There is a quick line in about the middle of “Phantom of the Rue Morgue” that hints at its shift in title, but there are still a lot more references to murder than ghosts. It’s even the first line of the film. So why did Warner Brothers change the name? Were they so afraid of a copystrike from Carl Laemmle? Or was it a desperate attempt at differentiation? If it was the latter, they probably shouldn’t have aped “King Kong.”
But we do start with something a lot more Edgar Allan Poe compared to the last film. From the get-go, as alluded to above, “Phantom” is about murders, with a decent body count just a few minutes into the film. Someone is savagely killing women in the Rue Morgue, a cheap part of Paris favored by artists, students, circus performers and college professors (I guess teacher salaries then were about what they are now). Inspector Bonnard (Claude Dauphin) suspects that psychology lecturer Paul Dupin (Steve Forrest) is to blame, but Dupin knows he’s much too handsome to be the killer. He thinks the killer is someone far less genteel, but is information best sought from waterfront tough One-Eyed Jacques (Anthony Caruso) or zoologist Dr. Marais (Karl Malden)? You probably have a guess, tonstant weader.
Filming “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is always odd because the original story’s twist – death by ape – is so well-known that it naturally becomes the high concept of any adaptation. But if the resolution to the mystery becomes the selling point, then what point is left?
“Phantom” actually makes its case pretty well. The first half of the film follows an investigation, which is pleasantly forensic and interspersed with murders for set pieces. At the halfway point the film outright states the twist, then the genre shifts from pure mystery to suspense of the audience-knows-what-the-detective-does-not variety. There’s even an extra twist, also established by the first half, which is a product of the film. As a whole, it’s a fair translation from page to screen, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise since Warner Brothers was famous for crime thrillers rather than outright horror (the script was by Harold Medford and James Webb; Medford mostly wrote melodramas and TV, but Webb worked on some interesting projects, like “Cape Fear” and “Cheyenne Autumn”).
Now that this blog has praised the film for something, you know what’s coming next. The characters in the film, to put it delicately, suck. Some of it is performance. The supporting actors are mostly pieces of cardboard or goofing around as broadly as possible. Or else they’re the Flying Zacchinis, an acrobatic act who are in this film because some producer probably saw them and thought that’s what the film-going public really needed to see.
Unfortunately, even when the actors are worthy, the script doesn’t know what to do with them. Real life Frenchman Claude Dauphin is a treat as the inspector. He fastidiously cleans his glasses, is witty and observant, makes mistakes but continues his investigation (this was a year before “Les Diaboliques,” but the character seems to predict that film’s police commissioner). Naturally enough, as soon as the film needs the mystery to be solved, he’s sidelined so that Prof. Dupin can start making all the right guesses, which he does by jumping through cognitive hoops rather than realistic reasoning or detective work. Dupin also has all the charisma of a garden hose, so there’s little victory in watching him take over.
The other suspects fare a little better. Paul Richards is fine as an early red herring, but he’s out of the picture pretty fast. Karl Malden as Dr. Marais is one of the best things the film has going for it, since Malden admirably pretends like his character has complexity, but he’s no Bela Lugosi. There is much less subtlety with Jacques. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that he – who is seven feet tall, has an eyepatch with its own zip code, and carries boxes of rats for a living – is evil. Even that wouldn’t be so bad if the performance had some punch, but Anthony Caruso acts like he’s constantly recovering from a bad colonoscopy. When fellow sailor Maurice (a boisterous Henry Kulky) calls him over for a drink, you have to wonder why the friendly barfly would want to spend a minute with the perennially scowling Jacques. Then Jacques leads him outside, clubs him with a rock and dumps him in the Seine. All in public. What a guy.
The women are not terribly complex either. They’re mostly around for human drama, and since the film doesn’t do that well, it all falls flat. They’re also around to get killed, and there are a couple of solid scream queens in the mix. Leading lady Patricia Medina has a solid set of pipes. Victims with less screen time are dispatched with surprising violence for the mid-1950s. There’s a decent amount of blood, broken glass and bodies.
That’s all in the first half, of course. In the second, the investigation and murder gives way to a prolonged climax ripped out of “King Kong,” with a guy in a gorilla suit – Charles Gemora again, just like in 1932 – carrying a mannequin up a brick wall. There are bright spots though, like some iron bars that have a nice payoff and a direct reference to suicide. There was an edge here. Setting the climax in a zoo was a nice touch too, but this ain’t “Cat People.” Ah well.
The rest of the production is workmanlike. The music is stock. The photography is sometimes kind of clever in the way it shoots around the tiny Warner sets, but it’s mostly just fine. Roy Del Ruth’s direction was, in case you couldn’t tell, a mixed bag (he mostly had musical and show biz bio credits). It was shot in 3D, so there are some obligatory things-get-thrown-at-the-camera moments, but you’ll get used to them soon enough (cinematographer Peverell Marley had just come off the set of “House of Wax”). The use of Warnercolor is as washed out as ever, but black-and-white probably wouldn’t have helped this film. It’s best to be thankful for what we have.
As a total package, “Phantom of the Rue Morgue” is probably a better movie than its Universal predecessor, but it’s definitely a less interesting and imaginative experiment. Both are inadequate, but “Phantom” tried for much less so its failures cannot disappoint as much. It’s one half competent mystery and one half uneven thriller. Still, it’s not every film that can hard cut from a screaming woman being torn apart in an artist’s studio, complete with a gorilla-shaped hole in the skylight, to a guy grinning into the camera while bouncing on a trampoline. That’s got to count for something.