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Murder by Death


Murder by Death (1976)

     Murder by Death has all the makings of a great comedy spoof on murder mysteries, but unfortunately it felt only so-so to me. For those who are more familiar with the 1985 film Clue, one can easily see where the later film found its inspiration, besides the board game, of course. Murder by Death puts a cast of unrelated characters in a country mansion where they have been invited for “dinner and a murder”. Unlike Clue, however, this movie fills the house with the world’s best detectives who have been engaged so the host can prove he is a better sleuth than them all.

     The greatest joke of the flick is that the detective characters are spoofs of movie and literature-based private dicks popular in American cinema. David Niven and Maggie Smith play Dick and Dora Charleston, a take off on Nick and Nora Charles of the Thin Man movies. Peter Sellers plays Sidney Wang, or Charlie Chan. Peter Falk is Sam Diamond, hailing back to Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. James Coco portrays Milo Perrier, and Elsa Lanchester plays Jessica Marbles, a reference to Agatha Christie characters Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, respectively.

     Truman Capote makes a rare screen appearance as the dinner’s host, Lionel Twain. He does an adequate acting job leading the story through its various twists. Dinner guests are told a murder will occur at midnight and they must endeavor to solve the crime. Convinced if they all remain in the same room at the time of the crime, the detecties assert there will be guaranteed witnesses and the deduction will be a snap. That plan is interrupted by the “screaming” of a mute, deaf cook who leads a few cast members to find the blind butler (Alec Guinness) dead in the kitchen. When other characters return to the kitchen later they find only his suit of clothes. The next batch finds a naked corpse. Further complicating things is that a duplicate, yet empty dining room is accessed every other time the door to such room is opened. Ultimately, Mr. Twain is the midnight victim and one who is not in the dining room with all the guests who hoped to witness the crime.

     We learn hilarious and ridiculous reasons why all guests have motive to kill the man, but the end of the film sums up an even more ludicrous actual story as each detective shares his hypothesis. Ultimately, it does not matter who the murderer is or who the victim is, for that matter, because the story is an absurd farce. As you should plainly tell, the story does have all the makings of a roaring good time, but tragically the comedy falls flat. The most amusement I gained was from seeing the actors mock the characters they were impersonating. Niven and Falk gave the best show to that end. I have not seen a Charlie Chan film, but Sellers was quite amusing also, even without that reference point. My best advice to Murder by Death‘s end is to watch Clue instead. Although equally hair-brained, it’s much more fun.

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