Murder, He Says

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 4/7/20;
Kino Lorber;
Comedy;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Fred MacMurray, Helen Walker, Marjorie Main, Jean Heather, Porter Hall.

Other than 1948’s Miss Tatlock’s Millions, which falls just short of being a brother-sister incest farce while getting all jocular about mental illness, Murder, He Says is the most twisted Hollywood comedy I know from the 1940s. This raises an interesting question of why almost all the funniest ’40s comedies I know — both of the above, the Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder libraries, the “Roads” to Morocco, Utopia and Rio — were all from Paramount, but that’s a question for another day. (The Lubitsch’s at other studios would be an exception, though they’re less gut-busting than charming on historical levels.)

Very little about 1945’s Murder, or at least its characters, has been to charm school — starting with the murder of an innocent party that’s played for laughs when it’s not being simply shoved under the narrative rug. There’s also a near-psychopath matriarch who frequently and brutally takes a whip to her imbecilic twin sons; the promiscuous use of firearms in an indoor setting by half the cast; and the played-for-laughs radioactive poisoning that makes as many of them glow, developed by the latest husband of the whip-wielding mom. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t all take place on an Ivy League campus but in backwoods Arkansas, where a rep from a national poll studying rural living makes the mistake of riding his bike onto the property of this inbred-acting array.

Fred MacMurray plays this poor sap in what I’d rate as the top comic performance of his long and still underrated career (The Apartment is, of course, a masterpiece, but he’s mostly a no-joke total heel in that one). His timing is flawless when he has to react about once a second to the mayhem going on around him. The supporting cast, which includes Marjorie Main as “Ma,” is in the same class, including one major acting surprise. And voiceover bonus commentary by producer/writer Michael Schlesinger and film archivist Stan Taffel speculate that Main’s work here might have encouraged MacMurray to get her cast a couple years later in The Egg and I, a huge hit for Universal-International and the movie that launched the Ma & Pa Kettle series (I remember when it was theatrically issued in the summer of 1954, which only the biggest box office wave-makers were in those days).

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Getting back to Murder, which gets a 4K spiff-up here, MacMurray shows up at the sub-ramshackle house as part of his job — and to see if he can figure out what happened to the work colleague who preceded him and was not heard from again (good luck on that one). Instead, he’s accosted on the way by one of the twins; they’re Mert and Bert, and Peter Whitney nails both roles, abetted by some of the best matte work of the era. All the blood relations here seem to be products of Ma Barker’s gene pool, and the source of constant conflict here is the whereabouts of 70 grand from some long-ago family crime spree that’s supposedly hidden somewhere in the house. Grandma (Mabel Paige) knows the elusive location, but she’s on her death bed — and even in her better days was always “tetched.” The only hint is a few musical notes that result in nothing when they’re hummed and a few accompanying lyrics of gibberish that make about as much sense.

Nobody in the family trusts any other member, and this extends to poor MacMurray, who would have been better off lobbying his superiors to handle the Death Valley polling territory. Matters get more complicated when the family member who pulled off the robbery escapes from jail and shows up to mount her own money search. The tragic Helen Walker has this role, and it’s obvious before very long that she’s an imposter with her own agenda, and like very few other people here, is “normal.

Two Hollywood hopefuls in the cast all but had their careers ended by auto mishaps. Jean Heather, who, despite noteworthy appearances in both Going My Way and Double Indemnity, basically came out of career nowhere here to go all the way thoroughly “nailing” the family’s one likable character, who, alas, may be even more tetched than grandma. In real life, beautiful Heather got thrown from a car and disfigured, and made her final screen appearance in a 1949 ‘B’ Western.

The decline of Walker, who’d scored in a high-profile co-lead in her first picture, was more protracted but possibly more of a nightmare. She picked up three soldier hitchhikers on New Year’s Eve of 1946, and when she flipped the car, one of them was killed and the other two badly injured. The survivors charged drunkenness, and the messy trial that resulted cleared her criminally but resulted in career-wrecking publicity. She worked intermittently after that, but after good supporting roles in a couple well-regarded 20th Century-Fox noirs, it was a steep toboggan ride for her. Commentators Schlesinger and Taffel may be too gentlemanly to mention it, but at least at some point, alcohol was indeed a debilitating problem with her. In her final big-screen appearance (The Big Combo), it clearly shows on her face.

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The director here was George Marshall, who spent a 56-year career mixing bombs, god-awfuls, nonentities and several indisputably enjoyable “entertainments” without ever making a really great movie or major factor in any title’s applicable movie year, other than Destry Rides Again (coming soon from Criterion). Schlesinger and Taffel are quite enamored of him in their appropriately breezy mix of the jocular and informative, though one of them claims that Marshall directed three of the five episodes in “How the West Was Won” when it was Henry Hathaway who did (Marshall only directed “The Railroads,” which is the weakest of the quintet). The actors’ dexterity here is so keen throughout that one has to assume that Marshall definitely deserves his share of the praise, especially with the younger players. But even at 94 minutes, the action gets a little labored in the final going before it’s yanked with vigor back into the plus side by a terrifically clever barn-set finale. The script, but the way, is co-written by Lou Breslow, who also penned a comedy that I’ve  coincidentally been watching as we speak, It was 1950’s Never a Dull Moment, in which MacMurray weds and drags the incomparable Irene Dunne to his struggling farm, and this city-dweller begins living a kind of Green Acres existence,

Ultimately, the standout takeaway is that I can’t immediately think of another comedy that’s anything like it — and certainly not from the 1940s — though the commentary notes its warped link with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I suspect Paramount is the only studio that would have attempted it at the time because they really had a flair for off-center farces. I can just see a horrified Louis B. Mayer seeing it at an industry screening and immediately putting out a directive for MGM to speed up development on Love Laughs at Andy Hardy.

Mike’s Picks: “Murder, He Says” and “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project”

There’s Always Tomorrow (Demain est un autre jour)

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

All-Region French Import;
Elephant;
Drama;
$39.99 Blu-ray/DVD;
Not rated.
Stars Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Joan Bennett.

Douglas Sirk’s 1955 entry There’s Always Tomorrow had been previously filmed under the same title in the 1930s, but it couldn’t have offered the same trenchant observations of what at times can be maddeningly rigid suburbia — see also All That Heaven Allows — that distinguish one of the most unjustly overlooked and certainly underrated Hollywood movies of its decade. Other than the fact that it’s in black-and-white during what was mostly Sirk’s color heyday (two more near-masterpieces excepted), any trained eye could correctly guess Tomorrow’s director in a nanosecond — but this said, the movie marches into places that others do not, or at least any movies I can recall.

For one thing, it’s a romantic weeper with a long-suffering protagonist who’s now in middle age, and yet, in this case, we’re talking about a guy. For another, it broaches what is often a very uncomfortable and equally unspoken truth: That children, when you add them to necessary work pressures, are deterrents and maybe even roadblocks to sustaining romance. That’s a tough one from which the picture never flinches.

As ever, Fred MacMurray’s acting style was generally that of a walking arched eyebrow, which is no knock because he could do surprisingly expressive things with it. It could convey misplaced eagerness about to be foiled (Murder, He Says); amused cynicism (The Caine Mutiny); or sinister intentions under a smooth veneer (the two Billy Wilder all-timers, Double Indemnity and The Apartment). In this case, the eyebrow is in recession or even more subtlety employed, conveying a MacMurray character as one sometimes slow to size up a situation before finally understanding better than anyone once it fully registers.

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In this case, the actor plays an L.A. toy manufacturer (robots are about to be big) who begins to realize there’s a pattern to the fact that his devoted wife (Joan Bennett) can never spend any private time with him, be it theater outings or getaway weekends at some local paradise on the water. Taken individually, the excuses are legitimate, but again, there is a pattern. The middle-daughter (Gigi Perreau, who’d worked with both MacMurray and Sirk as a child actress) is preoccupied with piano recitals. The younger one (Judy Nugent) is all dance programs, and now she’s sprained her leg. Both require mom’s undivided attention, so maybe it’s a blessing that the oldest child (William Reynolds) needs no outside help to be such a Butch Waxed dunce — albeit one with a head-on-straight squeeze (Pat Crowley, making something of what might been a throwaway role). You knew his type if you were around in the era: A guy who checks to make sure that Crowley will be wearing his Kappa Tau Gamma pin and, one speculates, likely grooming himself as the head of “Pasadena Youth for Nixon” in the 1960 election. Were the character still alive today, he’d probably have just wangled his way into seeing Ed Meese somehow get the Presidential Medal of Freedom a couple weeks ago.

And then, literally at the front door, appears an old work associate and onetime acquaintance (Barbara Stanwyck) who is now a highly successful New York fashion designer getting the lay of the land for a possible expansion to Los Angeles. Fred’s in an apron because everyone else is out doing something (typical), so he asks Stanwyck if she’d like them to take advantage of his unused theater tickets. They do, which leads to subsequent innocent meet-ups that are misinterpreted by pouty Reynolds to be something a lot more, which causes a lot of unspoken tension in the household and then a rude dinner at home that is humiliating for everyone, other than perhaps unflappable Bennett, who can be kind of a “what, me worry?” type. And then, suddenly … it’s all not so innocent.

No matter how aged she got to be, Stanwyck always had it — so on full career-length balance, she’s my favorite actress of all time, though eventually, my heart could not resist being overwhelmed by Audrey Hepburn nor my hormones Grace Kelly. Stanwyck has a great standout scene here that I’ve never forgotten tearing into the two older children; I also think that Sirk gets something out of MacMurray that no one else ever got, even in the finales of Double Indemnity and Pushover, and that’s truly abject pain that rates one or two powerful close-ups. Some think the film’s final 30 seconds or so tack on an upbeat ending as so many ’50s movies did, but I don’t read it that way. However you cut it, the move makes it challenging to look at era suburban sitcoms about perfect families (white, of course) in quite the same way. Growing up, most of my buds fantasized about being the gas man lucking into quickies with either Donna Reed or Shelley Fabares while their husband/father Carl Betz was shaking down kids’ thermometers at the clinic — or son/brother Paul Petersen was out somewhere asking Don Drysdale to show him how to “dust” batters. But we were a frivolous bunch, and this is serious stuff

The Blu-ray here is another from France’s now extended Sirk Universal catalog made available by Elephant Films that’s close to complete (though let’s have Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, please). Given Kino Classics’ current and welcomely promiscuous flood of releases from the ’50s Universal library, maybe Tomorrow will rate a domestic version soon or eventually. But one is never sure, and Tomorrow is such a personal pet of mine that I didn’t even try to score a screener but immediately shelled out my own bucks. And not because Amazon needed the money.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Tall Men’ and ‘There’s Always Tomorrow’

The Apartment

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

MVD/Arrow;
Comedy;
$49.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Edie Adams. 

When it comes to my personal choice for best/favorite Billy Wilder movie, I usually zig-zag among Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole and The Apartment — though let it be noted in the name of Joey Bishop that my strongest emotional attachment goes to Kiss Me, Stupid (absolutely and eternally) and Stalag 17 (probably in second place due to how much I loved it as a youngster, particularly in the mail call scenes: “At ease, at ease”). But re-savoring The Apartment in Arrow’s new limited edition and absorbing the bonus backgrounders both new and recycled from a past release, it’s tough to deny the perfection of 1960’s best picture Oscar winner all the way down the line, which in Wilder’s case, always extended to the care he took with, say, the 125th-billed actor.

And though topicality can be a trap when gauging a movie’s effectiveness due to how today’s dominator of news can eventually turn into tomorrow’s LP of Anita Bryant’s Greatest Hits, it’s a real punch to the face (and here, I mean this in a good sense) to see how a once controversial comedy-drama from 58 years ago can be so spot-on about sexual harassment in the work place. This, of course, is an issue not likely to fall prey to topicality limitations, so when we take a fresh jaded look at the comical sleazeball execs who populate the story’s Manhattan-based insurance company — and with its big boss the worst offender of all — there’s simply no way anyone can deny that the movie is more potent than it even was at the time.

Interestingly, especially in view of its commercial success with a public that “got it,” the picture got mixed reviews when it opened in the summer (Psycho, The Apartment and Kazan’s Wild River all opened in close proximity; ponder that the next time you deny that movies have gone to hell). Critically speaking, Pauline Kael got tiresomely huffy about it, but in truth — and in retrospect, this probably isn’t very surprising — it was her male colleagues who were predominantly offended by the idea of a career-hungry insurance company exec (Jack Lemmon) advancing up the “Mad Men” ladder by lending his apartment out to superiors for their extra-marital flings. (After, of course, packing his modest digs out with vodka and the right kind of cheese crackers.) Yeah, right: We all know this didn’t happen in the Rat Pack era.

Yet, something happened over the next few months (most likely, commercial acceptance), and by the time spring rolled around, The Apartment won five Oscars — including three to Wilder himself for producing, directing and co-writing with I.A.L. Diamond. Despite Lemmon’s supporting Oscar for 1955’s Mister Roberts, it was Wilder’s Some Like It Hot in 1959 that had “made” the actor, and Wilder knew even during Hot’s production that not only did he want him for this immediate follow-up — and that if he couldn’t get Lemmon and his ingratiating personality as an audience buffer amid an undeniably sordid premise, the picture probably wouldn’t be made. It was genius casting, as was Shirley MacLaine’s as the plot-central elevator girl (as they used to be called), as was Fred MacMurray as the firm’s slimy personnel director, Mr. Sheldrake — albeit in this case, casting that emerged from tragedy.

Paul Douglas, who hadn’t looked too healthy in swan song The Mating Game from ’59, was signed and ready to go in the Sheldrake role before suddenly dropping dead of a heart attack. Though Douglas is a lifelong favorite of mine and had played the brashly crude Harry Brock character on Broadway in Born Yesterday, he was almost always lovable (if gruffly lovable) in the movies, and I can’t recall his ever having played an absolute heel on screen. MacMurray (and his eyebrows) convey the character’s all but transparent dark side at once, and the No. 1 revelation I’ve taken from this recent viewing is just how great MacMurray is here. Though he initially resisted the part due to his then recent Disney association and the launching of TV’s “My Three Sons” (on this week’s episode, dad cheats with a pert employee who eventually tries to kill herself), this is one of MacMurray’s two career performances. Both were for Wilder — the other being his all-timer as the insurance agent who makes the worst sale possible policy sale this side of the one Bob Hope writes up for you-know-who in Alias Jesse James.

Technical credits are pro here, as Variety reviews used to say, with the visual showstopper being the set for Lemmon’s impersonally cavernous work “hangar” — the creation of Children of Paradise’s always-brilliant production designer Alexandre Trauner, who won an Oscar here. These key scenes were in turn heavily influenced by parts of King Vidor’s The Crowd, a silent so brilliantly off-the-charts that you’d naturally expect it to be on DVD or Blu-ray yet one that only enjoyed a laserdisc release back in the Cro-Magnon video era. Meanwhile, versatile (and nominated) cinematographer Joseph LaShelle gives The Apartment an appropriately noir-ish look while doing a flawless job of navigating Lemmon’s just-functional digs (for him and for the work cronies who use it). Adolph Deutsch’s score wasn’t nominated, but this has to be because his main theme was borrowed or swiped from an obscure British film of the ’40s (I’d like to hear the story behind this). Even so, the music and its many moods give both the comedy and drama a huge boost, and the aforementioned theme caught on with the public and made it to Billboard’s No. 10 when Ferrante & Teicher hugely tickled 176 ivories in their tie-in recording.

MGM’s old Blu-ray never struck me as one of the most obvious titles that begged for a revamp, but the clean-up job Arrow has done here re-emphasizes the point that imagery delivered as the filmmaker intended it can go a long, long way toward totally putting over even a screenplay as verbally kinetic as The Apartment’s. (I love it when Oscar-nominated Jack Kruschen, as Lemmon’s doctor neighbor, refers to the younger man’s perceived sexual dalliances with a wide array of women, on certain evenings, as a “twi-night double header.”) Bruce Block, who delivers an outstanding commentary carried over from the previous release, has a visual background — which, when combined with his massive research, makes for a wall-to-wall informative two hours.

This Arrow version also adds a slew of featurettes that include a Wilder archival interview where he speaks extensively and sweetly about Diamond and a sturdy booklet with critical writings more on the ball than some of the original reviews. From what I’ve seen to date, Arrow has become one of those companies whose name on the box means you can go to the bank, and this fresh viewing has, for me, been somewhat of a revelation. And this despite the fact that The Apartment has always been one of my favorite films since seeing it in a summer drive-in double bill the following year with Elmer Gantry — quite a night for a then recent 14-year-old and one that killed Disney Fred MacMurray’s for me forever. Matter of fact, I’d walked across the street to see Some Like It Hot in ’59 immediately after exiting the Fred-Walt original of The Shaggy Dog, and even then, the comparison was one of “Give me a break.”

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Apartment’ and ‘Captain From Castile’