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  Who Killed Mary What's 'Er Name? The Detective
Year: 1971
Director: Ernest Pintoff
Stars: Red Buttons, Sylvia Miles, Conrad Bain, Sam Waterston, David Doyle, Dick Anthony Williams, Alice Playten, Gilbert Lewis, Earl Hindman, Ron Carey, Norman Rose, Ellen Guirin, Leila Martin, Donald Marye, Dee Timberlake, Antonia Rey, Jake LaMotta
Genre: ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: A prostitute has been murdered in her pokey New York City apartment, but nobody seems to care much, so high are the crime rates that she is treated as only another statistic even by the investigating police officers. They refer to her as "Mary What's 'Er Name" and are not putting the solution to her death high on their agenda, but one man is, a civilian called Mickey (Red Buttons) who when he was convalescing in hospital thanks to complications from his diabetes, read about the case in the newspaper. He makes up his mind that Mary will need to be avenged, and the minute he gets the chance, escapes from hospital and turns sleuth...

A curious whodunnit with social commentary weighing heavily on its shoulders, this was not one of the highest profile murder mysteries of its day thanks to the genre falling out of favour as the subject for movies. On television, however, audiences could not get enough, and such material abounded on the small screen, and to an extent still does in various series. This was probably why, if the film was recalled at all, it would have been because it had been caught on TV, and it does come across as an episode of an amateur detective serial - indeed, Buttons looked as if he'd be right at home solving cases every week in spite of what the conclusion of this particular story was.

But then there's the conscience of the piece, which saw Mickey as the torch-bearer for upstanding values and common decency even when dealing with the lowest strata of society. Especially when dealing with them, as in his view the lower you sink the more desperately you need to cling on to your dignity, or what passes for it if you end up selling yourself on the streets as Mary did. Trouble is, everyone Mickey meets comes across as either a suspect or an example of the problems the film is trying to address, and some characters sum up both. Apart from his daughter Della (Alice Playten), and perhaps the policeman (Gilbert Lewis) on the beat around the crime scene, everyone else has a dodgy history.

Or so you'd be forgiven for thinking as the untried investigator (he used to be a boxer before he retired) opts to move into the dead woman's apartment. There he meets a selection of colourful locals, including second billed Sylvia Miles in her typical "tart with a heart" role of the time as Christina, a friend of Mary's who was also a prostitute and can offer a few clues to what actually happened. In addition, there's a documentary maker, Alex (Sam Waterston) who happens to have been making a film on the district and has captured Mary on celluloid, although he may have more to do with her than he is letting on - another suspect for us to consider, among the others such as the bikers, the johns, and the landlord (Dick Anthony Williams).

Williams gets one of the strangest scenes in the film where he terrorises a group of little old ladies into doing his bidding, something that Mickey notes but by this time there are so many shady characters that the film is in danger of getting overstuffed, not only with dodgy types but also themes about where the country is going if things like this are allowed to happen, its answer apparently being "to Hell in a handbasket". In truth the drama is pulling in two different directions, and the viewer may prefer to put all the worrying about the state of the nation to one side and concentrate on the thriller aspects, which may not be the most absorbing ever put on film, but are fairly diverting largely thanks to a cast sympathetic to the needs of the script. The guilty party is not as easy to spot as in other movies of this kind, and if you don't really feel as if you've learned much, it does head for a haunting ending. Music by Gary MacFarland.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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