Friday, November 11, 2022

Angela Lansbury Noir: A Life at Stake (1955) and Please Murder Me! (1956)


It was only with her passing last month that I found out Dame Angela Lansbury had made a couple of low budget films noir during her long, storied career. I was aware, of course, that she had played some memorably unpleasant female characters over the years. There was Nancy, Ingrid Bergman's devious maid in Gaslight (1944), Lansbury's first film performance, and one for which she was Oscar-nominated. Then, two years later she portrayed the spiteful dance-hall queen, Em, nemesis of Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls (1946). Between those films, though, she had been Elizabeth Taylor's wholesome older sister, Edwina, in National Velvet (1945), and had, in a lovely Oscar-nominated turn, played the heartbreaking tavern singer, Sibyl Vane, in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). It would’ve been difficult to predict then, judging from the level of talent and range she displayed in her early performances for MGM, that Angela Lansbury would someday venture into down-and-dirty film noir from a neighborhood south of Poverty Row. There may have been a hint in one of her final films under her MGM contract, though. Just before she left MGM and her career began to languish, Lansbury appeared in Kind Lady (1951). A notable and noirish suspense thriller, it was one of her last under her studio contract. In it, Ethel Barrymore starred as a wealthy art collector, with Lansbury as part of a gang of malicious thieves set on taking over the woman’s life, fleecing her of all she has and then killing her.

A Life at Stake (1955)

Angela Lansbury left MGM in 1952 and like so many other actors whose careers went into a spin as the studios went into decline, moved into series and anthology television, finding only occasional film work. Her first B-noir, A Life at Stake, would come in 1955. One of only two films issued by Hank McCune Productions, A Life at Stake is flimsy fare apparently made on a half-a-shoestring budget.  A thin and contrived plot borrows from every noir from Double Indemnity on that involves a greedy woman and an enticing insurance policy. Keith Andes, who more often in his career appeared in supporting roles, stars as an architect/builder with financial woes who is lured into a real estate partnership with Lansbury, a seductive businesswoman with a husband. She and her spouse (Douglass Dumbrille) are less concerned with the property and construction business than they are with Andes taking out the excessively high “key man” insurance policy that they plan to cash in on as soon as possible. Andes, in an agitated state through most of the picture, is alternately wised-up and gullible. Every time something occurs that rightly convinces him Lansbury is out to kill him (and she nearly does more than once), she reels him back in with a sudden, transparently phony burst of passion. Lansbury does the best she can with weak material. Meanwhile, older husband Dumbrille and Jane Darwell, as Andes’ landlady, aren’t given the time or space to add anything to this jumble. There’s not much to recommend A Life at Stake, but at an hour and sixteen minutes, it’s worth watching for those with an interest in obscure no-budget noir and those who are devoted fans of Dame Angela. 

A Life at Stake (1955)
Directed by: Paul Guilfoyle
Screenplay by: Russ Bender, Hank McCune
Music by: Les Baxter
Production Co.: Hank McCune Productions
Distributed by: Filmmakers Releasing Org.; Monarch Film Corp. (UK)
Starring: Angela Lansbury, Keith Andes, Douglass Dumbrille, Claudia Barrett, Jane Darwell
Available on Prime Video, YouTube, etc.

Angela Lansbury would fare better with her second foray into B-noir. Please Murder Me! (1956), like A Life at Stake, was the product of another short-lived, cash-strapped production company, Gross-Krasne, with few credits in its filmography. But the director, Peter Godfrey, even if past his prime, had some solid Hollywood experience, with Christmas in Connecticut (1945) and The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) among his credits. And this time Dame Angela would be paired with a more than worthy co-star, Raymond Burr, then in the midst of his transition to television.

The scene is a city street at night. A man in an overcoat hustles through the shadows and into a pawnshop. He comes out with a gun, jumps into the back of a cab and heads to his office for a late appointment. Once there, the man, who is an attorney, carefully prepares for his meeting. He turns on a tape recorder and begins to dictate a tale told in flashback: how it all began, and how it is all going to end. 

Please Murder Me! (1956)

Raymond Burr is that attorney, and his performance in this role might well have paved the way for his being cast as Perry Mason in the TV series that debuted a year later, in 1957. Like Mason, this lawyer, Craig Carlson, is an honorable man who is deeply serious about the law and justice. Thoughtful as well as methodical, he makes plans and chooses his words with equal care. The problem is that Carlson made the mistake of falling in love with his best friend’s wife, an upscale gold-digger played by Angela Lansbury. When she is charged with capital murder, Carlson defends her and, with a shocking courtroom reveal, gets an acquittal. Later he will discover that he has been duped and will set about conjuring a clever plan – with a diabolical twist – to bring about not only vengeance and justice but to also relieve his guilt-ridden soul.

The slow moments are few - a bit too much time in the courtroom, an overlong scene in an artist’s loft - for Please Murder Me! generally moves at a good clip. The tricky plot, a capable director and a decent screenplay provide a nice showcase for two seasoned pros facing off in a duel to the death. Burr’s is the centerpiece role, and he plays it with no less style and command than he later gave to Mr. Mason. Lansbury easily handles the role of Myra Leeds, a self-assured schemer, confident of her skill in seducing and out-smarting the men in her life. Myra becomes more interesting when the tables turn and her former patsy of a defense attorney declares he will stop at nothing to bring her to justice. With this, she begins to unravel, becoming unsettled and fidgety, twitching and chain-smoking as she waits for the other shoe, a shoe that happens to be held by her one-time attorney, to drop.

Raymond Burr would step seamlessly from this into his star-making role as peerless defense attorney Perry Mason the following year. It would be another six years, years in which she began her climb to the top on Broadway, before Angela Lansbury would, in a truly brilliant, Oscar-nominated performance, portray one of the most wicked of women ruthless Eleanor Iselin, the power mad mother-from-Hell in John Frankenheimer’s chilling Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate.

Please Murder Me (1956)
Directed by: Peter Godfrey
Screenplay by: Al C. Ward, Donald Hyde; story by Ewald Andre Dupont and David T. Chantler
Music by: Albert Glasser
Production Co.: Gross-Krasne Productions
Distributed by: Distributors Corp. of America
Starring: Angela Lansbury, Raymond Burr, John Dehner, Dick Foran, Lamont Johnson
Available on Prime Video, YouTube, etc.
 
The Manchurian Candidate(1962)
  ~

This post is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fall 2022 Blogathon, Movies are Murder, click here for links to all participating blogs. 


17 comments:

  1. Such a wonderful actress and one of the last greats from classic film.

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    1. And one of the greats of television and Broadway, a true legend, without question.

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  2. I knew Angela Lansbury had appeared in a noir here and there, but the only one I have seen so far is The Manchurian Candidate. I'm very much looking forward to seeing her and Raymond Burr in Please Murder Me! As you point out, the the two of them should be a real treat. Did you know that you can find it free at the Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/please_murder_me_ipod)? It's a great source for classic films.

    Thank you, by the way, for your very thoughtful e-mail. Things are busy but good, so that's . . . good!

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    1. Please Murder Me! is definitely worth a look. The first time I watched it was on the Internet Archive, but I've since seen it on Prime Video. I believe my one viewing of A Life at Stake (sigh...) was on YouTube.

      Glad to hear all is well with you, Marianne.

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  3. Both of these noirs are new to me, and I would especially love to see her turn with Raymond Burr, whom I love in anything. Lansbury certainly had the chops to play just about anything, and was adventurous enough to try. Thanks for this lovely, informative post and giving me a couple more films on my must-see list.

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    1. I was fascinated watching the pre-Perry Mason performance of Raymond Burr as a defense attorney. Was he auditioning? If not, he might as well have been. I hope you do check these films out, Jacqueline, although A Life at Stake won't make much of an impression.

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  4. I have not seen either, but Please Murder Me sounds enticing. I will have to check it out. Great job blending this all into one article!

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    1. I think you'll like Please Murder Me!, John. It's definitely a low-budget effort, but with Burr and Lansbury along with a quirky plot twist, it's worthwhile.

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  5. I love the mature, sophisticated Angela. These are both new tome films, but they must be elevated just because our lady is in them. Now speaking of Dame Angela and murder.... can it really be a coincidence that all those murders happened in Cabot Cove where Jessica Fletcher lived? I always thought the final episode should reveal her as a master murderess who framed hundreds.

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    1. You may be right about Jessica Fletcher. I don't remember hearing about any murders, let alone weekly killings, in the village of Cabot Cove once that series ended

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  6. I loved this superb write-up, Patty! I knew that A Life at Stake sounded familiar, but even after reading your description I wasn't 100 percent positive that I'd seen it. Fortunately, I started something new this year, and have been keeping a list of all the new-to-me movies -- and it's on the list! So that's a pretty good way of saying that it was quite forgettable to me! I'm really intrigued by Please Murder Me, though -- I'd heard of it (and love the title), but I've never gotten around to checking it out. I'll be remedying that soon, thanks to you. Thank you for contributing this excellent post to the blogathon!

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    1. I'm not surprised at all that you quickly forgot A Life at Stake, Karen. Even the title is feeble. On the other hand, Please Murder Me! has a great title, concept, plus Dame Angela and Perry Mason, I mean Raymond Burr. Hope you enjoy it! By the way, kudos on a superb job of managing your first CMBA blogathon.

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  7. I had NO idea Angela Lansbury appeared in two low-budget films noir, and I'm searching for them on YouTube as we speak. (Happily, they can both be found there.)

    Thanks for the introduction to these films!

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    1. These noirs were a surprise to me, too. Enjoy, Ruth!

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  8. Though noirs aren't my favorite genre, sometimes small budget movies like this give you a more real sense of the era than the more big budget, mainstream films of that time. And it would be interesting to get to see Angela in leading lady roles, especially as femme fatales! Thanks for the informative write up on both, will check them out. Cheers, Rick

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    1. These two movies are very mid-'50s, Rick. And the presence of Raymond Burr in Please Murder Me! really situates you in that time period. I think these films show Angela working her way up to her performance in The Manchurian Candidate.

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