Raise your hand if you knew that two of the Dead End Kids, actors who rose to fame as juveniles in the 1930s, reunited as middle-aged adults in the ’70s to make a spoof of The Maltese Falcon noteworthy for its inclusion of bestiality, gore, and incest—even though the movie was released with a family-friendly PG rating. If you haven’t raised your hand yet, rest assured you’re not alone. The Manchu Eagle Murder Caper Mystery is among the least remembered big-studio releases of the ’70s, and with good reason. It’s awful. Worse, it’s the most frustrating kind of awful, because everyone involved in the picture has a measure of talent. Some of the acting is quite sly, so it’s depressing to watch skilled comic performers flail about in search of proper jokes. The camerawork by stone-cold pro Bill Butler (of Jaws and Rocky fame) is nuanced and slick. Furthermore, buried somewhere within the unsalvageable disaster of the script is a funny notion about a detective trying to solve a crime in a tiny town where everybody knows everybody else’s business.
Star Gabriel Dell, a onetime Dead End Kid, plays Malcolm, a poultry engineer in a small desert town filled with farms and trailer parks. He dreams of bigger things, which is why he took a mail-order course to become a private investigator. In quick succession, Malcolm gets hired by several residents to solve seemingly unrelated mysteries. This leads him to discover that the town doctor (Will Geer) is a drug addict, his best friend’s wife (Nita Talbot) is a boozy nympho, local rich guy Big Daddy Jessup (Vincent Gardenia) appears to be screwing his own daughter (Anjanette Comer), and a party yet to be identified has a thing for goats and other animals.
Dell, who cowrote the picture, plays everything straight, which is a bizarre choice given the simultaneously campy and gruesome nature of the situations—for example, the final shootout has more bloodshed than the Black Knight sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974). Subtle was not the way to go. Yet nothing, really, could have helped Manchu Eagle take flight. During the rare moments when the film isn’t utterly confusing, it’s deeply stupid. Not inspired, off-the-wall, Mel Brooks stupid, mind you, just plain childish and unfunny.
Seeing as how four editors are credited, one suspects that Dell and cowriter/director Dean Hargrove had a hell of a time trying to wrangle this picture into releasable shape. They managed to compile an 80-minute trifle with a beginning and an ending, but what happens between those milestones is a whole lot of shapeless nonsense. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the other Dead End Kid in the cast is Huntz Hall, who plays a small role as an idiot deputy; he shares most of his scenes with another former child star, Jackie Coogan, who plays the town’s portly sheriff.
The Manchu Eagle Murder Caper Mystery: LAME