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Before the Parkers Had Clue…. Neil Simon Had Murder by Death

by Tony Nash

(all opinions are of the author alone)

(Mild Spoilers)

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Murder by Death (1976) PG-13 ****1/2

Peter Falk: Sam Diamond

David Niven: Dick Charleston

Peter Sellers: Sidney Wang

Elsa Lanchester: Jessica Marbles

James Coco: Milo Perrier

Alec Guinness: Jamesir Bensonmum

Maggie Smith: Dora Charleston

Eileen Brennan: Tess Skeffington

Estelle Winwood: Miss Withers the Nurse

Nancy Walker: Yetta the Maid

James Cromwell: Marcel the Valet

Truman Capote: Lionel Twain

Richard Narita: Willie Wang

Written by: Neil Simon

Directed by: Robert Moore

Synopsis: Reclusive millionaire Lionel Twain invites popular and respected private investigators Dick Charleston, Sidney Wang, Sam Diamond, Jessica Marbles, and Milo Perrier to his home for dinner, and to solve a murder. Twain claims he’s better than all five detectives combined, daring them to solve a murder he deduces will occur at midnight. When it looks like Twain predicted his own murder, the five detectives and their associates must contend with baffling clues, red herrings, and Twain’s bizarre electronic inventions.

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Playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon, most famous for his play The Odd Couple, later done as a film and TV series, both parodies and pays homage to the Murder Mystery novels and films of the 1920’s to 1940’s. Taking popular detective characters Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, Nick Charles, Charlie Chan, and Sam Spade and turning them on their heads into comic foils to one another, Simon creates a Mel Brooks style parody that still retains the Mystery goodness and suspense he grew up reading as a child. All the elements of those classic pre-WWII stories are at play: the reclusive rich person, a lot of money at stake for many of the people involved, motives ranging from revenge, blackmail, betrayal, money, and so forth, a house that proves as dizzying as the case a t hands, and clues aplenty. That the characters are shown playing it all straight like a traditional Mystery Thriller makes the comedic results even funnier and shows the film as a predecessor to the Zucker Bros. Comedy classic Airplane! and Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. That the detectives themselves are suspects when it’s revealed each of them had known Twain prior to him inviting them for the weekend makes the story even more interesting.

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On the original Artisan DVD release booklet, Neil Simon commented that he had different actors in mind for some of the parts. Orson Welles was originally slated for the Poirot parody character, and while he was interested in the part, he couldn’t accept because he was on contract for a play in Italy. James Coco originally signed on to play the Charlie Chan parody character, but stepped up for the Poirot part when Orson Welles had to bow out. Myrna Loy was slated to parody her own Nora Charles character from The Thin Man franchise, but later bowed out because she felt uneasy working with playboy David Niven. Simon had written a part specifically for Katherine Hepburn that was to be a spoof of Agatha Christie called Abigail Christian, but when Hepburn declined the offer, the character was redubbed Abigail Christmas and was offered to Estelle Winwood who ended up playing the aged nurse Miss Withers and the Christie spoof became Elsa Lanchester’s Miss Marbles. It would’ve certainly been interesting to see how the film played out with different actors in the roles and how Katherine Hepburn might have played an Agatha Christie spoof.

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Neil Simon’s taped interview regarding the making the film (which is on both the Artisan DVD and Shout! Factory’s recent Blu Ray) contains a section where he speaks of how the film could have easily been just as good a play as it is a film and with how the film is structured, is a good possibility. With the majority of the film, save the first 10 minutes and last five minutes, taking place inside Lionel Twain’s mansion, a big enough stage could’ve housed three to four sets that would act as the dining room, the parlor area, the bedrooms and the main hallway, perfecto for a play.

The cast of the film is fantastic.

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Peter Falk is fantastic in his Bogart like impression of the Sam Spade character with the Sam Diamond role. All business and no time for romance, and heightened by 10, Diamond rattles street lingo and metaphors as he and his colleagues go through the case at hand. Questions of his sexuality come into play after it’s revealed Twain previously encountered Diamond at a gay bar, and Diamond’s motive being to hide an affair with the older man. Falk adds in a little Colombo into his performance, asking questions repeatedly, though this time getting nowhere. David Niven, in one of his last prominent roles before his health declined, is charming as Dick Charleston. Niven plays his parody as the complete opposite of Nick Charles, Dick being classy and suave, Nick unkempt and direct, Dick-supportive, albeit very machismo of his wife’s interest in his career, Nick-weary of his career and consistently trying to dissuade his wife’s fascination, and Dick-right to the point and detailed. Nick-vague, making everyone sweat as he reveals the truth. Charleston unfortunately is a failed stock market player and his near bankruptcy led to him having borrow money at interest from Twain, so the money prize is far too much temptation to wipe off the debt.

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James Coco, much like Peter Falk, plays his parody with a heightening of their personality and does it very well with Milo Perrier. A comic interpretation of Hercule Poirot, Perrier seems to be more interested in eating and the bourgeoise lifestyle over to being a detective. Coco, noted for playing many of his comedy parts effeminately, uses this to great effect with the Perrier character, heightening Poirot’s classy personality by leaps and bounds. Perrier’s love of poodles and Twain’s bizarre and disturbing interest in hunting them is what leads to Perrier’s motive for revenge. Peter Sellers, the eccentric British comedian, most famous for playing Inspector Jacques Clouseou, is a riot as Sidney Wang. A take off on Charlie Chan, Sellers plays Wang as a philosophy spouting traditional Cantonese gentlemen who also enjoys being very observant, pointing out inaccuracies in everyone’s dress and personality, and Twain’s flaws in his plan of the murder. In an ironic twist, it’s revealed Wang was orphaned at a young age and Twain adopted him, but later disowned him when he suddenly noticed Wang was Asian, revealing a phusdo racist attitude. While his role today would be seen as politically incorrect (as to an extent back in the 70’s it was), this was a parody of Asian roles being played by white actors, though actors like Warner Oland and Peter Lorre were highly praised for their portrayals of Asians in the 30’s and 40’s.

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Elsa Lanchester, a British actress most recognized as The Bride in Bride of Frankenstein and as Katie Nana in Mary Poppins, does a well-played and honorable parody of Agatha Christie with Jessica Marbles. An almost too obvious parody of Jane Marple, Lanchester still exudes a kind of class and dignity in the role, having the character’s comedic elements come out in being very modern, up-to-date, and not afraid to give her male colleagues a taste of their own medicine. Lanchester had known Twain when they were younger, and were meant to be married, but Twain’s libido forced Marbles to break off the wedding, realizing he was too much of a cad, whether Twain at one point wanted to ruin her reputation is never clarified. Lanchester often provided comic relief when it came to her casting in dramas, and here in a straight comedy does a fine job, though she proved equally adept at serious, straight roles. Alec Guinness, one of England’s finest actors, proves his equal fare at madcap comedy in the role of Bensonmum. A direct play up of servant’s answering their employer’s as sir and ma’am, Guinness plays Bensonmum as a devoted servant, but because he is completely blind, his efforts result in hefty, hilarious mistakes. This is amplified even more by the character’s inability to sense the danger the other characters have had happen to them and the bizarre errors he makes when setting up their rooms. Simon makes brief mention in his interview that Guinness had more fun making his script come alive then his other films.

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In a one-time acting role, Truman Capote, the best-selling writer of such books as Breakfast at Tiffany and In Cold Blood, gives a surprisingly fine performance as Lionel Twain. A reclusive millionaire with a flare for the dramatic, illusions, and showmanship, Twain likes to think of himself as one of the forgotten great minds of the 20th century. Wanting to put his money where his mouth is, Twain challenges his detective guests to solve a murder he has declared will happen exactly at midnight that evening. When it appears that Twain arranged his own murder just to prove his bravado, his delirious contraptions make things difficult for his guests to both solve what happened and to even get breaths of fresh air. Capote, himself a lover of the flamboyant, takes his interest to the highest level he can think of and makes Lionel Twain the arrogant and self-opinionated antagonist Simon wrote him to be. While Capote never had any acting training, he proved he had a natural ability that made the character totally believable.

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An all star cast of the times, a play like setting, a fine and hilarious script from an excellent writer, and just plain well executed funny business make Murder by Death a must see for fans of comedies and fans of mystery films. While the story might lose its grip at times in favor of funny business, this doesn’t deter the cast’s ability to be funny and satirical in its take on one of the classic genres of all time. Preluding such crazy antic films like the Scary Movie franchise, The Naked Gun series, and of course Airplane!, the film certainly doesn’t break the fourth wall like many of them do, but it does play around with the reality to the point it nearly becomes surreal. A must for any film fan.

(I have very little to add to this wonderful comedy, other than that I highly recommend it to any and all film lovers. I did receive the Shout! Factory Blu Ray for Christmas and while I haven’t checked out yet, I’m sure the transfer is on par as always with the company and does like I said earlier port over Neil Simon’s interview from the original Artisan DVD.)

All images courtesy of Images and their respective owners

For more information

IMDB/Murder by Death

Wikipedia/Murder by Death

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Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview

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