Murder by Death

Murder by DeathSynopsis: You’ll die laughing figuring it out!

The world’s greatest detectives have been invited to dinner. But when murder is on the menu, who will make it to dessert? You are cordially invited to join an all-star cast featuring Peter Sellers, David Niven, Peter Falk, James Coco, Elsa Lanchester, Maggie Smith, Alec Guinness, Eileen Brennan, Nancy Walker, James Cromwell and Estelle Winwood for Neil Simon’s hilarious murder-mystery spoof Murder by Death.

The isolated mansion of eccentric millionaire Lionel Twain (celebrated author Truman Capote in a Golden Globe-nominated performance) is the setting for the twisted puzzler. Twain informs his guests that one of them will be murdered at the stroke of midnight. The pay-off: $1 million to whoever lives through the night. Murder by Death neatly lampoons both the mystery genre and the characterizations of these instantly recognizable gumshoes. Match wits with the super sleuths, but remember, you can’t win if you end up dying from laughter!

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Murder by Death 6.25

eyelights: its core concept. its ensemble cast.
eyesores: the corny humour. the nonsensical plot developments.

Jamesir Bensonmum: “Good evening. We have been expecting you.”
Sidney Wang: “Yes, but in what condition?”

‘Murder by Death’ is a Neil Simon-penned film that spoofs the Old Dark House murder-mystery genre, best represented by Agatha Christie’s ‘Ten Little Indians‘ (or And Then There Were None’, or ‘Ten Little Niggas’, depending on the edition). It also takes the piss out of pop culture icons such as Miss Marples, Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles, Sam Spade and Charlie Chan.

It focuses heavily on corny one-liners and gags, as well as absurd situations, and is highly dependent on its ensemble cast (which are introduced in “Diabolical Order”) to deliver the laughs.  Its cast is a mixed bag of actors, not all of whom are exceptional comedians, but all of whom bring skill and a very distinct flavour to the picture.

Our characters are first deliberately introduced via invitation cards, shown one at a time by someone with a black gloved hand,  so that the audience may make the connections between the spoof names and their original counterparts. Then the cast is shown, either making their way to, or arriving at, the creepy mansion. In the dark of night, of course.

Sidney Wang: “No pulse, no heartbeat. If condition does not change, this man is dead.”

  • Peter Sellers  plays Sidney Wang, Charlie Chan’s comedic doppelgänger. He is accompanied by his devoted adopted Japanese son Willie. While the role is a complete stereotype and his characterization is cartoonish, it’s also totally on par with the setting  – which was hardly politically correct. Sellers chews the scenery a bit, but it’s a memorably kooky performance.

(I believe that I might have picked up ‘Murder by Death’  from the library precisely because I was exploring Sellers’ filmography. Either that, or it was the catalyst for that exploration. If so, it would mean that I picked it up because of Charles Addams’ superb poster – which I actually have up on my wall at home. Addams also did the art for the opening credit sequence)

Dora Charleston: “Oh get a doctor quick!”
Milo Perrier: “No, no, it’s alright, my wine is not poisoned. It was just a bad year.”

  • James Coco plays Milo Perrier, Belgian detective.  Obviously a spin on Hercule Poirot, I couldn’t really get into the character because I’m not that familiar with the original. Also, I find Coco too broad; it may be hard to believe, but he is actually more over-the-top than Peter Sellers – which is saying something.
  • James Cromwell, who plays Perrier’s chauffeur, Marcel, unfortunately fares even less well, affecting a THICK fake French accent that annoyed me to no end. It was his first film, however, so this can be forgiven somewhat  – especially since he eventually offered us a few unforgettable roles over the years.

Jessica Marbles: “I smell gas!”
Miss Withers: “I can’t help it, I’m old.”
Jessica Marbles: “No, not that kind of gas. The kind that kills!”

  • Elsa Lanchester plays Miss Marble, whose inspiration is all too obvious. I knew absolutely nothing about the actress until now, thinking that she was a tosser, when in fact she is a long-standing presence on the British stage and screen. Personally, I didn’t find her that great as Marbles and would have preferred almost anyone else; she comes off as uptight and a bit clueless.
  • Her nurse is played by Estelle Winwood, another British with a looong career. At 93, ‘Murder by Death’ would be her last feature. She doesn’t have much to do, with but a few lines for her to utter. Otherwise, she is relegated to being pushed around in a wheelchair and makes droll faces.

Dora Charleston: “Is he dead?”
Sam Diamond: “With a thing like that in his back, in the long run, he’s better off.”

  • Peter Falk plays a Sam Spade-like American detective. My problem is that he’s too good at playing sleaze, not good enough at macho. So the character comes off as a classless, cheap detective (which, ironically, would be his role in another Neil Simon picture). He’s nothing like Bogart and that’s a shame, because the part would have required more testosterone..
  • His secretary is played by Eileen Brennan, who is always terrific, but ill-suited for playing the blonde bombshell type. The part is interesting, though, because it’s almost on par with Falk’s (as is the case for each side-kick, actually); she essentially shares the spotlight. Her delivery is precise and exact; seriously, she must have been one of the finest comediennes of her time.

Dora Charleston: “I don’t understand. Why would anybody want to steal a dead, naked body?”
Dick Charleston: “Well, dear, there are people who, um…”
(whispers rest into her ear)
Dora Charleston: “Oh, that’s tacky! That’s REALLY tacky!”

  • David Niven and Maggie Smith play the Charleston, who are somewhat modeled after Nick and Nora Charles. Our very first introduction to them has them lost in the woods with Dick holding a martini – an obvious mockery of William Powell’s role in ‘The Thin Man’. Frankly, I always liked Niven, but found his films (or his part in them) less inspiring. He’s absolutely pitch-perfect in ‘Murder by Death’, playing snooty, entitled , and wealthy… very wealthy. His lines don’t require him to play comedy, so he simply delivers them smoothly, with flair; they come off brilliantly.
  • I first encountered Maggie Smith and had mixed feelings about her. On the one hand, she brings grace, intelligence and sexiness to the part, and yet she looks so much older than her years for some reason. But she’s the perfect match for Niven: cool, confident, classy. In fact, they both bring a huge amount of class to the picture. They’re terrific.

Of course, those are just the guests. There are also the staff and host of our soirée…. our evening of murder!

Dick Charleston: “Up there, Dora, look – a blind butler.”
Dora Charleston: “Don’t let him park the car, Dickie.”

  • Alec Guinness is terrifyingly funny as Jamesir Bensonmum, the blind butler. He plays it up some, but his delivery is always dignified, just as one might expect from an experienced hand. As the focal point of the first part of the picture, he gets some of the best lines and gags in the picture.

Dora Charleston: “Oh, that’s probably the cook. Come in!”
Dick Charleston: “Darling, the poor woman is stone deaf.”
Dora Charleston: “I’m sorry, I forgot. COME IN!”

  • Nancy Walker is Yetta, the deaf and mute cook. Given that the butler is blind, together they have some serious communication problems, and nothing gets done. Walker is okay in the part, but is perhaps a smidge too theatrical for my taste. The bit when she’s silently screaming in terror is classic, though.

Lionel Twain: “That drives me crazy!”
Sam Diamond: “Sounds like a short ride to me.”

  • Finally, there’s our mysterious host, Lionel Twain, played by none other than Truman Capote (in what is, as far as I can tell, his only acting gig). Frankly, Capote plays Twain too whiny and slimy for my own taste. He’s flamboyant, and unforgettable, but it’s not all in good. I suppose that his eccentric personally helps to justify many of the plot twists, though, as the film becomes more and more demented as it goes on.

Twain’s motivation for putting together his evening of murder is utter lunacy, but I loved hearing him rant away at his guests:

“You’ve tricked and fooled your readers for years. You’ve tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You’ve introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You’ve withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it. But now, the tables are turned. Millions of angry mystery readers are now getting their revenge. When the world learns I’ve outsmarted you, they’ll be selling your $1.95 books for twelve cents.”

Brilliant! Genius! Simon has totally nailed it on the head: there is nothing I hate more than reading or watching a crime story that doesn’t give enough clues to reveal the culprit! And then having to watch the detective swoop in and put it together magically, with the help of elements that we were not privy to in the first place. It’s unfair and extremely unpleasant; part of the enjoyment of these mysteries is the guessing game, piecing the puzzle.

Well, Murder by Death’ outdoes them all: it makes no sense whatsoever, and simply cannot be rationalized; the twists are so ridiculous that it’s just pointless trying (and, no, I still won’t reveal them). But that was the entire point of the picture, its ultimate conceit: poking fun at the murder mystery novel. So even if the irrationally convoluted ending can’t possibly be divined, it’s a job well done. It may not be entirely satisfying, but it succeeds in its intention.

Honestly, I used to enjoy this picture a lot more; I used to have a blast watching it. But I think that I always enjoyed the set-up the most, what with a mysterious person cutting the phone cord, making doors creak, removing hands off of a clock and then being introduced to the characters and watching them mingle. It’s once that they are gathered for dinner and murder that it become too nonsensical for my taste.

But with such a fantastic ensemble cast, I can’t help but be drawn to ‘Murder by Death’ time and time again. It’s corny and not quite clever enough, but it’s well-intentioned and it features plenty of riotous moments – which are sadly then offset by the less-so. There was a time when I felt that it was superior to ‘Clue’, which was inspired by it, but the writing simply isn’t stellar enough for it to work through and through.

Still, fans of satire, murder mysteries and/or somewhat morbid humour would likely enjoy (some of) this. At least, they would likely not be bored to death.

Date of viewing: July 17, 2013

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One response to “Murder by Death

  1. Pingback: Clue | thecriticaleye·

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