Murder by Death (1976)
I really hate writing plot synopses, especially for movies like these. But as far as the plot goes, it’s like this: A mystery man invites them all to his house where he proceeds to taunt and torment them throughout their stay. In other words, it’s Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Or William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill. Or Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Hell, the plot is so recycled it was probably even an episode of Frasier. One of the later ones, after Daphne and Niles were married.
The plot of this movie is not the point; the plot is the excuse. I’m one of those people who always wondered: what would happen if the Tardis materialized on the Enterprise? ( Answer. ) Apparently Neil Simon had the same thought about mystery novels. What if you got Charlie Chan, Nick and Nora Charles, Sam Spade, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot all in the same mystery together?
Did you go “who?” This is not the movie for you. It certainly helps to know the characters.
I’ve seen it this movie about three times and I always remember it fondly. It’s amusing. Almost endearing. The problem is … that’s about all it is. “Amusing” and “endearing” are not words I would typically reach for when talking about Mel Brooks, for example. Or, for that matter, “Pinky and the Brain.”
I think the problem is the movie seems to be holding back. Voices aren’t typically raised. Very little seems to be at stake. Even the inevitable murders don’t seem to puncture the afternoon-tea atmosphere. “The Great” Peter Sellers is here, but he could have been very easily replaced by a pallet of fortune cookies. James Coco does his best Dom DeLuise impersonation throughout the film. It’s like the star-studded cast is assiduously avoiding upstaging each other. The end result is 1934’s The Thin Man was more funny, more energetic, more edgy than this spoof featuring two of the main characters. And there are forty-two years between the two.
There are two saving graces to the movie. The first is Alec Guinness who plays the blind butler Bensonmum with a bizarre sort of sedate, dignified, serious slapstick. The second is Peter Falk’s Sam Diamond, who hits this chamber-orchestra of a comedy like James Cagney swinging a sousaphone. He storms across the sets, rounds on people like he’s going to slug them.
In one scene, the ensemble begins to bicker over the body. Diamond pulls a gun and shoots into the ceiling. “Nobody move!” he shouts. “Stay where you are!” They all turn to look at him.
“What is it?”
“I have to go to the can again. I don’t wanna miss nothin’.”
“I’m going too, Sam,” Tess says. Diamond grabs the back of her neck and stares deeply into her eyes.
“I’d rather do this alone, Tess. Thanks anyway.”
This is not Columbo. Nor is it Bogart’s cool, collected Sam Spade. David Niven almost nails William Powell’s Nick Charles; Falk is the only one who takes a character and makes it his own.
The less that can be said about Truman Capote the better. He didn’t do much acting; in this film, it could be argued, he didn’t bother acting at all.
So should you see it? Well, 1985’s Clue is better. The satire is sharper, the slapstick funnier, the pacing quicker. Clue has Madeline Kahn and gives Eileen Brennan much more to do. The only place where Clue falls short is it doesn’t have Peter Falk. Murder by Death is the only one that does. So yeah, I guess you need both.