I saw the 1976 Neil Simon written comedy Murder By Death once, perhaps twice, a very, very long time ago but it stuck with me. When I saw it on sale at VUDU, I had to pick it up and, yesterday, I had a bit of time to spare and watched it again.
Here’s the movie’s trailer:
Murder by Death is a parody of the popular literary detectives of the past and features a very star studded cast in all the key roles.
In this film you have David Niven and Maggie Smith playing Dick and Dora Charlston (a parody of Nick and Nora Charles from Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Thin Man and subsequently made into a delightful film series featuring William Powell and Myrna Loy). Peter Falk is Sam Diamond, a parody of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon and is accompanied by his right hand “dame”, Tess Skeffington (Eileen Brennan).
James Coco plays Belgian detective Milo Perrier, an obvious parody of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who is accompanied by his driver Marcel (James Cromwell in his movie debut) while Elsa Lanchester plays Jessica Marbles, a parody of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple who is accompanied by her nurse (Estelle Winwood).
Finally, Peter Sellers plays Sidney Wang, a parody, I’m guessing (I’m not as familiar with the character!) of Charlie Chan, who is accompanied by adopted son Willie Wang (Richard Narita).
The plot: Eccentric millionaire Lionel Twain (Truman Capote, delivering quite well!) invites the most famous detectives of all time to his mansion to solve a murder that will be committed at the stroke of midnight. The person who solves the murder wins one million dollars. If no one solves the crime, however, it will stain the reputation of these world famous detectives.
Meanwhile, the Butler (Alec Guiness), who is blind, has to deal with the new cook (Nancy Walker) who is deaf and can neither speak nor read.
What could possibly go wrong?!
The movie plays out as one would think a Neil Simon feature would: It feels like a filmed Broadway play, with a diverse set of characters running back and forth from room to room in an at times frantic way. The situations are at times quite hilarious and reminded me of what we would see four years later with the movie Airplane!: A star studded farce where silliness is the order of the day.
While the movie plays out like an Airplane!-like dark mansion/murder/detective film, the humor is far less sharp and perhaps a little too gentle, at least when looked at now. There are some more edgy jokes (one involving Dick Charlston’s possible infidelity and Sam Diamond’s possible homosexuality) that are brought up but… again, its pretty gentle stuff by today’s standards of humor.
Still, seeing such a large and fascinating cast come together for a pretty good -if not always great- comedy winds up being a damn fun time.
By the way, when the film aired on TV, they re-inserted four clips into the film but they weren’t put back into the digital copy I have. The quality of the clips isn’t terrific and, truly only two of them -Willie Wang finding a clue and the last guest arrives after everything is over- are most worthwhile, IMHO. Those two clips are the last two presented.
Sorry for the murky quality of the scenes, but this seems to be the best you’re going to find them at this point.
Here they are!