Abbott & CostelloLenore AubertLou CostelloGar Moore
Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff
Medium: film
Year: 1949
Director: Charles Barton
Writer: Hugh Wedlock Jr., Howard Snyder, John Grant
Keywords: comedy, horror-comedy, Universal
Country: USA
Actor: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Boris Karloff, Lenore Aubert, Gar Moore, Donna Martell, Alan Mowbray, James Flavin, Roland Winters, Nicholas Joy, Mikel Conrad, Morgan Farley, Victoria Horne, Percy Helton, Claire Du Brey, Harry Hayden, Vincent Renno
Format: 84 minutes
Series: << Abbott & Costello >>
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041085/
Website category: Comedy
Review date: 17 September 2008
It's a dud. The damn film's a dud. They all seem to like it on the imdb review page, too. I'm going to have to hunt down a couple of their earlier films from the days when they were still funny, just to satisfy myself that the world's not mad after all.
Fatally this film was originally written for Bob Hope and then reworked. You can't do that with this duo. You see, Costello can't act. He's not even trying to act. You can almost hear the film screaming as it's torn apart by the conflicting forces of (a) filmmaking as we know it, and (b) a bunch of stage routines. Ironically I'm sure that as a live show this would have been awesome. It's an unbelievable runaround where the plot's nothing but an excuse for whatever routine the comedians want to do next, but in live theatre you can make that work. It's pantomime, basically. Look at the comedy animals. The fake owl is bad enough, but the bear costume? What next, a pantomime horse? Costello's performance is practically breaking the fourth wall anyway.
However what kills it as a film is its production values. They're too good! The film's absolutely dripping with style, from the gorgeous opening shot of a car pulling up in the rain to the climactic underground cavern. If you edited out Costello from this film [1], you'd have the most lip-smackingly tantalising ten minutes you ever saw. This kind of full-blooded production is what turned Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein into a classic, but this film on the other hand needed to look more like the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors.
[1] - Abbott's fine, he can stay.
Unfortunately it looks terrific and has a solid cast including Boris Karloff. It lulls you into enjoying it as a classic 1940s murder mystery, but then starts beating you around the head with its story. I can't even call it stupid. More than that, this is complete disinterest in constructing any kind of internally coherent narrative. The script changes its mind about the identity of the murderers, despite having already shown us four killers working together to frame Costello for their crimes and then bump him off. They trick him into signing a confession and try to arrange his suicide, which doesn't sound too bad until they start boiling him in his steam bath and firing bullets through his hotel room window. Yeah, that's going to make him look guilty as hell. Suicide by shooting himself in the head from a distance of sixty feet, m'lud.
Meanwhile Abbott and Costello are hiding evidence that's been planted in their hotel rooms and thus making themselves look a million times guiltier. This includes a couple of corpses. Fortunately this gives rise to some of the movie's better routines, my favourite being the bridge game with two (dead) dummies. I laughed at that. However if they were going to go down that road, wouldn't it have been better to make them genuinely guilty, albeit of something trifling? That could have been funny and would have given them a reason to be always wanting to get away from the law.
On top of that, we get yet more iterations of this team's very favourite routine. (a) Costello sees something bad and (b) tries to show Abbott, only to discover that (c) it's disappeared, despite the fact that he was only away for five seconds. I remember finding this mildly diverting several films ago. That was then. Now? I wouldn't have minded killing him myself. I suppose I should be grateful that they've stopped hitting each other on the head.
What else? Ooooh, Costello dresses up as a maid and everyone thinks he's female, with one old gent even going so far as to chat him up. Admittedly Costello sounds the part with the most extraordinary falsetto voice, but the scene just looks stupid.
This film is doing two irreconcilable things. It wants to be a showcase for Costello's stage routines, yet it also wants to be a situation-based farce, with our heroes resorting to ever-more desperate measures in a bid to escape the real danger they're in. Unfortunately farce needs precisely construction. Here almost every scene seems to contain something stupid to kill your suspension of disbelief and reduce the action to meaningless running around. I'm working on a theory that the success of Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein might have been the worst thing that ever happened to them. They'd have done better to go on making daft films that didn't pretend to be anything other than a string of routines. Hey, it worked for the Marx Brothers.
As is becoming usual with these films, the real attraction lies in the guest stars. Boris Karloff is amazing. He doesn't get much screen time, but in a way that's almost an advantage. He's wearing a turban and playing the hypnotist Swami Talpur, who's a one-dimensional secondary character and so doesn't require any depth or psychological insight. It's still an extraordinary performance, though. Look at those eyes! Karloff's as cool as hell in this film, never failing to make an impact in any of his few scenes. It's a terrific cast all round, in fact. I was particularly impressed with James Flavin as Inspector Wellman, who's always solid even with dialogue that should have pushed us right out of the film.
This film is basically terrible, but at the same time it's also good-humoured, energetic and sometimes even funny. Abbott and Costello do manage to spark from time to time, even if at the end you want to reach into the screen and slap the little guy silly. Anything, anything, to shut him up. They're explaining the plot, you idiot! I want to listen! For the most part I gazed at our heroes in bewilderment, hoping they'd get off screen soon and let the more interesting guest stars take a turn, but once or twice I did laugh. The film's not worthless. You can see enough nuggets of quality to persuade even the sceptical that if they ever made a film where everything clicked, it would probably be really good. It also looks splendid, almost worth watching just for the production values.
I suppose it could also be argued that I've missed the point and that Abbott and Costello films are a genre unto themselves. That's the formula. Maybe you could even claim it was genre subversion or something. For a generation who grew up on them, I'm sure the comedians feel like old friends and their antics are charming. However let's be honest. Anyone relying on that kind of argument has already lost.