Murder by Death Film Details
Overview: Five famous literary detective characters and their sidekicks are invited to a bizarre mansion to solve an even stranger mystery.
Tagline: By the time the world’s greatest detectives figure out whodunnit… you could die laughing!
Review: “Murder by Death,” is the best and funniest parody of mystery movies ever made. Neil Simon’s premise is simple, yet ingenious. The world’s greatest detectives – from movies, of course – come together to compete to solve a murder that has yet to occur. The plot has many twists. The cast is exceptional. Major stars of the past and present imitate major stars of the past and present (in 1976). It plays on words in the names of the characters. It has witty dialog and very funny lines throughout. I’ll have more on the cast below. The direction is superb. And, the set for this film is marvelous. Columbia built the castle on a huge stage. Simon threw into the mix of the five super sleuths and their companions, three other characters. Truman Capote plays Lionel Twain, the host for the farce, and he does it quite well. Nancy Walker plays the temporary kitchen maid hired to cook the dinner. She is a deaf-mute. Alec Guinness is a blind butler who has worked for Twain for a time. Watch for all the fun over his name, Jamesir Bensonmum. Simon devised a plot with the butler at the center. And, Guinness provides more laughter than anyone else in this laugh fest. The opening has Twain writing the invitations to his murder-mystery dinner. No date is given, but it’s to be Saturday at 7 p.m. The invitations are addressed to the super sleuths in New York, Catalina, Brussels, San Francisco and Sussex, England. So, in less than a week the five sleuths all receive their mail, book their travel reservations and make it to 22 Lola Lane, wherever that is. The invitations don’t give the city and state. And then, the blind butler licks Eisenhower 8-cent stamps to put on all the invites, including those to Belgium and England. But, wait! He misses the envelopes and pounds the stamps on the desktop. Twain says nothing to him as he walks off to post the invites. It just gets better and better from there on. Outside, the house number is “22 Twain.” This is a loaded play on words. First, Samuel Clemens’ pen name was Mark Twain (for two). Second, it’s a parody of Lionel toy trains — the host’s name is Lionel Twain. Third, when Charlie Wang and his adopted Japanese son pull up in their car, Charlie asks, “What number of house?” His son says “two, two.” Charlie says, “Correct. Two-two Twain’s house.” I laughed so hard as Peter Sellers said the line that resembled a little child saying “choo-choo train.” A very funny scene is the arrival of the deaf-mute maid. The Butler can’t see her, and she can’t hear him or speak. She holds up a note for Guinness to read while he says, “Speak up woman. Oh, a little shy. Well ” and he hands her a menu and tells her to get cooking. Her note gives her name, Yetta, and says she can’t read English. So, she sits down at the kitchen table and just waits – to the end of the movie. This will be the source of much more humor when it comes time for Guinness to serve the dinner. Another great scene has Guinness escorting Dick and Dora to their room. Bensonmum, “Ah, here we are. The late Mrs. Twain’s room. She died in here.” Dora, “Oh, dear.” Dick, “Died of what?” Bensonmum, “She murdered herself in her sleep, sir.” Dick, “You mean suicide?” Bensonmum, “Oh, no. It was murder all right. Mrs. Twain hated herself. We keep this room locked.” Dick, “Why is that?” Bensonmum, “Mr. Twain loved her very much. He’s kept her room just as it was the night she choked herself nine years ago.” Many people today may not know some of the parodied characters. So, here’s a brief rundown. Peter Sellers plays Sidney Wang and Richard Narita plays Willie Wang. Wang is a parody of Charlie Chan, a Chinese- American detective created by American novelist Earl Derr Biggers. And, Sidney Toler was one of 13 actors who played Charlie Chan. He had the most roles — 22 of the 58 films. Charlie Chan held the record for films based on his character until the late 20th century when Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot overtook him. Peter Falk plays Sam Diamond, a parody of Sam Spade. (He might have been named Sam Heart or Sam Club.) Dashiell Hammett created him in “The Maltese Falcon.” Falk parodies the character that Humphrey Bogart played in the movie. Eileen Brennan plays Sam’s sidekick, Tess Skeffington. David Niven and Maggie Smith play the roles that parody the Thin Man series of films in the 1930s and 1940s. William Powell and Myrna Loy starred as Nick and Nora Charles. Here, the sleuths are Dick and Dora Charleston. James Coco plays Milo Perrier, the parody of Hercule Poirot, and his sidekick is James Cromwell as Marcel. The last sleuth is Jessica Marbles, a double parody in hindsight. Jane Marple was another Agatha Christie creation, and Jessica is the name of a later sleuth, Jessica Fletcher. She was the TV character from the 1980s series, “Murder She Wrote.,” that starred Angela Lansbury. How could Simon know her name so far in advance? Elsa Lanchester plays Jessica Marbles, and Estelle Winwood plays her nurse Withers. That’s a spoof of yet another famous female detective of the early 1930s, Hildegarde Withers. She was created by novelist Stuart Palmer. This is a wonderful comedy, but it’s not for the whole family. Kids – even most teens won’t get the witty lines. Most won’t recognize or be able to appreciate the parodies. And, some of the language toward the end is unsuitable, including profanity, disrespect, and crudity. Most adults can tolerate the small amount of off-color language for the overall humor of the movie.
Country: United States
Duration: 95 min
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Mystery
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