Murder, He Says
March 18, 2021
nyone who has seen 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace — Frank Capra’s boingy black comedy about a man (Cary Grant) who discovers his seemingly sweet spinster aunts are closeted serial killers — should think of Murder, He Says (which was also shot in 1944 but shelved until 1945) as a companion piece. It too is a charming comedy with manslaughter on the brain; it also about as smoothly combines these
two seemingly poles-apart sensibilities without any hitches. Murder, He Says is about a good-natured pollster, Pete Marshall (Fred McMurray), in rural Arkansas hoping to find his co-worker, who recently vanished without a trace. Logically, Marshall heads to the last place his colleague was said to have visited — a middle-of-nowhere farmhouse belonging to the Fleagle family. He's dumbstruck to find that this clan is perhaps responsible for the disappearance. (Marshall figured they would at most merely point him in the right direction, but almost as soon as he wanders onto their property, one of the family’s sons tries to kill him by forcing him into a ditch.)
It isn’t confirmed, necessarily, whether the Fleagles are all-out serial murderers like the sugar-sweet aunts in Arsenic and Old Lace. But one wouldn’t be wrong, I don’t think, to think of them as a cuter variation on the homicidal kinsfolk seen in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Dominating the house is Mamie (a wonderful Marjorie Main), a perennially-pissed-off matriarch who carries around a comically girthy whip like another woman might a purse. Also living there are her large adult twin sons, Mert and Bert (Peter Whitney), forever picking fights and usually clutching a weapon, and her daughter Elany (Jean Heather), who has seemingly escaped inside herself as a respite from her persistently-riled-up family members.(Though Elany is in her 20s, she suggests a little girl who never grew up.) Confined to the upstairs bedroom is Mamie’s mom (Mabel Paige), who has reason to believe she isn’t organically hurtling toward death’s door. When someone shuts the lights off, her body brightens up the room as if it were a glow stick. She has to have been poisoned, but by whom specifically she can’t be sure. She can't trust anybody.
Marshall would like to just come and go. But after only a few minutes visiting Grandma Fleagle, she reveals to him a secret something all her living relatives would kill to know — and when you have knowledge the Fleagles would kill for, chances are high they aren’t going to let you go. Recently, one of their estranged relatives, Bonnie (Barbara Pepper), was involved in a bank robbery. Before landing in jail, Grandma buried the $70,000 Bonnie got away with in a stash a little way from the house. Thinking Marshall is Bonnie’s boyfriend, Grandma Fleagle gives him a major clue to where it is. That the hint sounds like nonsense is intentional — she doesn’t want her family, who are collectively responsible for her death, to be able to torture the information out of Marshall. (That won't stop them from trying, though.) Then she croaks.
Naturally everything in the Fleagle household descends into what amounts to a battle of wits. For a while, this battle threatens to turn into a full-blown cat-and-mouse chase around the property — Marshall versus the Fleagles. The Fleagles try various mechanisms to get Marshall to spill; Marshall tries as best he can to detangle the nonsense words Fleagle breathed in his ear without being obvious about it. Complicating matters is the arrival of a tough-talking, gun-toting woman named Claire Matthews (Helen Walker) claiming to be Bonnie, whom the Fleagles have never met. (Claire reveals to Marshall in confidence that she is actually the daughter of a man wrongly implicated in the bank robbery; she wants the hidden cash — or at least some of it — to ensure an exoneration.)
Lou Breslow’s lively screenplay remains in a state of madcapery — its energy never shows signs of waning. There are two particularly inventive slapstick gags in Murder, He Says. One involves an overtaxed lazy Susan table: everyone in the house decides to have dinner together but everyone also knows that one of the plates (Claire’s) has been poisoned by Mamie. The other involves a hay bailer in the barn. (To spoil their details would be to diminish surprised laughter.) George Marshall’s direction isn’t quite as topsy-turvy as Breslow’s general sensibility; sometimes it feels like from behind the camera he’s just watching all this mania unfold rather than guiding it. (One wonders how Frank Capra, who directed Arsenic and Old Lace with vitality, might have handled the material.) Still, Murder, He Says is one of the better slapstick comedies of its era. It knows that having an outlandish premise isn’t enough, and so appropriately — and consistently — feeds it with amusing hecticness until it can’t take it anymore. B+