The first scene opens upon a fair, presumably located on the shipyards of the Seine. While we might be able to associate this in some way with the sailor, the textual owner of the murderous beast, the carnival aspect is entirely new and separate from the text. Thus, the plot’s very first movement is one of both statement and intention. We are presented with a set of seemingly foreign characters—foreign to the plot of the short story, that is, though quite vaguely at home within the visual setting provided in the film, even if not convincingly French. This party, a group of two couples, is having a half-drunken discussion at a bar-stand along the concourse while, nearby, a barker in a turban calls out for them to come see the sights his show offers. As the quartet agrees to go inside, one comments that it’s a better fate than visiting a morgue. While the film will offer a few fair, relatively unvarnished interpretations of the text, we can see already that so much of the adaptation is constituted of nuanced levels of addition and invention. In fact, as we will come to find out, at least one of these characters is known to us, though of quite a different disposition in the text, as Dupin. Here, though, the most interesting detail is that of the mentioned morgue, serving as a reference to a setting that will, as it turns out, be of at least some importance to the reconstituted plot.
Here, though, we must fully assess the nature of the elements at work: the fabricated fair setting is situated as the occasion for a group of (at least partially) fabricated characters to have a fabricated conversation which includes reference to another fabricated setting which serves as a point in the fabricated sections of the plot. And it is only when we are so thoroughly ensconced in the material constructed for adaptation that the character who best represents the embodiment of that media difference reveals himself. After a few interesting displays along the concourse, Dupin, his fiancée (the female romantic lead, Sidney Fox, whose name was so prominently displayed in the credits) and their friends, Dupin’s roommate–an interesting character in his own right–and his young lady, enter the tent of Dr. Mirakle (rhymes with ‘spackle’). As they do so, the barker continues to urge other patrons on to see “the strangest creature your eyes will ever behold. Eric the Ape Man! The monster who walks upright and speaks a language even as you or I!… The beast with a human soul! More cunning than a man and stronger than a lion!” The patrons then proceed through an archway made between the legs of a two-story tall ape, painted onto the side of the tent. This positioning of the patrons, so many members of the linguistic order, gaining access to knowledge underneath the artistically-omitted but not truly absent genitals of that beast with whom the director clearly associated himself is a phallically provocative and quite assertive maneuver.
But, despite the clear temptation of our abilities to analyze such a detail, we must not be diverted from the richer material of the barker’s speech, which concerns speech itself. The barker gives us a preview of what will be seen—and heard and discussed—inside. Despite occurring so early in the film, the ‘carnival act’ is a central scene, at least in terms of our reading, as explores the ways in which the characters’ placements within the linguistic order, especially that of the gorilla, are skewed according to the demands of the co-opted plot. In order to adapt the print story to the new media of film, the filmmakers rely less on the grammatical structures of written communication in favor of exploiting the nuances of the spoken word and physical performance. Namely, the filmmakers chose to alter a central character—one of the few in any way native to the text—by investing him with a ‘language’ that he had not previously enjoyed, and thereby making him a ‘him’ in the first place. The issue of language itself becomes central as Mirakle disseminates the philosophies behind his work with the humanized animal. He claims to be presenting “a milestone in the development of life. … Listen to him, brothers and sisters: he’s speaking to you. Can you understand what he says, or have you forgotten? I have re-learned his language!” Mirakle moves to the ape in its cage and, as if translating, tells a tale of captivity and loneliness. Moving back to the audience, speaking again for himself, the doctor espouses the world view that inspires him; “Life was motion. Things changed into beings. … Behold, the first man! [Mirakle points back to Eric in his cage.] My life is consecrated to great experiment. I tell you I will prove your kinship with the ape!” Science has since provided ample evidence of such kinship, of course, but what Mirakle is proposing goes further than simple genetics. Instead, the implication of our shared lineage with the ape is a separateness from the real (by virtue of language) that is something less than absolute. We are threatened with a journey to the real, a quest for jouissance of a kind, that goes too far for contemporary sensibilities: if we define ourselves as human through our language, but the beast also has language, what then is our true proximity to the real, the non-lingual and therefore non-differentiated, those incapable of conceiving and taking ownership of the ‘I’? And, the even deeper horror to consider: if we are more like the ape than we are comfortable with, does it mean that our position in relation to the real is not ever-widening or even fixed, but, perhaps, contracting? Might the ape someday be an accepted part of our culture, or, further, might we find ourselves no longer accepted in the beast’s company, no longer the most ‘human’ animal in our own environment? Surely, Mirakle’s audience does not consciously take matters this far as they storm out of the tent in revulsion, but the revulsion itself is enough to show that their minds have been opened to an idea so traumatic to a sense of self within the social order that they are critically incapable of considering it.
The plot moves along from here as the viewer discovers Mirakle making good on his intentions to mix Eric’s blood with that of a human. But, for all the psychosexual imagery this proclamation might suggest, and the fact that Mirakle’s victims are all female prostitutes, the violation itself, the taking of blood samples and giving of unnamed medicines, is rather chaste. It is in light of this novel turn that the filmmakers finally provide the morgue, the ideal manifestation of difference with the text: we find that Dupin, here a young medical student, has been examining the corpses the police have discovered. Such a scene is worthy of our inspection if only for the combination of its difference from the text and its subsequent inclusion due purely to the expectations of iconography, the desire that manifests in language. In fact, the scene serves as a kind of connector, allowing the modified figure of Dupin to pursue Mirakle by accessing the evidence of the bodies the mad scientist has left in his wake in a way that echoes but in no way matches the depth of the textual deductions. Further, it is the end of this scene which brings us back to Dupin’s apartment, which, in the text, he shared with the narrator. However, as the uses of a narrator are quite different in film, the character has been divested of status, only to take on a much less influential but perhaps more psychoanalytically-telling role. As Dupin sits at his workbench, his roommate, here named Paul, cooks lunch as he complains that his fellow is not showing enough thanks for not having to worry about domestic attentions. His whining—like that of an old mother or wife—only becomes more incessant as Dupin continues to ignore him: “the macaroni’s ready and the coffee’s getting cold. … You give five francs to that old ghoul down at the morgue and I have to turn magician and pull a loaf of bread out of my nose so we can eat. … Pierre, why don’t you go down to the morgue and live there instead of making a morgue out of our home?” The role of narrator is central to the text insofar as that character, through his words, is the presenter of the tale itself; he serves as the wielder of the language that communicates the story and, as the linguistic order has been constructed by and to accommodate phallic power, so his powers of narration are rather comparable to those of Dupin’s deduction; a point that seems fundamental to a true understanding of the story. This is a functional distinction rather than a plot-based one, though. While the reader most directly accesses the story through the narrator’s words, such detail and preciseness of description is generally expected of a narrator, so that we easily overlook the character who is speaking directly to us, habitually paying greater mind to the abilities of Dupin than the vehicle by which those abilities are described. The narrator would support such a positioning of reader attention as, indeed, Dupin is also the focus of the narrator’s own attentions seemingly in all eventualities. Meanwhile, though, the cinematic divestment of narrative authority leaves the position of mere roommate—and whatever function may be served in that non-essential role—rather lacking. Assuming, for simplicity’s sake, some degree of functional agency within this character—a knowledge of his own demotion—his apparent feminization, as we have observed, actually works to his benefit, as it makes him quite a bit more conscious of the politics of power positions within a structure that has divested him of his own phallic potential. While he can exert no influence over Dupin, who has retained some of his phallic power in his medical knowledge (though much of the text character’s intuitiveness is lost, as previously noted), Paul’s understanding of his positioning means that he is on his guard for others who might jostle for what little power there is to be had within this domestic setting. In fact, fresh from his failure to get his roommate to eat, Paul deftly waves off the visiting morgue attendant who tries to beg for a portion of the meal. A small, though interesting exchange comes next, as Dupin explains to Paul what he has been working on and why he has been keeping late hours. Paul’s response: “Oh, so that’s what you were up to. I thought you were with Camille.” Though said dismissively, the acknowledgement that Paul had at least been wondering of the whereabouts of his friend and roommate, the other half of the discourse structure that had previously afforded him an important position in the tale, indicates that this is not a settled issue for this character, that he is enduring psychic tension. And, while Dupin may not yet know the identity of his own antagonist, Paul has come to ascertain a further threat to his already-diminished positioning: Dupin’s fiancée. However, the heteronormative conventions of a film plot of the time—and even, oftentimes, today—dictate that the hero and heroine must be together in the end. Accordingly, while Camille is only mentioned briefly, Paul directs his excess resentment toward the subject of Mirakle, indirectly at first as Paul pours over his notes on the murders, then more directly as the two men discuss the carnival show and Dupin indicates that he might consult with man. If Paul can no longer contribute to the transmission of the tale, he will instead serve as support of a kind, expressing the only sort of sympathetic aggravation toward Mirakle, his friend’s antagonist in the drama. Unfortunately, the dynamics of the ‘old mother’ position indicate that such empathy is inappropriate to the conventions of the film, and that this sort of character is meant to express frustration at his roommate rather than in solidarity with him. Accordingly, the scene ends as Paul shouts his roommate’s name in exasperation as Dupin reflects on Mirakle aloud, still not coming to the table for lunch.
Come back in two days for part 4 of 4.