Who Killed Mary What's 'er Name?

Director: Ernie Pintoff   
Red Buttons, Alice Playten, Sylvia Miles

Death can seriously make an impact. There are two incidents in my childhood involving death that have stuck with me for years and to this day. The first incident happened one afternoon when I was walking home from school. Halfway home, I noticed three or so kids my age looking at something at the edge of the cattle field that bordered the road. Right at the fence line there was a large dead bird lying on the ground. I stopped and listened to the kids speaking about this bird. They were all fascinated about their discovery. I was not as interested of the bird as they were, but I was interested in hearing their thoughts about it. One of the kids got the idea to throw a large rock on the bird to see if it would splatter blood and guts everywhere. They got a large rock lying nearby, and promptly heaved it onto the bird. The rock bounced off the bird, and no guts came flying out. (Years later, I heard that writer Stephen King had a very similar experience when he was a child.) The second incident happened several years later, also on a school day. I had missed the school bus after school, so I walked home, taking a short cut by walking on the train tracks that lay in the area. It was winter, so there was snow everywhere, but not enough to completely cover the discovery I was soon to find. Halfway home, I came across, laying on the train tracks, a large dog. The dog was clearly dead, and clearly had been dead for several days. That was bad enough, but what made it really bad was that the dog had been cut into two by a passing train.

Faced with a gruesome sight, I quickly left and tried to blank out what I saw. I walked on those train tracks several more times after that, and I was lucky not to see that dog again or anything else that gruesome. (Though not seeing the dog again got me thinking that someone must have cleaned up that scene. Who, and why? I never got the answers to those questions.) That incident, and the bird incident made a lasting impressing of death on me, and probably had at least a little effect on how I subsequently saw things (including movies) in the future. You may be wondering if I have had any experiences with death that are human-related. Well, I have a few. About a year ago one evening I came home to my apartment building after a long day at work, and right in the lobby of the building was a man lying down on the floor very still. With him was a woman who begged me to call for an ambulance. I did so, and the ambulance came, though I don't know what happened to the guy. Probably a near-death. As for actual death, there are a couple of deaths that I have witnessed, both of which have made an impact on me. Walking downtown one afternoon, I came across a crowd that included an ambulance and a police car. There was a small crowd, and in the middle of the crowd was a homeless man lying on the ground - he was clearly dead. That was the first time I had seen a dead (human) body. The second death was more personal, when a few years ago my mother died. One of my biggest fans (she loved my web site), her death has left a space that is still empty to me.

So I think I can say that death has had some impact in my life over the years. Has this impact changed how I see various things in my life? Well, if you have been reading all of the reviews on my web site, you will see it hasn't stopped me from enjoying violent movies, movies where people die. I watch various violent acts, whether it's violence on people on the battlefield to the violence inflicted by a mad slasher. But I must point out that there is always something in the back of my mind that reminds me of something. It's more or less telling me, "This is just make-believe - real violence, including actual death, is much different in the non-movie world." That's how I currently think. There is a chance I might think differently in the future if I were to experience death in a way I am fortunate to have never experienced. That is, death caused by murder. Sometimes I wonder: What would I do if a loved one of mine was murdered? Could I do anything? And what would happen if I was murdered? Would there be anyone out there that would care to see that justice was done in my case? I know from what I've seen over the years that there are cases where people care little to nothing about someone's death, and seeing the movie Who Killed Mary What's 'er Name? reminded me of this. It concerns a diabetic ex-boxer named Mickey (Buttons), who at the beginning of the movie has just been released from the hospital. While in the hospital, he read in the newspaper a small blurb about a murdered prostitute, and for some reason this story stuck with him. Out of the hospital, and angered by finding indifference towards the victim everywhere he goes, he decides to investigate for himself.

Before watching Who Killed Mary What's 'er Name? for this web site, I haven't done that much in the way of reviewing mystery movies. The only other mystery movie that immediately comes to mind that I have reviewed for The Unknown Movies was the Mormon-themed mystery movie Brigham City. There's a reason that I have not taken upon it myself to review more mystery movies. When it comes to mysteries on the printed page, I am fine - I can remember in my childhood that I would devour Encyclopedia Brown and Hawkeye and Amy mysteries, and I would find myself managing to solve a fair number of them before flipping to the back of the books to read the answer. And when it comes to mysteries on television, I find I can follow and understand the detectives' progressing work on solving the cases. However, for some reason, when it comes to mysteries made for the big screen, I sometimes find that I get somewhat lost somewhere along the way, and at the end I am sometimes scratching my head on some details. I've seen a number of movie mysteries where I was on the ball right to the end, like The Last Of Shelia and Death On The Nile (and I figured out those movies' culprits before the end), but the number of movie mysteries that have got me lost may be considered significant by some. I am mentioning this, because there is a part of me that wonders if a movie like the one I am reviewing can get a fair write-up from myself. I was able to follow the unfolding mystery of this movie for about half of its running time before I started to get lost. If I don't always "get" these movies, it may be unfair to blast the movie for people who might understand it better.

In my defense, however, I must point out that there are a number of things about this movie that suggest that the fault of not properly understanding the movie may not be my failing, but that it may be because of the fact (that I think all viewers will agree with) that a good amount of the movie is badly made. The often shoddy nature of the movie starts with the opening scene of the movie, showing Mary's murder - we get multiple close-up shots of ornaments while we hear shuffling and screaming, then when we actually get a shot of the ongoing murder, the close-up camera shakes around so rapidly that we can't tell what's going on. Not a good start, and when the opening credits then started to display, and the onscreen title of the movie had been written with a gross punctuation error, I had an idea that I was in for a long haul. (By the way, the video box for the movie not only continues this misspelling of the title everywhere on the box, there are a couple more spelling errors in the plot description on its back.) As the movie progressed, I found stuff like the central character of Mickey being murky - why was he so obsessed with finding the murderer? Well, he does say at one point, "If I wasn't so lucky, I could have ended up alone in an apartment just like that." Okay, but he also says that there's more to it than that. This seems to be an indication that we'll find out later, but we never find out what this other factor is. Evidently the screenwriter forgot, but he didn't forget to add a few extra seconds to what appears to have been the original end of the movie, which in those few seconds changes what could have been an effective tragic ending to a ludicrous "happy" ending.

Mostly I found the movie confusing. Some of this may be because of my problem with movie mysteries, but there was stuff I knew that wasn't my fault, like poor direction (most of the "action" scenes make little sense), lighting (many scenes are too dark to make out), and editing (many sudden jumps to elsewhere.) It's a wonder then that I found a few decent things buried inside all this. Director Ernest Pintoff manages to portray the New York City settings of this movie very effectively. Never have I seen this city portrayed as broken-down, dirty, and scummy as in this movie. For a movie about the investigation of the murder of a low-class prostitute, these settings seem appropriate for the subject matter. Also, I thought the performances were generally decent. It may be a bit hard to swallow the thought of Buttons as an ex-boxer, though the one scene where he has to pull out his former skills is actually more believable than you'd think. Plus, while his character may be obsessed with finding a murderer, he seems to knows that playing it frantic would look silly. He plays it cool but determined. An even better performance comes from Playten, who plays Button's daughter. What could have been a stereotyped role instead turns into a breath of fresh air by the way she plays it. Although her character has some concern about her father, she is more supportive and helpful, and acts as this kind of assistant with joy and energy. But all this decent material doesn't make up for the general shoddiness. No one was looking out for this movie, which probably explains why its VHS release was done by an short-lived video company. They probably weren't looking out for the movie as well - some flub during the transfer resulted in one scene being played twice on the copy I got.

UPDATE: Mike Mueller sent this information in:

"I dimly recall a Dick Cavett interview with Alice Playten,  who was nonplussed by the indifference of director Ernie Pintoff.  When she or Red Buttons would suggest a re-shoot to improve a scene, they were stonewalled with "The last take's good enough."   Big hairy-assed surprise that Pintoff soon landed in television."

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)

See also: Brigham City, Death Game, New York Cop