La Rue Morgue

WHILE PARIS SLEEPS more than lived up to La Faustin’s recommendation. This racy, nasty pre-code unfolds in a fallen world of unbelievable cruelty and darkness, although it’s enacted on beautiful sets (Fox Films’ Paris sets may have been left over from SEVENTH HEAVEN, they certainly look similar).

Right at the start, war hero Victor McLaglan escapes from a hellish prison and heads for Paris. The wardens believe him dead, and smugly affirm that it’s for the best, when a man is already “mentally dead.” They also seem to have no sympathy for the fact that he got a letter saying his wife was dying and his daughter about to be destitute. This is a cartoonishly unsympathetic story world we’re in.

To confirm this, we get a scene of the daughter, Helen Mack, being kicked out of her apartment because her mother’s funeral cleaned out her savings. The vicious old concierge more or less advises her to go on the streets to earn her keep. The nice Helen has no intention of doing so, but the rest of the plot concerns a scheme to lure her into a life of sexual slavery, so perhaps she’ll end up like Mollie Molloy, her character in HIS GIRL FRIDAY.

Mack is really cute in this, with a slightly daffy, cockeyed Helen Chandler quality (but sexier). Fiendish Jack La Rue takes a fancy to her, and since we soon see him baking a snitch alive in an oven, this seems like a troubling development.

Of course, the boulangerie is a place of primal terror for all Americans. One thinks of the poor guy suspended by his thumbs in a baker’s basement in REIGN OF TERROR, as Arnold Moss politely asks Robert “Terror of Strasbourg” Cummings “Whyncha eat yer bun?” The association of French pastry-making with torture and murder is easy to explain: doesn’t every bakery in Paris have a sign above the door that reads “PAIN”?

The film’s other top pre-code moment is Mack’s nude scene, semi-espied through a translucent screen, as naughty La Rue peeps over the top. This scene is suggestive enough to make a BluRay release mandatory, so we can see how much detail is visible. I can’t stress enough how cute Helen Mack is… Anyway, La Rue’s hardboiled girlfriend Fifi (Rita La Roy) soon comes in and bashes him over the head with a French loaf, cementing the connection between bread and violence.

McLaglan is like Ron Perlman in CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, a hulking single-motivation man-muscle, pummeling his way through life’s problems with two fists, two neurons and an undying love in his heart. When he’s simple, he’s terrific. There’s an awkward scene, however, when he parts from Mack, having decided not to identify himself as her long-lost dad. He pauses, thinks, frowns, wipes away a tear, sniffs, sighs, and does everything but hold up a signpost reading “EMOTIONAL”. McLaglan is like Wallace Beery in that his boorishness is quite believable and strangely appealing as such, but when he does schmaltz it has a queasy effect akin to watching a balrog make kissy-faces.

Interesting how in this movie all the young lovers (Mack and William Bakewell, who’s just the right side of sappy) want to do is escape Paris and go live on a farm. Seems counter-intuitive to me, somehow. Still, the portrait of civilisation is so relentlessly unsympathetic, the idea of surrounding oneself with a protective screen of livestock makes a kind of sense.

Despite Lubitsch’s assertion that Paramount Paris was more Parisian than the real thing, Fox Films Paris is my favourite, a grimy, rough-hewn, round-edged place of stone and shadow and fog, with the awesome feeling of a gutter as viewed by a microbe. Of course, the prime bug is Jack La Rue, his nose spread across his face as wide as his shit-eating grin. Dwan at first seems almost afraid of that face, as if he’s not too sure what it’ll do to his camera, but at the very end of Dwan’s second big scene he finally steels himself tracks in on it, as JLR puffs and exhales satanically on his Gauloise.

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27 Responses to “La Rue Morgue”

  1. La Faustin Says:

    Oh, I am full of joy …

    Another delightful pre-Code aspect of WPS is that Jack La Rue’s Julot apparently escapes unpunished.

    Suppose he had sought his fortunes in the New World? 1977 might well have found him like so (one minute into clip):

    Endearingly enough, TIME magazine reported in 1934 that “[h]eavy-lidded Jack LaRue wants some day to play Armand to somebody’s Camille.”

    GRAND MERCI, MONSIEUR CAIRNS *kisses ceremoniously, awards rosette*

  2. Superb — Jack’s last turn!

    I’ll be watching out for him in Blessed Event when I run it for students in a couple of weeks. If I get around to writing about Virtue, which was superb, he’ll be sure to feature there too, as the sinister “Toots.”

  3. Seems I recall having recommended this film to you a couple times in the not-too-distant past. Good that you finally got around to it. I was quite taken with it on first viewing. Second viewing too, it held up. This despite its brevity (a little over an hour in length). And yes, back then there seemed to be a place for the big lugs, the McLaglens, the Beerys, and the Bancrofts. Don’t know if there’s a modern-day equivalent to compare.

  4. At first, I assumed this post was about the 1932 Robert Florey MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE – with Bela Lugosi and his rampantly horny pet ape. Do hope you’ll include that one somewhere along the line? It’s proof (as if any were needed) that Florey was a whole lot more than “Mister” Rudolph Valentino…although, allegedly, he was that too!

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    Too bad Martin Scorcese didn’t make a film with JLR late in life, cast front and center. Lawrence Tierney lucked out with Tarantino; JLR should have had his final moment of glory, too.

    THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (33) just restored and shown in NYC (at the Museum of Modern Art). We’re hoping for a DVD release . . .

    And NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH (48) has shown up on a pristine print from the BFI on VCI Home Video here in the US.

  6. La Faustin Says:

    David C., your lucky students. Wish I could be there.

    David B., what a wonderful idea.

    One of my pointless hobbies is figuring out how to cast the older (circa 1950) JLR — I see an American remake of TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI, with George Raft and JLR in the Gabin and Dary roles. Or, in a parallel Code-free universe, Montgomery Clift and JLR in a film of Jim Thompson’s THE NOTHING MAN.

    There is, as it happens, a Lawrence Tierney – JLR connection: a brawl at a 1946 John Decker party.

  7. Just wrote a capsule for “Film Comment” on Cheau’s Flesh of the Orchid — the Charlotte Rampling-starred sequel to No Orchids For Mis Blandish. Amazing film.

    Off-topic (but it’s election day stateside): Latest FaBlog: Hommage a Joe Dante

  8. David,
    Why didn’t they do the bakery thing with restaurants, too? I mean, many had signs, “pain, à discrétion”. Makes them seem like extreme S&M clubs.

  9. David Boxwell, thanks for the heads up re. The Story of Temple Drake at the MoMA, I see it’s showing again on the 14th of this month. I may have to make a special trip to NYC to see it. I’m guessing there will be a DVD release, it’s only just a question of when…

  10. Guy, I think you’re right. Thanks are also due to you for mentioning this one.

    I guess The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover comes closest to bringing pain into the French restaurant biz.

    I think Temple Drake will have an explosive impact once enough people get to see it. TCM seems to have inspired an overturning of the canon as far as precodes go, there’s a lot more there than we were led to believe: Capra starts to look less and less interesting to me (Although maybe the Filmhouse’s season can refresh my enthusiasm there).

    Scorsese and LeRue would have been wonderful. The Godfather ought to have found room for him too.

  11. What about Emanuelle Seigner and the baguette in Bitter Moon. Polanski played the baguette, uncredited.

  12. Emanuelle Seigner dances the meanest mambo in Bitter Moonsince Lana Turner in Marriage is a Private Affair

  13. I think the reason Bitter Moon was underrated was that they failed to sell it as a comedy. Might be part of the problem with Eyes Wide Shut, too.

  14. In my memory there was a scene with Seigner walking around Peter Coyote’s apartment with a baguette for what seemed like ten minutes. I see on youtube that the scene lasts for 10 seconds or less. woops.

  15. Jack La Rue and Lawrence Tierney brawling. There’s a part of me that would’ve liked to have been there. What a concept: Trigger vs. Dillinger.

  16. Well, it was a very charismatic baguette.

    The brawl I’d like to see would probably be the famous Errol Flynn/John Huston fight. “It was a magnificent fight. It went on for, of, several hours, and then he went off in his ambulance, and I in mine, and from that night we were the greatest of friends…”

  17. Well, that one I’ve known about for some time, and yes, as a spectator it sounds like it might have been like Wayne and McLaglen in The Quiet Man, one hell of a donnybrook to behold. But the aforementioned encounter I’d never heard about before, and comes as a helluva surprise to me. Wouldn’t be surprised if Tierney instigated it though. “No daylight in those eyes.”

  18. Both men seem to have been… a little rough. Certainly more entertainment there than the Tom Neal/Franchot Tone affair, which sounds a bit one-sided. Although I imagine Joan Crawford got a thrill from the sidelines.

  19. FLESH OF THE ORCHID finally available on DVD?! I can barely contain my excitement!!

    I’ve only ever seen an atrocious copy that was broadcast on UK TV around 4 AM, about 15 years ago. It was hideously dubbed, the image was blurry and in the wrong ratio and the story had been edited to the point of incoherence. Alida Valli, who features prominently in the credits, had been chopped out altogether! Just hope this is the proper version…

    Meanwhile, looking over at the Amazon UK website, I can see they’re pushing it as “the film that launched Charlotte Rampling’s career.”

    Excuse me? She’d only been famous for a decade or so before this film was made. Have they never heard of GEORGY GIRL, THE DAMNED or THE NIGHT PORTER (all for sale via Amazon) or, best of all, Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s majestic ‘TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE?

    Who in Hell to they get to write these things?!

    OK, rant over.

  20. Apparently Franchot Tone’s nickname was “Jawbreaker”…and not because of his appetite for conjugal violence.

  21. La Faustin Says:

    Much as I love the IDEA of Jack La Rue being as combustible in real life as Lawrence Tierney, he seems merely to have walked into a drunken kerfuffle, tried to break it up, and gotten knocked over for his pains.

    In STRAIGHT IS THE WAY (1934), Franchot Tone BEATS UP Jack La Rue. The latter seems appropriately depressed. Did I mention that Franchot Tone is playing a Benny Horowitz of the Lower East Side?

    David W.: Jaw-dropping!

  22. OK, Straight is the Way (fine title!) goes on my list.

    Who would win out of Jack La Rue and Rod La Rocque?

  23. La Faustin Says:

    The mind La Reels …

    STRAIGHT IS THE WAY is possibly less interesting than it sounds – but if you’re making a list, how about Dorothy Arzner’s CHRISTOPHER STRONG, wherein Jack La Rue is Helen Chandler’s one night stand? This is Katherine Hepburn’s first starring picture, for that “worlds collide” feeling (yes, they briefly share the screen).

  24. Actually David, Tone and Neal went nose-to-nose over Barbara Payton, who may have been standing next to Crawford as Neal got the upper hand on the eye-blackened Franchot.

  25. I’ve had a copy of Christopher Strong lying around for ages, waiting to be watched. All this and Colin Clive too!

    Damnit, I always get confused about that fight! Wasn’t there something about Crawford being engaged to two men at once, and recriminations ensuing?

    What I do know is that Tone got punched silly again decades later and did an entire Twilight Zone in profile because the other side of his face was unusable.

  26. La Faustin Says:

    Franchot Tone/Barbara Payton/Tom Neal: TIME marches on.

    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,821692,00.html

  27. CHRISTOPHER STRONG is worth seeing, if only for Kate’s silver lame gown with matching skullcap and antennae. She plays a sexually ambivalent aviatrix based (allegedly) on Amelia Earheart.

    It’s by no means a great film, but I saw it in a revival at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, where the audience was…shall we say, appreciative?

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