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.