Sundays: You'll Die Laughing

Comedies of Murder

Programmed by Jack Hamm

This series—screening at 7 PM on Sundays this fall—features a curious mixture of light and darkness. Each movie is an exquisitely-crafted comedy, full of hilarious situations and clever satirical touches, yet each one also deals with coldly calculated murder. Let's take a look as some of the film business's finest actors and directors mix homicide with humor...

We start the fun on October 6 with a screening of Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery. Though it was released in 1993, the film's history dates back much earlier: it contains material originally intended for Annie Hall, which was at one point supposed to feature Annie and Alvy as a Nick and Nora Charles-esque pair of detectives. After toying with the mystery plot for many years, Allen finally rewrote it into Manhattan Murder Mystery and—by sheer chance after his breakup with Mia Farrow center her out of the picture as the female lead—wound up co-starring with Diane Keaton for the first time since the movie which was originally slated to include this material!

Moving backwards through nearly 60 years of cinematic history, our second film is 1935's Remember Last Night? (October 13), featuring an unforgettable premise for a comedy: a group of people throw party which reaches such heights of alcohol-fueled antics that they all inevitably black out. When they wake up, someone's been murdered—but they all were so drunk that they can't remember what happened! James Whale, just months after bringing a lightly humorous hand to the horror genre in Bride of Frankenstein, achieves similar effects with this picture.

Our first two films have focused mostly on the investigators of crimes, but the next one—taking a further step into darkness—is the first of several to be told from the point of view of the murderer himself. Monsieur Verdoux (October 20), born from the ashes of an aborted collaboration between Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, sees the king of the silent comedians at the start of his Very Strange period. For the first time playing a role which bears no resemblance to his Little Tramp character, he plays a serial wife-killer who's been victimized by capitalism (which, in Chaplin's opinion, somehow justifies him in his efforts to kill innocent people). For obvious reasons, this movie met with a cool reception in late-1940s America, but James Agee and others have pointed out the genuine artistry of its comic scenes.

In the '40s and '100s, England's Ealing Studios were the most prominent pace-setters in mixing comedy with crime. The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, and many others are among their most famous films, but this series features perhaps the greatest of them all. Kind Hearts and Coronets (November 3) is justifiably renowned for the performance of Alec Guinness as all eight of the killer's victims—young and old, male and female—but Dennis Price, taking the leading role as the roguishly charming murderer who will stop at nothing to gain a dukedom, truly carries the movie.

Returning to the modern era, November 17 features a particularly dark satire in Gus Van Sant'sTo Die For. Starring Nicole Kidman in one of her best roles—not to mention a supporting cast including Joaquin Phoenix, Matt Dillon, Casey Affleck, and even David Cronenberg in a cameo—the movie turns a twisted eye on the sensationalism of the media. It's also significant as one of Buck Henry's last major scripts as of now (to this writer's everlasting sorrow, he did not win the scripting job on Fight Club, which began pre-production shortly after To Die For's release, despite being the producers' first choice).

For Doc's first movie after our Thanksgiving break, we've got Who Framed Roger Rabbit?(November 24) lined up, and it's one which you won't want to miss. It's significant both as a prime example of the murder-comedy genre and for its landmark effect on animation as a whole. After a bleak couple of decades in the realm of cartoon-making, Robert Zemeckis' film attracted considerable attention with its then-astounding mixture of live-action and animated footage and its nostalgic tributes to the Golden Age of theatrical cartoons, and it helped pave the way for a renaissance in quality which marked the animated films and TV shows of the 1990s.

We close the series with Joe Dante's The 'Burbs (December 1), a humorous take on Hitchcock-esque thrillers along the lines of Rear Window. Like far too many of Dante's movies since the landmark Gremlins, it never quite got the attention it deserved; at the time many reviewers were perplexed that rising star Tom Hanks had accepted such an oddball role as the suburbanite who suspects that his new neighbors are killers. My favorite story about The 'Burbs: at one point in the production, co-producer Ron Howard walked into the writers' room and announced that he'd come up with a great idea which involved a different character being exposed as the murderer. The writers went into ecstasies and started talking about revamping the entire story around this new plot device—only to realize fifteen minutes later that it made no sense. Perhaps fortunately for all concerned, the filmed version sticks to the originally-planned ending.

At one point in the quarter, we'll be taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming to present an exciting special event in the Sunday night timeslot. On October 27, we'll feature Charlie Ahearn's documentary Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer, a cinematic profile of the famed camera artist whose work has captured the spirit of New York City life for many years.

- Jack Hamm


2013-10-06 @ 7:00 PM

Manhattan Murder Mystery

(Woody Allen, 1993) · Believe it or not, the Woodster originally conceived of "Annie Hall" as a mystery movie along the lines of "The Thin Man" (with our heroes stumbling upon a murder after missing that Bergman film), but he ultimately dropped the detective plot in favor of the story we know and love. Years later, he revived the abandoned material in this picture, working together with Diane Keaton for the first time since "Annie", and much of the old spark is still there.

runtime: 104 min format: 35mm


2013-10-13 @ 7:00 PM

Remember Last Night?

(James Whale, 1935) · The booze flows freely in the Production Code offices, causing great distress and preventing the sozzled characters from recalling the murderous events of the previous night. At some point during the party's alcohol-fueled antics, the host was mysteriously killed, but the precise nature of the event eludes the other guests until the District Attorney steps in. Released just months after "Bride of Frankenstein", this film finds Whale in peak form.

runtime: 81 min format: 35mm


2013-10-20 @ 7:00 PM

Monsieur Verdoux

(Charlie Chaplin, 1947) · Chaplin's second sound film was savaged by critics at the time of its release, due perhaps to his final abandonment of the Little Tramp persona and his adherence to the questionable philosophy that murder is acceptable because it's less harmful than capitalism. But the story of Verdoux, who marries and kills wealthy widows in order to gain the money to support his family, has since gained a reputation as one of his most fascinating and challenging works.

runtime: 124 min format: 35mm


2013-10-27 @ 7:00 PM

Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer

(Charlie Ahearn, 2013) · This documentary examines the legacy of Jamel Shabazz, a photographer who in the early 1980s became synonymous with early hip-hop style. Rather than take candid shots, he let his subjects compose themselves for the pictures. The results were often larger than life, beautified versions of his suede Puma wearing subjects. Ahearn's invisible camera watches uncritically as Shabazz, his associates, and his subjects dissassemble their younger selves on screen.

runtime: 81 min format: DVD


2013-11-03 @ 7:00 PM

Kind Hearts and Coronets

(Robert Hamer, 1949) · Louis Mazzini, bitter black sheep of an aristocratic English family, resolves to gain access to the nobility by murdering the eight relatives who stand between him and a dukedom. Alec Guinness is deservedly acclaimed for his virtuoso performance (performances, to be exact) as the entire octet of victims, but Dennis Price's comparatively overlooked performance as our sardonic antihero is perhaps the finest of his career, and it deserves similar plaudits.

runtime: 106 min format: 35mm


2013-11-10 @ 7:00 PM

The Little Shop of Horrors

(Roger Corman, 1960) · Shot in two days on sets center over from another movie, this oddball classic is one of Corman's most fondly-remembered productions. Seymour, amateur florist and all-around loser, has bred a gigantic, talking Venus flytrap named "Audrey Junior"—but it eats "people" rather than flies, and our hero must turn to murder in order to keep it supplied. If you're not too busy laughing, check out 23-year-old Jack Nicholson as that masochistic dental patient!

runtime: 72 min format: Blu-ray


2013-11-17 @ 7:00 PM

To Die For

(Gus Van Sant, 1995) · Ripped from the screaming headlines after the sensation caused by the Pamela Smart murder case, this bitingly satirical comedy from the pen of Buck Henry features Nicole Kidman as an ambitious weather reporter, Suzanne. Hoping in some obscure way to further her ambition of becoming a celebrity news anchor, she seduces a disillusioned teen (Joaquin Phoenix) and tricks him into murdering her husband. Sounds like nothing could go wrong in that situation…

runtime: 106 min format: 35mm


2013-11-24 @ 7:00 PM

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

(Robert Zemeckis, 1988) · The great animation renaissance of the 1990s sprang from the success of this movie, with its irreverent humor, abundant references to older cartoons, and innovative blend of live action and animation. Bob Hoskins stars as private eye Eddie Valiant, charged with saving the titular cartoon star from a murder charge. Nevertheless, the film's most memorable character remains the seductive Jessica Rabbit, brilliantly voiced by Kathleen Turner.

runtime: 104 min format: 35mm


2013-12-01 @ 7:00 PM

The 'Burbs

(Joe Dante, 1989) · If you found "The Birds" scary, wait till you see the weird world of small-town America as depicted in The ‘Burbs! Young star Tom Hanks (whose participation in this movie mystified many) plays Ray, who's on vacation and lounging around at home. But Ray soon finds something to occupy his time: his mysterious new neighbors, the Klopeks, seem to be acting awfully mysteriously, what with those pickaxes and garbage bags they're carrying around at night…

runtime: 101 min format: 35mm


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