Nazi Gold? Getting Away With Murder (1996)

Twenty-five years ago, Getting Away with Murder shuffled out of the multiplex and into virtual obscurity – but Dave is curious to see if Harvey Miller’s comedy has improved with age…

“Here is a film that tries to find comedy in the Holocaust, and it looks in the wrong places, in the wrong way, and becomes a sad embarrassment.”

Roger Ebert certainly wasn’t alone in trashing GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER [1]. Similar words echoed across the majority of critics, with Variety asserting that “it should embarrass all concerned” [2].

With little buzz and no advance screenings, it seemed that Savoy Pictures realised they were carrying a dud. But then again, by the spring of 1996, Victor Kaufman and Lewis Korman’s company was plodding through the tail end of a fire sale that had led them to dumping fourteen of their upcoming releases and exiting the business barely three years after they raised a cool half-billion on Wall Street to get Savoy up and running.

Savoy left some epic flops in their wake, like the sincerely misjudged sex comedy Exit to Eden (1994) [3], and Andy Garcia twinning it up in Steal Big, Steal Little (1995) [4] – but their clear-out yielded barely anything memorable (like John Landis’ The Stupids (1996) or Paul Mazursky’s Faithful (1996)) aside from a lingering question about the sanity of who was greenlighting their pictures in the first place.

Getting Away with Murder certainly bolsters that head-scratching conundrum, though it’s fair to say that writer-director Harvey Miller was well connected. A comedy writer for folk like Dick Gregory, Shecky Greene and Alan King, Miller had been mates with Hollywood powerhouse siblings Penny and Garry Marshall since the late ‘60s, collaborating on small screen ventures like The Odd Couple and Laverne & Shirley. Garry had previous with Savoy, directing the aforementioned stinker Exit to Eden, and his sister had recently set up her own production company called Parkway Productions which had a hand in her mega smash, A League of Their Own (1992). It was Penny’s company that helped Miller’s film get rolling, and she added Frank Price to this already heady blend of experience. The man who greenlit Tootsie (1982), Gandhi (1982), and The Karate Kid (1984) had left Columbia Pictures in ’91, after his second tenure as studio head in order to go it alone with Price Entertainment.

In theory, these were people who knew what they were doing – and in all honesty, I think a quarter of a century has been quite kind to Miller’s much-maligned movie. Yes, its tone leaves a lot to be desired, but in today’s society of morality martyrs, where hot takes take off like hot cakes and social media mobilises moralistic mobs, Getting Away with Murder has the core of a treacle-dark satire – albeit one that hides beneath the comfort blanket of an overly friendly Tinseltown façade.

Indeed, the face of fascism is played by Jack Lemmon, who, as Max Mueller, is uncovered as a suspected death camp commander from Nazi Germany now residing quite blissfully in the ‘burbs of Boston. His neighbour is college ethics professor Jack Lambert (Dan Aykroyd), a model member of society nicknamed ‘Brother Teresa’ by those closest to him who spends his weekends volunteering to help those less fortunate. However, when Lambert catches wind of who the seemingly kindly old man next door might be, he feels he has no other choice but to set about planning the perfect murder, even if he’s unprepared for the mess that follows.

“There were those obvious signs that he could be a mass murderer,” ponders Lambert in a moment of self-justification. “He was polite, quiet, and kind to children.”

There are moments in Getting Away with Murder when you feel like punching the air in delight, when the film finally hits the beat it intended, be it a raging put-down of Holocaust deniers or its not-so-subtle dismissal of the U.S. justice system. Granted, they’re few and far between, but they raise the hope that somewhere Miller’s script was watered-down by a nervous executive who got twitchy over some of the content. Sadly, Miller died from heart failure at the age of sixty-three, three years after Getting Away with Murder was released so we’ll never known for sure what his actual intentions were. His good friend Albert Brooks was clearly an influence, but Getting Away with Murder demands a mood more akin to Stacy Title’s The Last Supper (1995), which managed to juggle similar themes but deliver them with a greater sense of acerbic devastation.

USA ● 1996 ● Comedy ● 91mins

Dan Aykroyd, Jack Lemmon, Lily Tomlin, Bonnie Hunt ● Dir./Wri. Harvey Miller

[1] Getting Away with Murder Review by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, 12th April 1996
[2] Review, Getting Away with Murder, Variety, 15th April 1996
[3] Exit to Eden scraped in $7million at the box office against its $25million budget.
[4] Steal Big, Steal Little returned just over $3million on a $35million investment.

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