Friday, August 16, 2013

MONEY MADNESS (1948)

At some point in their lives, kids are astonished to discover their parents once had lives before, well, being parents. Imagine what Theodore and Wally Cleaver would have thought if they discovered their father, Ward, used to be a sociopathic killer.

Well, not really, but that's Hugh Beaumont from Leave it to Beaver starring in Money Madness as career criminal Steve Clark. After hiding $200,000 from a bank robbery in a safe deposit box (thanks for the idea!), Steve worms his way into the life of innocent Julie Ferguson. Discovering that poor Julie lives with her nasty Aunt Cora, Steve comes up with a brilliant idea. After two dates, Steve marries Julie before poisoning the battleax. Fast worker, right? Julie inherits the house and suddenly finds a mysterious trunk with 200-grand in the attic. Hey, it could happen to anyone!

"Hands off the threads, lady."
The first inkling you get that Steve's three grains short of a granola bar -- besides poisoning Aunt Cora, I mean -- is when he confesses the crime to Julie. Concerned that Cora's taken a turn for the worse, Julie tries calling a doctor. From out of nowhere, Steve quietly appears and hangs up the receiver. In the quiet, measured tones one would use when describing swatting a fly, Steve explains:

You said I was different. And I am. I don't figure things the way most people do. Now take Aunt Cora for instance. She's old. She's no good to anyone in the world. She's unhappy and she's made you unhappy. There's no reason for her to live. So I -- well, I... fixed her tea last night and her grapefruit juice this morning.

If you look carefully, you can see a smile cross his lips, the kind a child would offer his mother after successfully tying his own shoes for the first time. It's at this point his performance crosses the line from eerie to terrifying, staying on that track for the rest of the picture.

"That'll be a buck and a half. Or I'll cut
you up into little pieces and throw you
to the badgers."
Steve tries to blend in by driving a taxi, which, if you're a New Yorker, sounds like a typical job for an escapee from an institution for the criminally insane. Soon, he starts showing up everywhere Julie happens to be, making a line like, "Your ride's waiting, miss" sound like a disturbing threat. So terrified is Julie that she can't confide the truth of the situation to her own lawyer (who's in love with her). Steve, you see, pointed out that it was she who actually served the spiked drinks to Cora. Their marriage, as Steve calmly explains, is predicated on neither of them testifying against the other in a court of law. Which is as good as any other reason most people come up with.

Money Madness appears to have the happy ending most American movies indulge
in: bad guy killed, girl safe in the arms of the man who loves her. That is, until you remember the entire movie was told in flashback -- and that, in the first scene, Julie was sentenced to prison for ten years for being Steve's accomplice even though she was entirely innocent. Man, talk about cynical!  I guess the moral the moviemakers were trying to get across was Don't talk to men. It's bad for your health.
A familiar sight in my home.

If you still can't wrap your head around the idea of Ward Cleaver as a killer, then one viewing of Money Madness will set you straight. Something of a Poverty Row-Fred MacMurray in looks and style, Beaumont is far more intense here. And, if I haven't made it clear enough, capital-C Crazy, more believable than, say, the grandstanding Jack Nicholson in The Shining. As with other actors discussed on this blog, Beaumont's performance would be considered classic had Money Madness been a major studio release instead of getting lost in the B-movie shuffle. That Beaumont is totally convincing in such an evil role is more astonishing when you consider that he was, at the time, a Methodist minister who took acting gigs to raise money for his church. God and Hollywood work in mysterious ways. 

Despite the idea I might have given you, not every B-movie is a classic in hiding. Most don't even pass the threshold of mediocre. Often, I've despaired that I might have seen all the ones worth watching. Then along comes something like Money Madness, a solid, well-made thriller that comes alive in the very first scene, then keeps ratcheting things up during its 72-minute running time. (Why do most filmmakers today seem to think "The longer, the better"?) I found it almost difficult to describe because it should be seen, as I did, unfamiliar with the story or the plot twists. Some rainy day -- or better, night -- swing over to YouTube and give it a shot. If nothing else, you'll never watch Leave it to Beaver the same way again.



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