constance Cummings).

Soon enough Henderson is released and makes contact with Dr. August Steiner (Edward Van Sloan), who runs the Eastland Hospital. We learn that Steiner is also an agent of Mr. X , and he tells Henderson that Mr. X arranged for him to be incarcerated so long because he was displeased with him.

Henderson suggests Quinn as the perfect man to deliver the next drug shipment for the organization. But as soon as Steiner sees Quinn he knows the man is an undercover federal agent. Henderson is shocked and angered by this revelation.

But the plan to have Quinn to pick up the shipment via seaplane goes forward. After Quinn delivers the drugs to a ship at sea, Henderson instructs Quinn to take off and then bail out – the boat, he says, will come to his location and pick him up. Quinn, sensing that this is an attempt to dupe him, quickly “rigs a dummy”*, attaches it to the parachute and tosses it overboard so that Henderson will think it’s him.

But before long Steiner captures Quinn himself. He plans on disposing of the federal agent in his usual manner – by getting him admitted to his hospital and subjecting him to an unnecessary – and fatal – operation….

Comments: Okay, let's see what we've got here. A sinister mastermind known only as“Mr. X”. A wire recorder that captures phone dispatches from criminal agents. Hospitals where snoopy undercover cops are dispatched with unnecessary surgeries. Sounds like fun, right?

Well, sure it does. And the truth is, director John Francis Dillon could have made a good movie from the raw material that went into Behind the Mask. Instead, every time he got close to doing something interesting, he chickened out.

It's difficult to understand how you could blow so many opportunities in a mere 70 minutes. Everything in this movie is bungled – Agent Burke’s murder at the hands of the drug gang establishes an entirely different m.o. than is used later in the film. Quinn’s romance with Julie seems exhausted and perfunctory. Henderson’s attempt to kill Quinn when he discovers his identity is exceedingly clumsy (why doesn’t Henderson just shoot him?). Mr. X himself, whose identity is supposed to be the Big Fat Secret Key To Everything, isn’t even mentioned until 24 minutes into the picture. You can get away with pacing like that if you’re Tarkovsky or maybe Hitchcock, and then just barely.

This is a movie that perfectly demonstrates the kind of bread-and-butter character parts Boris Karloff won before he became a household name in his mid-40s. Karloff worked on this movie after Frankenstein was filmed, but before it was released. After his smash success playing Colin Clive's tormented science fair project, he was able to quit playing common thugs and graduated to mad scientists and brilliant lunatics.

Perhaps because success came relatively late in his career, he never seemed to take it for granted, saying "You could heave a brick out of the window and hit ten actors who could play my parts. I just happened to be on the right corner at the right time." It's a statement that I guarantee you'll never hear from Tom Cruise.

Karloff is lucky, too, that he gets to work again with Edward Van Sloan, who gives a remarkably wacky and over-the-top performance here as Dr. Steiner.

Better-known today as the father of actor Tim (The Magnificent Ambersons) Holt, Jack Holt was once famous in his own right. He appeared in nearly a hundred silent features, and he carried on as a brusque leading-man type well into the sound era. I always associate him with Robert Armstrong for some reason, perhaps because they worked in the same era and used the same theatrical rat-a-tat delivery.
BEHIND THE MASK never had a proper DVD release, but you can purchase a copy from Loving the Classics, a great site for public-domain movies.

*How? There was only room for one dummy on that plane.


kochillt said...

To me, Sidney Fox is as enigmatic as Helen Chandler, their careers not extending beyond the 1930s (and Sidney dead by 1942). Leon Waycoff soon changed his name to Leon Ames, and recalled his film debut here as "a perfectly dreadful picture that pops up now and again to haunt me!" Jack Holt was Columbia's top star in the early 30s, working here with Karloff, and with Lugosi in 1935's THE BEST MAN WINS. Constance Cummings was always a favorite of mine, here doing her third film with Karloff (THE CRIMINAL CODE and THE GUILTY GENERATION preceded it), later playing leading lady in Harold Lloyd's MOVIE CRAZY, and in James Whale's REMEMBER LAST NIGHT?

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