Murder by Death (1976) - Robert Moore | Synopsis, Characteristics, Moods, Themes and Related ...
Murder By Death – 1976

Director Robert Moore
Screenplay Neil Simon
Starring Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker, Estelle Winwood

When I first saw Murder by Death, it was in the midst of a renaissance of murder mysteries. It seemed every couple of months or so there was a new mystery being solved by an old sleuth. None of them resonated with me as much as this straight up comedy did, however. Now, several decades later and Knives Out having two sequels on the docket, it feels like as good a time as any to dust this one off and see if it shines as bright as it did in my memory.

The good news is, despite being completely out of touch with the woke times, Neil Simon’s screenplay made into a feature film by Robert Moore still shines. Several characters are caricatures, some of them seemingly racist or homophobic. Jokes on those who are too insulted to laugh. This is a smart film that pulls no punches and doesn’t land any cheap lines.

The story is threadbare. Lionel Twain (Capote, in a brilliant debut as an actor) is living in an isolated country home. He invites several of the world’s renowned fictional detectives to come stay the night to solve a murder that is yet to happen. He puts up a 1 million dollar bounty for anyone who can solve the mystery.

The detectives are not the real fictional detectives, as I don’t think Simon could have obtained the rights to play with these characters the way he does. And wow, does he make a play on them all.

Sidney Wang (Sellers) is based on Charlie Chan. Dick and Dora Charleston (Niven and Smith) are modeled after Nick and Nora Charles of Thin Man fame. Milo Perrier (Coco) is based on Hercule Poirot, accompanied by driver Marcel (Cromwell, in one of his first features). Sam Diamond (Falk) represents Sam Spade, along with his needy secretary Tess Skeffington (Brennan) aka Effie Perine. Last but not least Jessica Marbles (Lanchester) is a play on Miss Marple, with whom she is now caring for her own nurse, the practically ancient Miss Withers (Winwood).

For his part, Twain has two servants. A blind butler (Guinness) and a deaf cook (Walker). The scenes with each of them could be labored, but they feel exquisite. It takes a willingness to forget who oneself into their roles that only selfless seasoned actors could accomplish.

The one liners are fast and practically never ending. Some of them miss, but most of them hit with a slight hiss as the air leaves the room. Particular favorites are Sellers valiant Wang, who coolly mixes practicality with wisdom and resentment and Capote’s endlessly pissed off Twain, who insists that Wang speak in correct English. Neither of these would have survived from page to screen today, but damn it’s funny stuff that still works, since the characters are so smart.

There really is no point in thinking that there is a mystery to solve. It’s not that kind of film. The point is to stack ridiculous premises upon one another and see how each of them makes no real sense. Still, in the best sense of mystery, everyone buys every line.

It’s hard to say how this film will work for anyone unfamiliar with the works of Dashiell Hammett, Earl Derr Biggers, or Agatha Christie. One has to at least have a passing familiarity with each. Still, even a complete rube should understand and enjoy at least 1/3 of the jokes based on sheer human orneriness and misery.

If you like Knives Out, this film is at least a spiritual predecessor to that comic mystery masterpiece. Absurdity is a journey in an of itself. The mystery is a bonus.

(**** out of *****)

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