Stars: Maria Montez, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, John Litel, Edward Norris, Lloyd Corrigan and Nell O’Day
As it turns out, Montez, who plays the title character of Marie Roget, isn’t actually in the film that much, a supporting actor given prominence when it was re-released because she’d found fame in another picture, The Phantom of Paris. Marie is a popular musical comedy star in the Paris of 1899 who vanishes without a trace and prompts a city-wide manhunt. It’s been ten days already when we meet Gobelin, the Prefect of Police, to watch his command be threatened by Henri Beauvais, the Minister of Naval Affairs and a friend of the family, if he doesn’t find her in 24 hours. When Paul Dupin, who had solved the murders in the Rue Morgue, walks in, he threatens him too. They all go to the docks to look at a corpse that’s washed up and Beauvais tentatively identifies the young lady as Marie, even though her face is completely missing, ‘torn to a pulp by the claws of an animal,’ as Dupin phrases it. So they bear the bad news to the family, Cecile the grandmother, Camille the stepsister and their unnamed pet leopard, only for Marie Roget to waltz in.
It’s easy to see why Montez was such an icon to the gay community. She was obviously far from the best actor in the room, whichever room she happened to be in at the time, but she had an exotic look and an exotic accent and she moved with an exotic grace that makes her very watchable. She’s somewhat like a cute and cuddly Bela Lugosi and she almost sings her lines, even when she’s speaking. What’s more, she could turn on the bitchiness like a switch. One moment she’s sweetness and light, the next she’s ready to rip you a new one. We watch this when Camille announces that she plans to marry Marcel Vigneaux, who Marie apparently loves too. This is no chick flick though. Camille is kicked out of the room to give Marcel the opportunity to explain to Marie that he has no intention to marry her sister and it’s all a subterfuge to take them through the next night, when they plan to murder Camille at the De Luc’s party, right after, as we soon discover, she comes into an inheritance of a million and a half francs.
And sure enough, that’s what happens here. Marie Roget disappears, the town is all aflutter and then she reappears without a scratch or even an explanation. However, the next night, at the De Luc’s party, when she and Marcel plan to kill her stepsister, it’s Marie who vanishes and whose corpse is apparently brought up from the river, though yet again the body is missing a face making firm identification difficult. Thus far the film has kept up a frenetic pace. Sure, the piece is only 61 minutes long but it’s lean, mean and ready for anything. The rapid fire editing of Milton Carruth is to be praised because there isn’t a down moment as we leap from location to location, scene to scene and revelation to revelation. It slows down somewhat in the aftermath of Marie’s second disappearance, but soon ratchets back up to speed again, with what is as much a dry comedy as it is a mystery. I laughed aloud on a number of occasions as Dupin outstrips his friend, the Prefect of Police, who flusters gloriously. This double act was a joy to behold.
Dupin is played by Patric Knowles, a regular in the pictures of his friend and vague lookalike, Errol Flynn; he is perhaps best known for playing Will Scarlet in Flynn’s version of The Adventures of Robin Hood. As Gobelin, the Prefect of Police, Universal cast Lloyd Corrigan, who had a long and distinguished career but is surely best known in this household at least for playing Arthur Manleder in the Boston Blackie movies. They wouldn’t seem to be the most obvious screen pairing, but Michael Jacoby’s script throws no end of sparkling dialogue their way. ‘I have an idea,’ says Gobelin at one point, having finally figured out what Dupin has known all along. ‘It’s about time,’ replies Dupin. Corrigan also gets a number of great scenes with Maria Ouspenskaya, who had appeared with Knowles in The Wolf Man only a year earlier. While she treats Dupin with respect, she orders the Prefect around, deflating him every time he puffs out his chest. ‘Don’t ask fool questions!’ she snaps at him, considering him nothing but a petty gendarme.
Really though, we’re watching for the story and people like Knowles, Corrigan and Ouspenskaya are just the icing on that cake. It’s been far too long since I’ve read the Poe original, so I can’t remember what is authentic and what isn’t; I presume most of it was ignored and created afresh for Jacoby’s script. Except for a few minutes in the very middle of the film, it’s a fast-paced set of twists and turns, all of which stir the blood and keep us guessing. We’re generally ahead of Grobelin all the way but things unfold at such a pace that it’s hard for us to keep up with Dupin. I’m sure that, if we write down all the little details and analyse them at our leisure, we’ll find plotholes galore, but we aren’t given that luxury as Jacoby speeds us along at a rate of knots. I lost track of how many twists we have, but I had a blast following them. My favourite was when Dupin has Grobelin withdraw a case, only to find that the man he’s effectively freed from a charge of murder promptly challenges him to a duel.
Mystery fans won’t be disappointed with the script. Horror fans, because Murders in the Rue Morgue was as much a horror movie as a detective yarn, won’t be disappointed with the ending, in which our hatted and caped murderer attempts to escape across the rooftops of Paris; it’s not the shadowy expressionistic delight that earlier Universal horrors were but it does give it a shot and the very weakest of the Universal horrors are at least capable on this front. Maria Montez fans will enjoy her brief performance, which also includes a song, which she performs mostly in French, if I’m not very much mistaken. I really do need to follow up with some of her most influential films, such as Cobra Woman. Other titles, like White Savage, Gypsy Wildcat and Siren of Atlantis ably highlight what she was best known for. Maria Ouspenskaya fans, of which I’m very much one, won’t be disappointed either, especially for her scenes with Corrigan. So all of us ought to be happy. It’s not the best Universal, but it’s a delightful hour. Happy birthday, Mr Poe.