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An eccentric millionaire invites the world’s greatest detectives to an isolated country manor to solve a murder. As it turns out, the murder is his own. What? How? Why? Neil Simon’s Murder By Death is so lightweight that it ends up not really mattering.
Murder By Death’s characters are usually described as parodies, but they’re barely that. Rather, they’re sketches relying on audience recognition, based on casual public perceptions of the characters rather than closely observed deconstructions of their literary originals; drawn in no more dimensions than the Charles Addams cartoons that accompany the credit sequence. Miss Marple (who becomes "Jessica Marbles", played by the Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester) is nothing like Agatha Christie’s gnomic little old lady, and more like the more boisterous Margaret Rutherford version. She arrives late and is given the least to do. Likewise, Hercule Poirot ("Milo Perrier", played by James Coco, who you sort of wish was Dom DeLuise) is not Christie’s dapper fusspot, but, for some reason, a blustering glutton, slightly resembling the Peter Ustinov version. He has a Clouseau accent, although, as he points out, he’s "not a Frenchie; I’m a Belgie!"
Nick and Nora Charles ("Dick and Dora Charleston", played by David Niven and Maggie Smith) have a dog and are upper class sophisticates, but the resemblance to source kind of ends there, not least because they’re British, which Nick and Nora aren’t. And they don’t seem to drink much, where you might expect explicit parodies of Dashiel Hammett’s likeable Thin Man lushes to be wasted all the time.
To modern eyes Peter Sellers’ "Sidney Wang" (Charlie Chan) is an embarrassing anachronism – a white actor in yellow-face spouting aphorisms ("Questions like Athlete’s Foot. After while, very irritating," etc). Most of the modern reviews from IMDb users throw around phrases like "hilariously un-PC", which is the nice way of saying "really quite racist" – although he’s admittedly hard to dislike because it’s Sellers. You could just about argue that the yellow-face aspect is part of the joke: Charlie Chan having been played exclusively by white actors on screen, and the grotesquerie is therefore some sort of comment on that. But the uncomfortable fact is that Sellers just liked playing international caricatures for laughs. He did it throughout his career, from Chinese and Indian voices on '50s BBC radio series The Goon Show, through the Pink Panther films and Being There and his hit single "Goodness Gracious Me", to his final role, again as a Chinaman, in the tragic Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu. So no, this isn’t any sort of clever, meta whitewashing. The opportunity for another character to unmask him as actually an Englishman hamming as an Oriental isn’t taken. Like the rest of the film, Sellers is just a cheap, easy laugh.
Man of the match is Peter Falk as Sam Diamond: specifically an avatar for Hammett’s Sam Spade, but also generically hard-boiled in the Chandler / Marlowe mould (with a tan raincoat that, amusingly, can’t help but retain a hint of Columbo): a man who goes to the bathroom and comes back with an unexplained bullet hole in his jacket. There’s a wit to Simon’s dialogue and Falk’s performance here that suggests that this is where Simon’s affections truly lay: that he might actually have read some books as well as half-remembered some films. That suspicion is compounded by the fact that Simon, Falk and the director Robert Moore went on to make The Cheap Detective shortly afterward. In that, Falk plays essentially the same character in a film riffing on elements of The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and their ilk. A decade on from Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, and a decade before the autobiographical trilogy that began with Brighton Beach Memoirs, this was Simon’s "chasing the Mel Brooks dollar" phase.
Each guest has a plus one. Dick and Dora are each other’s. The unreconstructed Diamond – no fan of "dames" – brings his devoted, much abused secretary Tess (based on Hammett’s Effie, and played by Eileen Brennan, who would be Mrs. Peacock in the similar but much better Clue in 1985). Marbles brings her decrepit "nurse", Miss Withers (Estelle Winwood); and, for the puerile LOL at the combined names, Wang brings "honorable adopted Japanese son" Willie (Richard Narita). Hercule Poirot, in several Christie stories, has his own Doctor Watson-style narrator in Captain Hastings, but Perrier instead brings his driver Marcelle (a young James Cromwell), again suggesting Simon hadn’t actually read as much as he’d watched. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (Keith McConnell and Richard Peel) show up for a cameo at the end in some cuts of the film, and again, they’re the most famous screen pairing rather than Arthur Conan Doyle’s. McConnell doesn’t get to say much, but Peel’s Watson is a pretty creditable Nigel Bruce impersonation.
Elsewhere in the cast we have, of all people, Truman Capote in his only film role. He clearly wasn’t an actor, but it’s fascinating to see him. And Alec Guinness is very funny as the blind butler, even if a lot of the business he has to contend with is straight-up Mr. Magoo. By the time he’s trying to cope with a deaf-mute kitchen maid (Nancy Walker), the joke has worn as thin as the non-existent soup he tries to dish up.
It’s an easy watch, more-or-less fun, but it coasts on that cast, and there’s the nagging feeling it could have been so much more. The dialogue isn’t sharp; the mystery (such as it is) isn’t clever; there’s practically no detective work, despite the entire premise being a set-up for the world’s greatest detectives to one-up each other; and the pile-up of "twists" at the end make – deliberately – little to no sense. It turns out the house is a gigantic Saw-like trap designed to kill each of the detectives: so, what, are they supposed to solve the murder or survive a game? Which is it? The film doesn’t really decide, all the traps are easily avoided and there’s little to no sense of peril or drama. Capote gets a line at one point about mystery authors whose solutions are outrageous cheats. That’s the crux of the whole business: Murder by Death is a half-assed and superficial swipe at a genre Simon apparently doesn’t particularly care or (outside the hard-boiled American tradition) know all that much about.
Willie asks his father if there’s even been a murder. "Yes," says Wang. "Killed good weekend." Murder By Death kills 95 minutes stone dead.