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This is a Halloween tale of Brooklyn, where everything can happen — and it usually does...
Arsenic and Old Lace is a 1944 Frank Capra film from Warner Bros starring Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane, and featuring Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, John Alexander, Raymond Massey, and Peter Lorre, based on a 1939 play by Joseph Kesselring. A Black Comedy about murder.
Cary Grant's character, Mortimer, is the most normal member of his family, and was a committed bachelor until he finally married the girl next door. He has two sweet old aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair), who like serving homemade wine to lonely old men... and sometimes put arsenic in it. There is also a blatantly insane older brother (John Alexander) who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt. As the action opens, Mortimer has decided to surprise his family with his marriage, and shows up with his new bride on his aunts' doorstep.
Unfortunately, no sooner is he ensconced in their parlor than Mortimer accidentally uncovers the dark secret of the Brewster insanity. Since all the bad things his family does, or almost all, are directly related to hereditary madness, he has to try to keep them out of trouble even as "Yellow Fever victims" start piling up in the basement. Trying to keep his bride Elaine (Priscilla Lane) in the dark while also keeping her safe, he forgoes his honeymoon and instead stuffs his new wife back into her old room in her father's home next door.
- The Alcoholic: Dr. Einstein.
- Aside Glance: Mortimer frequently addresses the camera with his eyes, most particularly in the scene where he's being tied to the chair. His stare at the audience serves to lampshade the Lampshade Hanging.
- Ax Crazy: Jonathan.
- Back-Alley Doctor: Dr. Einstein.
- Beneath Suspicion: Who would suspect two sweet old maiden aunts of being serial killers?
- Berserk Button: Saying Jonathan looks like Boris Karloff.
- Better Than a Bare Bulb: Thanks to Mortimer who, being a dramatic critic, is familiar with all the conventions of exactly the sort of situation he finds himself in. It's too bad that he doesn't realize he's in a play himself.
- Beware the Nice Ones: Abbey and Martha are genuinely sweet, charitable old ladies who advertise a room for lonely old men... and then murder them.
- Black Comedy: Indeed, the only way this film could have gotten past the Hays Code was by being a comedy.
- Bluffing the Murderer, in a Double Subversion. Mortimer tries to get Jonathan to leave by threatening to tell the police about his dead body. In response, Jonathan threatens to reveal Martha and Abbey's murders. Mortimer then decides to Frame the Guilty Parties by getting his aunts preemptively committed to Happydale.
- Body Count Competition, Serial Killer style.
Dr. Einstein: "You got twelve, they got twelve. The old ladies is just as good as you are!"
- Bowdlerized: At the end of the movie, Cary Grant runs off shouting, "I'm not a Brewster! I'm the son of a sea cook!" However, this was changed from the final lines of the original play, where he joyously announces,"I'm not a Brewster! I'm a bastard!"
- Cain and Abel: Jonathan and Mortimer.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Teddy, Abbey, and Martha are all "out there" in various ways. Teddy is of course the most obvious, and his superficial insanity serves to mask the deeper insanity of the entire family.
- Darkness Equals Death: No dead bodies are ever seen in full light.
- Dead Man's Chest: The window seat.
- Death by Genre Savviness: Mortimer plays with this trope; see Genre Blindness, below.
- Death by Mocking: Barely averted; also see Genre Blindness.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Aunt Abby readily admits to poisoning 12 men, but is outraged at Mortimer's suggestion that she would "stoop to telling a fib."
- Eviler Than Thou: Jonathan, upon learning of his aunts' murders, insists on proving that he is a more capable Serial Killer than they are. In fact, he's not shocked at all by the murders, but instead that Martha and Abbey got away with them while living in a comfortable home in Brooklyn, whereas Jonathan has been pursued all over the world by police.
- Failed a Spot Check: A Running Gag with the policemen who visit the house.
- Famous-Named Foreigner: Dr. Einstein, although it's almost certainly an alias.
- Framing the Guilty Party: A classic example of this trope, used in at least three ways. Mortimer initially believes that Teddy is responsible for the body in the window seat, so he insists that he be sent to Happydale immediately so he can't be imprisoned for the murder. Later, when Abbey and Martha insist on going with Teddy, Mortimer jumps at the chance to get them committed too, spinning their innocent confession as proof of their insanity. Meanwhile, he sets up Jonathan to be charged not only for the body he brought with him, but by implication his aunts' murders as well.
- Genre Blindness: Discussed Trope. When Dr. Einstein suggests Mortimer should be Genre Savvy enough to comprehend the danger he's in, he makes the mistake of remarking that characters in plays at least act intelligently. Mortimer then proceeds to explain the frequent use and abuse of the Idiot Ball in plays, fittingly unaware that he's holding it.
- Ham-to-Ham Combat: Capra said that he let the scene-stealers run wild in the film.
- Cary Grant and Raymond Massey, with Grant playing the fearless hero and Massey menacing him back like a movie monster.
- Grant briefly does combat with Peter Lorre after Dr. Einstein gets frustrated with Mortimer. In his improv, Grant slips in a quip at Lorre's usual soft, quiet, decidedly non-ham style, saying, "Stop underplaying, I can't hear you!"
- I Know You Know I Know: Jonathan and Mortimer bluffing each other to leave.
- I Need a Freaking Drink:
Mortimer: "No, I am not drunk, madam, but you've given me an idea!"
- After getting off the phone, Mortimer sits down in exhaustion and reaches offhandedly for the wine carafe, only to have Abby and Martha warn him off. This has the side-effect of saving the life of another "Yellow Fever victim".
- Poor Dr. Einstein's alcoholism is a running gag throughout, and seems to have been a deliberate, clever device to heighten suspense whenever the elderberry wine is within reach. It's also partly responsible for Jonathan's ghastly appearance.
- Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: Dr. Einstein. He's so pathetic that by the end nobody seems to mind him escaping.
- Insanity Defense: Used preemptively; Mortimer hopes that by getting his aunts committed to Happydale, they won't be sent to prison for murder if/when their crimes are eventually discovered.
- In the Blood: The hereditary madness of the Brewster family.
- I Take Offense to That Last One: Aunt Abby isn't fazed when a fresh new corpse appears or when Mortimer gets her to admit that she's killed men before, but she will not stand for being called a liar.
Mortimer: "Aunt Abby, how can I believe you? There are twelve men down in the cellar, and you admit you poisoned them!"
- It Runs in The Family: Mortimer remarks: "Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops!"
- It Was Here, I Swear: A Running Gag with the body in the window seat.
- Karma Houdini: Dr. Einstein sneaks out the door while the police are busy with Jonathan and the family is busy committing the Aunts. Or, at least, he tries to until Mortimer notices him. He asks Dr. Einstein to sign the committal papers for him, after which the good doctor leaves without further incident.
- Lampshade Hanging: A classic example. Mortimer, a theater critic, complains about a character in a play being handed the Idiot Ball, not realizing that he's describing himself.
Dr. Einstein: "You know, you were right about that fellow in the play. He wasn't very smart."
- Maiden Aunt: Abby and Martha never married, but they seem to have raised both Jonathan and Mortimer.
- Medium Awareness: Teddy, in some productions.
- Mistaken Confession: Played straight, when Jonathan thinks the police have caught him, but they're really talking about O'Hara. Subverted, when the aunts innocently confess right in front of the police captain, forcing Mortimer to resort to a Sarcastic Confession plus Refuge in Audacity to convince him that the tale is a product of their insanity.
- Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: A minor case; Dr. Einstein is so squeamish that he tries to convince Mortimer to leave rather than be tortured and killed by Jonathan, and he later helps the police capture him.
- Murder Is the Best Solution: And it leaves them looking so "peaceful".
- Napoleon Delusion: Teddy thinks he's Theodore Roosevelt. And the stairs are San Juan Hill. CHAAAARGE!... *ding*. In the film adaptation, Witherspoon asks Mortimer if he could persuade Teddy to think he's Napoleon, as they already have quite a few Theodore Roosevelts and another one would mean trouble amongst the patients.
- Never One Murder: Mortimer initially assumes that the first body he discovers was an accident or an isolated event, but then Abby and Martha reveal that they have been at their "charity" work for years.
- No Doubt the Years Have Changed Me: Jonathan uses this line almost verbatim.
- Noodle Incident: Whatever the "Melbourne Method" involves. One production of the play had a bit of improv that was kept in during the following performances - The Aztec method, which included a goat, an ostrich, and a chicken. "Where am I gonna find a chicken at this time of night, Johnny?"
- Not Even Bothering with the Accent: In the film, Dr. Einstein is mentioned specifically as speaking with an German accent, despite the fact he only ever speaks with Peter Lorre's native Hungarian accent.
- Not My Lucky Day: For Mortimer, and it just keeps getting worse.
- Officer O'Hara: There actually is an officer O'Hara in the film, though without the Oirish accent sported by his predecessor on the beat, Officer Brophy.
- Only Sane Man: Mortimer, both metaphorically and literally, and even he begins to doubt it in the end.
- Pet the Dog: Dr. Einstein has several dog-petting moments. While his other attempts to talk Jonathan out of doing terrible, horrible things can be written off as fatigue or self-indulgent squeamishness, and his signing the papers to have the Aunts committed was basically him saving his own skin, Dr. Einstein's effort to get Mortimer the hell out of the house and spare him a grisly fate seems genuine. He's very sweet to Teddy and won't abide killing him when Jonathan threatens it, and when Jonathan tries to kill Officer O'Hara, the Doctor knocks him out before he can.
- Police Are Useless:
- Thanks to Failed a Spot Check, the beat cops are utterly clueless about what's going on in the Brewster house. This is a good thing from Mortimer's point of view with respect to his aunts, but not so great with respect to Jonathan.
- In the movie, the police captain who finally recognizes Jonathan as a wanted man manages to listen and repeat a perfect description of his accomplice Dr. Einstein, who is right in front of him, without recognizing him.
- Posters Always Spoil: Subverted. A piece of promotional art spoils the original play's ending by showing Mr. Witherspoon about to take a sip of the poisoned wine as offered by Abby and Martha. However, this ending was never filmed, as Edward Everett Horton was deemed too popular an actor to kill off.
- Properly Paranoid: Mortimer. Just not quite paranoid enough.
- Public Domain Soundtrack: The aunts' Leitmotif, used extensively in the Max Steiner score, is "Happy Land," an 1850 hymn with words by Andrew Young and music arranged by Leonard T. Breedlove (at least it wasn't Amazing Freaking Grace).
- Quick Nip: Dr. Einstein carries a flask in his pocket. When it's emptied toward the end, he gets truly desperate, setting up the elderberry wine fake-out.
- Refuge in Audacity: It's amazing that they managed to get away with portraying murdering old ladies as sympathetic in Hays Code-era Hollywood. Also see Mortimer's use of this in Sarcastic Confession.
- Regional Riff: The Max Steiner score sets the scene with a Standard Snippet of "The Sidewalks of New York"—suitably rendered in the minor.
- Repeating So the Audience Can Hear: The police captain's conversation with his precinct, during which he repeats Dr. Einstein's Wanted Poster description word for word so the audience can see Einstein's increasingly panicked reaction.
- Running Gag: Let's see, there's Teddy's bugle playing (and charging), the constantly disappearing and reappearing body in the window seat, Elaine misunderstanding Mortimer's behavior, the cabby and his ever-escalating fare, Dr. Einstein's drinking, everyone trying to get Mortimer to review their plays, the obliviousness of the police, who's "going to Happydale"...
- Sarcastic Confession
Mortimer: "Certainly there are thirteen bodies buried in the cellar. And I've got hundreds more up in the attic, Captain!"
- Show Within a Show: As Mortimer is a respected theater critic, everyone wants him to look at the plays they've written.
- "Shut Up" Kiss: Three times in a row! Some women just won't stop talking!
- Suddenly-Suitable Suitor: Zig Zagged. Elaine is dizzy in love with Mortimer, but gets increasingly frustrated and angry with him when he seems to be brushing off their honeymoon, then is completely freaked out upon discovering the murders, and then finally folds in Mortimer's arms when he starts paying attention to her again.
- Sugary Malice: This movie is based upon the notion that a certain pair of sweet old ladies are inviting gentlemen over to drink homemade wine and then poisoning them.
- Sympathetic Murderer: The aunts. Emphatically not Jonathan, though.
- Tap on the Head: Lampshaded. Mortimer tells the cops not to bother as it never works, and is surprised when it does.
- Textual Celebrity Resemblance:
- Forms Jonathan's Berserk Button. "He looks like Boris Karloff!" In the Broadway production of the play, Jonathan was actually played by Boris Karloff - in fact, the reason he wasn't in the film is that the play's producers had him under exclusive contract at the time.
- There was another run of the play that had Bela Lugosi as Jonathan. For that one the line was changed to, "Everyone tells me I look like Bela Lugosi!"
- That Poor Cat: During the scene where Teddy's moving the "Yellow Fever victim" to the "canal", he apparently steps on a cat's tail. The cat is seen in an earlier scene coming out of the cellar.
- Too Dumb to Live: Mortimer, Lampshaded by Mortimer himself:
Mortimer: "...Now, he knows he's in the house with murderers, so he ought to know he's in danger. He's even been warned to get out of the house. And does he go?"
- Torture Technician: Dr. Einstein carries a set of precision surgical instruments with him. He uses it for plastic surgery. Jonathan uses it for... other things.
Dr. Einstein: "Not the Melbourne method!" [shudders] "Two hours! And when it was over, what? The fellow in Melbourne was just as dead as the fellow in South Bend!"
- Wanted Poster: Apparently, Jonathan and Dr. Einstein feature prominently on one of these at the police station, not that anyone but the captain notices.
- White Sheep: Mortimer. Justified at the end when Abbey and Martha reveal that he was adopted.
- Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Dr. Einstein begs Jonathan to simply kill Mortimer when Jonathan states his intention to kill him with the slow and torturous Melbourne Method.
- Wrong Genre Savvy: Played for laughs—Mortimer is an expert in theater tropes and continually comments on how things would turn out if he were actually in a play and trapped in a house with murderers... happily ignoring the fact that that's exactly what's going on.