|Review||Murder By Death (1976)||Director||Robert Moore|
|Cast||Peter Falk, Peter Sellers, David Niven, Eileen Brennan, Alec Guinnes, Truman Capote, James Coco, Maggie Smith, Elsa Lanchester, Nancy Walker, Estellle Winwood, James Cromwell and Richard Narita|
“Locked from the inside! That can only mean one thing. And I don’t know what it is” – Sam Diamond
In recent times actors who have played characters of other races have had a tough time justifying why they chose to do a certain role. Fisher Stevens has expressed deep regret at having played an Indian in “Short Circuit” (1986), Hank Azaria for voicing Apu in “The Simpsons”, Late night host Jimmy Fallon for having put on a black face in a comedy sketch and so on. It got me thinking that a number of deceased legends in the acting arena would have been lambasted for some of their performances; such as the likes of Christopher Lee for his Fu Manchu cycle of films and Peter Sellers for the likes of “The Party” (1968) and…the film under the spotlight here…”Murder By Death”.
Eccentric millionaire Lionel Twain (Capote) invites five of the most renowned and respected detectives in the world to his isolated mansion for a dinner and a murder. The guest list is comprised of Sam Diamond (Falk) and his secretary Tess (Brennan), Sidney Wang (Sellers) and his adopted son Willy (Narita), Dick Charleston (Niven) and his wife Dora (Smith), Milo Perrier (Coco) and his chauffeur Marcel (Cromwell) and Jessica Marbles (Lanchester) and her nurse (Winwood). Greeting them is blind butler Bensonmum (Guinnes) who only receives help from a hired deaf/mute maid (Walker) who has a long list of things she doesn’t do; among them cooking. Before the night is over Twain promises that a murder will occur and the five best sleuths will be completely stumped.
Ever since people were gathered inside creepy looking mansions in the likes of “The Cat and The Canary” (the 1927 film version and the 1939 update with Bob Hope), James Whale’s “The Old Dark House” (1932), the multiple film versions of Agatha Christie’s novel “And Then There Were None” (1939) to name just a few there have been numerous attempts made to spoof this particular genre. While many have been successful there’s no film quite like “Murder By Death” which brings together enormous acting talent and the witty writing of the extremely prolific Neil Simon, whose list of credits includes screenplays like “The Odd Couple” (1968), “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” and “The Sunshine Boys” (1975), “The Goodbye Girl” (1977), “The Cheap Detective (1978), “Biloxi Blues” (1988) and many more. Here he sets his sights on established literary sleuths and disguises them thinly and exorcises his distinct funny take on their presentations, their infallibility, their shortcomings and the far reaching creative licence their authors grab hold of to make sure readers do not figure out the mystery too early.
It’s evident from the start that the movie isn’t going to adhere to any normal standards in the mystery genre. Crazy lines and irreverent humor are the order of business and a “plot” that goes absolutely nowhere while the egotistic experts try madly to figure everything out. The stormy exterior is manufactured (most hilariously) with gadgets that make a peaceful evening outside appear as windy with lightnings ablaze and interiors are staged to make everything appear more gloomy and sinister. Just like a proper mystery novel (or film) should appear.
The film’s whacky humor and outlandish comedy sequences caught me off-guard the first time around and the movie, consequently, didn’t register fully. The more I see it the more it’s humor works for me and the ideas, the dialogue and the situations conceived of by Simon hit a home-run.
The perfect cast sells it altogether with fully committed performances. Peter Falk is especially hilarious as Sam Diamond (counterpart of Sam Spade) and Brennan works extremely well with his brand of humor; Falk’s observations and outbursts crack me up every time. Coco, Lanchester and Niven also deliver the goods but Sellers is a nifty little scene stealer with a rather subdued turn as Charlie Chan’s counterpart Sidney Wang and his verbal exchanges with Capote’s Lionel Twain are comedic gems. Guinnes is also very sly in the funky role as the blind butler and the viewer never knows his true endgame. This is simply a one of a kind cast in one of a kind roles in a one of a kind film.
But in recent times there’s been a huge uprising in political correctness in films and there’s a chance “Murder By Death” may be a little too offensive in some areas for all to fully enjoy it. Tere’s no denying that Sellers’s portrayal of Sidney Wang is likely to offset many contemporary viewers and the film’s cavalier attitude towards different kinds of handicaps may be a trigger as well. Guiness’s blindness is comically utilized on many occasions as is Walker’s deaf/mute condition. In the spirit of the film’s quirky and over-the-top nature I always crack up at these jokes but I eagerly await the time I can present the film to my children to see what their reactions will be. As someone who’s in his forties I may be in the demographic that is less attuned to these sensibilities.