Movie Review: Arsenic and Old Lace

Posted: October 4, 2012 in Movie Review, Reviews
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Arsenic and Old Lace (1944/Warner Bros./Dir. Frank Capra)

A little while ago, I posted a list of movies that you can watch at Halloween that aren’t horror movies. When I posted that, I “missed” one important movie. I put missed in quotes because I didn’t miss it so much as decide that I would rather do a review on it. While not a perfect movie, nor even a perfect comedy, it is enjoyable and it does work as a film. It’s one of m favorite Cary Grant performances, and that is really saying something. And hey, it takes place on Halloween!

Here’s the thing though, the best thing to do would be to go into this movie totally blind. I’m going to spoil some things about this movie, but one of the biggest spoilers is on the back of the box. For best results, don’t read anything and just go watch it. As of right now, it’s on Netflix Streaming (but who knows what tomorrow might bring, right?) so just go watch it. Seriously, don’t even bother reading this review because you should just go see it.

I am NOT going to make a joke about Grant being used to this postion due to his relationship with Randolph Scott. I’m classier than that!

One of the things I really love about this movie is how it suddenly transitions from a romantic comedy about a guy who railed against marriage and then decides to get married to a movie about murder and insanty! And it holds onto the romantic comedy lark for some time, pretending that everything is fine. And then, suddenly, at the 20 minute mark… BOOM! It suddenly gets dark like wow, except it doesn’t. The tone remains light and frothy, which sort of amazes me. I mean, this is a movie where multiple kinds of insanity are shown off, murderers are stalking around the place, and the tone is one of the lightest of Frank Capra’s films that I’ve seen.

So let’s get down to what’s wrong with the movie before we go into what’s right. I’ve never really been able to swallow Capra’s Americana Horseshit. The opening section about Brooklyn is short, but it’s also hugely annoying. Once you know the big secret, that the movie is about old ladies whacking people as a form of charity, it can feel like it takes FOREVER for the movie to get going. The first time, I liked it, but now I just wait for Grant to open the window seat and see the dead body. This, then, is less a problem with the film as it is a problem with having seen it before. Then you just have the nature of the best when watching a nearly 70 year old movie. Some of the comedy is a little stagey, some of the performances are over the top. Then, there is almost one of those storylines where the movie would be over if Grant said 15 words to someone. None of these are insurmountable, and they don’t harm my enjoyment of the film, but they do make it far less than perfect.

Peter Lorree… I dunno, something funny.

The big elephant in the room is that Boris Karloff played the guy who looks liked Boris Karloff when this was a stage play, but he couldn’t get the time off to make the movie and he was replaced. Now, the guy who plays Jonathan Brewster is fine, but it would have been a better joke to have Karloff. For reasons I’ll go into in a minute, it would have made it a near perfect film.

What is right about the movie is that the performances are damn near perfect. There are a couple of characters I don’t much like (the young cop for one) but he’s played to pitch perfection by the actor playing him. Everyone in this movie is as the top of their game, even people playing small parts are doing the best they can do. That’s the great joy of this movie, watching people just be really good at acting their parts. Yeah, it’s not naturalistic acting, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s a style that really sort of died out during the 70s, people don’t even play this way on TV anymore unless they’re doing it for camp value. However, it is a pure joy to watch them play this way.


The writing has some fantastic jokes, and the story even gets a little meta on your ass. Cary Grant talks about things he saw in plays several times, all the while doing exactly the thing he’s talking about. This comes to the extent that he gives Jonathan ideas about how to trap him by explaining to Peter Lorre what he saw in a play. This is why having Karloff in the movie would have been perfect, because the big joke there was that a guy was complaining about looking like Boris Karloff while looking exactly like Boris Karloff. Those meta jokes are used sparingly, but when they come up they’re brilliant.

What I find really interesting is that this is a movie where two murderers go morally unpunished. Yeah, they go to an insane asylum at the end of the movie, which probably got it past the code office. However, in a very real sense, Abby and Martha get away with their killings. And these two are true psychotics, they have no idea that what they’re doing is wrong. They think of killing the people they kill as a form of charity. And the only thing that happens is that they’re sent to Happy Dale under the pretense that they’re going to be with Teddy. Abby and Martha kill 12 people (11, you can’t count that first one, but I’m counting the first one) and they suffer no real penalty for their crimes. That makes this one of the darkest comedies I can think of, particularly as you have to think about it to realize just how dark it is.

If I may spend a screen cap to mention it, Priscilla Lane was a stone cold fox.

It’s the sort of movie I come back to about once a year or so, and almost always during late September, or October. It’s a pretty brilliant comedy, and one that I like a whole lot. Sadly though, it’s reputation can over take it and sometimes it doesn’t work as well as I want it to because I remember a slightly better movie than actually exists. Still, it’s good, you should probably see it. I think you’ll enjoy it. Unless you’re really in the mood for an action movie, or a slasher picture, then it won’t go down so well.

Official Score:
62 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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