Peter Lorre in M courtesy Criterion Video
Questions about serial murderers in movies, a shower of blood, The Godfather II's Troy Donahue/Merle Johnson mystery and more.

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Question: I love movies about serial killers and that got me to wondering: What was the very first serial killer picture? -- Alex

FlickChick: I love "first" questions, because they always get the discussion going. I'd argue that Alfred Hitchcock's silent The Lodger (1926) gets the credit for being the earliest movie about a serial murderer. That said, it focuses less on the killer and his victims than on the increasingly concerned landlady who comes to suspect her upstairs lodger might be this "Jack the Ripper" fellow she keeps reading about in the newspaper.

Fritz Lang's M (1931) seems to me the first film whose structure resembles that of contemporary serial killer pictures: It focuses on both a murderer ( Peter Lorre) a child killer, no less -- and the efforts of the Berlin police to catch him before he kills again. Unlike the bulk of later films, though, Lang throws your sympathies to the devil: Rather than being a slick, entertaining uber-fiend, Lorre's Franz Becker is a pathetic, driven, sweaty, self-loathing addict whose vice is killing. The police eventually recruit the underworld to help them even criminals hate child killers and Becker is hunted down like a jackal pursued by two ravening packs of wolves.

It's interesting to me that while today serial killer movies are generally considered pretty disreputable, with the exception of a handful of high-class pictures like The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Seven (1995), these two early examples are both the work of very serious filmmakers. Hitchcock, to be sure, was at the very beginning of his career, but Lang already had Metropolis (1927) under his belt, so he wasn't desperate to make a name for himself via lurid subject matter.

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Question: This is weird. I was just watching The Godfather II and in the end credits it lists Troy Donahue playing the part of "Merle Johnson!" So he's supposed to be in the movie, playing a character with the name he was born with? I can't find him in any of the scenes, nor did I notice any character named Merle Johnson. Help me out here Is he in this movie? And if so, where does he show up? Confused, amazed, bewildered. -- Skagdrager

FlickChick: Former teen idol Troy Donahue born Merle Johnson Jr. is indeed in The Godfather, Part II. He has a small part as Connie Corleone's ( Talia Shire) boyfriend. He has a scene with Connie and her older brother, Michael ( Al Pacino), during the movie's opening, which takes place at a lavish Corleone-family first communion party. They meet in the boathouse, where Connie asks Michael for money so she and Merle can get married. Michael lectures her about her jet-setting ways, and it's obvious that he figures Merle for a gigolo.

As to the character's name, that has to have been a joke between former teen idol Donohue and Coppola, who had known each other since they were teenagers: Both attended the New York Military Academy in Cornwall-on-Hudson. By the early '70s, their careers were in very different places: Donahue, whose career ebbed as he got older and who had a history of drug and alcohol problems, was making low budget genre movies while Coppola was an A-list director. Even though Godfather, Part II was an extremely high-profile project, it didn't jump start Donahue's comeback. That said, he worked pretty steadily in movies and TV until shortly before his death in 2001, aged 65.

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Question: I saw this movie in the early 1980s on late night TV. The only scene I remember was the actress getting into the shower and turning it on, the shower starts out as water but then turns to blood. I don't know what happens after that because the babysitter came down and was horrified to find me watching it, and she turned it off immediately. It's been bugging me for 20+ years that I never found out what happened. -- Sonya

FlickChick: I feel as though you're describing an incredibly common image, but when I actually started to think about it the only movie I could come up with was Death Ship (1980). The early '80s sounds a little early for it to have made its way to late-night TV, but you had cable it's certainly possible.

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Question: I saw and really loved an obscure B&W movie on TV years ago, and it's driving me crazy that I can't remember the title. I also can't remember anyone who was in it, but I do recall the plot pretty well. It takes place just after WWII, when there's a housing shortage. An old tramp moves into a mansion whose owners are away for the summer and winds up inviting a whole bunch of friends and their families to stay there too. A soldier who's living there falls in love with a girl: What he doesn't know is that she's the daughter of the owners, and she doesn't tell him. Anyway, at the end everybody moves out, leaving the place exactly the way it was when they found it. Do you have any idea of the title I'd love to see it again? -- Sue

FlickChick: That would be prolific director Roy del Ruth's It Happened On 5th Avenue (1947), which actually earned an Best Original Story Oscar nomination. The cast includes veteran theater and movie actor Victor Moore as the down-at-the-heels Aloysius T. McKeever, who keeps a roof over his head by moving from temporarily unoccupied mansion to another and singer-starlet Gale Storm, who went on the star in TV's My Little Margie (1952-1955) and The Gale Storm Show (1956-1960). A lot of people absolutely love this movie, and apparently some TV stations used to show it regularly around Christmastime. The bad news is that it's out of print, but there's at least one site that offers the film: freemoviesondvd. This is a grey-market site that offers out-of-print movies the way it gets around copyright issues is by charging you for postage & handling, not for the film itself and from what I hear the quality of the prints varies greatly. But for the time being it's a place where you can get It Happened On 5th Avenue and relive your cherished memories.

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