As I have stated before I enjoy the concept of film noir. If you are unfamiliar with the term, it was created by French essayist Nino Frank to describe a specific sub-genre of mysteries that became popular post-World War II (although the concept had been around for a few years prior).
I could try to describe film noir, but I think David J. Hogan does a much better job in his book Film Noir FAQ:
“As noir evolved, themes became increasingly familiar. You do not control the circumstances of your life. Choices you agonize over are likely to be bad ones. Choices you make without thinking are likely to be worse. Whatever you love and value can be taken from you at any moment. Forces greater than you, and greater even than your leaders, can conspire to destroy you. These forces are no smarter than you, but they have the power and you don’t. You are not a true participant in the events, only an observer. If you are particularly foolish, or just unlucky, you will be a victim.”
(David J. Hogan; Film Noir FAQ; pg xiv).
There are several tropes that pop up in the average film noir. One is a regular schmo who gets caught up in some rather unsavory incidents due to his being just an innocent bystander (the “victim”). Another is the femme fatale. The schmo can be seduced easily by a pretty woman, and in the case of the film noir, the woman is not so innocent as public perception would lead one to believe. (The “values that can be taken”). And, as always, there is a puppeteer behind the scenes manipulating the poor schmo (the “forces greater than you”).
By 1949, the film noir movie had been developing into a well-loved genre, and was ripe for parody. Along came Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, who had already been hard at work parodying one of the classic Universal monsters of days gone by, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. (The rest of the Abbott and Costello vs. mosnters would come later).
In Abbott and Costello Meet The Killer, Boris Karloff, we finally got the match-up of the comedy duo and the monster king. (Boris Karloff had declined to participate in the Frankenstein parody because he felt the monster genre deserved more respect, but he apparently had a change of heart by this time).
A group of reporters await the arrival of a bigwig attorney, Amos Strickland (Nicholas Joy). Freddie (Lou Costello), a bumbling bellboy gets off on the wrong foot with Strickland by breaking his glasses, dropping his golf clubs on the man’s foot, and in general just being a clumsy fool. Strickland adamantly demands that the manager, Mr. Melton (Alan Mowbray) fire Freddie. When this happens Freddie indignantly tells Strickland he will get even with the attorney.
Later, Freddie goes to Strickland’s room to try to apologize and hopefully get his job back. Unfortunately Freddie finds the murdered body of Strickland. And, of course, Freddie is bound to be suspect number one, since he had previously threatened the man. His friend, hotel detective Casey (Bud Abbott) tries to help by declaring Freddie wouldn’t do such a thing, but the police are not so sure and demand that he be held under house arrest.
A host of other guests also are suspects. Much like the riders in the Murder on the Orient Express, they all have some previous association with Strickland. These include a Swami (Boris Karloff), and our femme fatale Angela Gordon (Lenore Aubert). All of these people have some sort of motive for killing Strickland and thus work in conjunction with each other to shift the blame to Freddie and away from themselves.
In particular, Angela tries to seduce Freddie and gets him to sign a confession to the murder. Ostensibly the idea is presented to Freddie that Freddie will find the murderer and get him to sign the confession, but that is not her true intent. And the Swami will use his powers of hypnotism to try to convince Freddie to commit suicide, thus eliminating any potential for Freddie to discredit the confession.
Meanwhile, two other murder victims show up. Unfortunately for Freddie, they show up in his hotel room; in the closet, in the bathtub in his bed…. Casey and Freddie try to move the bodies out of Freddie’s room, leading to some of the funnier antics of the film, including Freddie and Casey trying to pretend to be playing cards with the two dead men, and Freddie dressing up as a maid to transport the bodies in a laundry cart. (And this scene includes an hilarious exchange between Freddie and the night manager (Percy Helton) who tries to put the movies on the “female” Freddie).
So who actually killed the three men? Was it our psuedo swami? Was it one of the three duplicitous women? Or was it Freddie’s friend, Casey? One thing we know. As pretty much pointed out in the film, it wasn’t Freddie…he’s not smart enough to have pulled it off.
As far as film noir goes, this film is a pretty good example of how one can take the tropes of the genre and twist them around. It’s not as good as The Maltese Falcon or any other of a number of classic serious entries in the genre. But compare it to some of the really low-budget poverty row entries and it shines.
Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.