Murder, He Says (1945)

Something we don’t speak about very often is the vast number of comedies about outright murder produced during the 1940s. It seems like this decade, more than any other, made films that intentionally provoked laughter on the subject of the cold-blooded killing of people, whether it be strangers or those from within one’s domestic circle. Whether iconic works like Kind Hearts and Coronets and Arsenic and Old Lace, or slightly more obscure pieces, there was a bizarre tendency to creating hilarious stories about death during this period. One can argue that its a response to the more upbeat nature of screwball comedies, while others may see it as a logical way of filtering the frustration felt around the world as a result of the ongoing impact of the Second World War that made everyone, including the artists, extremely cynical, to the point that even those more attuned to comedic sensibilities created more caustic works in order to capture the almost absurd sense of despair that persisted in most parts of the world. Squarely in the centre of this decade sits Murder, He Says, a film that is built from some peculiar fragments of multiple genres. Directed by George Marshall (one of the most unheralded filmmakers of his generation), who looks at the story of a pollster descending into a rural part of some indeterminable part of the south, in search of a colleague that had disappeared there a few weeks before, uncovering some dark secrets along the way, the film is a thoroughly entertaining and lighthearted romp with sinister undertones, which keep us utterly enthralled, much more than we may have been in a more traditional comedy that has similar subject matter, but not nearly enough nuance to be fully-realized on quite the same level, which is where Murder, He Says manages to triumph.

Murder, He Says follows a very traditional structure – an outsider finds himself taking a wrong turn, ending up in the clutches of a clan of individuals that are best described as savage beyond comparison, and who make it very clear that they’ll go to any lengths to achieve a particular goal, regardless of the consequences (since their corner of the world is seemingly immune to outside influence). However, this is not necessarily something we find in outright comedies all that often, with the usual tendency being that it’s used in horror films. This film combines the gothic despair of James Whale’s The Old Dark House with films that would come much later, such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Deliverance, which seem to owe at least a partial amount of credit to this film for how it establishes a very simple but effective story of someone finding themselves under attack by a barbarous family who are vicious in their search to satiate a particular desire (this one being much more material, and therefore slightly less sinister), the former in particular being quite notably inspired by this film and its pitch-black sense of humour. Murder, He Says has a smart method of conveying the terror inherent to this story, but never seems to be outright aiming to frighten the viewer – the fact that there are numerous genuinely unsettling moments is more auxiliary to the proceedings, since the focus is on exploring this world and its eccentric occupants, which leads to a riveting, deeply disconcerting dark comedy with a touch of unhinged horror that may not be scary by any standard, but still carries a deeper meaning that keeps us entirely engaged, at least in comparison to other similar films that we saw produced throughout this decade, in which these matters were often addressed in a more conventional manner.

Marshall has constantly been underpraised, despite being considered a master of his craft. Caught somewhere between possessing the workhorse dedication of a director-for-hire and the enthusiastic, artistically-resonant vision of a true auteur, he amassed an impressive set of films that may be more fondly remembered either for the performances he extracted from certain actors, or their overall impact in the industry as a whole, while he remains relatively obscure, merely a name associated with the duties of a director, rather than someone whose vision propelled them. However, once you become aware of his style and interests as a filmmaker, you can find them throughout his work, with Murder, He Says providing the perfect starting point, since it contains many of his most distinctive traits, but in a form that is much more accessible and endearing. We’re never quite sure how to categorize this film – it’s as much a dark comedy as it is a deeply unsettling psychological horror, and what is quite interesting about what Marshall does here is that rather than taking a story about murder and trivializing it in a way that it seems less macabre, he intentionally leans into the more sinister underpinnings. It may make the film somewhat uncomfortable, but it adds a level of nuance that simply would not have existed had he not had a penchant for the absurd and a love for the deranged. As a result, there was very little need to soften the blow of dark humour – we’re tossed into this hostile territory, accompanying the protagonist on his quest to escape from a group of murderous individuals who show very little hesitation in helping their victims find a timely demise, and whether or not we can surrender to the madness inherent to the film is up to the individual viewer, many of whom may find it difficult to fully get on the film’s wavelength.

For a relatively minor comedy with broad overtures of horror, Murder, He Says boasts quite an impressive set of performances. Interestingly, while there are some recognizable faces, the film is notably paltry when it comes to major stars – Fred McMurray is the sole exception, since he was one of the most acclaimed actors working at the time, and brought the precise kind of genial charm to a film that truly benefitted from it, especially since he was not someone who demanded attention every moment he was on screen, being more than happy to concede to his co-stars, who are playing far more interesting characters, which was entirely by design (since McMurray was acting as more of an audience surrogate), bringing our focus to the rest of the cast, who are just as good. Notoriously gifted at villainy, Peter Whitney pulls double duty in the dual roles of the dimwitted brothers which are both hilarious and foreboding, while Jean Heather is beguiling as the creepy young woman whose lack of self-awareness adds a level of disconcerting complexity to the film. Helen Walker (who was clearly being positioned to be a major star in Hollywood, but never quite established herself beyond a few memorable roles) is a worthy companion to McMurray, with whom she has incredible chemistry, and Porter Hall, one of our greatest characters actors, steals every scene he is in as the impish scientist who serves as the catalyst for much of the film’s tension. However, the true gem in Murder, He Says is undeniably Marjorie Main. A classically-trained actress whose most notable success came in the role of Ma Kettle in nearly a dozen well-received films featuring the character alongside “Pa”, Main effectively plays on her reputation by taking on a character that is similar in theory, but exists as a darker version of this archetype – and she’s the heart of the film, playing one of the most deliriously evil villains in cinema history, giving a performance that can stand toe-to-toe with many other antagonists, and which essentially helps the film maintain a sense of absurdity, especially at its more offbeat moments, in which the performances from the entire cast are crucial.

Murder, He Says is a bizarre curio of a film – in theory, it seems like an entertaining but inconsequential film that offers very little based on the supposed thinness of its premise. However, in practice it is something else entirely – what starts as a relatively conventional comedy turns into a much darker social satire, the kind of wonderfully insidious film about the perversion of humanity that was seen as almost taboo at the time, especially in genres that were more intent on offering mindless entertainment more than provocative commentary. There’s a more complex film lurking beneath Murder, He Says, and while it may not always be consistent in how it uses some very promising material (often defaulting to a slightly more wacky sense of humour, it undoubtedly to still allows the film to be accessible to a broader viewership), there’s value in the small details that constitute most of what makes the film so compelling, and Marshall proves that he could create something special with some of the most absurd prompts any director could possibly be given. Hilariously dark, and caustic to the point of bordering on cynical (without becoming too bitter), this is a masterful example of how pitch-black mainstream Hollywood comedies could be, granted they maintained some degree of decorum. A hidden gem of an era where such stories were more obscure, Murder, He Says is ripe for re-evaluation, especially from a more contemporary audience, who will likely find that not only does this film seem oddly prescient in how it anticipates the rise of an entire genre in later decades, but has aged so well all on its own, leading us to view this as nothing short of an unconventional comedic masterwork.


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