Arsenic and Old Lace was based on a Broadway stage show and it is a textbook example on how to not convert a play into a film.
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
Almost all of the action remains set in a single split level set – something that makes sense on the stage but which is horribly restrictive on the film. The reactions of the actors are set at volume 11, all the double and triple takes, all the strained eyeball widening, all the charging up the stairs. Again, necessary on the stage but on film it has the effect of slapping the viewer around the head for two hours. Capra must take responsibility for these failings. The film is nicely shot and framed, with sinister shadows on the walls and good positioning of the actors on the frames, but the stage origins of the film are too apparent throughout.
Review continues below...
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Torture and mental illness are used as cheap gags, the leading lady (Priscilla Lane) has nothing to do apart from a bit of pouting, the subplot of the leading man (Cary Grant in gurn-est form) being an uber-bachelor who has written books against marriage isn’t developed. There is a nice juxtaposition of wedding and funeral rituals but that’s about it.
Despite the plot being full of dead bodies and murderers there is no suspense. We never see the inside of the cellar for example. And the threat from the murderous brother is never remotely scary. The lack of suspense is a symptom of the unfilmic stage set conversion.
Personal Score: 2/10
This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.
For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.