The Busy Body
Though I don’t have an actual list, Donald E. Westlake in all his various incarnations would be in my Top Five favorite authors, no question. He got his start churning out soft-core porn in the early ‘60s, mostly under the house name of “Alan Marshall.” Here and there he produced a more quality book under his own name. Then he created “Richard Stark,” who wrote some of the best tough-guy prose ever produced. Some of those have been produced as movies. A few of them are even good.
Then he wrote The Fugitive Pigeon, which was a comedy of misadventure, probably not knowing that he would prove to be the world’s best at this sort of writing. He continued with the Stark books and another series by “Tucker Coe,” and wrote under his own name, both serious and comic novels, never going back to the porn pulp. Then he wrote The Hot Rock in 1970, starring John Dortmunder and his gang of quirky burglars, and became the genius of the caper novel.
This book was his second attempt at a comic novel. As I recall, it was a pretty darn good book. The movie … not so much. Many of Westlake’s books were made into movies, and most of them stunk. This one is somewhere in the mid-range. Not unbearable, but not very good.
The reason I stumbled on this after having seen it many, many years ago is that we recently saw a great documentary about William Castle, schlock-meister extroadrinaire, creator of movies like The Tingler and Macabre and Strait-Jacket. He was a lovely guy, but as a director he was small beer. He both produced and directed this film, his only real attempt at comedy. So far as I know. (Oh, wait! There was Zotz!, about a magic amulet. I’d like to see that.) He just didn’t have the knack for it. There are some funny moments, but overall the picture lays an egg.
Sid Caesar plays a schnook who works for a mobster, Robert Ryan, who has a very short temper. One mobster dies and is buried in a blue suit, which turns out to be gaffed so cash can be moved around the country. There was a million dollars in that suit. (A million? He must have looked like a blimp. But never mind.) Sid is assigned to get it back. He digs up the grave … and it’s empty. So it’s back to the mortuary to try to straighten things out, but they just get more and more complicated and hopeless. This is a Westlake strength, and the only thing that makes the movie tolerable. Musical coffins, musical corpses. It could have been so much better …
Many of the top comic bit players of the day are around, including Bill Dana, Dom DeLuise, Godfrey Cambridge, and some of them do good bits. This was also Richard Pryor’s first movie, and he’s largely wasted in a part that doesn’t give him room to really shine.
Oddly, what I found most annoying was the music. It was by someone called Vic Mizzi, who did the themes for The Addams Family (good) and Green Acres (awful), plus many, many comic movies. Here he’s trying to be Henry Mancini, and trying way too hard. He uses every “comic” instrument in a composer’s bag of tricks, from kazoos to rimshots to Jew’s harp, plus all the others, to emphasize how this is supposed to be funny. It is horribly distracting, worse than a TV laugh track. Sound effects men sitting in front of the screen in the silent days weren’t as intrusive as this.