*This post contains spoilers for both Poe’s story and the 1932 film adaptation.
Edgar Allan Poe is one of my absolute favorite writers, and The Murders in the Rue Morgue is one of his best-known stories. Originally published in the April 1841 issue of Philadelphia periodical Graham’s Magazine (of which Poe served as editor for a time), this short piece is often regarded as the first true detective story. According to Poe biographer Jeffrey Meyers in Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy, The Murders in the Rue Morgue “changed the history of world literature.”
The story starts out in a bit of an odd way, with an analysis of the game of chess, with the narrator promising to tie this long-winded explanation into the main story. After the chess spiel, the narrator describes meeting C. Auguste Dupin, a man living in Paris who comes from a wealthy family but is broke himself. Dupin and the nameless narrator come to live together in a nice house (paid for and furnished by the narrator) where they reclusively stay indoors during the day and venture out at night.
Dupin becomes interested in the murder of a mother and daughter in Rue Morgue (a fictional street in Paris) after reading newspaper accounts of the crime. He goes on to get the narrator involved in the uncovering of the mystery, relaying in detail what he has read in the paper. Through this portion of the story, the reader gets a taste of not only the crime itself, but also the fairly detailed witness statements from the neighbors who arrived on scene after hearing screams.
Dupin’s serious interest in the murders makes him seem a bit suspicious, considering the fact that he apparently has no job and is not a professional detective. At the very least, he’s a character with morbid interests. His interest grows even more when a man is imprisoned for the murders with no evidence against him. Dupin goes so far as to visit the crime scene with his roommate, gaining clearance from the prefect of police by offering assistance in solving the murder.
Dupin eventually tracks down a sailor involved in the murders after coming to the conclusion that the crime was committed not by a human alone, but by a Bornean “Ourang-Outang” (orangutan) with possible assistance from a human. He places an ad in the paper asking if anyone has lost such an ape, and the sailor responds. The sailor claims that the orangutan took a razor, trying to imitate the sailor’s shaving, and escaped from the house before heading through the window of the home where the murders were committed and acting violently. Dupin believes the sailor’s story, goes to the police with the information, and the outlandish case is closed.
This is certainly a very odd story, not as menacing as some of Poe’s other work but just as much of a page-turner. It consistently keeps the viewer guessing. Was the suspicious Dupin somehow involved in these murders that interest him so much? Did the orangutan really commit the crime? Was the crime tied to the victims’ alleged fortune-telling business? These questions are answered in the end, but the orangutan scenario that is revealed by Poe is difficult to believe, making the ending a bit ambiguous even though the case is techically solved.
A film adaptation of this story was released in 1932 under the title of Murders in the Rue Morgue. Like Poe’s story, the film is set in mid-1800s Paris, but the similarities nearly end there. While obviously inspired by Poe’s story, this adaptation makes a great many changes to the plot. This version was both directed and adapted for the screen by Robert Florey.
Eliminating the chess explanation that takes precedence in the beginning of the short story, the film begins with two couples visiting a carnival. Sidney Fox gets top billing as Mademoiselle Camille L., the character who was the murdered daughter in Poe’s story. Camille is dating medical student Dupin (Leon Waycoff, later known as Leon Ames – the father from Meet Me In St. Louis!), who is much less of a recluse in the film than he is in the story. Dupin still has a roommate, though that roommate no longer serves as narrator, is now given the name of Paul (Bert Roach) and has no interest in helping Dupin solve a couple of murders.
Rather than keeping the sailor as the ape-owning associate to murder, super-creep Doctor Mirakle (the legendary Bela Lugosi) is written into the story. Mirakle and his rather odd, nearly silent human assistant work with gorillas (rather than owning an orangutan) and have a show at the carnival, in which the doctor tries to convince the audience that man is evolved from ape. The ape isn’t the one committing crimes, here. Mirakle has the nasty habit of kidnapping women and injecting them with the ape’s blood as an experiment, inevitably leading to their deaths. These are the mysterious deaths that Dupin aims to solve, using his med student smarts to find the missing link.
While the film does show Dupin trying to decipher the mystery (and eventually succeeding, though almost too late), the focus is more on the doctor’s actions. This gives the film a much more sinister mood than Poe’s story.
At the same time, some of the questions of the story are taken away from the film.The culprit is given up right from the beginning rather than keeping the viewer guessing about who-dun-it until the end as Poe did.
Dupin also now has a motive to solve the crime since he is an interested student rather than a random guy who read about the cases in the paper. His connection to Mirakle’s wrong-doings gets even more personal when the doctor begins targeting Camille. The viewer is no longer suspicious of him, as they may have been while reading Poe’s tale.
The climactic murder itself, when Mirakle sets his sights on Camille, remains fairly true to the essence for the murder in the book. Mirakle’s ape climbs up the side of the building and enters through an open window, just as the sailor’s orangutan did. He then attacks both Camille and her mother. The major difference is that, rather than descending into aggression of his own accord, the ape is being commanded by the evil Doctor Mirakle.
The bodies are not immediately found, but the many neighbors who assist Dupin in trying to save his lady are shown being questioned just as they were in the story. The mother is later found hanging in the fireplace, as the daughter was in the story. After her mother is killed, Camille is carried off by the ape and into Doctor Mirakle’s stagecoach of doom.
The ending of the film is also very different from the story. Camille lives, while the gorilla turns on the doctor and Dupin kills the gorilla. The case is not wrapped up quite as cleanly as it was by Poe, but this is still a very suspenseful and successful ending.
Thinking of the film as a separate entity from Poe’s story, it really is a treat to watch. It has its very scary and suspenseful moments, but there were also a few problems in it that had me cracking up due to my knowledge of primates. I’ll give them a pass because gorillas weren’t nearly as well-studied by 1932 as they are today, but the locomotion shown by the gorilla is all wrong. Gorillas are knuckle-walkers, for instance, but Mirakle’s gorilla walks bipedally (at one point while carrying Camille – something an actual gorilla would have a whole lot of trouble with). The next, most inexcusable primate error is also the most hilarious. Close-ups of Mirakle’s “gorilla” are actually the face of a chimpanzee (a much smaller species than gorillas, which makes it pretty obvious that the head doesn’t belong on Mirakle’s gorilla’s body), while wider shots are very obviously of a man in a gorilla suit. Other than that, the film is absolutely fantastic, visually. It has an expressionistic look and feel, with deep shadows and odd angles – one of my favorite visual styles, especially when used in horror films. The performances also make up a bit for the ape hilarity, with the entire cast offering up perfect portrayals of their wide-ranging characters.
It’s difficult to compare Poe’s short story to its 1932 film adaptation because they are so very different. As a result, I find it impossible to choose a “winner” between the two. I recommend the story for any fan of Poe or of mysteries in general, while the film is a delight for fans of the early stages of the horror genre.