Film Noir Friday: Please Murder Me (1956)

pleasemurderme

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Peter Godfrey helms Please Murder Me, a terse 1956 film noir featuring Angela Lansbury and Raymond Burr. The two leads would obviously go on to television fame in subsequent years, but here they tackle some interesting themes in what is a satisfying movie drama. Please Murder Me takes just 78 minutes to weave its web of deception and destiny.

Based on a story by David T. Chantler and Ewald Andre Dupont with a screenplay by Donald Hyde and Al C. Ward, Godfrey’s film hinges largely on a significant twist that alters the audience’s perception of one major character. It recalls, at least in angular fashion, Lansbury’s portrayal of Doris in Paul Guilfoyle’s 1954 noir A Life At Stake.

Here, Lansbury is Myra and Burr is Craig. Craig is a defence lawyer and he’s in love with Myra. One problem: Myra is married to Craig’s friend Joe Leeds (Dick Foran). Craig breaks the news to Joe, who wants some time to think things over. After writing a letter, Joe heads home to confront Myra and winds up dead via gunshot. Myra swears up and down it was self-defence and the case goes to trial.

Craig is Myra’s lawyer for the trial and the district attorney (John Dehner) begins to present his evidence, showing that there were no signs of a struggle. Craig blames “hysteria” on any inconsistencies and gets Myra off (in more ways than one). What’s more, money wasn’t an issue because Myra was in love with Craig. The revelation seals the deal and cements the woman’s innocence. Or does it?

There are various objects of importance in Please Murder Me that lead to various key revelations. Joe’s letter could be considered Exhibit A and Craig gets his hands on it. This changes everything and doubles-down on Craig’s guilt, which he already has in spades due to his betrayal of his friend and war buddy. Said culpability proves to be a powerful motivator.

The underpinnings of Craig’s guilt are first displayed when he tells Joe about the affair and his expectations in the first place. He’s tentative but assured. He loves Myra, goddamn it, and he’s going to fight for it because the heart wants what it wants. When Myra is introduced, she doesn’t share his apprehension and seems even more certain of chucking the luckless Joe.

Planting these seeds is what Please Murder Me does best. It builds a capable, compelling narrative with little scenes and little moments, building to a big reveal that comes as it must and has bearing because it’s earned. There’s nothing cut-rate about this saga of darkness, desire and acceptance.

The framing device, Burr’s hopeless foreshadowing, is a vivid way of ensuring that fate carries out its foul business. He will pay the ultimate price and the audience knows it. The value, then, is in shaping the worth of the “sacrifice.” Craig is a man who made a mistake, a man who stepped into the deep end.

Craig is a pawn. The painter Carl Holt (Lamont Johnson) is also pulled into the netting and every strand snares the men of Please Murder Me. These threads are gathered like evidence by the director, who prudently plays out scenes. Some might say the courtroom scenes are unnecessary evils, but they do provide key disclosures.

Please Murder Me is Godfrey’s last film and it’s a pithy summation of his career. The English director cut his teeth on repertory theatre and the like in London before coming to America and starting in Hollywood as an actor. He directed pictures like Cry Wolf with Errol Flynn and honed a nose for mystery.

While many would consider Please Murder Me a lesser noir, it’s worth seeing as an example of how to do more with less. The stars are game and Lansbury is chilling and sizzling at the same time. The direction is crisp and unfussy. And the plot has enough twists and turns to please genre lovers, with a taut web damning all who dare.

 

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