“Things have been awfully dead around here.”
I am forever indebted to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The duo were my entry point into classic film as a kid, and many of their comedies (Buck Privates, Rio Rita, Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man) still rank among my all-time favorites. Their timing was immaculate, their wordplay was first rate, and their nonstop energy made other comedy acts look stale by comparison. With these attributes in mind, I thought it would be interesting to look at a rarely discussed aspect of Abbott and Costello’s career: their ties to film noir.
The lifespan of the comedy duo and classical film noir parallel each other rather neatly. Like noir, Abbott and Costello were at their commercial peak in the 1940s. They too struggled to adjust come the following decade, and by the late 1950s, they fizzled out. They also played opposite actors like Dick Powell, Thomas Gomez, William Bendix and Marie Windsor, each of whom found concurrent success in film noir. Despite these similarities, however, the wholesome appeal of Abbott and Costello rarely overlapped with a gritty crime aesthetic. In truth, the only film that qualifies as legitimate noir is the 1949 oddity Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff.
I use the word “oddity” because the film is the rare Abbott and Costello vehicle that fully commits to its genre. Where previous films such as Who Done It? (1942) or The Noose Hangs High (1948) flirted with noir, … Meet the Killer is a full bore parody, with moody visuals and dead bodies scattered throughout. Abbott plays Casey Edwards, a hotel detective, and Costello plays Freddie Phillips, a bumbling bellhop. Freddie gets into a quarrel with one of the hotel guests (Nicholas Joy), but things sour when the guest turns up dead, and he’s made a prime suspect. Casey agrees to help Freddie clear his name, only to find that they’re both in over their head.
To compliment Abbott and Costello on their chemistry would be like praising Olivier for his reading of Hamlet. Certain things go without saying. The duo are sharp as ever here, playing off each other and improvising funny bits of action as only seasoned veterans can. I especially like the scene where Casey tries to console Freddie in his hotel room. He assures him that the police would need a murder weapon and DNA to link him to the scene of the crime. All the while, Freddie realizes that someone snuck a blood-soaked handkerchief into his pocket and a warm pistol under his sheets. It’s a clever little bit that shows off the duo’s combined physical and verbal talents.
Boris Karloff is not the killer, despite the blatantly suggestive title. He’s merely a red herring for the duo to investigate. He is, however, responsible for one of the best scenes in the film. As a former client of the murder victim, Karloff’s Swami attempts to hypnotize Freddie into committing suicide. He orders the hapless bellhop to hang himself, but each time out, he’s foiled by Freddie’s inability to follow directions. Karloff doesn’t have as much screen time as one might expert, but he is superb here, ramping up the character’s frustration in ways that are increasingly funny to watch. He delivers the single best line in the film: “You’re going to commit suicide if it’s the last thing you do!”
… Meet the Killer also benefits from its textured visuals. Most Abbott and Costello comedies rely on standard, high-key lighting, but cinematographer Charles Van Enger takes advantage of the film noir aesthetic here, and the results are surprisingly moody. The black humor of the Karloff scene is punctuated by chiaroscuro lighting that casts ominous shadows on the wall. A later scene, where Casey and Freddie disguise two (!) dead bodies by sitting them up and staging a poker game, is heightened by stark, single source lighting. It’s little touches like these that sell the parody, and allow the world to feel as dangerous as the eponymous killer.
In yet another departure from standard comedy formula, … Meet the Killer features a suspenseful climax. Freddie is lured into a bottomless cavern to confront the killer, where he nearly falls to his death. The cavern set is beautifully designed, and director Charles Barton makes us feel the dizzying heights from which Freddie is dangling. Barton made some of the duo’s sharpest comedies, including Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and the underrated Time of Their Lives (1946), but his talent for staging and pacing is best exemplified here. I won’t disclose the identity of the real killer, or how Freddie escapes the cavern, in the interest of preserving the film’s knotted mystery.
I concede that …Meet the Killer is a minor Abbott and Costello film. It lacks the airtight humor of their best work, or the memorable routines that boosted their lesser films. What it does have, however, is style, a sustained tone, and the appeal of seeing two comedy powerhouses fumble through a murder case. You won’t see … Meet the Killer on any noir lists, but I maintain that anyone with a penchant for classic noir, and a passing knowledge of Abbott and Costello, is in for a treat. B
TRIVIA: Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff is the only Hollywood film in history with three of the actors’ names in the title.