Murders in the Rue Morgue, which I’ve seen for the first time, despite being something of a Bela Lugosi fan, came as a bit of a surprise. It is a Universal film, shot one year after Lugosi’s career-defining performance in Dracula, and supposedly came together when Lugosi and director Robert Florey dropped out of Universal’s Frankenstein, shot the same year. But while Dracula and Frankenstein largely through out their source novels, keeping only the basic plots, Universal keeps more of the literary tone of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, making the film seem more like something from MGM.
But there are a lot of diversions from Poe. The short story was really the world’s first detective novel, written at a time when the word “detective” even exist. But the detective character, Dupin, is here played by the lackluster Leon Ames (who would later play Judy Garland’s father in Meet me in St. Louis, a role which actually suited him). Dupin is eclipsed by a sideshow performer named Dr Mirakle (Lugosi) who is not in the Poe story. A 25-year-old John Huston is credited as writing additional dialogue, one of his first film jobs. I can only assume that he wrote the few comedic interludes between the detective and his roommate and their girlfriends, jokes which don’t work very well.
On the other hand, there are some wonderful shots by legendary cinematographer Karl Freund, especially one sequence in which the young detective has a conversation with his girl about the mysterious doctor, while she all the while is sailing back and forth on a swing, as the camera moves back and forth with her, a shot that is hard to figure out how it was done even now. But Freund’s camera work and the usual horror sets from the Universal back lot don’t save this from being an uneven adaptation which some dialogue that is painful to listen to.