“Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the 1932 film featuring Bela Lugosi, will introduce students to Edgar Allan Poe. Although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the definitive detective story technique through the characterization of Sherlock Holmes in 1886, Poe originated the formula for detective fiction by featuring Auguste Dupin, a master of deduction, in three stories fifty years earlier. There were other forerunners of Conan Doyle: Wilkie Collins, “The Moonstone” ; Charles Dickens, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” (unfinished); Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (a case that was cracked by Mr. G. J. Utterson, a quiet-mannered attorney).
The film noir version of Poe’s story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, runs far afield from the original in its dramatization of events. Therefore, students will also be given a synopsis (with some quotations) of the original story in order to understand the contrast. Poe’s story features an orangutan as a key character. In the story, Poe alludes to the ape as man’s distant cousin, which perhaps was his way of making some surreptitious commentary on the righteous indignation, if not fear, provoked by Darwinian heresies. Like so much of Poe’s work, metaphor is the message, and what you read is only partly what you get. While Poe’s story subtly reveals the beast in man, Tom Reed and Dale Van Every’s screenplay exploits it. Poe’s metaphorical marriage of ideas uniting beastliness and human compassion are supplanted by the film’s bestiality (proposed, not consummated) between Reed and Every’s gorilla and girl. In the movie, Dr. Mirakle (Lugosi), a deranged scientist, searches Paris for a prospective bride for his pet gorilla, Erik, in the attempt to prove his theories of evolution. A few women meet their demise in Dr. Mirakle’s laboratory as he tries to inject them with gorilla blood to establish a viable mate. After their bodies are found and taken to the “Morgue,” a young, “cheerful” detective, “Pierre” Dupin—I suppose the playwrights thought “Auguste” wasn’t French enough—becomes interested in the case. Enter Mademoiselle L’Espanaye, none other than Pierre’s fiancé and the next damsel to be sacrificed in the name of unholy science! Dupin, of course, saves her—from a roof top, no less—where Erik, ˆ la King Kong, has taken her.
The movie is fun to watch, and offers some intriguing symbols and shadow play in its lighting techniques. While there are few scenes that stay true to Poe’s original story, the metaphorical content will be the learning focus. Students will gain an understanding of how metaphors (and similes) can be used either subtly or overtly. They will also understand that “metaphor” is the means by which we learn. As young children we identify the things of life by comparing them to other things we know: “The sun is a big yellow ball.” We continue to learn by using metaphors throughout our lives, but as we mature, we gain an ability to differentiate between likeness and distinctive qualities. Metaphors are the poetry of life; differentiation is its sanity. And the ability to use both aspects are an integral part of critical thinking.
To introduce students to writing metaphors and similes, one can show them various pictures of abstract and impressionist paintings from art books, e.g., Magritte, M.C. Esher, Monet, Picasso, etc. As they observe the work, they begin clustering ideas that come to mind about the subjects (and what they are doing in the pictures). Once they’ve gained a focal point from their clusters, they continue on to vignette writing describing who the subjects are; what they’re doing or what their purpose is. The objective of this writing is to convey sensory and intuitive perceptions. This is not an interpretation process. Students are not supposed to “think” the paintings. They are to “feel” and “intuit,” and use the artwork to say it reminds them of something. Because the artwork is impressionistic or abstract, the writing will more than likely take on a mysterious quality. Some student work will be humorous, as is often the case. (Although unintentional, humor was certainly the result in the 1932 film, “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which will hence lead to humorous writing.) Humorous metaphors often appear in hard-boiled detective fiction. Although the hard-boiled detective will be mentioned in more detail later on in the unit plan, students will be offered the following metaphor from Raymond Chandler’s book, “Little Sister,” as an example of a humorous metaphor.
“I was dizzy as a dervish, as weak as a worn-out washer, as low as a badger’s belly, as timid as a titmouse, and as unlikely to succeed as a ballet dancer with a wooden leg.”
Much of the parodying of golden age detective fiction used in comic movies and television shows today, such as in “The Naked Gun” movies (which students are very familiar with), has to do with exaggerated metaphors. Parodying the sometimes excessive, hard-boiled detective style, students will create metaphors comparing emotions and physical sensations with objects, types of people, and in particular, animals.
Lastly, students will return to the man-as-beast theme of Poe’s story, and in the movie. They will cluster the word pair “beastliness/humanity,” and will write vignettes (prose or poetry) on this theme.