One Body Too Many was released in 1944, and concerns the metaphorical and literal back-stabbing among a group of relatives concerning their late uncle’s will. Directed by Frank McDonald, it was made during the height of the film noir era, and the premise certainly lends itself to a tale of suspense. But though it has that element to it, One Body Too Many has a lot more in common with Clue than with Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, it’s possible to see an influence on Clue (whether the latter was directly influenced or is just mimicking the same format is hard to say), with the themes of underhanded murders, numerous guests trapped in a mansion against their will, and the arguable heroes being way in over their heads.
Throw in Bela Lugosi as an all-too-sinister butler, and the result is a murderous little comedy.
The film starts with an irascible trouble-making corpse. Eccentric millionaire Cyrus J. Rutherford has just died, and his extended family, plus his staff, lawyer and astrologer, have gathered for the reading of his will. It is clear from the beginning that the relatives don’t like each other, and that most of them were estranged from Uncle Cyrus as well. And Uncle Cyrus’s disdain for most of his family becomes pointedly clear as it is revealed that his will is in two parts, with the second only to be read at a later date. In the first part, he enumerates the heirs and his opinions of them… and states that he has divided his fortune up in varying amounts, with the greatest beneficiary to be given half a million dollars, and the least to be given only a dollar “for the cab fare home”. But he doesn’t say who gets what; that will be revealed in the second part of the will, to be opened after his body is disposed of. But he doesn’t want a normal burial; he wishes to be entombed in a glass vault, looking up at the stars, to be completed in a month. And if his wishes aren’t met, the order of the beneficiaries is to be reversed.
“I considered leaving it all to the winner of a Russian Roulette tournament, but I thought this would be more fun.”
What follows is, of course, mayhem as those who think they are in for the smallest shares try to dispose of Cyrus’s body prematurely to reverse the will and those who think they are in for the largest shares try to protect it. A few casual murders are thrown in as well, of course. And thrown into the mix is Jack Haley as Albert Tuttle, an insurance agent who had an appointment with Cyrus and didn’t get the memo that he had died. Tuttle is initially mistaken for a private eye hired to protect the body, and is quickly drawn into the shenanigans when the bridge out of the manor washes away. He’s the classic comedic anti-hero, a bit cowardly and completely out of his depth when dealing with the people and the situation. It’s not all bad for him, though, as he draws the eye of Carol (Jean Parker), one of the relatives that Cyrus seemed closest to.
As a mystery, One Body Too Many isn’t that great; it’s a film that doesn’t present the audience with any sort of clues to the culprit whatsoever. But it’s not really meant to be a mystery as such; the plot is a reason to put Tuttle in various comedic situations as he stumbles around and is repeatedly waylaid by ne’er-do-wells. There aren’t many big laughs, but the film is reasonably amusing throughout. There’s a gentle mockery of mystery and suspense films throughout, with gags being made from the usual tropes of eyes looking through portraits, secret passageways that keep leading Tuttle into scandalous situations, and corpses being hidden only to pop out at the least convenient moment. And of course casting Bela Lugosi as the butler is essentially a gag in and of itself. He’s too obvious for anybody to really believe he’s the villain, but he sells it well. Also of note is William Edmunds (strangely uncredited in the film itself), who gives an entertainingly odd performance as the astrologer Professor Hilton.
One Body Too Many is a film that is probably best enjoyed by people who are already fans of suspense films of the 1940s. Modern viewers are likely to have a better time with its spiritual descendant Clue, which gets bigger laughs. But it’s still a film that can provide some light entertainment and is interesting to watch simply as an early example of a popular genre being parodied.