Murder By Death (1976)

The Flower has a new favorite movie. It was challenging enough to explain when it was Gran Torino but now the conversations tend to go like this:

“Oh, yeah, Murder by Death is her new favorite movie. It’s a Neil Simon comedy/farce about detective stories.”
“What was her previous favorite?”
“…”
“…?”
Silence of the Lambs.”

The phrase "whiskey-soaked" comes to mind.
Eileen Brennan is nonplussed.

Well, kids are weird, and my kids doubly so. But this was funny, and much like The Jerk, I found that I had underestimated how funny it was 40 years ago. Some of this was not getting the references, of course. And some of this was not really liking the ending, which is a common (but sort of nonsensical) complaint.

The story is that Lionel Twain (get it? and his address is “Two Two Twain”) invites the world’s five greatest detectives (and their sidekicks) to dinner and a murder. Someone will be murdered and whoever solves the mystery by dawn will receive one million dollars. (Two modest stacks of bills, actually.) The five detectives are, naturally, parodies of famous literary characters and the cast is amazing, even today.

Nick and Nora Charles (Dashiell Hammet characters) become Dick and Dora Charleston, played by David Niven and pre-dame Maggie Smith.

Hercule Poirot (courtesy of Agatha Christie) becomes Milo Perrier, played by James Coco. His sidekick is played by a 26-year-old James Cromwell!

Charlie Chan (Earl Derr Biggers) becomes Sydney Wang, played by Peter Sellers.

Sam Spade (Hammet again) becomes Sam Diamond, played by Peter Falk. Eileen Brennan is his dame, but he won’t take a fall for her, see?

As big as Niven was in the day, you'd think more people'd remember him!
Columbo at the table with Mrs. McGonnagall and a British guy who wasn’t alive to be in Harry Potter.

Miss Marple (Christie) becomes Jessica Marple, played by Elsa Lanchester with her nurse played by Estelle Winwood (she was 93 at the time).

In one of the hoariest, but also funniest, bits of the movie, Alec Guiness plays a blind butler and Nancy Walker a mute maid.

The thing about this film? It’s one of the hardest working films I’ve ever seen. The jokes fly fast and furious and unapologetically. Neil Simon was at the height of his powers. This was Robert Moore’s feature debut, being more of a TV guy (and he would only do two more features: this movie’s sequel and Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, which sort of signaled the beginning of the end for Simon).

It has its own logic.
A writer pretending to be an actor berates actors who are acting as proxies for writers.

There is a lot of dumb, dumb stuff here. There are fart jokes. There are sexual deviancy jokes galore but in a reflection of the times, when Maggie Smith asks what anyone would want a corpse for, David Niven just whispers in her ear and she giggle uncomfortably: “Oh, how tacky.” In other words, things were much more oblique in mainstream films back then, which I guess warrants a big “Duh!”. But at some point wouldn’t it have to flip back? Or are we doomed to Idiocracy‘s “Ass: The Movie”?

On the flip side, the movie is rife with literary references to locked room mysteries, vanishing people, and red herrings—this movie deserves special praise for the wonderful absurdity of its red herrings, as when James Coco leaves the room only to come back dressed in the dead butler’s clothes, which don’t fit him and all he says “Dont’ ask!” Of course it never goes anywhere, is never explained and is basically impossible.

The most successful cinematic references are in Peter Falk’s Humphrey Bogart impersonation, which is bang on, and so hilariously off-kilter, that the whole theater (which was packed) was in an uproar. The Flower, a huge Falk fan, was delighted and wants to see the sequel, The Cheap Detective. (That movie is, of course, nowhere near as good—but we’re basically BOLO for any Peter Falk films anyway.)

My basic guess is that I get more of the jokes, I’m less uptight (because you’d have to be to survive in 2018), and just emotionally in a better place (this release came at really bad point in my life), and that’s why I enjoyed it more this time. I was still a bit surprised though: The theater was packed and everybody was laughing a lot. Also, like The Jerk, everybody laughed at the “racist” parts. Nary a gasp to be heard when Falk-as-Bogart-as-Spade goes off on a (genuninely) racist tirade. That was the joke and despite what we hear, people still get those.

I think it may have been part of the title sequence.
I don’t normally use non-photos here but I love this Charles Addams cartoon of the cast.

 

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Of the November detective movies, I was the coolest on this Robert Altman film, The Long Goodbye. I tend to be about 50-50 on Altman, finding him either brilliant or boring depending on the movie (or my mood). And 1973 isn’t exactly in my favorite time period. And rather than Humphrey Bogart playing Marlowe we have…Elliot Gould. Yeah, I was pretty cool on it, but the kids were into it so off we went.

He doesn't eat one.
That 25 cent ham & cheese looks good, tho’.

It’s really good. It’s got the ’70s sleaze, of course, because, of course, it’s the ’70s, and Hollywood was visibly sleazy then. (It’s still sleazy but up until recently, they had hid it better.) Gould’s Marlowe manages to be a man of his time but sort of reluctantly so, as he maintains a platonic but friendly relationship with his neighbors (a bevy of hippie girls who eschew clothing and do “yoga”, whatever that is), a bemused but friendly relationship with assorted dim-witted gangster types, and a less friendly relationship with local police.

Impossible to imagine how we ended up with AIDS.
Look at the pretty disease vectors.

The story is that, one morning, at around 2AM after going out to get food for his cat (Morris! in one of his many great roles from the era), an old pal needs to flee to Mexico. Seems he’s had a fight with his wife and he wants to be out of town until she cools off. Turns out the next morning, though, that she is dead—murdered!—with him as the number one suspect.

While Marlowe defends him to the police, he gets rousted and kept in jail for a few days. He’s finally released when the old pal turns up dead by suicide, which is a virtual admission of guilt, right?

Meanwhile, he’s approached by the wife of a man who knew his old pal and saw his picture in the paper. She wants him to find her wayward husband, whom she suspects is at the local sanitarium. She figures he’s trustworthy and can get to the bottom of things, which he does, after wrestling with Henry Gibson’s evil Dr. Verringer. (Metaphorically speaking. They don’t actually wrestle.) But something don’t quite add up, and the connection between his old pal and his new client becomes increasingly…connected, leading to a typically noir-y conclusion.

They probably had to tell him to stop at his drawers.
And now, to make up for the hippie girls, guys getting naked. Yes, that’s Arnold.

Gould does good. He doesn’t have the ’40s toughness but he’s not a complete clown. He mutters in a way that’s very funny and highly reminiscent of Altman’s 1980 flick Popeye, except that it made me laugh here. Nina van Pallandt is the damsel-in-distress, and she really made me think “Wow, Altman has a type” because she felt so evocative of Greta Scacchi (The Player). Even though Scachhi is Italian and Pallandt Danish, Scachhi was playing an Icelandic girl and there’s just a similar feel to them.

Sterling Hayden (Dr. Strangelove) does a good job as the unstable, alcoholic writer. Dan Blocker was the original actor Altman wanted, but he died before production and the movie is dedicated to him. Altman was allegedly resistant to Sterling Hayden doing the part but was eventually won over.

The whole movie has the typically Chandler-esque murkiness where it’s unclear why this happened or who did what to whom. Like, I feel like Verringer has a bigger and largely un-exposited hand in the ultimate fate of Sterling’s character. Leigh Brackett (The Empire Strikes Back) wrote the screenplay, however, and (as always with Chandler) you end up not really caring about plot details.

If you got good tools, you don't need a lot of them.
Even some of the blocking reminds me of “The Player”.

The movie opens and closes with a tinny, scratchy rendition of “Hooray for Hollywood” which is a little out of place. There’s nothing really Hollywood about the story, except for the location (Marlowe and Hippie Girls live in the Hollywood Hills). All the other music, however, is the song “The Long Goodbye”, written by John Williams (with lyrics by Johhny Mercer, who also wrote the lyrics for “Hooray for Hollywood”), all ambient and done in a variety of styles.

It’s a cute gag: It plays on the car radio through the credits. When Marlowe goes into the supermarket, it’s done in Muzak-style. There’s also an elevator version, a version done in a “soul” version, a jazz version, a version played by a mariachi band at a funeral, etc. etc. It’s cute.

It does give you a sense of the film, though: Altman eschews a lot of traditional film devices, like dramatic music at tense times. He does a lot of ambient conversation stuff that has an improvisational feel (and sometimes is improvisation). He used to say that actors thought he was brilliant because whenever they’d ask him about what a character should do or say, he’d respond with “Well, what do you think?” Anyway, you want to know that going in, which you probably do if you’ve ever seen an Altman film.

The kids all enjoyed it, though, and it won me over.

I don't think so!
Marlowe at the “Burbank Sanitarium”. Were “sanitariums” still a thing by 1973?

The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)

If nothing else, venturing out to see a French movie allows us all to sing a beloved song (from “The Critic”):

We like French films
Pretentious boring French films
We like French films
Three tickets
S’il vous plait!

Weird, though. And SO French.
“It’s not boring and only a little pretentious!”

Three now, because The Flower will sometimes come with us, as she did in the case of this Jean Renoir classic from the ’30s, which is utterly delightful when it’s not horrifying.

This 80 minute crime comedy-drama begins when a girl, Valentine, brings in a wounded man into a roadside inn. They are fleeing for Belgium—the Land of Freedom in 1936, I guess—when they have to stop because the man, the titular Lange, needs to rest from his wounds. The tavern denizens quickly realize that he is a fugitive and discuss turning him in when the girl comes out and confirms their suspicions: This is the wanted man. And all she asks is that they listen to the story before deciding whether to turn him in.

It’s a fine device, and it hinges on one premise: The movie must convince the audience that the crime is worthy of being excused, particularly if the fugitives do not get turned in.

What follows is a cute and creepily French story of a little publishing company that is run by a disreputable lout, Batala. Batala is both crooked as the day is long, swindling people and raping women, and completely devoid of creative talent, publishing the worst hacky material that (besides being bad) doesn’t really sell well. Messr. Lange is an idealistic dreamer who has written stories about the adventures of an American cowboy in Arizona (a place he’s never been, and situations that are comically fantastic) but Batala is not interested. As creative as Lange is, he’s also Batala’s polar opposite morally, refusing to even slightly pressure one of Valetine’s laundry girls who’s in love with another boy—a boy she assumes will no longer be interested in her because she’s pregnant with Batala’s child. (Did I mention that Batala is a rapist? And this is a comedy?)

"Seduction," they call it.
“She fainted! And I barely raped her!”

But while trying to swindle even more money out of some investors, Batala suddenly lights on the idea of shoehorning the investor’s product into Lange’s cowboy stories, though without telling Lange that he’s doing so. Lange gets his entirely innocent revenge when he neglects to pass on a message from one of Batala’s creditors and the crooked old man figures his jig is up. If Batala had had more time, he could’ve put them off, but since he doesn’t, he borrows as much money from everyone he can (including a girl he’s promised to marry) and flees town on the next train. The train crashes and Batale is listed as one of the victims (though the movie telegraphs something else is afoot).

Flash-forward a year and the little publishing company has taken off, mostly powered by the overwhelming popularity (with young French boys) of Lange’s cowboy stories which parallel the adventures of the actual company in a cute montage. The company itself has formed a cooperative (1936, remember, so we’re either socialists or fascists) and is doing well, down to where there’s interest in a movie about Arizona Jim.

Which is cute.
Monsieur Lange models Arizona Jim for the covers.

At this point, Batale returns. When the train crashed, he stole the clothes off a priest he had been talking to, and lived as said priest for a year while things cooled off. If he gets access to the money Arizona Jim is generating, he figures all will be forgiven and he can go back to terrorizing his staff and raping the girls from Valentine’s laundry. In a fit of pique, Lange shoots him, and this is his crime.

So, yeah, it’s a delightful movie except for a few bullet points:

  • Batala really seems to be a rapist. I mean, maybe you can put a gloss on it as extreme sexual harassment but he locks the door and physically imposes himself on (without striking) young women.
  • That’s bad enough, but they also all seem to be aware of this. Hell, Valentine sends the young girl to Batala’s office, when she has been a less than enthusiastic recipeint of his attentions.
  • None of the men do anything about this.
  • None of the men do anything about Batala, ever, until Messr. Lange, at the climactic moment.
  • The girl delivers Batala’s baby, but it’s stillborn, and when a religious old man says “It was part of the family,” everyone waits a beat, then laughs uproariously.
  • They laugh because the baby’s dead, see?
  • Apart from the villain, the only person with any agency is apparently Lange, and his only action is to be able to murder.

We’re American, of course, so maybe that’s just France: You can’t possibly stand up to anyone evil. You just have to keep working for them until you get so fed up you kill them. It’s weirdly infantile. But I would be far from the first noting that Europe in the 20th century was weirdly infantile. (And still is, really.)

France.
“I couldn’t possibly expose your crimes or tear up the contract. My only option is MURDER!”

The Flower, who has been reading the Bible, and who has been hearing of the harassment in Hollywood keeps asking why there are no Levis around? (If you don’t recall your Bible—he said smugly having just read the passage in question—Levi and Simeon kill the men of an entire village and rape all the women when their sister Dinah is raped.) I’m not sure she got the customary message from that passage but I do sort of wonder myself where all the Levis are. (Jeans joke omitted.)

Not in France, for sure.

Jean Renoir, who directed the fabulous The Grand Illusion, kind of let us down here and mostly we came out confused. The very leftist sentiment of the film led to him making anti-Nazi films on behalf of communists and subsequently fleeing to America during WWII, where he directed This Land Is Mine with Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara. I’m guessing that’s a better film—or at least one we could relate to more.

She only wants to be raped by Henri!
Estelle (Nadia Sibirskaia) is confused because Lange (Rene Lefevre) doesn’t seem to want to rape her.

Cat People (1942)

See these eyes so green? I can stare for a thousand years. Colder than the moon. It’s been so long.

As David Bowie sang. But that was for the remake of the 1942 classic Cat People, done by the always creepy Paul Schrader and starring the equally creepy Nastassja Kinski (daughter of the apex creep, Klaus Kinski) and Malcolm McDowell. Actually Nastassja and Malcolm probably aren’t as creepy as Schrader. Maybe only Klaus and Paul are on the same levels, creep-wise. But Nastasaja and Malcolm are actors, and they were actors working for creepy people at a time when creepiness was coming down from the all-time Creep High of the ’70s. And they turned this shall-we-say-“difficult” story of sexual repression into one of incest, which was forgotten almost as soon as it was released—leaving only a memorably chilling Bowie song in its wake.

Back to the topic of today’s movie-going venture, to wit, the 1942 film which is pretty damn edgy for its complete inability to be explicit.

Cats only need apply.
TFW you can’t reach the doorknob and the litter box is on the other side.

Simone Simon plays Irena, a Serbian immigrant in New York who has “no friends” when she meets the glib and handsome Oliver (Kent Smith) who charms her pants off—almost. Taking a fancy to the odd Irena, he woos and pursue and becomes absolutely smitten with her while she, slowly, becomes taken with him. It is through this process that we learn of her dark family history. This is dealt with rather circuitously in the movie, but I’m just gonna spell it out here because otherwise you can kinda find yourself going “Huh?” a lot.

Basically, Irena is part of a Serbian tribe that turns into panthers, but only when they have sex. (This is where the incest in the ’82 version comes into play, presumably, but that film is just straight up muddled as opposed to the 1942 version’s coy avoidance of censorship.) Oliver is a modern New Yorker—synonymous in every era with “know-it-all who gets himself into trouble because he’s a know-it-all”—and naturally considers Irena’s history a fairytale designed to keep young Balkan women chaste. So he pursues aggressively and even gets her to marry him.

But as the marriage wears on and there’s no connubial bliss (and not even Manhattan’s finest Freudians can help!), he begins to weary of her antics, finding her increasingly less charming as the days pass. Meanwhile, Oliver’s office “chum” Alice, while a decent enough sort to not push her affections on a married man, is increasingly looking like a more attractive partner on a number of levels. Irena, having a female’s uncanny sense of competition even before any males of the species are aware of it, was already suspicious of the whole relationship.

Unless you don't like being used as a scratching post.
Literally nothing could go wrong here.

In a classic moment, when Oliver’s deciding to leave Irena, he says something to the effect of, “The thing is, I’ve never had any trouble in my life. I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’ve never been unhappy before.” Realizing that he prefers his old life of zero trouble and unhappiness, he rather casually tosses Irena to the side.

Guys, amirite?

(See, that’s a callback to The Mummy review.)

Savages!
Irene visits with one of NYC’s many Raw Meat vendors.

Of course, part of what makes this whole movie work is its acute awareness of all the limitations placed on it. They can’t really spell any of this stuff out, on the social level. They can’t show any cat persons because, c’mon, it’s 1942 and low-budget and even the ’80s version didn’t really do a good job with the whole were-panther thing. So it’s all done with shadows and implications and dramatic lighting, and director Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton would become the stuff of legend for how successful this approach was. (The story of the film’s making was inspirational to the Kirk Douglas chapter of the 5-Oscar winning The Bad and the Beautiful.)

Like The Mummy, this was more low-key and moody than shocky and schlocky, but it’s one of those films (at a scant 73 minutes) you can watch again and again and appreciate more every time you see it.

Cole Porter, right?
o/~Lovely to look at, deadly to hold~\o

The Mummy (1932)

Swan Lake, Op. 20 by Tchaikovsky. It was used in Dracula (and Drácula) and also Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), but nowhere is it used as extensively as it is in the 1932 Boris Karloff Universal classic monster pic, The Mummy. (Though it’s used rather touchingly in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, making me think he had used a public domain version of the tune in one of his pictures but I don’t remember a specific place and can’t locate it after a two-minute search.

Shot not actually from the movie.
Just take the I-5 to the I-115 and get off where it says “DOOMED!”

Ed Wood should have used it. He used a ton of public domain music. (Here’s what I think happened: Tim Burton used it for showing Johnny Depp watching the footage of Martin Landau who was recreating Lugosi’s scene in what would become Plan 9. Wow.)

Anyway, it’s very suited for The Mummy, which is the most tragically romantic of ’30s horror flicks, as our ill-fated “monster” Imhotep, who has suffered 3,500 years of agony to be reunited with his true love Ankh-es-en-amon. While he’s been holed up in a smelly sarcophagus, she’s been cavorting through history, living life again and again only to emerge as a scantily clad flapper in 1932. And, frankly, she’s got mixed feelings about this whole “five minutes of agony for an eternity of love” business.

Chicks, amirite?

Great headdress, though.
“Is eternal life gonna be, like, icky?”

It is somewhat challenging, in the modern era, to view Imhotep as a villain—at least, in my experience, on the small screen. Karloff is the only presence that carries through and you just wanna grab Helen/Ankh-es-en-amon by the shoulders and shake her. “You’ve got Boris Karloff here and you’re interested in foppish dandy David Manners?” Manners played opposite Lugosi in Dracula as well, to similar reactions (from me) and, if scurrilous Internet rumors are to be believed, really was gay. Which is neither here nor there, I suppose.

The makeup is still astounding. Not so much the mummy wrappings as the layer upon layer of wrinkled skin that makes Imhotep look 3-and-a-half thousand years old. Despite the limiting effect on his movement, Karloff still manages to project an air of menace—he comes off a bit more sinister on the big screen, I think, and the “ask” he has of Ankh-es-en-amon looks a lot more unholy—and German emigré Karl Freund (in his debut American feature) manages to create a suitable “weird” atmosphere, if not a grab-you-by-the-short-hairs kind of experience.

It’s short: Maybe too short. An extensive reincarnation scene showing Ankh-es-en-amon throughout the ages was cut. The whole thing comes in at about 1:15, which means that, on a double-bill with Cat People, it was hardly longer than an average movie today—about the same as one superhero film.

Which was okay, because it was late—The Flower and I decided to catch the later shows after handing out candy.

Tanning with Tana!
The Mummy is here to warn you about the curse of TANNING TOO MUCH.

A Special Lady

Last time I went to Koreatown while The Flower hung out with her friends, I managed to get there just in time to score a double-feature: A Special Lady and A Blackened Heart. While the latter was a mystery thriller with a heavily dramatic third act, this was more of a straight-up gangster action flick except that the main character is a woman, and for all the preposterousness of certain aspects of it, it was very true to the main character and the limitations she would have. Allow me to elucidate.

OR maybe that's what makes her so special.
This may not be her natural hair.

Na is the right-hand woman of Big Gangster guy. When the movie opens she’s running a brothel where many important men are having much sex (rather graphically, I might add) with many beautiful Korean hookers who are all in the pay of Big Gangnam. They’re also all being filmed, because duh. (This actually was a sticking point for me: I couldn’t figure out why all these Important Guys would go to the Known Brothel, except that the girls were really cute. They must not have known—in fact, the Big Bad Cop couldn’t have known or he wouldn’t have done what he did—but there’s a distinct implication that this is an open secret—to the extent it’s secret at all.)

Anyway, Na’s son is coming into town from his private school, where he’s been kicked out again. Oh, and he doesn’t know he’s Na’s son. He knows he’s the son of Big Gangnam, though. He doesn’t think much of his mother, not knowing she’s his mother.

They may be yo momma.
Which is why you should always be respectful to random hos.

The gist is: Big Gangnam is pulling a Big Scheme to Control All The Things; meanwhile, his right-hand man (not woman) Lim wants to expand the business to include drugs and guns, something which Big Gangnam refuses to do, arguing that it leads only to chaos. Also, Lim is hot for Na, and doesn’t realize that she has a son with Big Gangnam. And there’s a cop, too. He seems like a good guy cop but quickly turns out to be very, very bad. He wants to take down Big Gangnam, but only because BG has dirt on him. This creates the atmosphere for an alliance between Bad Cop and Lim.

"The Simpsons" used to be very funny.
Bad cops, bad cops, whatchoo gonna do?

Phew.

So, this is a pretty bog-standard gangster melodrama, as noted, except that the main character is the Special Lady in question, and rather refreshingly she’s allowed to be, y’know, a woman. That is to say, she’s allowed to care about her son even when he treats her horribly disrespectfully. She’s allowed to care about other women she sees going down a path similar to the one she regrets. She’s allowed to be a badass without being superpowered and invincible.

Or the Benny Hill take-off for a different tone.
They didn’t break out into “House of the Rising Sun”…but they could’ve.

The last, in particular, is something you don’t see much in American movies. Na gets into fights with men and, generally speaking, they beat the hell out of her. Because that’s usually what happens when men fight women. But she’s smart, and she knows her limitations, so she often comes up with alternate ways of dealing with the violence directed at her. Often these plans don’t work, but you end up admiring the hell out of her for trying, and admiring the movie for letting her be imperfect.

The ending sort of drops the ball as far as that goes, but only long enough to get her to her big dramatic moment. One tends to feel that the movie earned its moment of stretching hard, literal truths because it saves that stretch to build to the narrative goal.

I liked it. It’s probably on a par with a good American action movie, but the novelty of the approach raised it above the fold for me. Even as the second film of a double-feature I was not bored or tired, which is a good sign.

I may be misremembering that.
She brings her own dry ice!