Criterion Prediction #232: Arsenic and Old Lace, by Alexander Miller

Title: Arsenic and Old Lace

Year: 1944

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson, Raymond Massey

Synopsis: A noted bachelor shocks everyone with an engagement notice. When he informs his kindly old pair of aunts, things take a turn as he realizes they’ve been poisoning prospective tenants who respond to their rooms for rent.

Critique: Context is everything when you approach a movie. Walking into Arsenic and Old Lace, I’m thinking there’s some frame of reference; there’s Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Peter Lorre and, of course, Frank Capra. A cast of luminaries working with a beloved director for a major studio at a time when everyone involved is at their crackling best; naturally, I’m expecting some fast-talking, acerbic, wit, and a zany story with even zanier stakes. Of course, Arsenic and Old Lace delivered on the requisite wackiness, Grant’s bouncing off the walls, and the time-sensitive narrative is the perfect gimmick for a rapid-fire forties era comedy. Still, the macabre turn seemingly comes out of nowhere, and the dark tones grow even shadier, and yet none of these contrasting themes bump or clash. This morbid comedy gets a propulsive boost that’s equally inspired as it is thematically polarizing, giving the film a riffy, European aura. While this is evidently the work of the ever-reliable Frank Capra (and Kesselring play of the same name)  but it’s hard not to think of Alexander Mackendrick and the idiosyncratic Ealing comedies that followed the release of this film.

The atmosphere is a sliver of modern gothic Americana with a twist of macabre Freudianism.

It’s almost as if Stephen Vincent Benet were subjected to a Hollywood makeover, evoking the screwball comedies from the 30s (typified by Cary Grant) and the shadowy expressionism of Universal’s monster cycle. So when Peter Lorre and a Karloff aping Raymond Massey arrive, it’s perfectly offbeat, which in some ways is an apt summarization of the overall viewing experience.

Grant isn’t quite playing himself yet (though he’s close) and he’s glowing with the slickster charm he so flawlessly exudes. I’m pretty sure Cary Grant was born with a head of thick, parted black hair and a perched eyebrow. Priscilla Lane’s character feels a tad underrealized; apparently, Elaine Harper Brewster was more feisty in the stage version, but that must have been lost in translation.

Why It Belongs in the Collection: Relegated to a DVD release that is pretty bare-bones in terms of features and supplements, Capra’s classic is long overdue for a boutique Blu-ray release. Arsenic and Old Lace has been hinted at for a Criterion treatment, rumors, and comment thread aside the film was featured on the now-defunct Filmstruck streaming service. In contrast, it hasn’t popped up on The Criterion Channel; it might just get a spine number.

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