Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime…
“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”
Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is one of 2019’s more pleasantly surprising success stories in large part because it’s an original film rather than a sequel, remake, or existing IP. It’s funny, surprising, and features a terrifically eclectic cast of talented and beloved actors bringing to life a playful riff on an Agatha Christie whodunit. The premise is always a good time, especially when laughs are blended in with the mystery, and that leads me to this week’s Prime Sublime. The Weekend Murders (1970) introduces a posh, superbly effed up family who arrive for the reading of a will but find murder instead. Hilarity, inappropriate behaviors, and even more murder ensue!
What’s it about?
Henry Carter, the 2nd Baron of Vale, is dead. His spoiled, pretentious, and terrifically unappreciative family gather for the reading of the will and are shocked to discover that the entirety of the man’s fortune is going to Barbara (Anna Moffo; The Adventurers, 1970), a young relative unliked by and mostly unfamiliar to the rest of the family. She’s a distant relation, but as she was the one who helped care for the old man in his final years she’s the one who appears to have benefited. The rest aren’t too happy about it, and amid the grumbling young Georgie (Christopher Chittell; To Sir With Love, 1967) suggests that Barbara probably doesn’t have a will of her own, so if something was to happen to her the money would have to split among the family…
Cue some weekend murders!
The butler dies first leading one of the family to joke that “for once, nobody’ll be able to say the butler did it,” and as the others laugh it’s immediately clear that these are all bad, bad people. Police arrive on the scene including Scotland Yard Supt. Grey (Lance Percival; Yellow Submarine, 1968) and local bobby Sgt. Thorpe (Gastone Moschin; The Godfather II, 1974), but while the former quickly takes charge it’s the latter — a bumbling, buck-toothed goofball — who’s actually catching on to the clues. A second corpse gives way to a third, and the only thing piling up faster are the suspects as everyone looks guilty as hell.
What makes it sublime?
The Christie DNA in The Weekend Murders is strong as a group of people, most of them unlikable and easily labeled as potential killers, are gathered in one place while murders and investigation occur simultaneously. It’s a solid mystery too with some stellar red herrings and visual cues pointing the finger of suspicion in varied directions. The big difference, though, is that this whodunit leans comedic, and it does so without ever compromising the core mystery.
It’s somewhat unique in that it’s an Italian production filmed in England and is more than comfortable playing with genre conventions familiar to both mystery and, to a lesser degree, giallo fans. It’s loose and playful but no spoof, and writer Sergio Donati, a major talent in the international cinema game with a varied filmography that includes movies like The Big Gundown (1966), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Duck, You Sucker (1971), Orca (1977), Raw Deal (1986), Man on Fire (1987), and many, many more, layers witty dialogue and banter between the family that runs the gamut from gags to dry comments to legit funny exchanges. The script plays smart with expectations, setting up relationships and interactions that leave viewers giggling while quickly jumping from one sure thing suspect to the next.
It’s a fantastically shallow pool of relatives starting with cousin Georgie who’s a devious sex pervert with mommy issues. He quickly makes a nuisance of himself by staging his own murder only to reveal the gag before being berated by his domineering mother. Nephew Ted (Giacomo Rossi Stuart; The Last Man on Earth, 1964), by contrast, is a smooth motherfucker who drives a sports car, is constantly referred to as “young” despite his graying hair, and arrives with a black woman as his wife — a choice seemingly made strictly to upset his upper-crust family. “I’m a bright boy you see,” he says at one point, and it’s a line you can easily see Chris Evans’ Knives Out character saying with a knowing smirk. The others are rounded out with various bastards, bitches, playboys, primadonnas, and more including Isabelle (Evelyn Stewart; The Psychic, 1977), the old man’s sole child and expectant heir who’s clearly shocked by the will reading, and Evelyn (the gloriously named Orchidea De Santis; Devil in the Brain, 1972), the sexy maid whose bite may be worse than her bust.
Moschin’s Sgt. Thorpe steals the show, though, as viewers realize their initial dismissal of his intelligence and detective skills was horribly premature. He looks and acts a bit silly, but that in turn becomes his secret weapon in that no one notices him discovering the truth one detail and a time. It builds to a terrifically satisfying conclusion as he brings all of the surviving players together and essentially forces a confession from the true killer with a mix of wit, suspense, and props. It’s no lazy conclusion either and instead holds up to casual scrutiny just fine.
Director Michele Lupo is better known for a mix of serious genre films (Colossus of the Arena, 1962; Man from Nowhere, 1966) and more humorous romps including a series of Bud Spencer action/comedies, but he finds a sweet spot here and is clearly having a blast with the visuals. Numerous zooms, some minor and slow while others whip into closeups of extremely guilty faces, are a highlight while he also plays with mirrors in interesting and revealing ways. He and cinematographer Guglielmo Mancori (Spasmo, 1974; The Wild Beasts, 1984) use tilts and other odd angles to keep the visuals from ever growing stale, and it’s all complemented by composer Francesco De Masi‘s (The Inglorious Bastards, 1978; The New York Ripper, 1982) playful score shifting between classical riffs and more “modern” music. The rifle cues used to signify the discovery of new bodies is its own special joy as the sound, the score, and the zooms all combine into ridiculous poetry for the senses.
And in conclusion…
The Weekend Murders may not be as broadly comedic as Clue (1985), as star-studded as Knives Out, or as polished as either of them, but it belongs in the same conversation as an oddly funny mystery with an appealingly charismatic ensemble at its core. These aren’t necessarily likable people, Sgt. Thorpe aside of course, but it’s wonderfully entertaining being in their hammed up and snobby presence. The solid mystery and killer ending complete the package making this a movie deserving of a far bigger audience, so why not make plans for it this weekend?