Like a lot of people today, I’m familiar with Abbott & Costello more by reference than by direct experience. We’ve grown up with caricatures of the two comedians in cartoons (particularly Looney Tunes and other cartoons that were contemporary to the duo but have aired in syndication in perpetuity), and periodic attempts to riff on their famous “Who’s on First?” routine (often in commercials, and usually done poorly.) But few of my generation could truthfully state that we’ve seen an actual Abbott and Costello movie. Naturally, I felt I had to rectify this situation.
1948’s The Noose Hangs High stars Bud Abbott and Lou Costello as Ted Higgins and Tommy Hinchcliffe, respectively. Ted and Tommy are window washers, operating under the company name of Speedy Service. When Nick Craig (Joseph Calleia), a bookie, is waiting for the similarly-named Speedy Messenger Service, he mistakes the two window washers for his messengers, and conscripts them into picking up a delivery of fifty thousand dollars for him, promising each $50 upon delivery. Hijinks ensue.
The prevention of comic hijinks was one of the major motivators for the creation of trademark law.
Nick needs the money to pay off one of his major bettors, a compulsive gambler named J.C. McBride (Leon Errol), who never seems to lose. But the man he’s having the money collected from plans a double-cross, sending two goons after Ted and Tommy to rob and kill them. Tommy hides the money in an envelope from a mass advertising firm, with the intention to mail it to Nick, but it goes astray, and the money winds up being received and rapidly spent by a maid named Carol (Cathy Downs). Ted, Tommy, and Carol have only a day to get the money back or Nick will have them all killed.
It’s a short film, only a little over an hour long, and so the plot isn’t terribly complicated. It does still manage to drag in a couple places, though, mostly when some of the gags run just a bit too long, or during the dinner scene when Abbott’s character keeps hitting up Costello’s with meaningless hypothetical questions. It feels a bit like they were shoe-horning in some of their stand-up routine there, and it doesn’t work as well as some of the other bits, such as the “I bet you ten dollars you’re not here” routine they pull on one of Nick’s goons. Nevertheless, the film has enough enjoyable jokes in it to make it a watchable, if forgettable, comedy.
Like pickles and milk, it may be an acquired taste.
I somehow doubt that this is the best of Abbott and Costello’s filmography. But for an introduction to the duo’s films, it works reasonably well, being mostly entertaining even if it needs tightening up in a few places.