Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (Universal 1932)

We can’t have a proper ‘Halloween Havoc!’ without inviting Bela Lugosi to the party, now can we? After all, his 1931 hit DRACULA practically invented the horror movie as far as ‘talking pictures’ go. Both Bela and director Robert Florey were slated to work on producer Carl Laemmle’s next horror opus FRANKENSTEIN, but Laemmle wasn’t satisfied with their version, handing it over to James Whale, who hired a bit player named Boris Karloff to portray the monster of science, and the rest is history. Lugosi and Florey were instead given MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale, to bring to screen life. This was the first of Bela’s “mad doctor” role, a part he would essay twelve more times in films of varying quality.

It’s Carnival Night in 1845 Paris, and med student Pierre Dupin takes his girlfriend Camille L’Espanaye to make merry watching exotic belly dancers, “wild” American Indians, and other ‘oddities’. Oddest of all is the grotesque Dr. Mirakle and his ape Erik, “the monster who walks upright… the beast with a human soul”. The sophisticated, imperious Mirakle espouses his theory that  man is descended from apes, leading to cries of “Heresy!” from the gathered masses. Erik seems to take a shine to Camille, grabbing then caressing her bonnet, and gripping Pierre by the throat in a jealous pique. Mirakle apologizes to the mademoiselle, yet sends his henchman Janos to follow her.

Later, Mirakle’s carriage comes across a knife fight by two ruffians over the affections of a prostitute. Both men die on the fog-shrouded, dimly lit waterfront, and the frightened hooker is scurried away by Mirakle, taking her to his hidden lair, where he puts her in bondage on a makeshift tilted cross, determined to make her “the bride of science”, mingling Erik’s blood with her own to see if she’s worthy. Under the microscope, Mirakle screams the prostitute has “rotten blood” (what did he expect?), and she dies on the cross, a martyr to mad science, released through a trap door into the River Seine.

Pierre, besides being a med student, is also an amateur sleuth, and has been investigating the murder of the girl and two other “ladies of the evening”. He discovers a mysterious “foreign substance” in their blood samples, and learns it is ape’s blood. He tracks down Mirakle at the carnival, who answers curtly to Dupin’s questions, telling Pierre he’s about to leave for Munich. Pierre discovers this to be a lie, and follows Mirakle and Janos to an abandoned warehouse down by the docks.

Soon Mirakle comes calling on Camille, only to be rebuffed at the door. Never one to take no for an answer, he sends Erik to kidnap the girl, killing her mother in the process and stuffing her up the chimney. Pierre happens to be in the vicinity, and hearing the screams, he rushes upstairs. The police prefect conducts an inquiry, receiving three different answers from three different witnesses (and an excuse for some ethnic comedy relief). Pierre is exonerated when Madame L’Espanaye is found up the chimney, her hand clutching ape hair, and they race to Mirakle’s secret lair. He’s about to inject Erik’s blood into Camille when the simian escapes his cage and throttles his master to death, scooping up Camille and escaping via the rooftops of Paris, where brave Pierre finally shoots the beast and saves his lady-love from certain doom.

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE has it’s good and bad points. The best is obviously watching Lugosi at the height of his acting prowess, his continental charm not quite masking his unibrowed, demonic countenance. Bela’s startling performance as Dr. Mirakle ranks among his finest film roles, and you’ll be mesmerized once again by his talent as an actor. Karl Freund’s cinematography is a marvel of nourish lighting, accentuating the eeriness of the expressionistic sets. A scene set with Camille on a swing pushed by Pierre, the camera positioned in her lap, is quite innovative, and that aforementioned scene involving the prostitute (who’s played by Arlene Francis, later of TV’s WHAT’S MY LINE? fame) is one of the darkest in early horror cinema, a scene that could only be made during the Pre-Code era, as is much of the material here.

Among the film’s bad points, holding it back from being a true horror classic, are the cloyingly sweet lovers Pierre and Camille. Their romancing is sickeningly sappy to behold, and Sidney Fox (Camille) has such a squeaky voice you wonder what Pierre sees in her. Leon Waycoff was just starting his film career, and quite frankly he isn’t all that good; the actor got better as time went on, after changing his name to Leon Ames . The rest of the cast is hit and miss; Noble Johnson and D’Arcy Corrigan among the hits, Bert Roach, Torbin Meyer, and Herman Bing the misses.

Charlie Gemora once again donned his “gorilla suit” to portray Erik, as he did in countless other films: SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, BLONDE VENUS, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, SWISS MISS, ROAD TO ZANZIBAR, WHITE WITCH DOCTOR. I’ve no complaints about Gemora; however, close-up stock footage of Erik features different species of apes at different times, negating the effect. MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE didn’t do well at the box office, as apparently audiences were turned off by all the talk of evolution and interspecies mating. Florey went on to an interesting career as a ‘B’ auteur, while Lugosi… well, we don’t have to rehash his descent into lower-case pictures again. We all know whatever script he was handed, Bela gave his all for his art. That’s why, 86 years after beguiling the world in DRACULA, Bela Lugosi still reigns supreme in Hollywood’s Horror Valhalla!

Devil in Disguise: ANGEL FACE (RKO 1952)

angelface1

I saved ANGEL FACE for last in this week’s look at RKO/Robert Mitchum films because it’s been  hailed as a near-classic by many film noir fans. It’s certainly different from HIS KIND OF WOMAN and MACAO; much darker in tone, and features an unsympathetic performance by Mitchum. It’s more in the noir tradition of bleak films like DETOUR and BORN TO KILL. But better than the other two? That depends on your point of view. Let’s take a look:

An ambulance screams its way to the Tremayne home in ritzy Beverly Hills. The wealthy Mrs. Catherine Tremayne has been subjected to a gas leak of unknown origin. One of the ambulance drivers, Frank Jessup, comes across beautiful Diane playing the piano. She bursts into hysterics, and Frank smacks her, receiving one in return.  After she calms down, Frank and his partner Bill head home. Frank has a date with his girl Mary tonight. But Diane has followed him, and he blows Mary off as the two end up going out for a night of dinner and dancing. Diane tells him her father was a novelist, and remarried after her mother was killed in the London blitz. She asks a lot of questions about Frank, who confesses he was once a race driver before the war, dreaming of the day he can open his own garage to work on sports cars like Diane’s fancy Jaguar XK.

angelface2

Next day, Diane meets Mary for lunch. She tries to play coy, offering Mary a grand to help Frank achieve his dream of opening a  garage. But Mary ends up fighting with Frank, and he takes a job as the Tremayne family chauffeur. Catherine pans on investing in Frank’s garage, but before she can, she and her husband are killed in a suspicious auto accident. Frank is questioned by the police and before you know it, the two are on trial for murder.

angelface3

To go any further would spoil the plot for those of you who’ve not seen ANGEL FACE. I’ll just say there are lots of twists and turns to come, and that the ending will hit you with full force! It took me by surprise, which is pretty hard to do. Writers Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard (with an uncredited assist from Ben Hecht) crafted a marvelous screenplay, and Otto Preminger directs with style. Preminger was one of film noir’s top directors, having lensed the classic LAURA, as well as WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS and WHIRLPOOL (all of which are sitting in my DVR, waiting to be reviewed!) The director was responsible for the controversial (at the time) THE MOON IS BLUE, and top-notch films like RIVER OF NO RETURN (with Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe), THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (one of the first mainstream movies to deal with heroin addiction), and ANATOMY OF A MURDER. But by the Sixties it seemed Preminger’s time had passed, and films like HURRY SUNDOWN and the excruciating SKIDOO bombed t the box office. Preminger also acted in film and TV, most notably as the Commandant in STALAG 17 and as the chilling villain Mr. Freeze on BATMAN. Preminger died at age 80 in 1986, no longer a Hollywood A-lister. His film work is worth rediscovering for anyone unfamiliar with it.

Jean Simmons plays Diane, the ANGEL FACE of the title. Her character, like the best femmes fatale, is both beautiful and deeply disturbed. Diane’s a scheming, pathological liar, willing to go to any lengths to get what she wants. Simmons is one of the screen’s great beauties, a talented actress whose films include David Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Olivier’s HAMLET, THE ROBE, GUYS AND DOLLS, and SPARTACUS. Robert Mitchum’s Frank isn’t very likable here, easily seduced by Diane. It’s to Mitchum’s credit that he does manage to elicit some sympathy for Frank, considering how he dumps Mary so unceremoniously, then expects her to take him back with open arms. It’s a tricky role, but our boy Bob is more than up to the task.

The supporting cast features solid actors like Leon Ames, Herbert Marshall, Barbara O’Neil, Kenneth Tobey, Mona Freeman, and Jim Backus. A special Cracked Rear Viewer shout out goes to Bess Flowers in the tiny role of Ames’ secretary. Miss Flowers didn’t do many speaking parts; she was known as “Queen of the Hollywood Extras”, appearing mainly in background scenes in over 800 film and TV appearances! Her list of credits is WAY too extensive to go over here. Her best known and largest role is probably as the rich wife who hires Moe, Larry, and Curly as interior decorators in the 1938 Three Stooges short TASSELS IN THE AIR.

Bess Flower with The Stooges
Bess Flowers with The Stooges

So is ANGEL FACE better than the two previous Robert Mitchum films I’ve reviewed this week? As a film noir, the answer is yes. It’s dark and downbeat, like the best of the noirs, with that foreboding sense of doom inherent in the genre, right up to the powerful ending. But for me personally, I prefer the anarchic spirit of HIS KIND OF WOMAN, which takes the genre and turns it on its ear. Like I said earlier, it depends on your point of view.

Marlowe at the Movies Pt 2: LADY IN THE LAKE (MGM 1947)

lake1

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories are all done in first-person narrative, so it must have seemed logical to director/star Robert Montgomery to shoot THE LADY IN THE LAKE in the subjective point-of-view. Aside from a few brief narration scenes, we see everything through the eyes of Marlowe. The actors play straight to the camera, doubling for the private eye. Does it work? Well….I guess that all depends on YOUR point of view!

lake3

“My name is Marlowe”, the film begins, as we see him sitting at his office desk. He relates the tale of how he submitted a short story to a pulp magazine, and received a reply from an editor named “A. Fromsett”. The movie is told in flashback, and now the POV changes to that of Marlowe’s for the bulk of the story. We meet A. Fromsett, who’s a gorgeous woman named Adrienne. She likes his story, but has an ulterior motive: Adrienne wants to hire Marlowe to find her publisher’s missing wife Crystal, a “liar, a cheat, and a thief” who’s run off to Mexico for a quickie divorce. Marlowe doesn’t trust Adrienne or her motives, but the perennial down-on-his-luck gumshoe takes the case.

lake2

The effect of Adrienne speaking directly to the camera is off-putting at first and lends an artificial quality to the film as a whole. I could clearly see the actors acting, playing to the camera, and as a result I wasn’t as engrossed in the story as I was in MURDER MY SWEET. The novelty of the first-person POV wore off quicker than a Monday morning hangover. It distracts from the story, rather than pulling me in as intended. It’s one of the reasons I don’t enjoy all those “found-footage” films of recent vintage.

lake4

Robert Montgomery’s first directorial effort is an interesting but ultimately disappointing film. Montgomery himself is another reason I didn’t like LADY IN THE LAKE as much as I thought I would.  Even though we mostly just hear his voice, I didn’t find him sufficiently “hard-boiled” enough to be convincing as Marlowe. I would’ve preferred cast member Lloyd Nolan in the role, and had Montgomery switch off to play Nolan’s Lt. Degarmot. Nolan had plenty of gumshoe experience, playing Bret Halliday’s pulp detective Michael Shayne in seven films (including TIME TO KILL, an adaptation of Chandler’s The Brasher Dubloon). He also stood out in films like BATAAN, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, A HATFUL OF RAIN, PEYTON PLACE, THE GIRL HUNTERS (with author Mickey Spillane playing his own hard-boiled P.I., Mike Hammer), ICE STATION ZEBRA, and AIRPORT. Nolan also portrayed cranky Dr. Chegley on the groundbreaking late 60’s sitcom JULIA, starring Diahann Carroll.    

Audrey Totter (Adrienne), a noir queen featured  in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, THE UNSUSPECTED, and THE SET-UP, later joined the cast of TV’s MEDICAL CENTER as head Nurse Wilcox. Other Familiar Faces in THE LADY IN THE LAKE include Tom Tully, Jayne Meadows (better known as Mrs. Steve Allen), Leon Ames, Morris Ankrum , and Richard Simmons. No, not the 80’s fitness guru, this Richard Simmons later gained fame in the 1950’s series SGT. PRESTON OF THE YUKON. Also appearing briefly as Adrienne’s shapely secretary (who Marlowe can’t keep his eyes off of) is Lila Leeds, noted as Robert Mitchum’s accomplice in that famous 1947 pot bust (just follow this link).

Miss Lila Leeds
Miss Lila Leeds

THE LADY IN THE LAKE is to me a failed experiment in the film noir genre. I think I would have liked it better if director Montgomery had shot it in the usual objective POV, and stepped back to allow Lloyd Nolan to play Marlowe. Then again, that’s just MY point of view. I’m sure there are fans of this film out there who have their own. What do all you Cracked Rear Viewers think?