A hilarious spoof of the murder mystery genre that lampoons nearly every cliche there is, Murder by Death benefits from a sensational ensemble cast and a real feeling of delightful mischief shot through its veins.
The eccentric millionaire Lionel Twain( Truman Capote) is hosting a weekend at his secluded house. Assembled are Chinese Inspector Sidney Wang( Peter Sellers) accompanied by his adopted son Willie(Richard Narita), who he always informs people is Japanese. High society detective duo and husband and wife Dick(David Niven) and Dora(Maggie Smith) Charleston are there, as is prancing Belgian detective Milo Perrier(James Coco)and his much abused chauffeur Marcel(James Cromwell). Also in attendance is hard boiled gumshoe Sam Diamond(Peter Falk) and his loyal but overlooked secretary Tess Skeffington( Eileen Brennan), followed lastly by jolly English sleuth Jessica Marbles(Elsa Lanchester)and her Nurse(Estelle Winwood), who ironically is in need of more care than her patient. After the guests have gathered and met dry-witted blind butler Bensonmum(Alec Guinness) and deaf-mute cook Yetta(Nancy Walker) , the events begin to take form. Twain believes he is the best on the subject of solving crimes and has gathered this group to pose a challenge. He informs his guests that at midnight a murder will occur. Whoever solves this crime will receive $1 million dollars, if no one does their reputations will be in tatters and Twain will have his vain satisfaction. To ensure no one leaves, Twain seals the house off Sure enough, a murder occurs and thinks get more complex as the hours continue. A discovery that the house has revolving rooms and that the servants are far from what they seem to be adds another layer of mystery. The worried yet mightily curious group resolve to get to the bottom of this. But the case proves to be very twisty for these detectives in their search for the answer, complete with a house that is most unusual and plenty of clues hanging in the air.
Murder by Death has Robert Moore in the directors seat and his direction is unobtrusive yet very satisfying, allowing the funny moments to really flow and be seen. Penned by the talented Neil Simon, Murder by Death hits the right spot of spoofing the mystery genre and having a ball in revelling in the many cliches that abound. The main group of characters are all fashioned after famous literary and cinematic detectives of whom humour is derived from spoofing their well known personalities. I had a ball seeing the similarities and allusions to the great detective characters of fiction infused with comedic overtones. The film is undoubtedly silly and yet that is partly the point and Simon definitely seems to enjoy this fact, while layering on red herrings and confounding suspense as to what is transpiring and what is truly real. The dialogue comes quick and fast, like delightful bullets of energy and tongue in cheek humour in the best way that Simon can. Plus you’ll be laughing so much at the film you can overlook parts that are dated and wouldn’t be acceptable now( most prominently the use of yellow face for Mr. Wang.) There’s an argument that the character is actually supposed to subvert the trope but it’s still problematic in my eyes and will no doubt be a bone of contention for many. Set design is in need of much praise; showing the big country house as akin to a funhouse with rooms that move on their own accord and things ready to jump out. The music score as provided by Dave Grusin has an unending sense of fun too it as if topping its musical hat in a jaunty manner that suits the film down to the ground.
A star-studded cast is the cherry on top of an already impressive cake. It’s a thrill when an ensemble cast is used and nearly everyone is given something to do. Front and centre, and giving one heck of a performance is Peter Falk. Channeling Humphrey Bogart, Falk plays the tough-talking, rough and tumble detective who says it like it is and doesn’t give a damn what you think. The part is injected with wise-cracking humour at which Peter Falk is mightily skilled at. If you can overlook the problematic yellow face make up sported by Peter Sellers , his performance is quite good and he comes out with some comic one liners of the highest order. As aforementioned some think his portrayal is in fact lampooning the ridiculous cliched nature of the character, but its still something that is up for the viewer to decide. Truman Capote, best known for his writing, is well employed as the mastermind behind the most unusual events going on. With his slightly sneering and camp mannerisms, he is certainly memorable as the instigator of mystery. David Niven and Maggie Smith play off each other wonderfully as the high society couple with exquisite, upper crust manners and dry, cynical humour. Both professionals are a joy in this film and I very much enjoyed whenever they were on screen as they are such a hoot. Eileen Brennan, of raspy voice and good comic yet sympathetic timing, is well cast as the downtrodden, overlooked secretary who clearly has the hots for Diamond but can never seem to catch a break with him, despite her many attempts to instigate something. James Coco has a ball as the arrogant, know it all who is vain beyond belief and argumentative to the last, while Alec Guinness contributes a deep vein of droll humour as the blind butler who might be more than he seems. Nancy Walker does what she can with a small role, she definitely gets a big laugh once murder is committed. Elsa Lanchester and Estelle Winwood are an inspired and ironic duo, with the former summoning up all her gusto and the latter slowly revealing a witty side, despite everyone thinking her character is simply senile. Keep an eye out for a very young James Cromwell as the put upon chauffeur of Perrier, he really shows comedic chops in this movie. Richard Narita is sadly left to flounder with not much in the way of a part, though he manages some moments of humour.
So if you’re in the mood for a good comedy spoof of the mystery genre, Murder by Death is a glorious and hilarious place to start because of its rapid fire wit and quality laden cast of great stars.