Fred MacMurray is Caught up in Some Hilariously Dark Fibble-Fabble!
DIRECTED BY GEORGE MARSHALL/1945
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: APRIL 7, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Fred’s Feudin’ Fightin’ and Funnin’ with a Two-Gun Pin-Up Gal…and Her Hillbilly Killer-Dillers!
That’s the kooky tagline for 1945’s Murder, He Says– one that, it must be stated, accurately and completely captures the beginning-to-end spirit of this somewhat forgotten film. From director George Marshall (who also made Bob Hope’s Ghost Breakers, which is amusingly referenced in this film), Murder, He Says is a downright cockamamie yarn carried by star Fred MacMurray, who plays a naive pollster from the big city poking around a rural nowheresville in search of a missing business associate.
MacMurray’s upright stiffness is every bit as well utilized by Marshall for comedic ends as it was the year before by Billy Wilder for cool suspense in the Noir staple Double Indemnity. Yet, his performances couldn’t be more different. The man clearly wielded an all under-appreciated versatility, here ranging into nutty pratfalls, double takes, and physical comedy. One thing, though, is for sure- long before his career-defining stint on My Three Sons, MacMurray was something of an expert on the subject of murder!
MacMurray’s investigation in this one-horse town quickly takes a turn for the ominous when he finds himself stranded as an unwanted guest at the creepy home of some homicidal hill folk, the notorious Fleagle family. Replete with secret passages, trap doors, hidden compartments, and even a gentle old mad scientist, the house itself is nothing if not Scooby-Doo-ready. Plenty of things in which to get caught, turned around, hung up, and just plain stuck! Also, as trigger-happy Granny Fleagle (Mabel Paige) reveals on her death bed while glowing-in-the-dark (poisonous water in the house induces an eerie luminance- a reoccurring motif throughout- Thanks, mad scientist!) that there’s a big ‘ol stash o’ cash out there waiting for its true heir, whom, in that moment, she believes to be the very confused MacMurray. The key to the cash is somewhere in the house. The search is on!
The Fleagles themselves are a collective piece of work all right, one act of cannibalism removed from becoming the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family. (Critic’s note: This detail was a part of this review before hearing the comparison made on the Blu-ray’s audio commentary track). Led by the gruff, whip-crackin’ matriarch Mamie Fleagle Smithers Johnson (Marjorie Main of Ma and Pa Kettle fame), the three Fleagle siblings, it’s fair to say, share the collective intelligence of a box of doorknobs. And that’s taking into consideration that in this house, doorknobs tend to come off and/or not work properly. Two of the three siblings, Mert and Bert, identical twins with a particularly twisted bloodlust (Peter Whitney in an impressively executed duel role), ensue that the property damage never, ever ends.
The tagline’s bit about “a Two-Gun Pin-Up Gal” isn’t entirely accurate, though. For one thing, no one, gal or otherwise, ever has more than one gun. Second of all, at least three characters might qualify for the description of an average “pin-up gal”. There’s the murderous prison escapee and distant relative Bonnie Fleagle (Barbara Pepper), who just so happens to be the true heir to the missing money. But never mind her, she’s obviously too mean and dangerous to deserve such a windfall. Which brings us to Claire Matthews (Helen Walker) as a cash-strapped impostor posing as Bonnie. Claire arrives well before the real Bonnie, meaning she’s able to pull off her ruse until the real mccoy barges in and ruins everything. But neither woman is going to get the fortune without a fight with the Fleagles, which even involves the benign, attractive but wild-eyed-delusional grown daughter, Elany (Jean Heather). Of the three, the “pin-up” in question is probably supposed to be Helen Walker’s Claire, though she’s certainly no mere glamour girl, as she’s plenty competent and cunning.
Murder, He Says is truly a wonderful discovery; one of those vintage Hollywood gems just sitting there patiently waiting for today’s comedy buffs to stumble onto it. With the release of this fantastic new Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber Studio Classics, now is your chance. The film’s new 4K master certainly helps in terms of delivering the visual quality that this film deserves. Filmmaker/Historian Michael Schlesinger and Film Archivist Stan Taffel make good use of their audio commentary, delivering a solid, old-school track with systematic attention paid to each key member of the cast and crew. (The only other extras are trailers, including one for this film and Ghost Breakers).
Ultimately, though, it’s the crackling direction by George Marshall that elevates the 1940’s hokiness of Murder, He Says into timeless territory. The film’s unusually dark streak is handled with perfect precision, giving total credence to both the peril and the absurdity of it all. There is literally never a dull moment in Murder, He Says– something that, despite its fairly obscure status today, audiences back in the day did not overlook. In fact, rigid door-to-door pollsters would’ve probably found a refreshing consensus of citizens who laughed themselves silly. He may say “Murder!”, but we say “Mirthful!”, “Merry!” and “Uproarious!”