Fred MacMurray tries to stay alive in... Murder, He Says (1945)


Murder, He Says might be one of the oddest films from classic Hollywood I've ever had the pleasure of seeing. A dark(ish) comedy in the vein of Arsenic and Old Lace, the movie is about a pollster who goes to a hick town in search of a missing colleague. When he is told that his colleague was last seen going to the secluded home of the vicious Fleagle family, the pollster stops there to investigate... and gets much, much more than he bargained for as he realizes that the Fleagles are a dangerous bunch who have been poisoning their own grandmother in order to find a stash of money she hid in the house, money stolen by Grandma's favorite grandchild (and a current resident of the state penitentiary), Bonnie.

Playing the innocent pollster who gets mixed up in all of this is Fred MacMurray, one of the most underrated comedic talents we ever had. Every time poor MacMurray thinks he has escaped the Fleagles, he gets caught all over again, leading to plenty of priceless reactions and funny schemes as he tries his best to make it out of the house alive. It's actually quite impressive how quick-thinking his character is, particularly since the Fleagles are not an easy gang to trick.

Although at first glance they appear to be your standard hillbilly stereotype, they're not exactly stupid. Mamie Fleagle (Marjorie Main), for instance, is very clever
and tends to see through MacMurray's escape plans pretty fast. Her twin sons, Mert and Bert (Peter Whitney), are more brawn than brain, but they still have the scary ability to pop up anywhere and everywhere, as does Mamie's third husband, the creepy Mr. Johnson (Porter Hall). Rounding out the group is Mamie's daughter Elany (Jean Heather), a sweet girl who has gone mad but may prove to be the key to finding Bonnie's fortune.

While Murder, He Says is a delightfully wacky film, there is no denying that the Fleagles, with the exception of Elany, are brutal, despicable people. I mean, there is a reason the movie's working title was Murder Farm -- that's how violent they are. Their greed certainly knows no bounds as they try everything they can think of to get Bonnie's money, including poisoning Grandma and forcing MacMurray to pretend to be Bonnie's boyfriend so the old lady will reveal to him the location of the cash before she dies. When a woman (Helen Walker) appears claiming to be Bonnie, the family wastes no time in trying to poison her, too, a plan that is hilariously thwarted by MacMurray thanks to a rotating table and the poison's propensity to glow in the dark.


Director George Marshall achieves a genuinely spooky atmosphere throughout the film without lessening the script's laughs. He also did well with the special effects, especially with Mert and Bert. I honestly thought there was a pair of twins playing those guys and not just one man. Kudos, of course, to Peter Whitney as well for such a great performance.


One of my favorite performances of Murder, He Says, though, belongs to Helen Walker. What a fierce, incredible presence she was! I'm always so impressed by her, from her work as the calculating femme fatale in Nightmare Alley and Impact to her appearance as the bored socialite in Cluny Brown. (Her scene with Charles Boyer where she nonchalantly screams to get him out of her room while continuing to read her book is simply unforgettable.) Unfortunately, Walker's Hollywood career didn't reach the heights it could have. A year after Murder, He Says was released, she was involved in a car accident that killed a hitchhiker and led to her being charged with drunk driving. She was soon acquitted and went back to making films, but after 1955's The Big Combo, she retired from acting at the age of 35 and would pass away from cancer twelve years later.


Oddly enough, Jean Heather, who also does a terrific job in Murder, He Says, found her career struggling after a car accident, too. She had only done ten films -- including Holiday Inn (as an uncredited dancer) and Going My Way -- before she was thrown from her car in 1947 and suffered intense lacerations to her face. For many classic film fans, Heather is best known as Lola Dietrichson from Double Indemnity, another Fred MacMurray film. Like Lola, there is an air of tragedy about Elany Fleagle. No one in her family treats her with even the slightest bit of love or respect, undoubtedly because of her kind spirit and, let's face it, her mental disability. There is one heartbreaking scene where a shadowy figure tortures Elany for some information, causing her mind to become more fragile than ever. I don't want to give everything away, but I'll just say that Elany gets her revenge in the end and it is wonderful.


With such an eccentric cast of characters being played by such talented actors, it is a testament to Fred MacMurray that he still manages to completely own the film. He effortlessly sells his character's terror, panic, and ingenuity. He is also just flat-out funny, whether he is interacting with a "ghost" to scare the twins or pretending that Bert's legs are his own when he is cornered by the real Bonnie. (That fantastic gag, by the way, was superbly recreated by Gene Wilder forty years later in Haunted Honeymoon.)

Murder, He Says is a wild ride that you can't help being tickled by. It is a prime example of the kind of film that nobody makes today: an unashamedly daffy hybrid of slapstick and mystery that promises plenty of thrills and even a few chills.
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This is my entry to the Fred MacMurray Blogathon, hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Check out the other tributes to this amazing man here!

Comments

  1. Great job on a quirky flick I would think would be challenging to write about.

    I am no longer surprised at how many personal favourites can be found among George Marshall's filmography including about a half a dozen movies with MacMurray. Whitney and Walker are outstanding. No. I give my applause to everyone who plays this material perfectly.

    PS: On horse flies is
    In comb bees is
    On chest knob is
    In knob keys is

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    1. Thank you! It was much tougher to write this post than I expected. I didn't want to give everything away, especially since I'm sure there are many people who haven't yet seen this film, but that's not so easy when some things are just begging to be talked about (like the glowing poison).

      If I had had more time, I would've dedicated more words to George Marshall. It's fascinating how he often worked with the same people over and over, such as MacMurray, Bob Hope, Glenn Ford, and Jerry Lewis. He is clearly a director who deserves more recognition.

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  2. If this film has your Stamp of Approval, Michaela, I know I'll like it. This blogathon has shown me how few Fred MacMurray films I've seen; I'll be scrambling to catch up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have a feeling you'd enjoy this one, Ruth! MacMurray had a long and varied career, that's for sure. Another oddball film of his that I almost covered for this blogathon is No Time for Love with Claudette Colbert. It's basically all about how attractive MacMurray is -- not even kidding.

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  3. How on earth have I never heard of this film? It sounds so entertaining!

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    Replies
    1. It's something special! I hope you enjoy it whenever you see it.

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