GIVING THANKS FOR GLASS ONION

You’ll excuse a guy for grousing about the good ol’ days of Hollywood’s Golden Age, when actors were treated like chattel and had to grind out film after film in order to earn those Beverly Hills mansions. Between 1931 and 1939, Bette Davis made 41 movies, Jimmy Cagney made 30, and Joan Crawford 22. Humphrey Bogart made 34 movies during the 30’s and then hit the big time, making the 26 films of the 40’s his Golden Age. In the ten years of little Shirley Temple’s heyday, she made over thirty films and a bunch of shorts. 

In those days, Americans couldn’t get enough of the cinema, and the studios had to supply the content. Sure, there were prestige pictures, as befitted a nascent art industry built on making our dreams come to life on a screen. But there were plenty of cheap pictures made, and along with the Western, the most popular genre for these “B” pictures was the mystery. 

See, everyone was reading mysteries at home, and they were just as eager to trade their comfy sofa for a loge seat in order to play armchair detective. And I’m not just talking about crime movies but actual detective films, with murders and clues and suspects and a sleuth or two waiting in the wings to swoop down and unmask the killer in the final reel. This was a grand time to be a mystery writer, for if you captured the fancy of a studio, you might have dozens of films produced based on your writing. Between 1918 and 1949, for example, audiences could view nearly fifty Charlie Chan mystery films, fifteen Philo Vance mysteries, six Thin Man movies, nine Ellery Queen adventures, and twenty-five Boston Blackie films. And the number of movies since the start of the art form that were based on the character of Sherlock Holmes cannot even be estimated. 

And that’s just skimming the surface.

I’m not saying even half of these were good films, but they served their purpose to entertain and – dare I say it? – mystify – and they represented an era when the classic mystery was a beloved thing. Of course, like the Golden Age, the heyday of film mysteries died out, replaced briefly by film noir and then by psychological suspense and crime films. The popularity of 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express ushered in a brief period of lush classic mysteries with stellar casts. That died out, too, then resurfaced in fits and starts. The last few big screen adaptations of Agatha Christie have riled the purists and done poorly at the box office.

Truth to tell, the days when movies were divided into fabulous “A” pictures and their shoddier brethren was long ago restructured when television came along. If we loved William Powell as both Philo Vance and Nick Charles, George Sanders as the Saint, and fought over whether Warner Oland or Sidney Toler were the better Charlie Chan, even if in hindsight neither of them had any right to the role, these series became the de facto format of TV. What’s more, for every adapted sleuth, like Perry Mason or Simon Templar, there were a plethora of delightful original sleuths to take us through the Golden Age of Television, folks like Amos Burke, Honey West, Inspector Columbo, Mannix, McMillan and Rockford. 

The original classic detective, and the entire whodunnit genre for that matter, has been more the subject of parody than pride for the last several decades. That’s why so many of us true GAD fans laud The Last of Sheila, with its boatload of suspects and complex puzzle plot. And that’s why we embraced the work of director/screenwriter Rian Johnson when he introduced us to that larger-than-life Southern crime-solver Benoit Blanc, played to perfection by Daniel Craig in the most lovable performance of his career thus far, in 2019’s Knives Out

If you’re so inclined, you can read my thoughts on that film here. In short, even if I spotted the killer early on, I was overjoyed by how much – and how well – Johnson embraced the tropes of classic detective fiction, weaving legitimate clues into his screenplay and just begging viewers to rewatch the film twice in a row in order to see how it was done! I was especially pleased to learn that Johnson had signalled his desire to film more cases for Mr. Blanc, and that he had made a deal with Netflix for at least two sequels. 

At last, the time has arrived for the first of these . . . and if Netflix has sort of ruined everything (and, to be fair, a lot of this was brought about by COVID’s decimation of the movie house) by trotting this film out for a very short spell in theatres before planting it on its streaming service. Alas, this may be the way of all movies – except, I expect, for those bloated comic book pictures that no longer make any sense to me. 

Eight hundred and thirty-five words in and you’re expecting me to review Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. So here’s the thing: I had the great good fortune of knowing almost nothing about this before I went in, and I want to give away as little as possible in order to afford you with the same experience. So let me try going for eight statements that give you a sense of what I thought and tease you with what you will find.

  1. Once again, Rian Johnson has managed to honor the spirit of classic mysteries, even as the story he tells is wholly modern. His script is witty and as multi-layered as his characters, just as in the first film, and yet he manages to explore a different type of classic mystery style here, with echoes of both And Then There Were None and especially the aforementioned The Last of Sheila. (How fitting that Stephen Sondheim makes a brief cameo here!) I especially enjoyed the structure through which the plot unfolded – I will say nothing more about that here!
Do you catch the Last of Sheila vibe going on here?

2. If once again, I plumped on the murderer right away, that’s not to say that I was clever so much as that I have read too many mysteries. There is a wonderful array of clues here, nearly all of which I didn’t spot, and I very much enjoyed the gathering of the suspects at the end where Benoit Blanc reveals whodunnit in ways both clever and highly amusing. 

3. Daniel Craig is even more adorable in this film than in the first. Mr. Craig, if you’re reading this, I want to remind you that Warner Oland made sixteen Charlie Chan films, and not only did William Powell play Nick Charles six times, he basically played that same sort of gentleman detective over and over throughout his career and remained a huge star. Please don’t tire of M. Blanc anytime soon! And Mr. Johnson, if you’re reading over Mr. Craig’s shoulder, I beg you to keep a’goin’ even if Daniel says he’s done. Sidney Toler replaced Oland, and I see a whole Benoit Blanc franchise. Maybe a series of films about “Young Benoit” starring my twin brother, Timothee Chalamet . . . 

4. Besides Craig, Johnson has assembled a stellar cast, including Edward Norton, Leslie Odom Jr., Dave Bautista, and an unrecognizable Ethan Hawke in a funny bit role. But it’s the women who shine here, especially Janelle Monae, in a role that gets more and more complex and lovely as the film goes on, and Kate Hudson. I frankly don’t understand Hudson’s filmography and why we don’t see her more. She is hilarious and makes such a great murder suspect that she should do more films like this. 

5. Besides the already spilled cameos by two of my late great heroes, Stephen Sondheim and Angela Lansbury, there are other surprise cameos that I will not mention. Can I just say, though, that sometimes the placement of the cameo is even more delightful than just having the person show up.

6. The film takes place on a gorgeous Greek island, and there’s a clock on the island that says “Dong” every hour on the hour in a human voice. Turns out that voice is one of the cameos, but you have to look it up to find out who it is . . . 

7. Special mention has to be made of the production design by Rick Heinrichs, who has worked in both the Star Wars and Marvel universes, and an amazing team of art directors and set designers. That mansion is glorious! And we have to note the costumes by Jenny Eagan, who also did Knives Out

8. Finally, I will say this as a tease rather than a spoiler. Most classic mysteries tend to end in a certain way, with the detective gathering everyone together and revealing the truth. As I mentioned above, that happens here, and it happens well. As a result, a lot of mysteries end sort of quietly, with the murderer either breaking down or confessing or maybe trying to escape and getting gunned down or captured. Then everyone left over just . . . goes home. None of that happens here. Instead, we get one of the most enjoyable climaxes to a murder mystery film in my memory. I won’t say anything more, except that it both surprised me and made me feel so good that I actually can’t wait to watch that climax again. 

I hope I haven’t given too much away and yet still managed to pique the interests of any stray pup who wandered in here unsure about whether they want to see this movie. (Most of my regulars have already ordered the DVD!) My thanks to Rian Johnson and his great cast and production team for ushering in Thanksgiving in a truly memorable way.

May Benoit Blanc’s case file grow and grow!

9 thoughts on “GIVING THANKS FOR GLASS ONION

  1. I will back everything Brad said to the hilt – the film is wonderfully entertaining and I hope there are many more. And I hope you get the chance to see it with an audience in a cinema – it was a great experience. I really loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, a different stratosphere of plotting really (though I had a good time with SEE HOW THEY RUN actually, another film that benefitted from being seen with an appreciative audience while sitting next to a big Christie fan and at a cinema that is about 300 yards from where THE MOUSETRAPis still running)

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  2. I don’t think it was quite as good as Knives Out but my favourite bits were SPOILERS ROT13 gur qngr fubja ba fperra ng svefg vf gb gryy hf vg’f rneyl va gur cnaqrzvp va gjragl gjragl ohg ab vg’f gb gryy hf gung jr’er va Znl naq fb Juvfxrl’f oveguqnl jnf dhvgr erprag. Gung oeba vf na nofbyhgr vqvbg, abg gur travhf gur jbeyq nffhzrf uvz gb or. Naq gur jnl oynap ehvaf uvf zheqre zlfgrel jrrxraq va guvegl frpbaqf vf whfg oevyyvnag.

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    • I agree with all the things you liked, and I would add that moment when Blanc realizes he actually gave the killer their plan for Murder #21/2.

      Probably the best character outside of Blanc in the first movie was the housekeeper, and here it’s Janelle Monae’s character. Rian Johnson does this very well in both movies (and with two very different women), and I absolutely love the part AFTER the solution is revealed in both moves – again, done very differently – where justice has to be served in a highly unconventional manner. Here, it was glorious (although I knew a certain French lady was going to get fried at some climactic moment)!!!

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  3. Just got back from seeing it tonight and it was honestly everything that I was hoping it would be and more. Johnson has a deftness to his plotting that, if not rivaling the GAD masters, at least evokes their spirit. The twisty turny story wore its influences to The Last of Shelia and the film adaptation of Evil Under the Sun on its sleeve, but went in a new and exciting direction. Reviewers saying it’s superior to its predecessor may be right…I’ll need to see it again to decide for sure…

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    • I feel a KNIVES OUT double bill heading our way!! And I’m glad it appears to be doing well at the box office and that there is at least one more in the offing. The pickings at the movies are so slim these days for a guy like me. I could use a lot more like this one!

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