Murder By Death (1976)

The Flower has a new favorite movie. It was challenging enough to explain when it was Gran Torino but now the conversations tend to go like this:

“Oh, yeah, Murder by Death is her new favorite movie. It’s a Neil Simon comedy/farce about detective stories.”
“What was her previous favorite?”
“…”
“…?”
Silence of the Lambs.”

The phrase "whiskey-soaked" comes to mind.
Eileen Brennan is nonplussed.

Well, kids are weird, and my kids doubly so. But this was funny, and much like The Jerk, I found that I had underestimated how funny it was 40 years ago. Some of this was not getting the references, of course. And some of this was not really liking the ending, which is a common (but sort of nonsensical) complaint.

The story is that Lionel Twain (get it? and his address is “Two Two Twain”) invites the world’s five greatest detectives (and their sidekicks) to dinner and a murder. Someone will be murdered and whoever solves the mystery by dawn will receive one million dollars. (Two modest stacks of bills, actually.) The five detectives are, naturally, parodies of famous literary characters and the cast is amazing, even today.

Nick and Nora Charles (Dashiell Hammet characters) become Dick and Dora Charleston, played by David Niven and pre-dame Maggie Smith.

Hercule Poirot (courtesy of Agatha Christie) becomes Milo Perrier, played by James Coco. His sidekick is played by a 26-year-old James Cromwell!

Charlie Chan (Earl Derr Biggers) becomes Sydney Wang, played by Peter Sellers.

Sam Spade (Hammet again) becomes Sam Diamond, played by Peter Falk. Eileen Brennan is his dame, but he won’t take a fall for her, see?

As big as Niven was in the day, you'd think more people'd remember him!
Columbo at the table with Mrs. McGonnagall and a British guy who wasn’t alive to be in Harry Potter.

Miss Marple (Christie) becomes Jessica Marple, played by Elsa Lanchester with her nurse played by Estelle Winwood (she was 93 at the time).

In one of the hoariest, but also funniest, bits of the movie, Alec Guiness plays a blind butler and Nancy Walker a mute maid.

The thing about this film? It’s one of the hardest working films I’ve ever seen. The jokes fly fast and furious and unapologetically. Neil Simon was at the height of his powers. This was Robert Moore’s feature debut, being more of a TV guy (and he would only do two more features: this movie’s sequel and Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, which sort of signaled the beginning of the end for Simon).

It has its own logic.
A writer pretending to be an actor berates actors who are acting as proxies for writers.

There is a lot of dumb, dumb stuff here. There are fart jokes. There are sexual deviancy jokes galore but in a reflection of the times, when Maggie Smith asks what anyone would want a corpse for, David Niven just whispers in her ear and she giggle uncomfortably: “Oh, how tacky.” In other words, things were much more oblique in mainstream films back then, which I guess warrants a big “Duh!”. But at some point wouldn’t it have to flip back? Or are we doomed to Idiocracy‘s “Ass: The Movie”?

On the flip side, the movie is rife with literary references to locked room mysteries, vanishing people, and red herrings—this movie deserves special praise for the wonderful absurdity of its red herrings, as when James Coco leaves the room only to come back dressed in the dead butler’s clothes, which don’t fit him and all he says “Dont’ ask!” Of course it never goes anywhere, is never explained and is basically impossible.

The most successful cinematic references are in Peter Falk’s Humphrey Bogart impersonation, which is bang on, and so hilariously off-kilter, that the whole theater (which was packed) was in an uproar. The Flower, a huge Falk fan, was delighted and wants to see the sequel, The Cheap Detective. (That movie is, of course, nowhere near as good—but we’re basically BOLO for any Peter Falk films anyway.)

My basic guess is that I get more of the jokes, I’m less uptight (because you’d have to be to survive in 2018), and just emotionally in a better place (this release came at really bad point in my life), and that’s why I enjoyed it more this time. I was still a bit surprised though: The theater was packed and everybody was laughing a lot. Also, like The Jerk, everybody laughed at the “racist” parts. Nary a gasp to be heard when Falk-as-Bogart-as-Spade goes off on a (genuninely) racist tirade. That was the joke and despite what we hear, people still get those.

I think it may have been part of the title sequence.
I don’t normally use non-photos here but I love this Charles Addams cartoon of the cast.

 

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