Movie Critique - Murder by Death

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: One phrase comes to my mind when I have to describe it - "What a hoot!". Indeed a hilarious comedy murder mystery that is so silly that you are going have split stomach.

Murder by Death is a 1976 American comedy mystery movie starring Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, David Niven, Dame Maggie Smith, Peter Sellers and many other British and American actors. Directed by Robert Moore, produced by Ray Stark and released by Columbia Pictures. This was Moore's film debut.

Eccentric multi-millionaire Lionel Twain (portrayed by Truman Capote) invites five renowned detectives and an associate or relative of theirs for a dinner and a murder show at his mansion. He challenges them to solve a murder that would occur at midnight, and the winner would get a reward of one million dollars. Then a real murder happens, and the guests spend the night trying to solve it, all the while fighting among themselves, getting distracted by red herrings, and baffled by the mechanical marvels in Twain's house. But the tale turns more sinister and dangerous for everyone included.

The film is a spoof of Agatha Christie's 1939 murder mystery And Then There Were None. All the ensemble of actors portray famous fictional detectives, spoofing them, in the film including Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Charlie Chan, Nick & Nora Charles and Sam Spade.

Truman Capote, the famous American novelist, screenwriter and author, is seen in a rare acting role. His film debut as the eccentric multi-millionaire Lionel Twain, a pun on the company Lionel Train which made model trains.

Other fictional detectives that are spoofed are - Inspector Sidney Wang (portrayed by Peter Sellers) based on Earl Derr Bigger's Chinese detective Charlie Chan; Dick and Dora Charleston (portrayed by David Niven and Dame Maggie Smith) based on Dashiell Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man Series; Milo Perrier (portrayed by James Coco) is a take on Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot; Sam Diamond (portrayed by Peter Falk) based on another of Dashiell Hammett's character Sam Spade; Jessica Marbles (portrayed by Elsa Lanchester) parodies Agatha Christie's Miss Marple.

I may be partial to Peter Falk, but his impersonation of Bogart's Sam Spade is spot-on; even if it is a spoof. He was the reason I opted to watch this film considering how much I crave his TV movies for the series Columbo. But it was treat to watch all the other established actors in the film.

The opening and closing credits have caricatures of the actors done by Charles Addams, the creator of The Addams Family. They open with a pair of black-gloved hands that unlock and open a footlocker containing the cardboard cutouts aka caricatures of the characters with the names of the respective actors portraying the character. The end credits also are shown on the cardboard cutouts and towards the end the same pair of black-gloved hands are seen closing and locking the footlocker.

The screenplay for the film was written by Neil Simon. This was novelized and published by Warner Brooks but written by H. R. F. Keating. The film was one of the many movies released in the 70s and 80s under the Old Dark House genre which were a combination of mystery, murder and comedy. The ensemble of cast includes three Oscar winners and six Oscar nominees.

Recently I watched Dame Maggie Smith in one of her films the 1982 British locked-room mystery Agatha Christie's Poirot: Evil Under the Sun. I thought that was the earliest movie I saw of hers, but this was from 6 years prior to that. 

One phrase comes to my mind when I have to describe it - "What a hoot!". Indeed a hilarious comedy murder mystery that is so silly that you are going have split stomach. A splendid movie with some great ensemble of cast who are presented with so much humor and at the same making it as serious as they can. A wonderful watch!

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. A sequel to the film was released in 1978 as a crime comedy film The Cheap Detective. 

b. David Niven's role is a spoof on Nick Charles from the Thin Man series which was played by William Powell in the movies. Niven also starred in the 1957 American cinemascope film My Ma Godfrey as Godfrey which was a remake of the 1936 film of the same name, and Powell was Godfrey in that. 

c. Dame Maggie Smith and David Niven also star in the 1978 British mystery film Death on the Nile based on Agatha Christie's 1937 novel of the same name.

d. The address on the invitations shows Twain's address as 22 Lola Lane. It’s a pun on one of the Lane sisters, Lola, and a famous actress in the 30s and 40s.

e. The mansion's doorbell is a woman screaming. The sound was actually Fay Wray's screaming from the 1933 pre-Code monster adventure romantic film King Kong.

f. Check out Dick and Dora Charleston's dog based on Asta from the original series. It is called as Myron.

g. This is first feature film role for James Cromwell who plays the part of Marcel Cassette, Pierre's chauffer.

h. This was the final theatrical movie of Nancy Walker (portraying the role of Yetta the maid) and Estelle Winwood (portraying the role of Nurse Miss Withers).

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. Milo Perrier contradicts his own character as being French and from Belgiagum in his conversations.

b. In the beginning of the film, Yetta shows a card to the Butler that she cannot read or write English and the cards were written by someone for her. But after the first murder is committed, she hands a note to Wang which tells about the murder. How did she write that note without anyone's help?

c. Perrier keeps shouting at everyone to be careful about fingerprints but he himself handles the note with his own hands. Also the note is shown ripped when he takes it from the butler's hand but the very next scene when he is reading it, it is shown intact.


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