"Ten people for dinner and I'm serving them hot nothing. You can't get good help today." - James Bensonmum
Director: Robert Moore
Writer: Neil Simon
Principal cast members:
This 1976 murder spoof penned by Neil Simon is a masterful satire of the entire murder mystery genre. Loaded with puns, double entendres, sight gags, and politically incorrect humor it bears a remarkable resemblance to the more recent and probably better known comedy, Clue. The fact is, Murder By Death sports an absolutely incredible ensemble cast and features a script by one of the finest and most popular comedy playwrights of the 20th century.
It is a clever, funny, highly entertaining film and while it is generally regarded pretty highly by fans and critics (it boasts a respectable 7.2 rating at IMDB) there has always been this sense that it just didn't quite live up to its potential. That isn't all that amazing given the list of past and future Oscar and Golden Globe winners on the cast list plus the name of Neil Simon. You can make an awfully good film and still not quite live up to that stratospheric potential.
The essence of the plot is that a famous mystery writer has summoned the world's greatest detectives to his remote mansion to challenge them with one of the most puzzling mysteries ever. The murder victim, as it turns out, is the host himself. The detective guests are baffled by the circumstances and challenged by an increasingly bizarre series of events in the house. Eventually, while all of them have astounding revelations leading to a solution, all of them turn out to be wrong.
It is safe to say, the murder plot itself is not the chief source of entertainment here. The fun begins as we see each of the guest detectives introduced. Each one is a parody of a famous film and/or novel protagonist. For example, Peter Falk's Sam Diamond is clearly a Sam Spade parody with Falk giving us a hard-boiled private eye that is half Bogart and half his own Columbo character. He is perfectly accompanied by a hard-boiled secretary, Tess, who is played by Eileen Brennan.
The incomparable Peter Sellers is outstanding as Sidney Wang, a parody of the famous Charlie Chan character. He is accompanied here by someone who is not his actual "number one son" but an adopted Japanese son named Willie. Nick and Nora Charles, the lead characters of the famous Thin Man novels, are parodied here by screen legends, David Niven and Maggie Smith. The Belgian epicurean Hercule Poirot is turned into Milo Perrier in the hands of James Coco and is assisted by the surprisingly mighty James Cromwell as Marcel. Last but not least in the detective parade is Jessica Marbles, a parody of Miss Marple, brought to life by Elsa Lanchester and accompanied by her elderly and wheelchair-bound nurse.
The master of the house has the comically locomotive name of Lionel Twain and is played with eccentric flair by none other than Truman Capote. The sheer audacity of having Capote ridicule and taunt the world's most famous fictional detectives is part of the beauty of Simon's screenplay. But it is Twain's servants who present the insane cherry atop this bizarre sundae.
Theatrical legend Alec Guinness portrays Benson, the blind butler. The challenge he faces of welcoming this eccentric and egomaniacal cast of geniuses is compounded by the fact that the regular cook has the night off. Her replacement, played by Nancy Walker, is a deaf-mute and her complete inability to communicate with the blind butler, while scandalously inappropriate to politically correct minds, is hilarious to watch.
The movie is one that cannot be taken seriously as a sequential plot. Frankly, there isn't enough plot here to go around. What we have is a continuous series of comical scenes, sly digs at the detective genre, and hilarious sight gags. If a viewer is willing to just sit back and soak up the craziness and the individually entertaining scenes, it is well worth the time to watch. If you come in expecting and intricate and entertaining murder mystery, you might be better off renting Clue.
Coolness factor: 6
Overall entertainment: 7