You guys, I’m just so excited about this week’s movie I’m not even going to waste your time on a lengthy introductory paragraph.
Much Ado About Murder (1973)
The Plot: Edward Lionheart (Vincent Price) was a popular Shakespearean actor until London’s ruthless critics’ circle ruined his career. Wrought with anger and sadness, Lionheart kills himself… or does he? No, he totally doesn’t He’s very much alive, and happily taking vengeance on his greatest dissenters, picking them off one at a time, and staging each murder after a famous Shakespearean death.
Two things: 1) No, this isn’t a direct Shakespeare adaptation. 2) Yes, it absolutely does deserve to be a part of my Shakespeare series. Oh my goodness, though, this movie was amazing. I don’t even know where to begin. The camp factor is through the roof, of course. This is Price at his hammiest, which is saying something, but I think he knew what he was doing. The plot is executed with as much glee and self-reflexive cleverness as the critics themselves, and as a bit of a nerd, I wholeheartedly enjoyed all of the references. The plays are carefully selected and individually catered (literally in some cases, Titus Andronicus), and it might be prudent to just go through each one. Every murder includes Price donning a BRILLIANT DISGUISE, proving that the man is a truly versatile actor with many hidden talents. So let me just break this down for you:
Julius Caesar—In which Price and his posse of drunken hobos stab the critic (Caesar) dozens of times.
Troilus and Cressida—In which Hector is goaded into a false sense of security, run through with a spear, and dragged from the battlefield by a horse.
Cymbeline—In which Price decapitates a critic (Cloten), and leaves his body for the poor slumbering Imogen to find upon awaking.
Merchant of Venice—In which Lionheart slightly rewrites the play so that Shylock does get a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
Richard III—In which Clarence is a gullible dumbass.
Romeo and Juliet—In which Price and the critic have a DUEL with SWORDS and TRAMPOLINES.
Othello—In which Price tricks the critic (Othello) into thinking his wife (Desdemona) is having an affair, and it goes about as well as you’d expect.
Henry VI Part 1—In which Price, in what is undeniably his most brilliant and impeccable disguise, burns the critic (Joan of Arc) at the stake.
Titus Andronicus—In which Price tastefully opts for baking dogs into a pie and force feeding it to a critic until he dies, instead of going for the Lavinia option.
King Lear—In which Price attempts to gouge out Gloucester’s eyes, ending in a few well-placed soliloquies.
Glorious, no? Well, as I said before, Vincent Price really brings out the big guns on this one. He has accents, and fake mustaches layered on top of real mustaches, and his Shakespearean performances are simultaneously terrible and great. I mean he does an excellent job portraying someone who actually cannot act. In that way, Price gives a truly wonderful performance.
On a certain level, however, this movie kind of brings me down. Lionheart is an actor who only wanted the recognition and acclaim he believed he deserved, but was always denied. Similarly, Vincent Price was a talented guy, continuously typecast as B-Horror villains. The story of how he got this role is simultaneously cute and sad. It’s sort of bittersweet. He liked horror. He enjoyed playing it, watching it, reading (he was a huge Poe fan), but he harbored a keen desire to play Shakespeare. Again, though, people only wanted to see him in horror, and producers only cast him in horror films. He accepted this part because it was the only way he would get to finally do Shakespeare, delivering many of his favorite speeches. Now, he clearly enjoyed the film. He’s as hammy and tongue-in-cheek as ever, but there are certain instances when you can tell that he really loved the material. There’s the Henry VI Part 1 scene, which is just hilarious, and Price plays it that way, but at one point he delivers that one really famous speech from Hamlet. You know the one. He does a really good job. The delivery itself is not so hammy or funny. Were it performed on a stage within the context of the play, I’d consider it a very moving rendition. It’s the little things like that. Somehow this film understands Shakespeare better than, say, Julie Taymor’s Tempest. Shocker.
But enough of that. None of that was meant to imply that Much Ado About Murder is a straight-up cinematic masterpiece. It’s not Space Jam. It’s campier than a hypothetical Sam Raimi/Adam West team-up, it suffers from some glaring plot holes (how did the head get from point A to point B?), and some questionable performances, but dammit, it is a straight-up cinematic masterpiece. I changed my mind. Vincent Price is amazing, he sword-fights a dude on a trampoline (just like in Romeo and Juliet), his Butch disguise is going on my wall, the Shakespeare references are clever and funny and made me feel smart because I got them, and the title is Much Ado About Murder. I cannot stress that last part enough. Granted, the film has an alternate official title, but it’s not nearly as good, so I will not mention it here. If you ever find yourself able, check out this movie. You will not regret it.