Directed by: Dean Hargrove
Written by: Dean Hargrove, Gabriel Dell
Cast: Gabriel Dell, Will Geer, Anjanette Comer, Joyce Van Patten, Vincent Gardenia, Barbara Harris, Jackie Coogan, Huntz Hill
For movie fans of all genres, MOD (Made on Demand) DVDs are both a blessing and a curse. While it's true DVD-R technology makes it possible for collectors to own a physical copy of movies that wouldn't otherwise warrant a full-scale release, it also allows the studios to sell any film hiding in the corner of a film vault. And that would be fine if it wasn’t for the premium price tag attached to the finished product.
Taking a risk by purchasing an unknown film can be costly, as you might be buying a film better suited for a Walmart dump bin, which is where The Manchu Eagle Murder Caper Mystery belongs. Despite the script's best intentions, and a cast filled with talented actors from film and television, the movie is one giant misfire, generating little laughs and a sense that the director didn't know where to go with the material.
The film attempts to spoof the film noir genre, but it takes place somewhere in the American Southwest, with all the scenes taking place during the day. That's a big mistake if you plan on toying with noir conventions, unless the director is clever enough and uses the setup to poke fun at the dark, shadowy settings common to film noir. But director Dean Hargrove lets the opportunity slip by him.
The movie starts as Malcolm (Gabiel Dell, a member of the Dead End Kids and The Bowery Boys), a local chicken hatchery owner and recent graduate of a mail order detective school, is being interrogated by Detective Chief Anderson (Jackie Coogan, Chaplin's young sidekick in The Kid and Uncle Fester from TV's The Addams Family) and Deputy Roy (Huntz Hall, another Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys veteran). He starts explaining the events that lead to his arrest (while the two cops get involved in a search for a missing "No Smoking" sign), which started when his first client, Oscar Cornell, was murdered in his office.
Malcolm's researcher at the hatchery, Dr. Melon (Sorrell "Boss Hogg" Booke) can offer little advice, but agrees to keep quiet about the murder until Malcolm can find the killer. Malcolm hides the body, than begins following a cold trail that leads to Big Daddy Jessup (Vincent Gardenia), the richest man in town. We can tell Jessup has money because he lives in a shiny, double-long trailer, with a pigpen out back.
Jessup's son, Frankie, holds a grudge against Malcolm for some reason, and Jessup's daughter Arlevia (Anjanette Comer) is kept locked in a barn to protect her from unsuitable men. Of course, that didn't stop Oscar from gaining access to her, nor does Malcolm have much trouble getting into her sanctuary for a brief interrogation.
Malcolm must also deal with Oscar's wife, Jasmine, a seductress who strips down to her bra and panties in his office. But the script, which hints at a double indemnity insurance policy she holds in the event of Oscar's disappearance, goes no farther with that plot line than a single scene. It's another misfire, as the scene would play well in a wacky spoof of the noir genre, but here simply limps through the motions. And Jasmine is never seen again, or considered a suspect, which is another lost comedic opportunity.
The cast of characters is rounded out by a teacher who is suicidal after Oscar broke off their relationship, a friendly bartender who speaks only in clichés and a pill-popping, sexually frustrated doctor (Will "Grandpa Walton" Geer). Oh, and Malcolm discovers that Oscar harbored a deep, secret love for animals in all the wrong ways.
All the elements are in place for a ripping spoof of the film noir genre, but the script just isn't funny. While a few sight gags earn a mild chuckle, most of the humor doesn't work and several moments are just offensive without any comedic payoff. Jessup's relationship with his innocent daughter (who is portrayed by a full-grown woman, which the film makes no attempt to hide, thank god) is just creepy. And the doctor's declaration that most of the women in town are "dykes" because they won't sleep with him comes off as more hateful than funny, even with Grandpa Walton delivering the line.
It's shocking that this movie doesn't work; a look at the IMDb page for most of the actors, even those playing minor characters, revels a surprising range of acting credits. The cast is talented, yet the script just falls flat. Hargrove's direction feels rather impassionate, as he doesn't allow the dialogue to snap like a noir mystery and, as mentioned above, he doesn't try to frame his shots to imitate films from the genre. Again, the daytime setting would challenge most any director, but Hargrove isn't able, nor does he even try, to find humor in the sultriness, cynicism or violence typical of the noir genre.
Another problem is Dell's performance. It's obvious the filmmakers didn't want to create a parody of the hard-boiled detective, opting to play it straight rather than veer into Frank Drebin territory. But the film could have used some of the energy Leslie Nielsen brought to The Naked Gun series, as Dell seems rather dull and unconnected to his surroundings. His indifference is most telling when Jasmine and Arlevia try to seduce him. Malcolm seems to be somewhere else rather than reacting to them, and while this detachment might have been a deliberate attempt to say something about the character, it doesn't work. Dell's performance comes off like he's just reciting his dialogue, not acting.
And, damn it, no one smokes. All health issues aside, a cigarette is an extension of a film noir character's personality. Smoking expressed a character's inner turmoil or sensuality in the noir genre. Paul Verhoeven knew that when he directed Basic Instinct, as did other directors of modern noir-ish films. Hell, even Steve Martin knew it, as the poster for Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid features his hard-boiled detective with an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. While it might not be the best image to put upon the screen, playing off the use of smoking as a character trait, or at least a scene in a smoke-filled room, seems a requirement in any noir spoof.
Part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection, the DVD has decent picture and sound quality. Like most MOD DVDs, no extras are included and the jacket warns that the DVD might not play on PC drives or DVD recording devices (again, it worked fine on my Mac).
Despite its strong cast, The Manchu Eagle Murder Caper Mystery is never able to take off. You might get a few chuckles from it, but not enough to make the investment worth your time or money. And to be honest, I'm not even sure the Walmart dump bin price would make this film worth watching.