Sunday, November 6, 2011

#10: I Wonder Who's Killing Her Now?

Drive In Movie Classics
Disc 3: Side A

The animated title sequence and opening jazz score for I Wonder Who’s Killing Her Now? recalls, rather desperately, the Pink Panther series. No surprise, then, that Pete Sellers was originally cast in the lead role of Jordan Oliver. Unfortunately, Sellers suffered a heart attack before shooting began. The producers were unable to insure the actor and brought in Bob Dishy as a last-minute replacement. So it's a little ironic that a major plot point in the film concerns a life insurance policy. Is that life imitating low-art? Art imitating life insurance? Who knows?

The story opens on Jordan, caught embezzling $250,000 from his father-in-law’s company. That very same day his wife Clarice (Joanna Barnes) announces her plans to divorce him and cut off his allowance. Facing financial ruin, Jordan takes out a life insurance policy on Clarice for one million dollars with himself as the beneficiary. Then he hires local hitman Bobo (Bill Dana) to kill Clarice. The twist comes when it’s revealed the doctor who examined Clarice is a fraud, thereby invalidating the policy. Jordan sets out to stop the murder, but discovers Bobo has subcontracted the hit out to another assassin, who has subcontracted to yet another assassin, and so on. This sprawling cast of hitmen includes a doctor in monster makeup who talks like Bela Lugosi, a man in a nurse’s uniform, and Patlow, a broad Indian caricature played in tan-face by a white actor.

Director Steven Hillard Stern clearly intends this story to be incredibly madcap and zany, rather than the convoluted, pointless thing it is. Nearly every joke falls flat. Some stretch on and on only to end on the briefest, most embarrassing of punch lines. In one scene we see Jordan practicing a concerto on a grand piano for a charity ball that evening; soon it’s revealed a little person is playing the concerto on a tiny piano, rather than Jordan. Jordan’s plan is to hide the little person and his toy piano inside a bass drum that night and trick the guests into thinking he’s a master pianist.

“Just come in through the doggy door,” Jordan tells his cohort, “and watch out for the doggy doo.” 

That’s about as sophisticated as the film gets. And because it’s a comedy from the mid-seventies, there’s an inevitable, unfunny dig at that passing fad known as psychiatry.  

“If I told you I was going to kill my wife you wouldn’t call the police?” Jordan asks his therapist.

“I would not call the police, correct,” says the wild-haired, European-accented therapist. “I would let you kill her and then we would talk about it at the next session.

“And if I were to kill myself?” asks Jordan.

“That would be a different question,” replies the therapist. “You would not be able talk about it at the next session.”

Then a cuckoo clock goes off in the background. Since the movie isn’t nearly as funny or clever as it thinks it is, Jordan’s obsession with killing his wife is a little creepy. With better direction, subtler performances, a smarter screenplay, and a few decent jokes, this could be a decent black comedy--something along the lines of an early Mel Brooks picture. Instead, I Wonder Who’s Killing Her Now? is a long, unpleasant hour and a half spent with an unsympathetic, sociopathic, possibly psychopathic protagonist. Still, you can’t help but admire Bob Dishy’s straight-faced, unwavering commitment to every terrible gag he’s forced to take part in. Whether he truly believes in the character or whether he’s simply unwilling to show any doubt there’s something almost brave about his performance. The Indian characiture in tan-face? Not so much.

Anyone seen this dud? Would the presence of Peter Sellers have improved it? Or is it beyond saving? 

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