Peter Lorre and Raymond Massey in "Arsenic and Old Lace"
A Tipple with the Brewster Sisters
by Anne Sharp
The best film to watch on Halloween night (if you're too old for "Mad Monster Party") is "Arsenic and Old Lace." More than any other horror film (which it definitely is--its laughs are quite decidedly nervous ones), it captures the feel of this great Pagan holiday, its atmosphere of cooling earth and shivering leaves. Halloween night is when the spirits of the evil dead come back to visit the living, and incidentally that's why pre-Christian Celtic custom requires that jack-o-lantern in your window. It tricks the spirits into thinking there's some dead guy already in your house--then they'll leave you alone.
Freud pointed out that the ones we fear most are usually related to us. This is where "Arsenic" gets its staying power, both as a staple of school and community theater and as a movie. "Arsenic" may be a farce but its take on family relationships is chillingly real. Who can't feel for Mortimer Brewster (played by Cary Grant in the style of Curly Howard) coming home to Brooklyn for a nice get-together with his aunties, only to find poison in the wineglasses and a stench of lovingly killed humanity rising from the basement?
For whatever reason--inspiration on director Frank Capra's part, or just the manner in which the set was built--"Arsenic" was filmed in a very stagy way, most of the film taking place in one room, seen from the point of view of an imaginary audience, flat-on. Usually that's cause for criticism in a film, but in this case it works perfectly, because "Arsenic" is a play about being trapped in one place, helplessly watching what's going on there. This works especially well during the long, eerie, claustrophobic sequences in which various characters scamper through the shadows, dragging corpses around and nattering about poison and surgery and congenital madness. Whenever the camera comes in for a medium shot or close-up, it feels overintimate, as though we'd jumped onstage during a live performance.
"Arsenic" was filmed at Warner Bros. in Burbank in 1941 while the hit stage play was still on Broadway. Most of the principles in the original cast were given time off to go to the West Coast to appear in the film, with the outrageous exception of Boris Karloff. The greedheads who were managing the stage show refused to let him go because box office receipts would go down during the two or three weeks he'd be away. For this crime against film culture they will be forever damned. Posterity now has the ability to see Josephine Hull and Jean Adair recreate their original state roles as the mercy-poisoning Brewster sisters--big whoop. But the brilliant coup de theatre in which a Jonathan Brewster played by Karloff indignantly declares that he killed a man because he said he looked like Boris Karloff, is lost to us.
Karloff and Peter did get to work together as a sort of reverse Jonathan-Dr. Eisenstein in the 1943 "Arsenic" knock-off movie "The Boogie Man Will Get You" (which does have its own discreet charms) and they eventually played Jonathan and Einstein together in a 1955 television version of "Arsenic," though by then they were both really too old for their roles. Still at the height of their creative powers at the time the original "Arsenic" was filmed, the game Anglo-Indian trouper and the wild Germanic-Jewish improvisationalist should have come up with something very special together, given the strength of the material and Capra behind the camera. Perhaps the great star duo of the Warners war years wouldn't have been Lorre and Greenstreet, but Lorre and Karloff.
Watch Peter in "Arsenic" and you'll see something of his legendary performance in "M," that febrile, self-revealing empathy with the doomed. Peter's Einstein is very funny, but look closely and you'll see something disturbing. This man's in pain. Einstein is an alcoholic, and Peter sadly understood what drives a man to self-medicate into an incurable addiction. His Einstein is eager to get into Mortimer's aunts' wine carafe not because he's depraved; he's just half-dead with terror. Life as Jonathan's gun moll has given him a terminal case of Stockholm syndrome. Notice his tremulous, coaxing voice, his desperate smiles, the way he strokes Johnny's arm to calm his murderous rage. Like Hans Beckert, the man-child killer in "M," or ever more so Peter's own creation Karl Rothe, the healer turned murderer in "Der Verlorene," he's not a true criminal but one of the Lost Ones, hostage to a violence he can hardly comprehend, as mortified as we are by the vicious scenarios he must enact.
(c) by Anne Sharp. All rights reserved.