Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Short Take: "Murder By Death" (1976)

Directed by: Robert Moore

Writer Neil Simon was well-known during the mid-20th-century for his comedies, both on the stage and on the screen. Starting on Your Show of Shows on television, he went on to win great acclaim on the stage for Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, which would later be turned into a very successful television show. In many cases, his film experience was in adapting his own plays, as was the case in The Sunshine Boys. Murder By Death, however, was an original work, and one of his silliest at that.

The film finds five legendary detectives and their accomplices gathering at the mansion of the eccentric Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), who has invited them to "dinner and a murder." Tough-talking Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) and his assistant Tess Skeffington (Eileen Brennan), Belgian sleuth Milo Perrier (James Coco) and valet Marcel (James Cromwell), married detectives Dick (David Niven) and Dora Charleston (Maggie Smith), British investigator Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) and her nurse (Estelle Winwood), and Chinese private eye Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) and his "#3 adopted son" Willie (Richard Narita) all try to figure out who will be murdered, how, and why over the course of the weekend, as well as how Twain's blind butler Bensonmum (Alec Guinness) is able to do anything.

Obviously, this is a pretty broad parody of detective stories, with each detective being a caricature of a well-known literary sleuth (in order from above: Sam Spade, Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles, Miss Marple, and Charlie Chan). And Simon's jokes fly from beginning to end, most of them being silly wordplay and witty asides. As a whole, the film feels like a stage play; it's very talky, relying much more heavily on dialogue than on visual humor. Of all the actors, Falk steals the show with his nonsensical film-noir musings, but everyone does fine comic work here. If the film seems to lose sight of the mystery at hand, it's because it was never really interested in it in the first place. By the time the third act reaches its umpteenth absurdist reveal, you're either onboard with the film's scatological nonsense or you're not. It's a light, goofy lark on detective stories. B

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