Sunday, March 1, 2015

Mystery History - Please Murder Me

It was on this day in 1956 that moviegoers got their first glimpse of Raymond Burr and Angela Lansbury in the noir film, Please Murder Me. It's the story of an attorney, Craig Carlson (played by Burr) who defends his lover, Myra Leeds (played by Lansbury) against a charge of murder when she shoots her husband in self-defense. After winning an acquittal, Carlson is horrified to discover that she really killed her husband to inherit his money, and the claim of self-defense was a ruse. Leeds also plans to dump Carlson for another lover, an artist she has been seeing on the sly.

Stung by this double betrayal, Carlson announces to Leeds that he will have her arrested...for his own murder. Leeds dismisses his threat, but Carlson begins his plan. He even purchases a gun in a pawn shop, the "murder weapon" he will use to trap Leeds. By the end of the film, he makes good on his promise and manipulates Myra Leeds into shooting him. Carlson, of course, has already tipped off the police, and when they arrive, they play back the tape recording that will condemn Myra for Carlson's murder.  It was one of the most ingenious movie plots ever put on the silver screen, but the film has fallen into the public domain and remains almost unknown today.

Angela Lansbury was already an established star, with two Oscar nomination under her belt for Best Supporting Actress in Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray when she made this film. Until this movie was released, Burr had played mostly villains, such as the psychopathic kidnapper in A Cry In The Night and a wife murderer in Rear Window. Both Burr and Lansbury put in A+ performances.

Angela Lansbury went on to star in many more movies as well as appearing on the stage before taking on Murder, She Wrote. which established her as the "American Miss Marple" in the TV series.

Raymond Burr went on a screen test for a new TV series just two months after Please Murder Me, and tested for both main roles as the DA and the defense attorney. He won the second role, and became the star of Perry Mason. The show ran for nine seasons and became Burr's trademark.

Yet he almost didn't get the part. Many bigger stars auditioned for the role, including Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Mike Conners, and Fred MacMurray. Burr's reputation as a typecast villain didn't help either, but he got the part. His appearance in Please Murder Me may have played a crucial role in this decision, according to a blog post by American Film Noir.

The evidence is circumstantial but convincing. He did the screen test for Perry Mason just after the movie's release, so the producers of the TV show almost certainly were aware of it or had seen the movie. Several persons associated with the film later played a role in the early Perry Mason series, including production crew and one of the screen writers. Finally, there is the performance of Raymond Burr himself.  Watch the movie and you can see the tone, the voice, and the mannerisms that we recognize as being unique to Perry Mason. Raymond Burr wasn't born for the role. He earned it, with his performance in Please Murder Me.

For an in-depth review and discussion of Please Murder Me, check out this podcast on Orphaned Entertainment.

To watch the film, go to any of the public domain releases. Here's a pretty good one on Youtube.


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