Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Murder, he watched


“In exactly 55 minutes, I will be dead,” high-powered defense lawyer Craig Carlson (Raymond Burr) intones into a reel-to-reel machine…and he’s not messin’ around, boy—he’s purchased the gun and ammo at a pawnshop before the opening credits of Please Murder Me (1956). Carlson then tells the story of how he had to have “the talk” with best friend/WW2 buddy Joe Leeds (Dick Foran)—no, not that “talk”; the one where he informs his pal that he’s fallen in love with Joe’s wife Myra (Angela Lansbury). Despite the fact that he’s a low-down, despicable wife-snatcher, Craig wants to be fair about this whole thing and asks Joe to give his wife a divorce, something the cuckolded husband tells his former friend he’ll have to think about over the next two days. Upon reaching a decision, Joe confronts Myra in their bedroom one rainy night…and moments later, gets a lead bullet for his trouble.

Craig agrees to defend Myra on a murder charge by pleading self-defense, and even though the prosecution’s case is airtight, the lawyer resorts to a novel defense during his summation by informing the jury that Myra was justified popping a cap in poor Joe because she was in love with another man…namely, Craig Carlson, attorney for the defense. (I’ll bet Perry Mason never thought of that angle!) With Myra acquitted, the future Mr. and Mrs. Carlson celebrate at an intimate party with friends and make plans for both their nuptials and honeymoon—but during the canapés and champagne, a business associate (Robert Griffin) of Joe’s hands Craig a letter that he was supposed to deliver the night of Joe’s murder. Joe warns in his missive that Craig should run fast and run far—“because Myra isn’t a woman, she’s a disease.”

Please Believe Me is one of two shoestring B-melodramas presented as a double feature on an Alpha DVD I recently purchased from Oldies.com. I’ll get to the merits (or dearth of) of the second feature in a sec, but I have to admit I was genuinely surprised by Please, a quickie much better than many of the commenters over at the IMDb would have you believe. (To put things in perspective, I’d say it’s not as good as Woman on the Run but miles and away better than C-Man.) The only real demerits in the film are technical ones, related to the print used for the DVD; there are a number of severe audio problems (dropouts) and an annoying white line than runs down the center of the screen for about 80% of Please’s hour-and-fifteen-minute running time. What amuses me most about Alpha’s release of Please is that they’ve superimposed the company logo on the left side of the screen during the picture’s opening credits—though why anyone would want to duplicate such a clearly crappy print is a question I can’t answer. Oddly enough, Alpha proves its point because forty-seven minutes into the film, there’s a logo on the right side of the screen that reads “Mill Creek Entertainment.” (“Vultures! There are vultures everywhere!”)

It’s the performances in Please that raise it above the average B-noir fodder: Burr is in dress rehearsal for his long-running role on CBS’ Perry Mason, and Lansbury is icy-cold as the conniving femme fatale. You’ll spot some familiar character faces both from the worlds of television (Denver “Uncle Jesse” Pyle is a detective working the murder case, while an uncredited Madge “Aunt Harriet” Blake plays Burr’s housekeeper) and old-time radio (I Love a Mystery’s Russell Thorson is the presiding judge, and Tarzan/future film director Lamont Johnson plays Lansbury’s artist/lover). The smartest bit of casting is John Dehner (or Mister John Dehner, as my musician pal the Chief calls him, in deference to Have Gun, Will Travel billing), who plays the D.A. and, hence, Burr’s courtroom adversary. OTR fans know that Burr played the role of Lee Quince—“captain of cavalry!”—on the underrated Fort Laramie, but it was Dehner who had first crack at it in Laramie’s audition (OTR-speak for “pilot”). In fact, Please has a definite OTR aura all around it: the plot resembles a fleshed-out Suspense story, and when the movie was done I grabbed the Martin Grams book to see if it actually had its origins on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills”—but came up with nada.

Lansbury encores as a femme fatale in the second feature on this DVD, A Life at Stake (1954), by playing a kittenish wife who talks a down-and-out architect (Keith Andes) into a real estate/construction partnership. But quicker you can say “Frank Lloyd Wright,” the couple move from partnership to relationship, sneaking around behind the back of Lansbury’s husband, played by Douglass Dumbrille. Dumbrille insists that Andes take out a hefty life insurance policy ($175, 000) as security for his and Lansbury’s business—but when Angie’s little sis (Gloria Barrett) lets slip that Lansbury’s first husband was also larded up with life insurance (and died under mysterious circumstances) Andes begins to think there’s something not quite kosher about the deal. His suspicions multiply when he comes close to checking out of Hotel Earth in not one but two auto-related mishaps.

Stake’s a disappointment when compared to Please—Lansbury is good (maybe even better here than in Please) but having Andes—a graduate from the Guy Madison-George Nader College of Beefcake—as your leading man is a bit of detriment (though if we apply TDOY’s Blind Squirrel Theory of Film™, he doesn’t stink too bad in Dick Powell’s 1953 nuclear thriller Split Second—a guilty pleasure of your humble narrator's). In general, the characters in Stake are pretty much cardboard caricatures, with Dumbrille practically telegraphing his villainy and Jane Darwell completely wasted in a teensy role as Andes’ landlady. Character great Paul Guilfoyle directed this mess (and would later become a much-in-demand TV director on shows like Science Fiction Theatre and Highway Patrol) and Hank McCune, whose 1950 TV sitcom is the first documented program to make use of the laugh-track, wrote and produced (and composed the theme song…industrious little beaver, wasn’t he?). Stake is recommended only for the indiscriminating insomniac.

1 comment:

Harry Heuser said...

Thanks for this review. I got Stake and Please in a 100 Movie Pack (a bargain at $33), also with the Mill Creek logo. I've been working myself through that pack since I purchased it in NYC last June. I haven't watched Stake yet, but I guess, reading your review, I needn't bother. I approached Please thinking that it might be a version of Suspense plays "Murder on Mike" or "Murder for Myra"; it isn't, but, as you point out here, there are plenty of radio angles all the same. Now, Woman on the Run, also in the pack, is a superior noir. I was pleased to see the rating it got on the IMDb. Did you cast your vote there?