In hindsight, you know why Angela Lansbury makes such a wicked femme fatale? After planting herself in the national consciousness as kindly old gumshoe Jessica Fletcher for 12 years, seeing her in a role like Myra in Please Murder Me is jarring. Earlier in her career she scored big playing baddies and this little B-thriller is a great example of her dark side. Directed by Peter Godrey (The Two Mrs. Carrolls), Please Murder Me is 74-minutes of nasty little power plays and shocking revenge through sacrifice. And one super sketchy murder trial.
Lansbury’s Myra is the nucleus of this caper, but it’s Raymond Burr (Crime of Passion) who consumes the spotlight. He stars as eminent attorney Craig Carlson, whose best friend Joe Leeds (Dick Foran) took a bullet for him back in the war, saving his life. Their decades-long companionship comes to a close one night when, unable to stomach the secret any longer, he reveals to Leeds that his wife, Myra, is truly in love with him. Naturally, she wants a divorce, so she can marry Carlson. Rather than clean Carlson’s clock, Leeds calmly asks for time to think things over. A cool cucumber, this Leeds is.
Days later, Myra shoots and kills Leeds, claiming self-defense, and Carlson finds himself defending her in court for murdering his best friend. But was it in self defense? And what does a bohemian artist from Myra’s past have to do with the whole murderous escapade?
The cocksure young artist Carl is played by prolific TV director Lamont Johnson. He comes into play during the film’s second half, when penetrating seeds of doubt pierce Carlson’s otherwise concrete demeanor. The scenes played between Craig and Carlson are absolutely wonderful, as the manipulation once in the hands of Myra begins to shift towards the volatile men in her life. As Craig and Carlson get to know one another, secrets begin to boil over and Myra can do nothing but squirm in her evening dress. Carlson is nice enough to paint Carlson’s portrait at least.
The leads all deliver fine, multifaceted performances. Burr especially, as Carlson runs the emotional gamut from love to loathing in just a few short scenes. His trademark Perry Mason charisma only peeks out really during the courtroom scenes, but it’s impressive to see his visage shift so rapidly. While the trial rages on, Lansbury plays the damsel in distress very well, though her performance leaves just enough doubt for the audience to think that maybe it wasn’t self-defense.
It’s enough for the jury to find her innocent, however. Well, that coupled with one of the most ridiculous defenses I’ve ever witnessed in a film. Carlson must be a genie or something because his clincher defense is that Myra is in love with him. It doesn’t matter whether she killed in self-defense or not, all that matters is Leeds is dead because she fell out of love with him and in love with Carlson. This baffling play actually works. The trial must’ve taken place in Florida, that’s the only way such a bonkers defense could ever work.
Please Murder Me works well as a crime thriller for a lot of reasons. Besides the performances, the clever double twist during the second half is wholly satisfying and fairly unique – helping the film transcend the typical who-dunnit or courtroom drama. As the provocative title suggests, Leeds isn’t the only schlub who gets murdered here. But I’ll leave that up for you to see.