Advertisement

A 2-FOR-1 ‘BARGAIN’ IN ‘MURDER’

Share

In 1949, Harry Morgan, Martha Scott and Jeffrey Lynn made a murder mystery for RKO Pictures called “Strange Bargain.” The film, a drama about a man falsely accused of murder, had a routine release and then disappeared from view.

Until now.

On April 19, Angela Lansbury, as author-sleuth Jessica Fletcher, will solve the mystery again in an episode of CBS’ “Murder, She Wrote.” Returning to the scene of the crime 38 years later will be Morgan, Scott and Lynn. The new story, “Strangest of Bargains,” will be set in the present. Scenes from the old movie will serve as flashbacks.

“We’re always trying to find a new way to tell a story,” explains “Murder, She Wrote” executive producer Peter Fischer. “Apparently no one has ever done this.” And after spending a year working out the details, he knows why: “It’s time-consuming. We’re not saving any money, even though we’re shooting only seven days (instead of the usual eight).”

Advertisement

The idea came to him last April, when he was mulling over the problems that can occur with sequences requiring flashbacks into the deep past.

“You’re usually stuck with casting other actors or not showing the actors’ faces,” he complains. “On ‘Magnum,’ Jose Ferrer and June Lockhart played lovers, and for the flashbacks they cast their children, Mike Ferrer and Ann Lockhart. I thought, ‘If only I could find an old movie where everyone was still around, then we could solve the case 30 years later.’ ”

After poring through film encyclopedias, Fischer found 60 “maybes.” “There are lots of films from that era--400 or 500 if you add up the output of all the studios’ black-and-white mysteries from the late 1930s to the early ‘50s,” he says.

Then he began checking on which actors were still alive, willing and able to work. “I had one actor say, ‘That was the worst film I ever made, and I don’t want anything to do with it,’ ” Fischer recalls. “Another actor, John Payne, starred in four pictures we were interested in, so we checked him out right away. He insisted he was retired.

“Eventually we got down to 10 possibles. I rented them to see if there was something that would work. I needed an interesting setup that could be solved at a later date.” He picked “Strange Bargain,” he says, “because its premise really lends itself to ‘Murder, She Wrote.’ ”

“It’s the sort of story Jessica likes to get her teeth into,” Angela Lansbury agrees. “She’s solving a murder in absentia, really, and after the fact, which is unusual--it’s all very artful, to say the least. It’s the most convoluted story line you can imagine.”

The story begins simply enough. A waitress (Scott) recognizes Jessica in a restaurant and asks for help. She tells Jessica that her husband (Lynn) has just been released from jail after serving a 30-year sentence for murdering his boss--a crime he did not commit. She would like to clear his name.

Intrigued, Jessica meets with the husband to hear his side of the story. He tells her how his boss planned to commit suicide and, for a fee of $10,000, wanted him “to take the gun and fire some shots inside the library” to make it look like murder. That way, the family could collect the insurance money. As Lynn recounts the story, viewers will see it in flashback.

Eventually, with the assistance of the original investigating officer (Morgan), Jessica solves the case. It’s a different solution from the original, but who cares?

Even the actors themselves don’t remember much about “Strange Bargain.”

“My daughter was just born then, and that took precedence over anything I was doing,” says Scott. “I suppose that’s why it’s all a revelation now.”

Scott, 73, who has worked fairly steadily over the years, was surprised that Fischer was able “to find a film where the three leads are still alive. With ‘Our Town’ (for which she got an Oscar nomination), which was made just a few years before ‘Strange Bargain,’ they’re all gone but me.”

Morgan, 72, who later became a TV star on “MASH,” checked his film almanac to find out when he’d made “Strange Bargain” and discovered that the film wasn’t even listed in his credits. His clearest memory of the project is “the director, Will Price. He was married to Maureen O'Hara at the time. To my knowledge he never directed another picture.

“ ‘Strange Bargain’ had an interesting story, although it wasn’t ‘Gone With the Wind.’ It didn’t play very much around town. I saw it at a drive-in in Van Nuys. It was raining, and my wife and I watched it between swipes of the windshield wipers. That probably improved it.”

Lynn, 78, who has only recently returned to acting after a lengthy retirement, recalls that in the original film, his character never actually went to prison. “ ‘Strange Bargain’ had a happy ending,” he says, “because in those days they didn’t send leading men to jail. Today, mores have changed.”

Now that Fischer has wound up all the loose ends on “Strangest of Bargains,” he is thinking ahead to next season’s episodes.

“It’s not plot so much as what you do with it,” he believes. “If there’s an original plot no one has thought of, show me.

“However, we have a few interesting ideas. I had this bizarre thought of Angela playing Queen Victoria. She’d be dreaming about the Jack the Ripper murders. There’s a rumor that Jack the Ripper was really Queen Victoria’s grandson, Edward, the Duke of Clarence. We would have Angela dreaming she was Queen Victoria trying to solve the murders.”


Advertisement