Comedy icon Gene Wilder has turned gumshoe, and he suddenly has a film franchise to call his own. The rejuvenated and enormously talented Wilder takes a second turn as Broadway-director-turned amateur sleuth Larry “Cash” Carter in “The Lady in Question,” with the resulting mystery even better than last January’s “Murder in a Small Town,” which earned cabler A&E its second-highest-rating ever for an original film. Carter is something of a cultured Lt. Columbo — eccentric, relentless, complex, explosive and wily — a colorful character deserving of Wilder’s efforts. And why not? The actor co-wrote the teleplay (with Gilbert Pearlman), and “Lady in Question” bears Wilder’s imprint throughout.
“Lady” (set in the late ’30s) plays out in quasi-film noir fashion, detailing how Cash — reteamed with his fiancee Mimi (“Murder in a Small Town” co-star Cherry Jones) and his crafty detective pal Tony Rossini (Mike Starr, who so famously succumbed to heart failure in “Dumb & Dumber”) — makes it his job to solve the befuddling poisoning death of a wealthy Stamford, Conn., socialite and humanitarian named Emma Sachs (a fine perf from Claire Bloom).
Emma happens to be a friend of Cash’s, since her comely niece Dorie (the alluring Kerry McPherson) happens to be starring in Cash’s current play. But who would want Emma dead? Well, maybe a lot of people, since she and her late husband have made it their business to help the Jews escape from Nazi Germany. That rules in several German suspects right off the bat, including an SS agent named Klaus Gruber (Michael Cumpsty) who’s posing as a flirtatious American businessman while gathering information.
But he’s too obvious, isn’t he? What about Emma’s uptight maid Gertie (Dixie Seatle)? Or her secretary, Paul Kessler (John Benjamin Hickey)? Or perhaps Emma’s cantankerous foreign companion Rachel Singer (Barbara Sukowa)? Cash, Mimi and Tony are all on the case, even if Cash often seems to be enjoying himself more by playing a detective than actually being one. But hey, what do we expect from a Broadway director?
Wilder’s best moments come when he’s allowed to rant and rave with obnoxious abandon. No one has the gift to work himself into an embarrassing, mouth-frothing frenzy quite like he can. Starr and Jones lend vibrant support, as do McPherson and Cumpsty.
It doesn’t really matter that “Lady” is somewhat simple to unravel, playing less like a true whodunit and more like a “how-to-catch-’em” (indeed, like “Columbo” before it). Film is so stylishly wrought in its lush period detail from production designer Franco de Cotiis, and boasts such rich costuming from designer Nic Ede, that it is as much a treat for the eyes as the ears. Too, Joyce Chopra’s painstaking direction allows the camera to linger tantalizingly on its subjects, and brings the whole enterprise home splendidly.
While Wilder got only one shot playing a Broadway producer, it looks like he’ll be back in the spotlight for a good long while playing a director.