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Million Dollar Mystery
(1987)

Director: Richard Fleischer  
Cast:
Tom Bosley, Eddie Deezen, Rich Hall


With hundreds of movie reviews on this web site, it may have crossed your mind at one time or another as to how I choose the movies that I review. Well, naturally I choose movies that are unknown. Some movies are unknown more than others, some less, but all of them are relatively obscure to a general audience. Of course, I don't review every unknown movie that I come across - that would be too exhausting. But I do select to watch every unknown movie that I watch in the same ways that I choose to watch movies during my free time that are better known. Simply put, there has to be something about the movie itself that appeals to me. I find that this usually happens in certain reoccuring ways. One way is with the cast of the movie. Is there an actor (or actors) in the movie that has given me enjoyment in past movies, whether it may have been from comic skills, martial art skills, or the skill of being a really good movie villain? Another way whether I judge a movie may be of interest is whoever it might be who sat in the director's chair. If the director in question in the past has given me enjoyable movies, whatever the genre might be, you can bet that I'll strongly consider watching a new movie from the same director. A third way that I sometimes judge whether to watch a movie or not is with the movie's production studio. As you probably know already, there are certain B movie studios, such as PM Entertainment, The Cannon Group, and Millennium Films that put out movies that more often than not I find enjoyable in one way or another, enjoyable enough that I have sworn to watch every movie put out by these B movie studios.

So as you can see, I usually judge whether to see a movie or not by the movie itself, by its origins and by its actual attributes. When it comes to other ways the movie is being sold to its intended audience, I usually remain unmoved and unconvinced by this. When I see a typical trailer or television commercial for a movie that is playing in theaters, I know that many bad movies have been given great trailers and commercials, so I know not to trust movie advertising. I am also not convinced to see a movie by another tactic that is related to the advertising process, and that is when the movie has a gimmick. To me, if the people behind a movie feel that they have to use a gimmick to sell their movie to an audience, it usually means that the movie itself is below average. Throughout Hollywood history, there have been dozens of gimmicks given to movies. The most famous are probably what director William Castle gave to many of his movies. There was the time that he gave audience members life insurance should they die of fright from his movie Macabre, and later he came up with "Percepto" - buzzers under the theater seats - for his movie The Tingler. But those gimmicks of Castle's seem positively restrained compared to some other gimmicks by other filmmakers over the next few decades. There was "Aromarama", which pumped in certain scents into the movie theater's air throughout the movie, there was "Psychorama", which placed subliminal images in the movie itself to supposedly scare the audience in the back of their minds, and then there was the "barf bags" given to the American audience of the supposedly gruesome Mark Of The Devil.

Had the movies with those above gimmicks played at one of the movie theaters in my city, I seriously doubt that I would have paid to see them. Gimmicks like those seem to be an act of desperation, if you ask me. Anyway, you have probably guessed that the movie I am reviewing here - Million Dollar Mystery - used a gimmick when it played in theaters. Why am I reviewing it then? Million Dollar MysteryWell, having a gimmick makes it different from the other movies I've reviewed, and I try to have at least one example of many different kinds of movies. What was the gimmick with Million Dollar Mystery? Well, the distributor (De Laurentiis) came up with a contest where you had to guess where a million dollars was hidden somewhere in the United States, and clues for the location were in the movie itself. The prize for the lucky moviegoer who guessed first was a million dollars. However, the majority of the American public apparently didn't find the idea of a movie being a contest appealing, because the movie grossed less than a million at the box office, and the whole fiasco contributed to De Laurentiis' eventual bankruptcy. The idea of a movie being a contest intrigued me, so that's why I picked this particular gimmick movie to review. The events of the movie take place in Arizona, starting off in an isolated part of the desert where there is a small diner. Several people are already in the diner when a mysterious stranger by the name of Sidney Preston (Bosley, The Bang Bang Kid) enters. Eating the diner's world famous chili results in Sidney having a heart attack. Lying on the floor dying, he tells the other people in the diner that he has hidden four million dollars in four secret locations in the United States. Just before he passes away, he gives them the first clue: Each cache of the cash is hidden in some sort of bridge.

The other people at the diner are a mixed bunch of people. There's a brother and sister duo who run the diner, there's a nerdy honeymooning couple, there's three women who are determined to break into the music industry in L.A. with their dumb male manager, and there's a middle-aged couple with a Peter Billingsley clone for a son. However, mere seconds after Preston passes away, they all have one thing in common - a determination to get the money before anyone else does. And if it means racing across the desert while battling each other like madmen, so be it. Okay, does all this sound familiar? It should. Modern viewers might recognize this basic story from the 2001 movie Rat Race, and long time readers of this web site might remember my review of the similarly themed Flush, which came out ten years before Million Dollar Mystery. But you probably know that the story all three of these movies rip off comes from the 1963 movie It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World. And of all three movies, Million Dollar Mystery is probably the most blatant attempt to emulate the original. Still, Million Dollar Mystery does do some things that It's A Mad... didn't do. For one thing, It's A Mad... didn't have the unsubtle product plugs Million Dollar Mystery has, ranging from garbage bag manufacturer Glad (which coincidently participated in the contest, adding contest clues to specially marked packages of Glad garbage bags at the time) to the London Bridge Resort located in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. Also, while It's A Mad... (as well as Rat Race) had an all-star cast, the best that the penny-pinching De Laurentiis studio could dig up for Million Dollar Mystery was the aforementioned Tom Bosley, as well as Eddie Deezen (Grease), and... uh... that's about it for well-known actors, unless you remember that Rich Hall was briefly a cast member in Saturday Night Live in the mid '80s, or that Penny Baker was once a Playboy centerfold. (Kevin Pollak also appears in the movie, but this was before he was famous.)

I will say that the mostly no-name cast does try their best, but they are saddled with a problem surrounding their roles that even better known or more professional actors would have if they had been cast in this movie. In fact, it's a problem that can also be found in It's A Mad... and the two other rip-offs I mentioned earlier. And that problem is that the central characters aren't really that likable. It's bad enough that they are greedy; it's even worse what their greed makes them do during the course of the movie. Throughout the movie they do stuff like drive recklessly, steal innocent people's vehicles to remain on the pursuit, or destroy bystanders' property. And we are supposed to get involved with these individuals? Well, it could have still been palatable. After all, while it was hard to identify with the people in It's A Mad..., we kept watching because the movie managed to milk a decent amount of humor out of those characters, wisely coming up with gags that more or less punished their reckless behavior and stupidity. But in Million Dollar Mystery, the characters don't really get a satisfying amount of punishment for their moronic activities. You may be wondering if there are any attempt at humor in the movie that work, but I'm here to tell you that I didn't laugh, chuckle, or even smile once during the course of the movie. Frequently the attempted humor in the movies makes you think, "Someone thought this was funny?", such as one scene involving someone trying to get out of a car and forgetting to take off their seatbelt. Yes, the characters in the movie are really that stupid, so stupid that you can't identify with them and instead quickly grow weary and angry at them.

While the screenplay of Million Dollar Mystery is bad enough when it comes to delivering laughs, things are not helped by the man chosen to sit in the director's chair. While Richard Fleischer directed some fine movies in his career (such as The Spikes Gang), these good movies tended to be serious in nature. I'm not sure why De Laurentiis picked Fleischer to helm a goofy movie like this, especially since Fleischer was no spring chicken at this point (he was seventy-one years old) and it had been years since he directed his last good movie. Directing his final theatrical movie, Fleischer manages to give energy to some action sequences, and does work hard to hide the limited budget by several cost-cutting techniques like using (very) frequent close-ups. But he seems pretty hopeless when it comes to making the audience laugh. For example, Fleischer seems to think that visual stereotypes like trenchcoat clad government agents are still amusing, or that filming a private detective scene in black and white will automatically make things funny. He also blows executing the contest gimmick of the movie. I happened to know where the million dollar prize was hid before watching the movie, so I kept an eye out to see if the movie played fair and gave a reasonable amount of clues to aid audiences in guessing the location. It doesn't. I found there were only two real clues that pointed to the mystery locations, and both clues were so vague that this information probably flew over the heads of pretty much every one of the few people who bothered to see this movie in theaters. You would probably have to have bought several boxes of specially marked Glad garbage bag packages at the time to find enough additional clues to point you in the right direction. Let me spare you the bother of watching the movie if you are curious enough to try and determine the prize location. (SPOILER ALERT!) The money was hidden in the bridge of the Statue Of Liberty's nose. With my reporting of that, no one reading this now has any reason to fork over any money to see this movie, and will result in the movie's producers not getting any extra money in royalties. To me, that's worth a million bucks.


UPDATE: "Ben" sent this in:

"Liked your review. Sad footnote to Million Dollar Mystery: Legendary stuntman Dar Robinson died while doing a routine motorcycle stunt during the filming."

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See also: Flush, The Gong Show Movie, Pandemonium

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