Dispatches from the Tube: The Brief and Bloody Resurrection of Mme. L’Espanaye: An exercise in structuralism within the context of short story-to-film adaptation (‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’, 1932): Part 2 of 4

But the relationship between film and text is not so easily rectified.  On the contrary, other elements within the same frame point to the continuing problematics of such rectification, even as the title overhangs so much of the other on-screen information.  The filmmakers chose to retain Poe’s full title perhaps because to do otherwise would have meant to address the difference between film and text too directly.  The same problem of is evident in developing a paper such as this one; how does one self-evidently differentiate between two products with a common name?  Fortunately, as the text is a short story and not a novel, we are saved here by the conventions of punctuation and style (‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ v. Murders in the Rue Morgue).  But the philosophical establishment of a dualistic identifier, whether duplicated, split, imagined, or otherwise, calls forth the situation of the ‘I’ in Freudian psychoanalysis.  As the individual must rectify (or, in some unfortunate cases, fail to rectify) the sense of a differentiated self with the image of oneself, the ‘I’ that serves as referent, so the viewer is left to question the nature of the film in relation to the text.  This would, at first seem like a simple question, and one whose answer has long been ideologically assumed in that textual primacy that we have already identified.  And while the film will not settle the matter of its own nature, the text of the title card (‘based on the immortal classic’) does prompt the viewer to at least acknowledge that the film is, in some respect, a product of the text.  But such an approach avoids addressing the possibilities of a symbiotic relationship, one in which the social influence of the film eventually affects readings of the text.  Such situations are common amongst the popular of films, such as Gone With the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia, or even the recent Harry Potter franchise; each constitutes a case in which, relatively regardless of fidelity to textual plot, the visual performances serve to provide a structure for comparison with what the reader imagines—a process further cemented in instances where viewing of a film precedes a reading of the source text.[3]  It is fortunate for our examinations here, then, that neither this nor any other film version of the Poe story has ever so eclipsed the text as to precipitate such an inversion.

Elsewhere in this first title card, we again see Lugosi prominently identified.  We might note the comparative size of the star’s credit to that of Poe, but it is more interesting to return to our previous line of thought regarding the signposts being shown for the benefit of those expecting some degree of similitude with the text.  Here, Lugosi’s name appears beside Sidney Fox, the female lead and an actress of some popularity at the time.  Thus, this indicator of divergence, though less blunt, is more subtly detailed; as there are no female characters prominent enough to warrant much more than a one or two line speaking role in a line-for-line adaptation—the widow and her daughter having been slaughtered just prior to their first appearance in the text—the familiar viewer is again left to suppose that what they are about to see is not simply divergent, but in a specific way that includes a female voice and, most probably, the already well-established film trope of a love story.  And though such a progression might seem like over-analysis, the fact of the romance is borne out soon after the film opens.  What we are then left with is a brief but potent chain of signifiers: actress’ name leads to presumption of prominent female role, which leads to presumption of romantic subplot.  But the fact of the romance only seems to call into question that, among the stars listed in this first card, we do not see that of Leon Waycoff, the actor who portrays Dupin.  If previous details have served as indicators of how the film diverges from the text, this absence might be taken as an indication of exactly where such fidelity ranks for the filmmakers, and all the more so since not only is the most prominent ‘original’ character absent from the first card, but the character does not even rate space for the fact that he is the romantic lead.  In fact, when the Dupin/Waycoff credit does appear in a later title card, it is only after Lugosi and Fox’s second credits.  While this could be explained sensibly as the highlighting of actors who would probably be better known and more attractive to audiences than Waycoff, it is nevertheless telling that more star power—and, most likely, more of the budget—would be invested in characters created specifically for this adaptation than in those that were imported from the source.  Yet, the needs of the linguistic system must be served, and especially so by its own products; if the text was in need of amending in particular ways to make it more accessible to film audiences of the time, it is reasonable to assume that such media-friendly amendments would receive a greater degree of attention.

To move then to a final title card, a last piece of textual evidence which itself gives an indication of the more visually-symbolic nature of the entertainments in which we are about to engage.  It has been common custom, from silent films through to the present era, for the director’s name to be displayed prominently and separately within the opening credits.  Murders in the Rue Morgue adopts the custom, but with a striking addition.  Rather than appearing before a blank or abstract background, director Robert Florey’s name hangs just below an artistic rendering of an ape—while not quite the orangutan of the story, the film is likewise ‘not quite’ the same as that of the text.  Differential situation within the plot notwithstanding, though, the two animals serve the same function for a Lacanian interpretation; by being bestial, fundamentally non-human, both orangutan and ape represent the non-lingual real.  In placing his own name, the linguistic identifier of his differentiation from other language-users, within the same frame as the image of the ape, Florey asserts his own phallic power, but he also, perhaps unwittingly, reveals the limitations of that power; while we would invest ourselves in the fiction of the film, ultimately the language itself must will out, both within the film and within our own frame of reference, as both are products of and subject to the language.  We can go along with Florey so far in ascribing bestial characteristics to the ape, but ultimately it and everything else in this film act at the command of the director’s words, his phallic potency, represented here in the paired display of his title and name[4].  If viewing a film—changing one’s frame of reference to adopt things that are otherwise false, even impossible—can be counted as a type of jouissance, we might then be able to view the ape as something appearing close (or closer than we) to the real.  Yet, the ape is simply an actor, and that actor is being directed by Florey, himself a member of our same lingual society; in approaching that cinematic mirage we mistakenly believe to be the real, we are re-deposited, deeper than ever, in the midst of the order.  What might at first be seen as an association of the most powerful single being in the story with the most singularly powerful personage on the set, what is really displayed is the inescapability of both factual and fictional from the artifice of language.  And while we might have some grounds on which to assume the intentionality of other indicators, it is a hard to imagine that the filmmakers might have been so aware of their own situation as stewards of the order.  Matters of likewise interest will be pursued to as we continue on to the film’s body… or, rather, two bodies… or, rather, still more bodies.

Come back in two days for part 3 of 4.

[3] Lugosi himself deserves some credit in this respect, as his performance in Dracula has served to shape the impressions of readers of the text ever since, even to the point that his own image, quite distinct from the character actually described by Stoker, has adorned several book covers and, quite likely, has stood in for more accurate imaginings during countless (or, rather, count-less) readings.  Just for fun, compare the following to the images of Lugosi in-character as Dracula, as well as those provided in the images of the posters examined earlier:  “I had now an opportunity of observing him, and found him of a very marked physiognomy…. hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. These protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed. The chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.”

[4] It is, after all, rare to see a director’s name listed without any indication of his position or importance being cited simultaneously.  Even if the director has his own opening credit (as he still so often does), the linguistic tag of ‘director’ is necessary to indicate the level of phallic power he wields.


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