Tuesday, November 8, 2016

More Than "A Slight Case of Murder" (1938 and 1999), Part One

How many mystery novel titles have been repeated over the decades?  Surely a great number of them.  Both "Murder is Easy" and "Easy to Kill," the British and American variant titles of a popular late Thirties standalone Agatha Christie mystery, had been used as titles before Christie came to them, for example.

"A Slight Case of Murder" is the title of both a late Thirties Edward G. Robinson country house murder farce and and a late Nineties black comedy starring William H. Macy.  Both are very good and happily available on DVD.

Edward G. Robinson's A Slight  Case of Murder (1938) is based on the 1935 play of the same title by Damon Runyon and Howard Lindsay.  Like the play, the film tells the story of New York gangster and bootlegger Remy Marco (Robinson), who decides to go "legit" as a brewer with the end of Prohibition and become a respectable businessman. 

Remy has an idea
Huber, Jenkins, Robinson
Unfortunately over the next few years Remy starts losing money hand over fist, because his beer (which he has never actually tasted) is really rather awful.  (People took what they could get during Prohibition.)  As the film proceeds, he's having to fend off bankers about to foreclose on his brewery, while keeping the news of his financial meltdown from his wife, Nora (Ruth Donnelly), and daughter Mary (Jane Bryan), who has just arrived back home from an outrageously expensive Paris finishing school. 

More trouble on the horizon: Unbeknownst to Remy, Mary is engaged to Dick Whitewood (Willard Parker), the scion of an old upper class family in Saratoga Springs, where Remy has taken a country house for the season.  Remy wants Mary to marry "up," so to speak, but the problem here is that Dick, at Mary's behest, has taken a job--as a state trooper.  Cops and their ilk are something that Remy simply can't abide.

Meanwhile, up at Saratoga Springs an armored truck full of bookie's money has been robbed by old cronies of Remy's and the gang of crooks has holed up with the boodle at Remy's house.  One of the crooks shoots the the others, leaving four dead bodies at Remy's place.  (He also keeps hanging around trying to get the money out of the house unobserved.)

Remy's little helpers
Huber, Jenkins, Brophy
So when Remy arrives to open the house party with his entourage, which also includes a trio of three gang underlings--Mike (Allen Jenkins), Lefty (Edward Brophy) and Guiseppe (Harold Huber)--and, as a philanthropy case, an egregiously wiseacre juvenile delinquent, Douglas Fairbanks Rosenbloom (Bobby Jordan, of Dead End Kids Fame), they find themselves presented with the classic crime film dilemma, so beloved by Alfred Hitchcock: what do we do with the bodies?

There's yet more complication, like when Dick Whitewood's snobbish "old money" father (Paul Harvey) shows up to scout out his prospective in-laws. You get the idea by now: it's going to be a most frantic country house party!

I quite enjoyed this movie.  Edward G. Robinson of course is one of the great contributors to the crime film genre, known, like James Cagney, for playing tough gangsters in films like Little Caesar and Key Largo, but like Cagney he actually had great range and was equally adept at comedies like A Slight Case of Murder and "straight" dramas as well, like Dr. Erlich's Magic Bullet, based on a real life man of medicine who courageously battled the scourge of syphilis.  He also played sympathetic characters in classic noirs like Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window

Breaking some bad news to the wife
Donnelly and Robinson
Most of the supporting cast puts in masterful performances too.  I especially liked Ruth Donnelly as Remi's wife, who like Remy, is having trouble adjusting to the ways of respectable society, and Jenkins, Brophy and Huber as Remy's crook underlings, who, like Remy, are having trouble straightening themselves out, so to speak.  These three men were all great genre character actors who you will certainly recognize if you have watched many crime films from the period.

What with all those bullet-riddled bodies upstairs, A Slight Case of Murder is most definitely a crime film, but it's also a film most definitely played for laughs, like a French farce without the sex. (The movie's young lovers are exceedingly wholesome.)  But if you allow that murder can share the stage with mirth, you should like A Slight Case of Murder--and not just slightly.

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