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Warner Bros. was the first major studio to release a film in 3-D following the surprise box-office hit Bwana Devil (1952), which had been produced independently by Arch Oboler. House of Wax (1953), the offering from Warners, proved to be an enormous hit and helped to establish Vincent Price as the premier horror star of the era. Every studio followed suit by rushing 3-D films into production, although too often B-pictures were given the stereo treatment without much care so that the studio could demand a larger rental fee from exhibitors; the slapdash nature of some of the releases helped to hasten the end of the 3-D boom. Warner Bros. kept a high standard for their stereoscopic productions, however, releasing the big budget The Charge at Feather River (1953), probably the best of the many 3-D Westerns to emerge during the cycle. Following another western, The Moonlighter (1953), starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, Warners decided to try and repeat the success they had with House of Wax by making a carbon copy; the result was the Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954).
Synopsis: In 1890s Paris, a woman on a rain-soaked street runs toward the camera screaming that there has been a murder in the Rue Morgue. Police Inspector Bonnard (Claude Dauphin) pegs the murder as a crime of passion because of its brutal nature and because no personal items were stolen. Three months later, we see a cabaret show in which knife-thrower Rene (Paul Richards) narrowly misses injuring his partner Yvonne (Allyn McLerie), with whom he has been arguing. They quarrel over Yvonne's relationship with University student Georges Brevert (played by radio announcer-turned-actor Merv Griffin, before he embarked on his lengthy career as a singer, talk show host and television mogul). Yvonne, who wears a bracelet with small tingling bells, is brutally murdered in the same fashion as the Rue Morgue victim. Neighbors witness an agile figure escaping by rooftop, leaping from roof to roof. Bonnard cannot pin the crime on Brevert because he is given an alibi by his friends, psychology professor Paul Dupin (Steve Forrest) and his fiance Jeanette Rovere (Patricia Medina). Dupin introduces his colleague, Dr. Marais (Karl Malden), a guest lecturer from the zoo who experiments with mice and other animals (including a huge gorilla) to find ways to trigger the "killer instinct" he feels is basic to all creatures. As more young women turn up torn apart by the rooftop "Phantom," evidence is found that points to Dupin's guilt.
Warner Bros. executives seemingly had a checklist of all of the elements that went into House of Wax, so that they might hit upon the same combination of ingredients for their new film. House of Wax was a remake of the earlier Warners horror hit Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933); similarly, Phantom of the Rue Morgue was based on a story that also formed the basis of a previous horror film from the early 1930s, Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), starring Bela Lugosi. Like House of Wax, Phantom is a period horror filmed in WarnerColor and Naturalvision 3-D and features a crazed protagonist with a past, a befuddled police inspection, a villain's assistant who acts as a convenient red herring, several lovely ladies in distress, the stalwart boyfriend who takes on the case himself, and, of course several shock scenes.
One of the most talked-about scenes in House of Wax had nothing to do with the plot - it showed a barker outside the wax museum gathering a crowd by using a paddleball. The paddleball became an in-your-face gimmick for the 3-D camera, and the makers of Phantom of the Rue Morgue found their own straight-into-the-camera sequence in the form of a knife-throwing demonstration; at least this scene was more logically worked into the plot. The film features several other shots intended to show off the stereo cinematography, and they too are worked into the story. The police are in search of an agile murderer, so in an early scene they survey the talent appearing at a local carnival; this is a handy excuse to photograph trapeze artists and trampoline routines. Director Roy Del Ruth seems to devote more attention to these scenes than he does to the violent attack sequences, which are rather clumsily staged.
Phantom of the Rue Morgue was one of the last feature films in which Charles Gemora, the famous "Gorilla Man," donned his suit for the cameras. Gemora had designed suits and played gorillas in films dating back to 1928 and had played Erik the Gorilla in Murders in the Rue Morgue. By 1954 Gemora had cut back on performing and the majority of the strenuous gorilla scenes in Phantom of the Rue Morgue were done by stuntmen under Gemora's direction. Gemora made many refinements to his gorilla suit over the years, and the 1954 film featured the most expressive simian yet developed, with many innovative design touches, such as a belly appliance made of a water-filled rubber pouch that would realistically sway when in motion.
The critic for Variety noted that "murders and gory bodies abound in the Henry Blanke production, which gives fulsome attention to the bloody violence loosed by the title's phantom. The script follows the regulation horror lines in getting the Poe yarn on film and Roy Del Ruth's direction also is standard. [The] performances by Karl Malden, Claude Dauphin, Patricia Medina, Steve Forrest and the others fall into the same groove and none manages to rise above the material." The reviewer did add that "the 3-D color lensing by Peverell Marley is good, and puts the turn-of-the-century Paris scenes on display to full advantage."
Writing in the New York Times, critic A. H. Weiler was not kind to the film. He notes that the premise appeared in the 1932 Universal movie, but "...now, the Warner Brothers, who apparently hate to let sleeping killers lie, have rebuilt Mr. Poe's street of horrors, dressed it up for WarnerColor and three-dimensional presentation and dropped in a covey of bloody corpses and a pair of mental cases played by Karl Malden and a gorilla. The result...is proof that time has not worked wonders. The Warners have created a tame 'Phantom.'"
In advertising the film, Warner Bros. played coy with the nature of the menace. The ad art pictured a hairy humanoid figure, but not a gorilla; in fact, they muddy the issue by giving the "Phantom" a suit of clothes and a wristwatch! The copy screamed: "It mauls... it rips... it vanishes! A mammoth monstrous man-or-creature rising out of the depths beneath the city!" A secondary notice in the ads urged secrecy: "See it -- but don't reveal it! Let your friends feel for themselves the Phantom's full impact!" While full-blown anthropological studies of gorilla society were still some years away, the nineteenth-century notion of gorillas as brutal killers must have seemed more than old hat to audiences in 1954 -- the stuff of low-budget jungle adventures from a previous generation.
Phantom of the Rue Morgue was released in March of 1954, and all of the studios had cut back dramatically on the production of 3-D films. Nevertheless, two months later Warner Bros. released one more film in the format. Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954) did not receive very many bookings in 3-D, but is now remembered as one of the most intelligent uses of stereo during the 3-D cycle of the 1950s.
Producer: Henry Blanke
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Screenplay: Harold Medford, James R. Webb; Edgar Allan Poe (story)
Cinematography: J. Peverell Marley
Art Direction: Bertram Tuttle
Music: David Buttolph
Film Editing: James Moore
Cast: Karl Malden (Dr. Marais), Claude Dauphin (Insp. Bonnard), Patricia Medina (Jeanette), Steve Forrest (Prof. Paul Dupin), Allyn McLerie (Yvonne), Anthony Caruso (Jacques the One-Eyed), Veola Vonn (Arlette), Dolores Dorn (Camille), Merv Griffin (Georges Brevert), Paul Richards (Rene the Knife-thrower)
by John M. Miller