Murder by Death

You pit your wits wit’ me little man and you won’t have any wits to pit wit.’  Sam you’re spitting on the nurse.

Dick (David Niven) and Dora Charleston (Maggie Smith), Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) and his Japanese adopted son Willy (Richard Narita), Milo Perrier (James Coco) and his chauffer Marcel (James Cromwell), Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) and Ms. Withers (Estelle Winwood) her nurse, and Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) and his assistant Tess (Eileen Brennan) are all invited to a remote mansion by Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), who resides at 22 Twain.  They are all there to investigate a crime that has yet to be committed.  Why five detectives instead of one? Because he intends to take them all on.  He is served by a peculiar staff.  His butler, Jamesir Bensonmum (Alec Guinness), is blind, his maid Yetta (Nancy Walker) is deaf and dumb.  And someone is going around the house making it even more spooky than it actually is—like loosening screws to make the doors creaky.  Someone is going to be murdered on the stroke of midnight and the person that solves the murder wins $1 million (along with paperback rights and the film sale).

Just as I thought, another test that could have cost us our lives, averted only because I am enormously well-bred.

If you’re well versed in detective movies, you’ll recognize these characters.  Nick and Nora Charles feature in The Thin Man (1934) films.  Detectives Charlie Chan, Hercule Poroit, and Miss Marple have their many series.  You’ll know Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon (1941) and others.  I am unaware of any cross-over stories for these detectives.  However, in Murder by Death (1976), they’re all thrown together with their personal flaws and specialties.  The ‘flaws’ of their parent narratives are also scolded directly and directly.

I’m a fan of The Thin Man and some of its sequels, and I certainly love the actors (William Powell and Myrna Loy) that play Nick and Nora.  The idea of parodying a comedy is odd in itself, but the characters Charleston are incredibly restrained instances of the originals.  Powell walks around the set like he’s on a rolling ship and Loy is cheeky and eager to join the mystery.  The Thin Man is probably my favorite movie of the thirties (of which I’ve seen admittedly few), so I’m a touch disappointed in Neil Simon (the writer) on that score.  There was plenty of good allusion left undone (like using the dog more).  The other end of the spectrum is Sam Diamond’s character as a perfect parody of Sam Spade.  But we know this, we saw Simon’s The Cheap Detective (1978) (review).

The nurse is giving my hand the finger, the dirty old broad.

The movie plays on the common devices of the mystery genre.  The setting is an old manor house.  The detectives are all odd characters (occasionally twisting on traits of their inspiration).  Perrier’s obsession with food.  Wang’s inability to use prepositions or articles (and endless fortune cookie wisdom).  Diamond is crass and quick to pull his gun.  And Charleston is…classy.  And they all have a rather humorous connection to Mr. Twain.  Marie Louise Cotier, for example.  There’s also the red herrings and an over-complicated, unintelligible ending.

Yes, this entire murder has been…catered!

The physical gags in this movie are second only to the puns from .  “Butler is gone, but pocket still there?”  And they are all magnificently funny.  It strikes me that Simon liked the source material for Murder by Death less than The Cheap Detective.  It need not strike me, Simon used Murder by Death as a platform for the ways in which old mysteries used to annoy him with their tricks and failure to provide the requisite clues for the reader to solve the puzzle.  On the other hand, he said The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942) were his favorite movies.  I think you see that come through in the maturity of the comedy.  Maturity is an odd word for these nutty movies, but Murder by Death is more nutty and that’s my point.  There’s less care in putting together the kind of story these detectives used to find themselves in.  Really, it’s three detective pairs invited to join two natives of an Agatha Christie mystery.

Alright, we’ll take it in turns.  You look over the first dead, naked body, I’ll take the second.

The cast is incredibly good.  Most everyone is a comic actor of the highest caliber.  Guinness had done a great deal of comedies in his time and is put in a particularly odd role here.  Falk, as you would expect, is terrific.  The rest are good to great.  Robert Moore, the director, is devoted to the comedy and, like Simon, not really to the mystery tradition.  That makes sense since the Christie stories, though set very often to film, are not themselves iconic as films.  So the camera work is functional–she who talks gets the frame.

Locked, from the inside.  That can only mean one thing.  And I don’t know what it is.

Murder by Death is absolutely hysterical.  It is my second favorite of the two Simon movies, but that’s because I am particularly fond of allusions.  Still, on its own it commands comic dialogue and business to perfection.  You’ve got to check it out.  If you love a good comedy, buy it for $11.  But rent it at least.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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2 Responses to Murder by Death

  1. Charles says:

    I never got the joke about the murder’s being catered, nor “good thinking on Diamond head.” Couldn’t even understand what the nurse said when everyone else said “gunshots”–nor could any of the online script publishers, apparently. Can’t decide if these are lead balloons or gems that reward a more literate viewer than I.

    • The murder being catered is just absurdity, I think, or a parallel to “masterminded by a …” I thought it was funny. The others just sound funy. I think she says “shooots” like an idiot.

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