It is difficult sometimes to remember that just because we first see an actor in a particular role, at a particular age, that isn’t necessarily what they’ve always been. It’s easy to picture, for example, Jack Nicholson as the rebellious Randall McMurphy and forget the dashing young hero of The Raven, or to see Kurt Russell as any number of scruffy wisecrackers and forget the fact that he started out as a child actor. So when viewing an older movie, it’s sometimes surprising to see an actor or actress from well before the age at which one usually pictures them.
Like most children of the 80s, I was familiar with Angela Lansbury primarily from Murder, She Wrote or from her voice-acting as the kindly Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast. If I had ever stopped to think of it, I’m sure it would have been obvious to me that she didn’t simply stroll into Hollywood as a senior citizen. But it’s not something that really occurs to a person until one sees the evidence of it, and so it came as a bit of a surprise to see her playing the role of Myra Leeds in Please Murder Me, a 1956 film noir directed by Peter Godfrey. And in this film, she’s not a meddling crime solver; rather, she’s at the center of the crime herself, as a young woman accused of murdering her husband.
And millions of Jessica Fletcher detractors cry out “I knew it!”
Though Lansbury’s Myra is the central figure in the murder case, it’s Raymond Burr who is the star of the film. Burr’s character, attorney Craig Carlson, has been friends with Joe Leeds (Dick Foran) for many years. One night, however, he has to come clean with his old friend, though he fears it’ll cost him his friendship: he and Myra are in love, and Myra is looking to divorce Joe and marry Craig. Joe is visibly distressed, but rather than getting angry, he tells Craig to give him a few days to think things over. A few days later, Myra fatally shoots Joe, claiming self-defense, and Craig finds himself having to defend his lover in court for killing his best friend. The film is centered around the trial and the aftermath on Myra’s and Craig’s relationship.
The lead actors both put in terrific performances. Burr’s role requires a multifaceted display of emotions, as his character has to run through the full gamut of feelings rapidly as the circumstances change. His charisma is on full display as he attempts to sway the jury, and the feelings he has for both Myra and Joe are easily read. Lansbury, meanwhile, has a more subtle role as Myra, the femme allegedly-fatale of the piece. She puts on a good display of being the damsel in distress while in court, but her nuanced mannerisms, coupled with a reasonably strong script, plant just enough doubt to make the audience wonder if she’s really all she appears to be. This is added to by the brief performance of Dick Foran as the slain husband, as the audience’s sympathies are quickly established before he is killed. Solid performances by John Dehner, Lamont Johnson, and Robert Griffin round out the film with side characters are just as believable and entertaining as the main characters despite their smaller roles.
Despite the fact that this isn’t a who-dunnit so much as a why-she-dunnit, the mystery at the center of this film is still compelling. Most of this is because of the gradual change in Burr’s character as he begins to question his own belief in his lover’s innocence. Please Murder Me provides an interesting story with characters that provide the drama which keeps it exciting. The facts of the case take a sideline to the motivations of the characters, and it’s in those motivations where the mystery and interest truly lies.