Monday, July 22, 2013

PLEASE MURDER ME! (1956)

Contrary to what you might think, Please Murder Me! isn't my wife's reaction when I corral her into watching something like this. Nor is it even a completely unique idea in the film noir canon. A lawyer, Craig Carlson, is having an affair with Myra, who's married to Joe Leeds, his best friend. When Myra's arrested for murdering Joe, Craig successfully defends her, only to discover she's guilty after all.  With the sheer number of similar movies I've watched, I'm genuinely surprised I trust any women at all.

For sheer clarity, the title Please Murder Me! sure beats Quantum of Solace. But there's got to be more to keep a viewer's interest. Fortunately, Please Murder Me! is a terrific movie, the kind with twists you don't see coming, and keeps getting better as it goes along. In other words, it's nothing like life.
Raymond Burr tells Dick Foran he's in love
with his wife. Foran responds the way they
always do in old movies, by talking in a
different direction.
                                                                         
An interesting bonus comes in the casting. Raymond Burr plays Craig Carlson as something of a screentest for his career-making role as Perry Mason, which was to debut one year later. Known primarily for bad guys up 'til Please Murder Me!, Burr gives Carlson a whiff of emotional depth not hinted before or after. Certainly Perry Mason never would have blackmailed a woman into killing him just so she'd serve time for somebody's murder -- and because he feels guilty for unwittingly helping her get away with shooting her husband. If only more lawyers were so conscience-stricken!

A rare photo of Raymond Burr
kissing a woman.
Then there's fellow-TV-icon-to-be Angela Lansbury as Myra, the two-faced, nasty, psychotic -- the type I immediately recognized from past relationships. Similar to her co-star's character, Myra could be considered to a predecessor to her turn as Laurence Harvey's manipulative mother in The Manchurian Candidate in 1962. And as with the latter, Lansbury appears older than her age. She's only 31 in Please Murder Me!, yet could easily match Burr's 39 years. Now that she's 88, she could pass for the mother of the 71-year old Paul McCartney. 



The usual film noir signatures are scattered throughout Please Murder Me! The lurid title, for one thing. Some nighttime location cinematography. People in half-shadows. Unusual camera angles. Hard-bitten dialogue: "You're a murderess, Myra. Anything that happens to you won't be enough!" Yet it's the courtroom scenes that
Take a good look; this is the only time you'll
see Raymond Burr doing this.
jump out at you simply because you keep thinking, That's Perry Mason up there. Only it isn't. And you know it isn't because this lawyer actually gets to address the jury. Perry Mason would have merely hectored Myra until she broke down and cried, "Yes! I admit it! I killed him!", thus cutting the trial short once more.



Background checks optional.


A couple of the location shots provide historic interest. In the pre-credit nighttime sequence, we follow Burr walking down an L.A. street until he enters a  pawnshop featuring a window display that would give Mike Bloomberg  a heart attack: dozens of firearms of all kinds, piled up atop each other like puppies in a pet store, just looking for a good home. Shopping was so much easier then.

If this had been a Kubrick movie,  critics
would claim the billboard was his ironic
comment on the story. Me, I know it's
because it was cheaper to shoot outdoors.

Then there's the scene when Burr gets out of a taxi. Across the street is a large billboard advertising Lucky Lager. I had to do some research to learn that it was once the largest selling beer in the Western states. (Its clever slogan:  "It's Lucky When You Live in California." Tell that to the people who live near the pawnshop that doubles as an armory.) Little moments like this are better than all the history classes I sat through in school. I should've become a teacher.


If I did this, my wife would yell,
"Look at me when I'm talking to you!"

Neither Burr nor Lansbury were what you'd consider "stars" in 1956, although they'd been around since the '40s. Having been used to Burr as a heavy in most movies, were audiences surprised that he could play sympathetic so believably, thus paving the way for Perry Mason? And Lansbury -- was this rare foray into evil what she needed to eventually land the role of a lifetime in The Manchurian Candidate? As my wife sighs when I bring up such philosophical questions, "I don't know, dear." Meaning, "Do I look like I care?"


Perry Mason never had lighting or
or camera angles like this.
I wouldn't be surprised if both actors considered a programmer like Please Murder Me! something of a step down from the bigger budget movies they'd become used to. (Just two years earlier, Burr played the key role of the wife killer in Hitchcock's Rear Window.) On the other hand, a movie was a movie, and as long as the check cleared they could pay the rent for another few months. And as years went on, and those residuals for Perry Mason and Murder She Wrote arrived in the mailbox, they could afford to look back, bemused, when they appeared in a movie with a title like that. Add the credit featured on the poster -- A GROSS KRASNE PRODUCTION -- and you've got something that sounds like a bad joke. Fortunately, Please Murder Me! is one more movie waiting to be rediscovered by film noir fans. As with Double Indemnity, you know how it's going to end two minutes into the movie, but it doesn't matter. It's how it got to that point that makes it a fascinating story -- and warning to men everywhere. Before you fall for a married woman, make sure she didn't marry her current husband for money. You never know if she wants to cash in the easy way.



                                     
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