Guest Review: Murder By Death

Neil Simon was pretty much box office gold in his heyday of the seventies. A playwright by trade, of course, but many of his Broadway productions eventually made their way to the big screen, including such fondly remembered films like The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys, Barefoot in the Park,  and The Goodbye Girl.

We lost Neil Simon in August of last year, but he left a legacy that will be forever remembered. Quotes that appear in such diverse mediums as TV (Seinfeld for one), books and even comic strips pay tribute to Simon’s wit.

In 1976, Simon tried his hand at parody with the screenplay Murder by Death, a pastiche of the typical locked room murders from the golden age of mystery fiction, which included parodies of well known fictional detectives. As Simon stated in an interview, he had to write it for film as opposed to stage because many of the cinematic tricks needed to pull it off would have been impossible on stage (including the disappearing room scenes).

Robert Moore was his co-conspirator in bringing the movie to the screen.  Moore only had a handful of credits to his name on screen before his passing in 1984, but he was a prolific Broadway stage director, winning several Tony Awards, including one for Deathtrap.  He was also the director of the stage version of one of the first plays to treat gay characters in a more sympathetic light, The Boys in the Band.

The all star cast that Simon and Moore tapped into for Murder by Death included David Niven, Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan, James Coco, Maggie Smith, Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. 

Murder by Death (1976):

A rich and eccentric millionaire, Lionel Twain (Truman Capote) sends an invitation to “dinner and a murder” to the most preeminent detectives in the world. Each detective arrives a Twain’s mansion with an associate to discover what is really going on, their curiosity peaked by the unusual invite.

The detectives, which are caricatures of classic fictional characters consist of Inspector Wang (Peter Sellers, doing an imitation of Charlie Chan) along with his #1 “adopted” Japanese son, (Richard Narita), Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith, playing on the Nick and Nora Charles characters from The Thin Man), Milo Perrier (James Coco, doing his best to essay a Hercule Poirot character) along with his French chauffeur, Marcel (James Cromwell), Miss Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester, who is playing a Miss Marple type) with her nurse Miss Withers (Estelle Winwood), and Sam Diamond (Peter Falk, doing a bravura performance as a Sam Spade private eye, a la Humphrey Bogart) with his secretary Tess (Eileen Brennan).

The comic aspect of this film never lets up as Simon throws every cliche in the book at you. As well as some play on phrases. (The address of the mansion is 22 Twain –Choo Choo Train in case you are slow on the uptake).

After navigating a rickety bridge and barely escaping falling gargoyles from the top of the mansion above the door, the 10 detectives arrive to debate just what the hell Twain is up to with his shenanigans. They are greeted by the butler, Jamessir Bensonmum (Alec Guinness), possibly the funniest character in the movie (and that’s saying something, considering the all-star cast.. Bensonmum is blind and some of the funniest scenes occur as a result of his not being able to see.  Additionally on the scene is a newly arrived cook, Yetta (Nancy Walker), who is deaf and mute. The exchanges between Bensonmum and Yetta are particularly funny, if you aren’t sensitive to the politically incorrect treatment of the subjects.

Eventually Twain shows up to the dinner party and announces that he has brought them all together because he wants to prove that they are NOT the world’s most premier detectives and that instead he, Twain, is. He announces that there will be a murder at midnight and that he will give a million dollars to the one detective who can solve the crime.

Thus begins a comedy of epic proportions as nothing is ever what it appears to be. You have locked rooms, disappearing rooms, vanishing bodies, vanishing CLOTHES, and the essential one-upmanship that is bound to occur when a group of self-satisfied experts compete with one another to win a prize and the prestige of solving the “unsolvable” murder.

All of the actors on hand seem to be enjoying themselves immensely — although it is on record that afterwards Guinness thought the movie would be a dud. He was wrong. It was both a critical and financial success. As hinted at earlier, I think Falk pulls of the Sam Spade parody the best. He went own to work with Simon and director Moore to make The Cheap Detective, in which he played basically the same character (albeit with a different name). Sellers, as usual, is the essence of wit as he manages to essay a damn good imitation of the movie version of Charlie Chan. Of the additional characters, I think only Lanchester’s Miss Marbles suffers, mostly from lack of enough screen time I’m sure. She is upstaged in almost every scene by either Sellers or Falk or even Coco in his Poirot mode.

Be sure to hang on for the final denouement. Remember what I said about nothing being what it seems? You won’t expect the final reel, no matter how bizarre your sense of comedy is.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.