But there’s a body in the window seat!
Yes dear, we know.
Mortimer Brewster has a lot on his mind. Once the shining beacon of professional bachelorhood, author of such books as “Mind over Matrimony”. He is now engaged to be married, and to a minister’s daughter no less. He stops by to deliver the news to his aunts, who raised him like he was their own son. To everyone in the area the Brewster sisters are model citizens, kind and caring, busy with various charities.
To Mortimer’s surprise he finds the body of an elderly man in the window seat. At first he thinks the man was killed by his brother Teddy, who is under the delusion that he is Theodore Roosevelt, complete with charges up the stairs and imaginary hunting trips to Africa.
Mortimer is completely stumped when his aunts proudly announce that they are responsible for the corpse, one Mr. Hoskins. They have been poisoning lonely, elderly men with their homemade Elderberry wine as a charity and mercy. The news that his whole family seems to be homicidal lunatics, leads to an explosion of bizarre events as Mortimer tries to simultaneously stop his aunts from killing again, keep the news away from his waiting fiancée and also prevent his newly returned, estranged brother from killing him.
Based on the hit 1939 play, Arsenic and Old Lace is one of Frank Capra’s finest productions. The film was shot on a shoestring budget with minimal sets. Aside from a few scenes at the beginning, the entire film takes place on a small set consisting of the Brewster home, neighboring graveyard and the house where Mortimer’s fiancée Elaine lives. This film and the Hitchcock classic Rope, are two of the finest examples of this style of filmmaking.
The film is visually striking despite the small sets. Subdued lighting and effective use of shadow give it just the right level of Halloween spookiness. Night scenes are truly dark, not just a blue camera gel with normal studio lighting like some films.
Clever one liners and sight gags fly all around this film. The humor is consistently funny, if very macabre at times. I can imagine this one would have been pretty edgy by 1944 standards and it generally holds up better than most comedies of the era.
Interestingly, Cary Grant was said to dislike this film, he considered his acting over the top, to the point of clownishness. Personally, I think he did a pretty good job of balancing comedy with his character’s genuine fear that he was about to be stricken by the Brewster insanity. I’ve read that Frank Capra was trying for exactly this effect and in my opinion, he succeeded spectacularly.
Verdict 4 Gavels out of 5
Very funny, very dark comedy, the perfect mix of creepy horror and comedy. A true classic and one of my favorite films of all time.