Phil Rosen’s Mystery of Marie Roget is something of a curiosity. We can start with the fact that Phil Rosen directed it. Rosen had been in the movie business since 1912 and a director since 1915. He seems to have been pretty highly regarded in the silent era, but sound was his downfall — though not for any apparent reason, since his talkies aren’t obviously old-fashioned. They’re just cheapjack affairs knocked out in a few days for studios like Monogram — and worse. By 1942 he was so associated with poverty row that it has caused more than a few people to think that Mystery of Marie Roget was an independent cheapie that Universal just picked up, but it’s not. It’s low-budget alright, but Universal born and bred low-budget. Why Rosen was brought in is unknown. Then too, it’s part of a half-hearted attempt by the studio to make Patric Knowles an actual movie star instead of a supporting lead. It didn’t work. And there’s the business of show-casing Maria Montez on her way to becoming Universal’s Technicolor queen of camp — here given star billing but little screen time as the title character. Finally, there’s the whole mystery-horror hybrid business — played up because of the Poe name, but amounting to little more than a gruesome murder method, a pet leopard, a creepy visit to the morgue and a stolen brain. In spite of this, I’ve never heard anyone complain about the movie for not being a horror picture. I think it may just be too darn likable.
In its favor is Knowles’ performance as Dupin. He’s cool, relaxed, reasonably dashing — and basically all you could ask for as a combined detective hero and romantic lead. That he’s teamed with Lloyd Corrigan (who had transitioned from an undistinguished director to a distinguished character comic a couple of years earlier) helps. They have easy chemistry. Similarly, Corrigan’s blustery Prefect of Police makes a terrific foil for Maria Ouspenskaya as the outspoken and shrewd granny Roget. It’s the kind of pairing where even fairly weak comedy comes across as funny. But a great deal of what makes Mystery of Marie Roget work as a creepy mystery is the atmosphere generated by Rosen and cinematographer Elwood Bredell, who make a cheap movie look anything but. How much of this is due to Rosen and how much belongs to Bredell is hard to say. To compare this to such down-and-dirty poverty row titles from Rosen as Spooks Run Wild (1941) and Murder by Invitation (1941) is unfair, even worthless. Here he had more time, better facilities, better sets — and a better cinematographer than Monogram’s Marcel Le Picard. Whoever is responsible, it’s the look of the movie that sells it.