Director: Tom George (USA, UK). Year of Release: 2022
1953, “London’s West End”. A young Richard Attenborough is starring in the Mousetrap where the cast and crew are celebrating the 100th performance. Also at the party are both a film producer and Leo Köpernick, a director who’s been exiled because of McCarthyism. Köpernick has been contracted to make the film of the play. He is world weary and cynical, and believes that the play can be improved by adding a grisly murder in the opening scene and a shoot-out ending.
Köpernick has not seen The Mousetrap but is sure that it’s a “second rate murder mystery … If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen one seen them all”. Surely it’s the sort of play where the main characters introduce themselves in a long expositional scene, and it all leads to the most unlikeable character being killed. Sure enough, after a bit of exposition, the biggest arsehole in the room is murdered. Unfortunately for Köperick, it’s him.
As is customary, everyone has a motive for killing the arsehole director. As part of an ongoing battle around Köpernick trying to dumb down the film, pretentious screenwriter Mervyn Cocker-Norris is heard threatening to kill him. Meanwhile, the excitable young Italian man, who Cocker.-Norris introduces as his nephew seems to be a lot closer to him than that, and the sort of person who would seek passionate revenge in an eyeblink.
At the reception, Köpernick tries to chat up Attenborough’s wife, for which the actor gives him a good punching. He also learns that Agatha Christie has decreed that filming cannot start until the play ends its opening run (still waiting for that, 70 years on), so he annoys the theatre establishment by sabotaging the stage version. Added to this, he’s a pretty obnoxious human being whose default position seems to be being a bit of a dick.
Enter Inspector Stoppard, who is presumably named after Tom Stoppard, the playwright and film screenwriter who was not averse to writing murder mystery plays. Much of the dialogue has the rhythm of a Stoppard play, if not necessarily its intellectual depth. The fictional Stoppard is an alcoholic war veteran with a pronounced limp. As most of the Met are busy solving the Christie murders at Rillington Place, Stoppard is assigned a single assistant – Constable Stalker.
Stalker is played by Saoirse Ronan, playing Irish for once, showing marvellous comic timing. She is eager and inexperienced, and writes everything down in her notebook, much to the exasperation of the more instinctive Stoppard. Unlike him, Stalker is in thrall to the theatre, something noticed by Attenborough, who offers her attention and free tickets whenever she asks too many questions. Despite the cops ‘different styles, they develop a certain rapport as they chase down the killer.
On more than one occasion, See How They Run uses a foreshadowing technique by which the plot develops exactly as a character has told us it will, but we have been distracted enough to forget that this is going to happen. This is typical of a film which is more clever than witty. It provokes (self-)satisfaction in a job well done rather than belly laughs. It is also a bit full of itself, although never takes itself so seriously that it stops being entertaining.
It is also not afraid of rolling out some hoary old gags. One character says how he hates flashbacks just before a flashback; there is a running joke of the Constable, Inspector and Commissioner addressing each other with their ranks (you really have to be there); and there’s a scene of a tray full of tea cups, one of which is poisoned, which is at least as old as Morecambe and Wise. It is to the film’s credit that although we know what’s coming, they still actually make you laugh.
Characters come and go, as do subplots. The film producer John Woolf is having an affair with his secretary, but swears that the next thing he will sign is a marriage certificate – well, the second next thing, as he still needs to sign the divorce papers for his wife. Commissioner Scott tells Stalker not to let the chauvinist cops walk all over her, then asks her to make him a cup of tea. Meanwhile she discovers that Köpernick may have been the father of the baby born to Stoppard’s wife.
The cast receive an invitation to dine with Agatha Christie, although when they arrive, with the police in hot pursuit, she knows nothing about it. Like most of what has come before, this is both irrelevant and maybe the point of the film, We’re not expected to be interested in whodunnit, and when this is revealed, this development is relatively marginal to to plot. As ever, it is more about the mood than the content, about the jokes than in profound insights into the human condition.
And what is wrong with that? See How They Run is unpretentious fun. It doesn’t always work, but that’s not too much of a problem, as there’s always another joke on its way soon. It doesn’t try too hard, and, at barely over an hour and a half, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. You could find reasons to criticise it, but why would you be that mean-spirited? Just sit back and enjoy the ride and stop being such a miserable bastard.