Tuesday, 7 January 2020

The Manchu Eagle Murder Caper Mystery (1975)


Director: Dean Hargrove
Writers: Dean Hargrove and Gabriel Dell
Stars: Gabriel Dell, Will Geer, Anjanette Comer, Joyce van Patten, Vincent Gardenia and Barbara Harris


Sure, I’m remembering important people to film on what is or what would have been their one hundredth birthdays, but I want to do it by finding interesting and unusual movies that don’t get a lot of press. Today, the 7th January, would have been the centenary of Vincent Gardenia, an Italian actor so associated with New York that he was named the “King of Brooklyn” at the Welcome Back to Brooklyn Festival in 1989, became an honorary chief of the New York City Emergency Medical Service and was memorialised on the map of Brooklyn after it renamed a section of 16th Ave. to Vincent Gardenia Blvd. in his honour. The catch for us, of course, is that there are many New York Italian actors who quickly spring to mind: Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, Danny Aiello, Armand Assante, Sylvester Stallone... the list goes on. Unlike them, however, Gardenia was a New Yorker actually born in Italy: in Naples. He moved to the US with his family in 1922 at the age of two and started acting three years later in a local Italian language acting troupe.

Fast forward a hundred years and we can look back on his major career. Three films in which he appeared were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (The Hustler, Heaven Can Wait and Moonstruck). He was personally nominated twice, fourteen years apart and both times as a Best Supporting Actor, for Bang the Drum Slowly and for Moonstruck. He didn’t win either, being beaten on the former occasion by John Houseman for The Paper Chase and on the latter by Sean Connery for The Untouchables, but he did win both an Emmy and a Tony. The former was awarded for a 1989 TV movie called Age-Old Friends, for which Hume Cronyn also won; the latter was for playing opposite Peter Falk in The Prisoner of Second Avenue. While we’re counting awards, he also picked up a pair of Obies for off-Broadway productions, in 1960 and 1970. Eagle-eyed readers might notice that Rue McLanahan also won an Obie in 1970; the two would go on to play wife swappers on an episode of All in the Family in 1972, before Gardenia became a regular.

From an uncredited role as a trainee German spy in the 1945 film noir, The House on 92nd Street, to the 1991 comedy, The Super, he appeared in 39 feature films, plus another fourteen TV movies, and they offer a spectacular choice to someone like me looking for an interesting title. He played Danny the Gimp in Cop Hater, still under the name of Vince Gardenia, and Dutch Schultz in the 1961 version of Mad Dog Coll, credited in between Jerry Orbach and Telly Savalas. He was in Hickey & Boggs, Greased Lightning and House of Pleasure for Women, the latter being a satirical Italian comedy, not the porn movie you might expect. He was high billed in Goldie and the Boxer, a TV movie showcasing the family skills of one O. J. Simpson. He was Det. Frank Ochoa in the first two Death Wish movies and Mr. Mushnik in the 1986 musical version of Little Shop of Horrors. He even did a horror TV movie called The Screaming Skull with David McCallum, which was based on an old F. Marion Crawford story. Oh yes, there was much for me to choose from!

But I couldn’t resist this one, a bizarre 1975 spoof version of The Maltese Falcon starring a dream cast playing their roles ruthlessly straight, however ludicrous the action gets. You all remember the original with Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and the new double act of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, among other major names. Well, these are a different level of names but most of them are recognisable ones. For instance, taking Bogart’s role is Gabriel Dell, not a name that might quickly turn into a face in your mind, but he was one of the Dead End Kids, staying with them long enough to become the East Side Kids and finally the Bowery Boys. He was the one who often played a role outside the gang, on one instance even playing a crook fighting against our heroes, meaning that his career was more interesting. He made other films too and, according to some reports, provided the uncredited voice of Boba Fett in the animated section of The Star Wars Holiday Special (i.e. the only actual good bit).
Here, he plays Malcolm, and he’s far from the capable private eye that Sam Spade was. In fact, he’s not really a private eye at all, or at least not yet. Sure, he’s recently qualified from the Famous Detective correspondence school in Battle Creek, MI, who may have spelled his name incorrectly on the certificate, and he’s circulated his flyers to anyone who might be interested, but there are only about a hundred and twenty folk in this unnamed town, presumably somewhere in rural California. How much business can there be for a private dick here? Well, I guess he still has his hatchery, at which he’s attempting, with the narcoleptic Dr. Melon, to breed chickens which will lay coloured eggs with a picture of the Resurrection inside them. Did I mention that he both looks and acts like Peter Sellers playing Inspector Clouseau in disguise. That’s telling, because Malcolm is just as inept, if not as slapstick. His first case is Oscar Cornell, the local milkman, who is promptly shot dead with an arrow before explaining much of anything.

Now, you might think that he’d just report this opening death to the local authorities, but Malcolm doesn’t do that. He thinks that, if the news got out that his first client died within a couple of minutes of hiring him, it would ruin his business, so he just hangs up the corpse on a clothes hook in the closet and investigates the murder. Of course, this decision may have something to do with the fact that his pet scientist, Dr. Melon, is played by Sorrell Booke, remembered by one and all as Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard; the local sheriff, Det. Chief Anderson is Jackie Coogan, TV’s Uncle Fester; and his inept assistant, Deputy Roy, is Huntz Hall, another of the Bowery Boys. This is great for us, so much comedic talent cramped together in a tiny town (I should mention that our victim, Oscar Cornell, is played by Dick Gautier, the robot on Get Smart), but it’s hardly optimal for a new private eye wanting clients. There is absolutely no way that any of these characters are going to be remotely competent in this story!
We’ve already met the cops at this point, because the film starts with Chief Anderson and Deputy Roy interrogating Malcolm, their table lamp firmly in his eyes, but ignoring pretty much everything he says. In fact, after asking him to start from the beginning, the pair of them just wander off leaving him monologuing film noir style to the air. No, they’re not competent. We meet them quickly in the flashback that constitutes much of the film too, as Malcolm’s first stop is the motel named on a matchbook in Oscar’s pocket, where he finds not only the cops but a dead goat wearing pyjamas. Did I mention that this one is going to be a strange one? Well, it gets a lot stranger, because every character here seems to have been carved out of a solid chunk of gimmick, with almost zero care given to stringing the gimmicks together into a story that makes any sense. Maybe the writers, Dell himself with the film’s director, Dean Hargrove, aimed to spoof The Big Sleep as much as The Maltese Falcon and the whole point of that was that it made no sense.

By the way, I could avoid spoilers here by not pointing out what the gimmick behind Oscar Cornell is. Theoretically, we’re supposed to figure that out as the film runs on, but it’s entirely obvious from the outset and everywhere else, like IMDb and Wikipedia, gives it away in synopses such as, “A chicken hatchery owner (and novice private eye) tries to solve the arrow murder of local milkman, philanderer and animal fetishist.” So there you have it. He’s an animal lover. Literally. He took animals on his many visits to women on the side and made the girls jealous by petting the animals instead. Helen Fredericks explains that she ached for Oscar to pet her, but he’d pet the goat instead. Susan the goat? “That’s her. Bitch.” Helen is played by a delightful Barbara Harris, who, like Gardenia, was a life member of the Actor’s Studio, and her gimmick is that she’s suicidal. When she gets home, there’s a noose hanging inside the door, the oven’s on (with a pillow inside) and there’s even a tray full of sleeping pills by her bedside.
Malcolm’s wife, Ida Mae, has a gimmick: she’s lazy, refusing to leave a bed because she “just had an appendectomy”. Eight months ago. She’s played by Joyce van Patten and she watches The Gong Show while Malcolm does his Japanese Air Force exercises. The cops share the same gimmick: instead of doing their jobs, they spend their time acquiring things for the office from crime scenes. Given that Oscar is into partners with four legs, it shouldn’t be too surprising that his wife Jasmine’s gimmick is that she’s a nympho who hasn’t been touched in twelve years of marriage. She shows up at Malcolm’s hatchery in her widow’s weeds, keeps disrobing until she lies down on his desk in her underwear, then slaps him when he kisses her, tells him that she’s a married woman and leaves. A local bartender, Bert, speaks entirely in clichéd sayings. Another unnamed character who apparently never leaves Bert’s bar is only ever visible while sleeping: on the pool table, by the door. He has nothing to do with the story and he still has a gimmick.

And then there’s the Jessup family, who are clearly at the heart of the matter. Oscar didn’t get a chance to say much but he did say that someone was trying to kill him and that’s probably Big Daddy Jessup, the richest man in town, who’s been hiding his daughter Arlevia away in a barn and doesn’t appreciate that someone, least of all Oscar the milkman, has been sneaking in to see her on the sly. Big Daddy is Gardenia and he has more life than almost anyone else in the film (we haven’t met Will Geer yet), so much so that before Malcolm can throw a question his way, he hires him to find out who’s been seeing Arlevia. That shakes things up. So does Malcolm’s visit to Arlevia, played by the lovely Anjanette Comer from The Loved One and The Baby. Given that she’s isolated in her barn cum apartment, she’s as eager for male attention as Jasmine, though she gives her kisses in between cryptic pronouncements. She has a gimmick too, because everyone here has to, except, I guess, Vincent Gardenia as Big Daddy Jessup.
Certainly Will Geer has a couple. He’s the town doctor, Simpson by name, who gets a single but memorable scene late in the movie. Not only does he take his own pills in crazy abundance but he proclaims that every woman in town who won’t sleep with him is a dyke or a drunk or a fruit or some suitably pithy derogative. For as brief as it is, it’s a strong performance by Geer, unlike anything I’ve seen him do in the past. Of course, most people know him as Grandpa Walton, a character as far away from Dr. Simpson as can be comfortably imagined, but he was a principled activist, a friend of Woody Guthrie and a Communist blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with HUAC. Dr. Simpson would have called Guthrie something rude and named everyone he knew to HUAC just because they wouldn’t sleep with him. It’s fantastic to see Geer and so many other character actors and underrated comedians populate the tiny town in which this film is set. If only it were real, what a surreal place it would be to live in!

If I haven’t mentioned much of the story, it’s because there really isn’t much of a story. It’s reasonably obvious whodunit, though it isn’t quite as simple as that. However, we really don’t care that much. This is an exercise in building quirky characters out of those gimmicks and vaguely stringing them along into something that resembles a script. Every one of the actors plays their part straight and every one of them is a delight. That this is not a great movie has nothing to do with them, only the underlying goals of the film and its resistance to making anyone remotely realistic. In many ways, this is an alternative live action cartoon, both way behind its time and far ahead of it. If I haven’t mentioned how this specifically riffs on The Maltese Falcon, there is a continuing subplot about a Manchu Eagle, something that Oscar talked about to everyone. Does it have any particular meaning? Not really, but then the falcon only represented something that could only be sought. This doesn’t even have that much.
And if I haven’t mentioned Vincent Gardenia much yet, that’s because I’m leaving one particular scene until now. Many of the gags here are surreal takes on film noir investigators. Jasmine Cornell’s part here is utterly ridiculous but it spoofs the many ladies who threw themselves at whatever PI Bogart was playing that week with just as ridiculous abandon. That it isn’t realistic isn’t the point, Jasmine is only taken a little further than the characters that she’s spoofing. And, if you remember the film noir gunfights in which bullets flew but nobody seemed to die, then you’ll absolutely adore the scene with Malcolm, Big Daddy Jessup and his son, Freddie, swapping gunfire. None of them have anything to hide behind, so they’re all shot. Because this is 1975, we’re in colour and blood is able to spurt, so it does with wild abandon. In fact, everything that gets shot bleeds profusely, including the fenceposts, Malcolm’s car and even the ground itself. It’s utterly outrageous, gloriously overdone and both Dell and Gardenia clearly have fun with it.

This really isn’t a film for everyone and probably isn’t a film for many. It’s funny and clever in its way, but kids today would call it stupid because they wouldn’t understand what it’s actually doing and why. This isn’t a spoof like Airplane! or The Naked Gun where anyone can appreciate the silliness even if they don’t know the targets of the spoof. It’s a spoof that relies on us knowing film noir detective film tropes and recognising them as they wander on by. It’s also a spoof that benefits from us knowing the actors in play and their careers, because we watch them here as much as part of those careers as just one item in them. And, even then, it’s still a surreal, non-commercial spoof that was probably doomed to obscurity even in 1975. It is, however, the sort of film that could build a cult following from the right spark. After all, many of these actors are cult favourites today: Comer, Harris, Coogan, Geer, Dell. I might even add Nicholas Colasanto to that: Coach on Cheers but Bert the bartender of many clichés here. Welcome to the cult!

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