An offbeat mystery set in one of New York’s seedier neighborhoods, Who Killed Mary Whats’ername depicts the unlikely adventures of a diabetic ex-boxer who investigates the death of a hooker. The reasons why he embarks on this dangerous odyssey are somewhat opaque, though lip service is given to the notion that he feels morally compelled to pick up the slack when the NYPD lets the case go fallow; furthermore, the hooker lived in the same building as the ex-boxer, so there’s a vague connection. Still, this paucity of emotional/logical grounding creates a challenge for viewers trying to groove on the movie’s immersive downtown atmosphere, because not being unable to understand the basic premise of a picture is like having an itch you can’t scratch.
That nettlesome problem aside, Who Killed Mary Whats’ername is interesting because it’s so bleak and grimy, and because the film places a familiar type of story within an unfamiliar milieu. Adding to the unusual nature of the piece is the presence of actor Red Buttons in the leading role. Although primarily known as a comedian, he gave a number of credible dramatic performances, such as his turn in the picture that immediately precedes this one on his filmography, the grim dance-marathon saga They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969). Buttons brings an appealing combination of toughness and vulnerability to Who Killed Mary Whats’ername?, so even when it’s tricky to fully grasp (or believe) what’s happening onscreen, it’s possible to empathize with and root for his character.
A retiree with health problems, Mickey (Buttons) lives in a sketchy neighborhood where he easily makes both friends and enemies. He clashes with bullies and bonds with honest folks. Among Mickey’s acquaintances is Christine (Sylvia Miles), a blowsy hooker whom he rescues from an assault. She offers him a freebie and he politely declines, accentuating the impression that he’s something of an inner-city white knight. After Christine’s friend Mary is murdered, Mickey decides to solve the crime, enlisting aid from a motley crew including Christine, seemingly decrepit barfly Val (Conrad Bain), aspiring filmmaker Alex (Sam Waterston), and even Mickey's own daughter, Della (Alice Playten). The idea seems to be that when authorities fail them, these fringe-dwellers form their own makeshift society, bringing justice—and with it a sort of dignity—to a lawless place.
Befitting its muddled storyline and themes, Who Killed Mary Whats’ername? has a queasy vibe. The photography is clunky and grainy, all harsh lighting and jarring zooms, while the jazzy score has the quality of melancholy lounge-lizard music. Combined with the declassé setting and subject matter, these stylistic flourishes give Who Killed Mary Whats’ername? a certain peculiar credibility. This picture lives in the gutters and shadows where polite films fear to tread, even though the execution is fairly tame by ’70s standards. Ultimately, it’s hard to know for whom this movie was made, since the film isn’t edgy enough for the grindhouse crowd, even though it’s far too skanky for mainstream viewers. Given the givens, Who Killed Mary Whats’ername? is a moderately interesting hybrid of high and low narrative aspirations.
Who Killed Mary Whats’ername?: FUNKY