For those of us, born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, who knew Fred MacMurray solely as the dad in live-action Disney comedies and My Three Sons, it invariably came as a surprise when we would see him in serious or downright unsympathetic roles in such movies as The Caine Mutiny and The Apartment. From the late 1930s through the ’50s, though, MacMurray was one of Hollywood’s most popular and versatile leading men. This was perhaps best demonstrated in 1944-45, when the actor headlined no fewer than eight films. Among them were director Billy Wilder’s classic noir thriller Double Indemnity; a pair of romantic comedies with frequent co-stars Claudette Colbert (Practically Yours) and Paulette Goddard (Standing Room Only); the time-travelling musical Where Do We Go from Here?; and the biodrama Captain Eddie, in which he played WWI flying hero Eddie Rickenbacker. Along the way, Fred also managed to star in a marvelously goofy and unjustly overlooked slapstick dark comedy of mistaken identities, homicidal hillbillies, a glow-in-the-dark grandmother, an escaped female convict, a hidden fortune…and an NPR theme song?
Murder, He Says, released by Paramount in 1945, opens at a general store in a sleepy little burg somewhere in the Ozarks, where the hillfolk are thrown into a tizzy by the news that Bonnie Fleagle–part of the notorious Fleagle clan, a gun-happy gang of neighboring outlaws–just busted out of prison. Picking that very moment to pedal his way into town is MacMurray as Pete Marshall, a bike-riding survey-taker for the Trotter polling company (“Same as the Gallop Poll, only we’re not in quite as much of a hurry”) who’s attempting to track down a co-worker that vanished in the area weeks earlier. Pete’s search for his missing comrade leads him even further into the backwoods…and into the not-so-tender mercies of the aforementioned Fleagles: short-tempered, bullwhip-weilding matriarch Mamie (Marjorie Main, who’d co-star with MacMurray two years later in The Egg and I); her dim-witted twin boys Bert and Mert (menacing screen heavy Peter Whitney) and addled daughter Elany (Jean Heather); and Mamie’s latest husband, would-be inventor and toxins expert Mr. Johnson (veteran character actor Porter Hall, best known now as the twitchy Macy’s store psychologist in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street).
There’s one other member of this oddball brood: bed-ridden Grandma Fleagle (Mabel Paige), who’s slowly being poisoned with a substance that causes her to light up in the dark. Grandma, you see, knows the whereabouts of $70,000 that Bonnie and her bank-robber pa tucked away before being sent off to jail, and Mamie and company will stop at nothing to learn where it is. That includes convincing wayward pollster Pete–at gunpoint–to pose as Bonnie’s boyfriend, in the hopes that Grandma will tell him before kicking the bucket. The dying woman gives Pete a sampler with musical notes stitched on it (“To them what doesn’t know the tune,” she tells him, “sounds like the ravin’s of a loon”) that offers a clue to the cash. But a hitch arises when an on-the-lam Bonnie (Helen Walker) shows up, gun in hand and looking for the loot. This “Bonnie,” however, is actually Claire Matthews, daughter of a banker wrongly convicted of being an accomplice to the Fleagles, and she’s after the money to clear his name. In order to do so, she and Pete must solve the riddle of the sampler’s mysterious melody and the nonsensical-sounding lyrics that Elany sings to it (“Honors flysis, Income beezis, Onches nobis, Inob keesis”).
Much in the playfully macabre style of such thriller/comedies as Arsenic and Old Lace, Hold That Ghost! and the Bob Hope hit The Ghost Breakers (which this movie makes a reference to in one scene, a fine in-joke as both films were directed by George Marshall for Paramount), Murder, He Says walks a fine line as it delivers heaping helpings of both laughs and chills. Along with a potentially fatal sit-down dinner where a spinning Lazy Susan-style table and a poisoned dish turn the meal into a comedic game of Russian Roulette, there are multiple chases through secret passages and a climactic barnyard battle with an automatic hay-bailing machine. The bone-riddled decor of the Fleagles’ run-down abode looks like a precursor for the house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the scene where Pete encounters a luminous dog–one of Hall’s test animals, no doubt–running through the woods could have come from The Hound of the Baskervilles. Marshall keeps the sometimes perplexing goings-on moving at a brisk pace (or Trotter).
As for the performances, MacMurray may not have been as suave as Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace or as quick with wisecracks as The Ghost Breakers’ Hope (who, some sources say, this picture was originally intended to star), but he shows off the range that made him a box office favorite here, going from befuddled to fearful to heroic without skipping a beat. And leading lady Walker, whose film career and personal life never quite recovered after she was involved in a 1946 car crash which claimed the life of one of three soldiers she was giving a ride to, is a suitably spunky heroine. But–as in often the case with films of this type–it’s the bad guys who make watching it worthwhile. The always-formidable Main mixes her soon-to-come Ma Kettle persona with a little Ma Barker as the conniving Mamie Fleagle/Smithers/Johnson, ready to play the “poor old lady” just before brandishing her bullwhip (killing a fly in mid-air in one scene), while the shifty-eyed Hall is continuously popping up from a trap door or hidden passage. The best of the bunch, though, is the hulking Whitney in his dual role as Mert and Bert (the trick photography allowing both siblings to appear on-screen is quite convincing, even by today’s standards). When MacMurray asks how you tell them apart, Main explains that Bert has “a crick in his back,” then demonstrates by slapping Whitney’s back…instantly dropping him to his knees in a contorted, immobilized heap.
Oh, and that NPR theme I mentioned in my opening? Just listen to Elany sing Gramdma’s song and see if it doesn’t remind you of the opening notes to “All Things Considered.”