Saturday, November 12, 2011

Murders in the Rue Morgue

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971)
Dir. Gordon Hessler
Starring Jason Robards, Herbert Lom, Michael Dunn, Christine Kaufman

People have been adapting Poe stories since the very beginning of cinema, and it’s easy to understand why: Poe stories are filled with irresistible imagery, articulated by a true master storyteller with a uniquely nightmarish imagination (which also incidentally, tended to imagine impressive set pieces which can be created on a budget. It’s not like we’re talking H.P. Lovecraft giant monsters and universes of unimaginable horror). According to the Olde Farmer’s Wikipedia, the earliest known Poe film was made in 1909, and they’ve been cranking ‘em out ever since then, perhaps reaching a high water mark with the many Corman-produced adaptations in the 50s and 60s.

Unfortunately, despite a full century of efforts, I don’t think there’s a single film out there which really quite qualifies as a direct adaptation. The reason Poe was such an indelible master of horror fiction was that his voice was so unique, and his command of language was so stunning. Visualizing Poe’s mind tends to lead to something less than the poetry of his words, and has resulted in some morose but uninspired films which pick pieces of his work but fail to capture the essential character of Poe’s prose. That, and a lot of his stories are not particularly eventful. Take the words out of THE RAVEN and you’re left with a guy sitting in a room where a bird flies through the window. The greatness is in Poe’s bruising psychological violence and his profound ability to evoke dread comes through his peerless command of his medium of the written word. There’s plenty of room for someone with an equal mastery of cinema to capture that same haunting poetry – but it would take someone with a mastery of cinema equal to Poe’s mastery of the written word.

Which is a roundabout way of saying Gordon Hessler ain’t that guy. No offense to him intended; I don’t know who would be. David Lynch, maybe? Francis Coppola, in his heyday? Suggestions are welcome. We’ll see James McTiegue take a crack at it next year, but, uh, I don’t know that I’m holding my breath for him to be Poe’s artistic equal.* That being said, I’m excited as shit for that movie. Why? Simple. Just because you’re not going to create an enduring and transformative piece of art which will forever become part of the world’s great expressions of humanity doesn’t mean you’re not going to make something fun.

So I’m down with taking a visual or narrative cue from Poe and running with it, just so long as you throw me a murderous gorilla or two somewhere down the line. Bait the line with Jason Robards and Herbert Lom, and I’ll bite.

Director Hessler, in his somewhat surprisingly candid interview, is refreshingly honest about his inability to measure up to Poe, or even the long history of adaptations that came before his. In an effort to find some new ground to explore, he brings a meta approach to Poe, setting a series of unrelated killings in the context of a theater troupe which is mounting a production of Murders in the Rue Morgue. Postmodernism, of course, is the last refuge of a scoundrel, but to his credit Hessler doesn’t milk it as a gimmick; it’s more just a colorful poetic backdrop against which he sets a mostly unrelated story.

Said unrelated story finds Jason Robards (looking and dressing exactly like Vincent Price, who was originally up for this role) as the leader of an acting troupe which is shocked when one of their own is murdered during the performance. Sadistically, the murderer dons the dead actor’s costume (he’s playing the gorilla) and performs the rest of the show without anyone being the wiser! Now, many of Robard’s oldest friends an colleagues are getting murdered, but surely this doesn’t have anything to do with a former actor played by the obviously sinister Herbert Lom who went crazy and is definitely, for sure dead now, seriously, why even bother checking, has to be someone else. And it even more definitely doesn’t have anything to do with the events that occurred when Robard’s young wife (Christine Kaufman) was a child and Robards nursed an unrequited love for her mother, who by a complete coincidence was married to Lom’s character.

So it’s a pretty silly story, but there are a couple of effective bits to it. For one, Kaufman keeps blacking out and having a recurring dream about a weird abandoned house, a falling actor, and a sinister guy in a mask wielding an axe. For much of the film, the cinematography tends to be pretty standard and occasionally even a tad amateurish, but the dream sequences are sumptuously photographed and intriguingly staged. They have a dark and evocative poetry to them which actually does recall Poe’s carefully suggestive style. They hit on that subconscious level that I’m always going on about. You know how I get when I’ve been drinking. I never said I wasn’t predicable.

So the dream sequences are great, and the rest of the film has some nice atmospheric moments and a great Poe-y set in a dilapidated mansion and its accompanying crypt. But the whole thing is mostly crippled by its lack of a compelling central character arc. Robards --an actor I love—seems completely directionless here, wandering throughout the whole film without finding a clear anchor for his character. The interview with Hessler sheds some light here, as he remembers that two weeks into filming Robards was regretting not taking Lom’s role, which he correctly identified as more interesting. Unfortunately, Lom is a dead fish in his role, too – he seems barely awake in a part which calls from extreme intensity. Kaufman’s character is the only one the narrative follows all the way through, but she’s a wimpy victim throughout the whole thing, passing out at every opportunity and relying on the men around her to further any plot point. The one person here who walks away with a solid win is pioneering dwarf actor Michael Dunn, a charisma monster who somehow makes his thankless sidekick role the focal point of the whole film.

In his interview, director Hessler is admirably straightforward about the whole thing (even speculating that this film is what precipitated Robards’ career downgrade from leading man to character actor) and pretty honest about what life was like for a journeyman genre director in the 70s. He says that you had to do what you were assigned and didn’t always have a lot of control over the material, and that all you could hope to do was try to elevate whatever studio project came your way. I’d say that he can probably walk away feeling that he accomplished that, but despite a generally classy production and a few inspired sequences, the thing is an unwieldy bore.

Oddly, even though I think it's probably safe to say that Robards is a better actor than Vincent Price, getting Price in the central role here might have been enough to make it something a touch more memorable. Even on his worst day, Price has an irresistible magnetism to him which would have made the slippery character at this film’s center a more compelling force and perhaps would have given the whole enterprise a bit more focus. Price is a performer; he’s compelling to watch no matter what he’s doing. Robards is an actor, stranded without motivation and direction. Part of taking iffy material and elevating it is applying to the elements of human psychology that go beyond a single individual’s personality and motivation. Price knows how to tap into that bottomless, profound subconscious state that hits on a level which is more profound than logic, even if it is perhaps less personal. Poe did too. Maybe that combination makes more sense than most folks give it credit for.

*Edit from 2012: That turned out to be a fairly astute assumption.

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