Tuesday, October 01, 2013

"Murder Most Foul" (1943)

Just so you know, this is probably going to get reeeeeally long.  Given how much I love Hamlet and film noir, clearly a joining of the two is a dream come true for me.  I mean, probably the only thing I would like even better is a western version of Hamlet, and someone made one called Johnny Hamlet (1968), an Italian western that I've never managed to find.  Yet.  Give me time ;-)

But anyway, about Murder Most Foul (1943).  I suppose that, given how many noir movies Hollywood was cranking out in the early '40s, it was inevitable that someone would get the bright idea to rewrite Shakespeare into a murder mystery.  And I'm so glad they chose Hamlet instead of Macbeth!  Obviously.

I'm also glad they tapped Otto Preminger to direct!  This is a year before his masterpiece Laura, but you can see a lot of the same wonderful work here, with unusual camera angles to highlight subtleties, like how Claudius' murderous hands are almost always in the shot with him, sometimes very prominently.  Or the way the camera hovers over Hamlet's (Alan Ladd) shoulder while he gives his version of the "to be or not to be" speech, watching his reflection in the mirror behind the bar where he's drowning his sorrows with a bottle of scotch.  We see him "reflecting" on death by watching his reflection -- it's just one of many deft little camerawork touches.  But what do you expect from Preminger, right?

Okay, so, before I go on, I should note that this version does NOT use the original language from Shakespeare's play, except in one small scene.  Maybe that's why they retitled it, so audiences would know not to expect "Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I" kind of language.  Instead of saying "To be or not to be, that is the question" to his tumbler of scotch and the near-empty barroom, Hamlet says, "Here's how it is:  either I'm in or I'm out."  Just one example, and any purists out there will probably throw up their hands and run screaming for the emergency exits, but I like it.  Much as I love modern-set Shakespeare that uses the original language, I think this is a better choice for the genre and the actors.  I mean, can you really hear Veronica Lake saying, "I shall in all my best obey you?"  Nah, you know she sounds way more natural saying, "Sure, sure, anything you say."

So, here's how they updated the story (and I'm not going to say anything about spoilers, because if you don't know the basic story of Hamlet by now, that's your problem):  Old Hamlet (Orson Welles, in not the best old-age makeup I've ever seen), founder and CEO of Denmark Inc, dies -- his secretary finds him dead on the couch in his private office, presumably of a heart attack during a quick nap.  Young Hamlet (Alan Ladd) returns from UCLA, accompanied by his best friend, Horatio (Joseph Cotten), to attend the funeral.

Cotten as possibly the sweetest Horatio ever.

And then he has to stay to attend the wedding of his mother Gertrude (Barbara Stanwyck) to his uncle Claudius (Humphrey Bogart).  While this clearly bugs Hamlet, he makes good use of the extra time at home by continuing the flirty affair he and Ophelia (Veronica Lake) have had going since he was home from college the previous summer.

Ladd as an irresistible Hamlet.

But then the night after his mom's remarriage, he's sneaking down the hallway to visit Ophelia when he hears someone in the library calling his name.  Curious, he ducks inside, and there's the ghost of his father ready to tell him all about how he was actually poisoned by Claudius and Gertrude to cover up their affair and take over his business.  I have to say that the special effects are pretty good.  You can't see through the ghost, he's just sort of flat-looking, but he never looks cartoony or anything.  Then he just gets fainter and fainter until he disappears.  No swirling or whooshing or anything cheesy.

Orson Welles as Old Hamlet's Ghost

So Hamlet decides to investigate these accusations, and he enlists Horatio's help.  He suspects that Ophelia's dad, Polonius (Sidney Greenstreet) might know something about it, since he'd been Old Hamlet's right-hand man since before Young Hamlet was born.  But Polonius just gives him a lot of smarmy double-talk and won't answer any actual questions.  Hamlet tries to get Ophelia to ask her dad about it, or even her brother Laertes (Dana Andrews, who totally needed more scenes).

Andrews as Laertes, considering some advice he just got from his dad.

But Ophelia's afraid Polonius will rat to Claudius if she gets too nosy -- now that Claudius is head of Denmark Inc, Polonius has done a lot of boot-licking to keep his position as indispensable butler-assistant-advisor-errand boy.  To further complicate matters, Polonius soon asks Ophelia to pump Hamlet for information to figure out how much he knows.  She runs and tells Hamlet this, which makes him sure Polonius is in on any funny business.  But she doesn't feel she can spy on her father, and Hamlet doesn't force her to.

Don't you yearn for a happy ending for them?

Claudius gets suspicious anyway, and Gertrude suggests that they ask Hamlet's boyhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Elisha Cook, Jr. and a horribly miscast Peter Lorre) to try to figure out what Hamlet is up to.  In return for a hefty amount of stock in the family company, etc.  Speaking of the company, when Old Hamlet died, another company called Fortinbras Enterprises tried to take over, and their CEO (Glenn Ford) keeps smirking around and threatening to buy up all the loose shares he can find to stage a coup or whatever you want to call it.  Gertrude is desperate to keep control of Denmark Inc, and she gets Polonius to send out false rumors about the company's well-being to keep stockholders happy.  Or something like that -- I got a little annoyed by how the plot got sidetracked into business politics for a bit.

Must admit I don't mind the sidetracks as long as this Fortinbras is around.

But it soon gets back on track.  Hamlet and Horatio get some college buddies of theirs who are into theater to make a record of this radio drama that actually uses Shakespeare's original dialog for "The Mousetrap," that play-within-a-play from Hamlet.  Then Hamlet just happens to listen to it when Gertrude and Claudius are around, and of course, they both look and act all guilty, though they try to be nonchalant.  Hamlet confronts Gertrude in her sumptuous boudoir, Polonius eavesdrops in the closet, and Hamlet ends up pulling out a gun and plugging him.

Stanwyck as Gertrude, thinking she can get away with murder.

Then everything unfolds rather fast -- Gertrude actually confesses her complicity to Hamlet, trying to convince him she's changed and doesn't deserve to die.  But Claudius overhears this, and when Hamlet leaves, he comes in and strangles her -- and I just about fell off my swooning couch!  Cuz that's obviously not how the play goes at all, but it totally works here.

Humphrey Bogart as Claudius, all guilty.

Hamlet goes out to confide in Horatio, who's looking all over for him because they just found Ophelia dead in the swimming pool out back.  Laertes comes running in, convinced Ophelia killed herself because Hamlet had ended their relationship (which he hadn't), so he's bent on revenge, waving a gun around and yelling a lot.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inform him that Hamlet just killed his dad too, which makes Laertes pretty much lose it -- I've never seen Dana Andrews act so angry before, and my goodness, my TV screen kind of sizzled for a minute or two.  He and Hamlet wind up outside the family mansion, shooting at each other from behind whatever cover they can find and trading angry quips between bullets.  They manage to wing each other, but nothing serious.

Then the screenwriter starts totally making stuff up.  Ophelia's ghost appears and tells them that she drowned herself because Claudius kept making passes at her and threatening to fire her dad if she didn't give in to his advances sooner or later.  Hamlet and Laertes both see and hear her, and they quit shooting at each other and go hunting for Claudius, who's been watching from an upstairs window.  I don't think he saw Ophelia's ghost, but when he sees both young men head for the house, he gets nervous, and when they get inside, he's up at the head of the stairs with a pistol of his own.

Bogart's Claudius trying to... talk them out of shooting him?

They shoot at him, he fires back and hits both Hamlet and Laertes.  But Hamlet gets him too, and Claudius topples over the railing and falls spectacularly to the floor.

Horatio runs in just in time for Hamlet to tell him Fortinbras should get to run the company and to make Horatio promise to tell his story truthfully and fairly to the press and police.  Then Hamlet dies in Horatio's arms, and Joseph Cotten looks so broken up I cried a lot more than I expected to.

Which brings us back to the cast.  I like most of their choices, especially Alan Ladd as Hamlet and Joseph Cotten as Horatio -- they play off each other so naturally, like good college buddies who know they're in over their heads here.  Veronica Lake as Ophelia, well, she's okay.  You know studio heads wanted to capitalize on the success of the Ladd/Lake pairing in This Gun for Hire (1942) and The Glass Key (1942).  I can think of better Ophelias, but I can think of worse too, so I'm not going to quibble.  I think her "ghost" scene worked really well, even though it's not in the original play.

Having Orson Welles play the ghost of Hamlet's father seems laughable at first -- come on, he's two years younger than Alan Ladd!  But he's got that wonderful voice, and that makes up for it.  Mostly.  The aging makeup still is kinda crummy, IMHO.  Oh well.  It's also illogical to have Barbara Stanwyck as Hamlet's mother, since she's only 6 years older than Ladd, but she's so darned gutsy and sneery and good that I don't care.  I wish that Dana Andrews as Laertes had had more screen time, but I always wish that about Dana, and he's a pretty good Laertes, though I wish he'd been more affectionate toward Ophelia.  But we can't all be Liev Schreiber, can we?

Honestly, the only actor I think was truly miscast is Peter Lorre as Guildenstern.  He looks too old to be Hamlet's boyhood friend, though they did a pretty good makeup job to hide that... dunno, maybe I'm just too used to him being sinister, ala The Maltese Falcon (1941).  Also, he spent too much time looking broody and contemplative -- like he wished he was playing Hamlet himself instead.  It was odd.

Lorre's overly broody Guildestern

I thought Humphrey Bogart did a fine job as Claudius -- sarcastic and sexy and honestly quite scary.  Definitely not one to mess around with.  You can see why Barbara Stanwyck's Gertrude would go for him.

And there's one of those hands again.

So, here's how I rank the various portrayals in this version, for comparison with other Hamlets I've seen:

Hamlet:  A
Horatio:  A+
Laertes:  B
Ophelia:  B-
Claudius:  A-
Gertrude:  A-
Polonius:  B-
Overall Production:  A-

If you're wondering where to find and watch this movie yourself, well, I'm afraid you can't.  The truth is, I made it up out of my head for the Great Imaginary Film Blogothon hosted by Silver Scenes.  I'm sorry, that was mean.  I know, I know, it's not even April Fool's and this was no fair, but I couldn't resist playing like it was real.  I even got my sister-in-law to create the movie poster for it to put at the beginning of the post.  And wasn't it perfect?  I'm very blessed to have such a talented digital artist in the family :-)

Visit the Silver Scenes blog to find links to all the other great entries into this unusual and imaginative blogothon!


  1. Aaaagh! I was totally fooled! I was actually intending to go straight to my library and see if I could get it out 'cause it sounded good...and then I read the end and just stared at the screen for a moment. So funny! :D

    1. Hee :-) I sooooooooooo wish it was real. I would own several copies if it was!

  2. Brilliant. Absolutely love the movie poster, love the title, love the casting, love the changes to the script (which I can really just picture all of it, including ghost Ophelia). I don't want a copy of this... I NEED a copy of it. It would be so much fun.

    This is fabulous! I think it made my day, even if I can't get my hands on a copy or watch a grainy pilfered version on youtube.

    1. Oh, and that pic of Glenn Ford as Fortinbras? Just plain dig it. Want to go watch all my Glenn Ford movies all over again.

    2. I have to admit that I stayed awake past 11 last night imagining various scenes and how delicious they would be. I'm so glad you liked it :-D

    3. And yeah, this plus what we discussed last night has me in a HUGE Glenn Ford mood. I'm thinking of pulling out 3:10 or Texas later this week.

  3. The updated dialogue, the cast, the poster (three cheers for your sister-in-law) - everything is perfect. Your imagination and "Murder Most Foul" will, you should pardon the expression, haunt me.

    When I got to the picture of "Orson Welles as Old Hamlet's Ghost" I nearly bust a gut. Too much!

    1. Thanks! I'm glad it amused you :-) And I concocted the Ghost picture myself, so I'm especially glad to hear that made you laugh!

  4. I "forced" my husband and daughter to read about "Murder Most Foul" last night and they think you're a genius!

    My daughter: "Oh no. Bogie is Claudius!" She also has a thing for Dana Andrews. I think I heard her sigh at that picture.

    1. Awww, that is high praise indeed! I'm glad they got a kick out of it too. Also, your daughter has good taste :-) I had to crop up that picture, but she can go here to see the whole thing. One of my favorite Dana pics :-9

  5. I love this, especially the dialogue: "Here's how it is: either I'm in or I'm out." That's perfect! Great job on the movie post, too.

    1. Thanks! I'm glad it amused you :-) Especially the dialog, as I spent a long time thinking about that.

  6. Wow, this sounds great! It seems that both of us want Stanwyck to work more!
    I liked that your film is not perfect, I mean, with even some wrong castings, but following the logics of the studio. With this version shot five years prior to Olivier's, I have no doubt it would become a noir classic and one of the definitive Shakespearian adaptations.
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    1. Hee, my husband also found it fun that I tossed in someone I thought would not work. I figure you can't have a film noir with Bogart and Greenstreet and NOT have Lorre too... but I couldn't see him fitting the story very well :-) Glad you liked it!

  7. Oh, this is great! Especially the casting - I love how you found a role for all the people who were in the real classic noir films. I have to wonder why nobody ever really did this adaptation back in the day!

    1. Thanks! This would be impossible in real life, because of the various studio contracts these particular actors were locked into, but we can dream :-)

  8. Great casting and I love how you wrote this too! ( A spoiler alert...ha! ). Give our hearty applause to your sister-in-law as well, that's a beautiful poster she designed. Thank you for a really swell entry in the blogathon ( that goes for The Avengers too ), it wouldn't have been the same without you Hamlette.

    1. Thank you! I'm glad you got a kick out of both of them. And thank you for hosting the blogothon! If you do one again some time, I'd participate again :-)

  9. *slow claps* This is danged impressive! You did a really great job of picking pictures that LOOK like the actors are playing in this movie!

    "Humphrey Bogart as Claudius, all guilty." xD

  10. Thanks, Olivia! I spent a long time on finding the perfect pictures and then tweaking them a little (or a lot, for the Ghost) to make them look like they could be all from the same thing :-) It was great fun, though!

  11. DUDE. This is so perfect.

    I'm reading and seriously loving Hamlet right now, and this is great.

    1. Thanks, Eva :-) I must admit that your comment gave me an excuse to read it all again. Can you believe I wrote this three years BEFORE I fell in love with Alan Ladd? Way back when I first saw This Gun for Hire in the mid-2000s, I thought he would make a really sweet Hamlet, and I hung onto that idea until I had a chance to sort-of make it happen :-)


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