Thursday, February 1, 2007

A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER (Warner Bros. 1938) Warner Home Video

Lloyd Bacon's A Slight Case of Murder (1938) is an odd mutt in the gangster genre that began so illustriously in 1931 with The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. The first run of gritty gangster flicks was brief but distinguished, thanks to Warner Brothers 'ripped from the headlines' quick and dirty approach to film making. But in  1934 censorship came in, and the Production Code absolutely forbade glorification of violence and the darker underbelly of the underworld. This presented a distinct problem for Warner Brothers who had fostered and cultivated a particular style of acting at their studio, affectionately known as 'murderer's row'. But now, WB would have to rethink their approach to the traditional gangster flick. The challenge was overcome in two ways; first - by tacking on a 'crime must pay' morality to each screenplay and second, by watering down the criminal element. No longer thugs in three piece suits, gangsters became a bumbling sect of misfits with comedic underpinnings. 

In A Slight Case of Murder we get a little of both with Edward G. Robinson as Remy Marco, a sort of ‘Little Caesar’ meets ‘Sid Caesar’ prohibition beer baron whose empire is shattered when the repeal hits. His beer tastes terrible but no one dares tell him. Instead, determined to go respectable, Remy faces bankruptcy.

With foreclosure staring him down, Remy decides to move his family to their summer retreat in Saratoga with wife, Nora (Ruth Donnelly), daughter Mary (Jane Bryan), and Douglas Fairbanks Rosenbloom (Bobby Jordan), an orphan in Remy’s philanthropy youth rehabilitation program.

The film embraces all of the tried and true clichés of the gangster movie, then turns them upside down strictly for laughs. Upon arrival to their summer retreat, Remy discovers four corpses in  an upstairs bedroom. These men were all set to assassinate Remy but were ambushed instead. While Remy contemplates how to get the bodies out of his house without anyone being the wiser, he also learns that Mary has become romantically involved with a naïve state trooper; actually the son of a legitimate beer baron that Remy is trying to convince to invest monies in his company.

A Slight Case of Murder ought to be a laugh-a-minute riot. But director Lloyd Bacon’s pacing seems slightly off; the comedy just a tad too contrite and overplayed even for its own time. The film’s big build up to a refreshing weekend in the country (that turns out to be anything but) is diffused in a spray of quick resolutions that feel tacked on afterthoughts at best. Undoubtedly, this film will appeal more to fans of the screwball comedy than those seeking a traditional gangster film.

There’s much to celebrate in the DVD transfer. Almost pristine, there’s a moderate amount of film grain throughout and a slight shimmering of fine details in several brief scenes. For the rest, fine details are revealed throughout with very clean whites and extremely solid and deep velvety blacks.

Occasionally several consecutive shots appear to be inserts from dupe masters rather than original camera negatives, but this is a visual presentation that will most assuredly NOT disappoint. The audio is mono, but very smooth and clean. Extras include Warner’s Night At The Movies extras, a very informative featurette and a thorough audio commentary.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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