Tuesday 19 January 2016

Mystery of Marie Roget (1942)

Director: Philip Rosen
Stars: Maria Montez, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, John Litel, Edward Norris, Lloyd Corrigan and Nell O’Day
When we sang Happy Birthday to my youngest grandson today, we were also singing Happy Birthday to one of the most important figures in early horror fiction, Edgar Allan Poe. I felt it might be appropriate to review a Poe movie, as after all there are hundreds of them to choose from, and this seemed to fit the bill for a few reasons. I haven’t seen it, for one, as far as I can remember, and it was a pretty tough picture to track down until it finally saw a DVD release in 2014. It’s a Universal horror so it’ll be worth a watch, even if was made in 1942, a year after The Wolf Man, their last undeniable classic until perhaps Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954 and at least until Abbott and Costello started meeting monsters in 1948. And it features two talented ladies, both named Maria but otherwise very different: Maria Ouspenskaya remains the best old gypsy woman the movies ever found, even if she died 66 years ago and Maria Montez was a camp icon who became very influential to underground gay cinema in the sixties.

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.
This was based on the Edgar Allan Poe story, The Mystery of Marie RogĂȘt, which had been serialised back in 1842 and 1843. He extrapolated it from a real crime, the murder of Mary Rogers in New Jersey in 1841, but phrased it as a sequel to his earlier story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, featuring C Auguste Dupin, who returned to solve this one too. Why Universal changed C Auguste Dupin into Pierre Dupin when they adapted that story into Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1932, I have no idea at all, and I have even less as to why he then became Paul Dupin a decade later for this film. Then again, they didn’t keep a lot of Poe’s original story, actually getting closer to the murder he based it on. Mary Rogers was a noted beauty with many prominent admirers, including the writers James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, but three years before her corpse was found floating in the Hudson River in Hoboken, NJ, she had disappeared in a hoax that may or may not have involved the newspapers which reported on it.

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.
Knowles is solid throughout as Dupin, though he doesn’t dominate the way detectives generally did back in forties movies. While he’s ahead of everyone else throughout, he keeps to the background and doesn’t stand out for particular attention. Just compare the performance to Basil Rathbone’s as Sherlock Holmes and you’ll see how less prominent Knowles seems. Corrigan is prominent throughout, but he was always great at remaining in a kerfuffle, trying to enforce his presence constantly but failing almost as much. As the male suspects, John Litel and Edward Norris, playing Beauvais and Vigneaux respectively, are decent but hardly emphatic. The lady suspects are a little more obvious, especially Ouspenskaya, who is spot on the mark for most of the picture. She’s a little blah on a few of the calmer lines but, whenever emotion is required, she’s blistering and an absolute joy to watch in action. Nell O’Day mostly settles for being the calm and elegant stepsister, but she does get a few moments in which to actually act.

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.

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