When someone’s suspiciously murdered (which happens all the time
According to TV and film and cozy books on crime),
We normal people just freak out, too shocked to even try,
But sleuths will quickly get to work deducing who and why.
What makes a sleuth is hard to say. They’re curious and bold,
Perceptive often to a fault, and don’t do as they’re told.
They let the wheels of logic turn before they chance a guess,
And where the experts fail with more, they find success with less.
These traits are hardly out of reach, quite feasible in truth,
So average folks like you and me could well become a sleuth.
But sleuths depend on one external factor to arise:
They need the luck to be nearby when someone up and dies.
MPA rating: PG
Even though good ones like Knives Out and See How They Run are still being made, the murder mystery formula is old hat nowadays, and Murder by Death shows it was old hat back in 1976 too. Yet well-worn genres are ripe for parody, especially when writer Neil Simon and a star-studded cast join forces to poke fun at the most recognizable archetypes.
Having seen Glass Onion recently (review pending), I was struck by how similar the setup of that film is to this one’s premise. All the characters are invited to the home of wealthy eccentric Lionel Twain (Truman Capote in a rare acting role that earned him a Golden Globe nomination) and challenged to solve a murder. All of the main guests are acclaimed crime solvers and represent famous fictional detectives, including stand-ins for Hercule Poirot (James Coco), Sam Spade (Peter Falk), Nick and Nora Charles (David Niven and Maggie Smith), Miss Marple (Elsa Lanchester), and Charlie Chan (Peter Sellers in a yellowface role that would definitely not fly nowadays). Beyond those stars, the cast also features Sir Alec Guinness as a blind butler (which is as ridiculous as it sounds) who makes an amusing pair with a new deaf-mute cook (Nancy Walker), as well as Eileen Brennan, Estelle Winwood, and the very first role for James Cromwell.
On the scale of parody, I’d place Murder by Death somewhere around the silliness level of Mel Brooks’ lesser offerings. For most of the film, it plays as a legitimate mystery with injections of zany absurdity and dubious plot twists, and it’s a unique pleasure to have these familiar-ish detectives bounce off each other and trade one-liners, from the preening Coco to the snobby Niven to the hard-boiled Falk. Unfortunately, Sellers’ very presence with his big teeth and broken English is the picture of retroactive racism, furthered by Falk’s prejudiced interactions with him, but he still does a decent job in representing the analytical wisdom of his inspiration, still played for laughs of course. (On another note, I kind of wish there was a Charlie Chan adaptation with an actual Asian actor, modernized the way Shang-Chi was to avoid stereotypes, maybe even about his real-life inspiration Chang Apana.)
Not everyone has enough to do, with Lanchester’s character standing out the least, but Simon’s clever dialogue keeps things entertaining throughout. As an almost chamber piece, it could have made a good stage play as well. By the end, it leans more on screwball parody with a flurry of plot twists that don’t make any sense for the whodunnit but are certainly worth a chuckle, if not the laugh-out-loud experience the film was marketed to be. Likable and dated in equal measure, Murder by Death can’t compare with the recent renaissance of murder mysteries, but it’s a fun ride for those wanting to poke fun at the genre. I think I preferred Clue, though.
Best line: (Sam Diamond, played by Falk) “Locked, from the inside. That can only mean one thing. And I don’t know what it is.”
Rank: Honorable Mention
© 2022 S.G. Liput
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