Primate Suspect

So, back to my demented quest to see every film depicted in Denis Gifford’s monster bible, A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, and this time it was Roy Del Ruth’s Poe adaptation PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE which passed before my eyeballs, albeit flat rather than in its original 3D. As long as we’re talking about re-releasing Hitchcock’s DIAL M and De Toth’s HOUSE OF WAX in 3D versions, I’d put a vote in for this baby. The 3D gags looked amusing flat, but there were a few things like a shower of gaily-hued Warnercolor balloons that suggested a little more than the usual “poke-em-in-the-eye-with-a-sharp-stick” approach to immersive entertainment.

We begin with some smudgy Parisian rooftops, a perfect match for the gorgeous 2-strip settings of Warners’ 30s horrors DR X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. Throughout, the colour schemes of this film alternate giddily between such subdued, marshy tones, and eye-popping bubble-gum effects more consistent with a musical.

While the aging Del Ruth has lost his handle on a particular kind of gutsy performance style that saw him through the pre-code era (though we can see that misfire spectacularly on his attempt at THE MALTESE FALCON/DANGEROUS FEMALE), he has a comic book sensibility that’s always fun. The zanier moments of this flick, which defy plausibility quite openly and plummet into an inter-stool area of conflicted response (creepy/perverse/amusing/embarrassing) harken back to the director’s days as a gagman at Keystone, particularly this revealing clue –

For a thoroughly daft film (pair it with RDR’s ALLIGATOR PEOPLE but don’t blame me if you laugh yourself through the floor) this boasts some distinguished writing talent — Harold Medford helped script THE DAMNED DON’T CRY and THE KILLER IS LOOSE, and James R. Webb did even better with CAPE FEAR, CHEYENNE AUTUMN and VERA CRUZ. Neither seems to have had a particular affinity for horror films, but they reconfigure Dupin’s detective feats into a new-ish plot which eschews Universal’s Dr Mirakle bestiality shenanigans but gets into some surprising areas — physiognomy and Lombroso, behaviourism and Pavlov, primate communication and psychopathology. Much of this stuff was fairly new to movies, and certainly pretty exotic: research has clearly been done, even if it’s all filtered through the Hollywood screenwriters’ patented bullshittifier.

At the root of it all, as is obvious from the start, is Karl Malden (a man with a face built for 3D) and his pet gorilla, Sultan, the two best actors in the film. Malden suavely walks a tightrope between fanatical, method-y commitment and unavoidable contempt for the material, and Charles Gemora as Sultan turns in a compelling physical performance (reprising his role from the original Universal MURDERS IN THE RM.

The gorilla suit is obviously just that, even if it’s well made, but this ape does have a few more character nuances than most men in suits. There’s also Claude Dauphin, the only Frenchman with a French accent in the film, who’s pretty enjoyable as the worst detective you’ll ever see, and the lovely Patricia Medina (who just died in May) who doesn’t have enough of a part to properly register, alas. Fat credit, thin character.

In the words of Godard, “It’s not blood, it’s red.” Literally, in this case.

I thought this was going to be terrible but we had a blast with it. “I *loved* that!” declared Fiona.

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14 Responses to “Primate Suspect”

  1. Speaking of French accents: last night I was watching I Was a Male War Bride, and the blitheness with which Cary Grant doesn’t even bother to pretend to be the silghtest bit French while playing a French officer is really entertaining.

  2. “We have him at immigration, the guys says ‘Nationality?’, Cary says ‘French’ and we never bothered about it.” — H Hawks.

    I was surprised to find that this other 3D gorilla movie was even better than Gorilla at Large, which is saying a very great deal (with one’s tongue in one’s cheek).

  3. Who knew that Poe would “inspire” so many great works of primate art? I forgot the faux Dean and Jerry impersonators in the Lugosi movie.

    All of this makes me think of those Simpsons parodies, like “Hail to the Chimp,” “Commander in Chimp,” “Sing, Monkey, Sing” and “Stop the Planet of the Apes, I want to get Off”.

  4. Ironically, if the real Martin & Lewis had made a gorilla picture with Lugosi, that would automatically put it in the top ten percent of their output (along with Artists and Models and Living It Up).

  5. What, David, Hollywood or Bust is considered by many to be a film of cinematic proportions that many have seen on television.

    I wonder if that Gorilla at Large scene would work as a side by side comparison to The Lady from Shanghai.

  6. Oh, I like Hollywood or Bust too. And there are others I haven’t seen that may be good. But none of them have Lugosi.

  7. Christopher Says:

    don’t forget Vultura and Satan the Go-rilla

  8. That extreme long shot sure came in handy! Whenever things get dull in a fight scene, cut to the extreme long shot — it’ll build the excitement! The 1930s equivalent to filming things so close we can’t see what the hell’s going on.

    I also like the gorilla’s “Oh no — what have I done?” reaction when he spears Vultura.

  9. Christopher Says:

    oh no!..that’ll really make her mad!..Surely after 12 chapters,thats not how Vultura meets her fate?!…Like the flash gunshot to the face @ 0.32

  10. “So this is how it ends… jabbed from behind by an unconvincing gorilla…”

  11. Is that a young Anne Bancroft in the Gorilla at Large clip? Her looks were unusual, to say the least – and she definitely grew into them as she hit middle age!

  12. Yes, Anne B gets to be the girl on Goliath’s arm. Caught between a big surly ape and Raymond Burr.

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