Scared to Death (1947)

scaredtodeath01The biggest shock here is that the film is in color.  I know it was released 8 years after The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, but it was also 13 years before Psycho.  I didn’t expect a low-budget 1947 joint (did Bela Lugosi make anything else by this time?) to be in color.

It is very much a mixed bag with some good stuff mixed in with the dreadful.  Douglas Fowley as reporter Terry Lee sounds amazingly like Steve Buscemi.  One tip for enhancing enjoyment: Just pretend it is Steve Buscemi.

The film opens in an autopsy room at the morgue where two men enter and stand over a dead body covered by a sheet.  “Is this the body?” Dr. Einstein asks.  He observes that “one hates to perform an autopsy on a beautiful woman.”  That might be true, but I have to think a really fat guy would be worse.



The irony is that the actress really never looks better than in this scene.  Maybe it is the casting or strange coloration of the movie, but there are some stunningly unattractive women in this film.

They are initially stumped by the cause of death as there are no marks on the body.  This prompts the man to muse what her last thoughts might have been, prompting a film-long flashback by Laura — the dead woman.

She is in an agitated and anxious state.  Her husband believers it has to do with some letters she’s been receiving from abroad.  He is itching for a way to end the marriage and his physician father has a plan to set his son free.  Laura is able to convey their conspiratorial conversation in her flashback even though she was not there to witness it.  Maybe, being dead, she has become omniscient.  Or maybe it’s just not a very good movie.

This sets up my main irritation with the film — besides the actresses cast — repeatedly we are taken back to Laura on the slab where she will voice-over exactly one sentence, then we resume the flashback.  It is so jarring and rigidly identical each time, including the exact same music, that it becomes a joke.  Or drinking game.

scaredtodeath04Things lighten up a bit as Bela Lugosi arrives with his own personal Mini-Me, Indigo.  He has come to see the doctor unannounced.  The maid tries to stop him, but he says, “I have had an appointment with him for 20 years,” thus foreshadowing Obamacare for the U.S.

Also on-site are security guard Bill Raymond and Reporter Terry “Buscemi” Lee.  These two provide the comedy in the film, and do so very well.  Raymond is thick-headed and oafish whereas Lee makes with the snappy dialogue, see.  The mere presence of Lugosi and Indigo keep the mood light, but Raymond and Lee are actually very skilled at taking the material and breathing life into it.

scaredtodeath08There is much intrigue with unhappy marriages, blackmail, European shenanigans, floating disembodied masks, hypnotism, secret passages, disappearing corpses, betrayals, a dwarf and a guy in a cape.  There is enough untapped potential here to have made a great farce in the right hands.

Sadly it comes off a little too clunky and talky, but does have a few good laughs.


  • Personally, I find envisioning the Tony Blundetto version of Steve Buscemi to work best here, but I’ve never seen Boardwalk Empire.
  • I remembered Nat Pendleton (Bill Raymond) as the Sergeant in an Abbott & Costello WWII movie I probably saw 20 years ago.
  • Director Christy Cabanne is the anti-Mallick, having 166 Directing  credits.  True, many of these were shorts in the very early days of film, but he also has 46 writing credits, and 59 acting credits.  All before dying at the youngish age of 62.
  • On the other hand, Writer Walter Abbott had only 2 credits despite living 6 years longer.

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