Murder by Death (1976)

“If you ask me, anybody that offers a million bucks to solve a crime that ain’t been committed yet has lost a lot more upstairs than his hair.”

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

Murder by Death Poster

Synopsis:
An eccentric millionaire (Truman Capote) invites a group of renowned detectives — including Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith), Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), and Milo Perrier (James Coco) — to his house on a stormy evening, challenging them to solve a murder mystery before it occurs.

Genres:

  • Alec Guinness Films
  • David Niven Films
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Elsa Lanchester Films
  • Ensemble Film
  • Maggie Smith Films
  • Murder Mystery
  • Neil Simon Films
  • Old Dark House
  • Peter Falk Films
  • Peter Sellers Films
  • Play Adaptation
  • Satires and Spoofs

Review:
Neil Simon’s all-star spoof of literary detectives and Old Dark House murder mysteries was an enormous hit the year it was released, and remained a popular re-run on television for years thereafter. A host of big-name actors give boldly satirical performances playing humorous variations on Charlie Chan, Miss Marple, Hercules Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles, and Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe — with Peter Falk in the latter role given some of the best lines in the film:

Locked, from the inside. That can only mean one thing. And I don’t know what it is.

Alec Guinness, however, steals the show as an hysterically incompetent blind butler; his attempts to communicate with a deaf/mute maid (Nancy Walker) are priceless. Meanwhile, in his first and (mercifully) final acting role, Truman Capote gives a distinctly underwhelming and snively performance as millionaire Lionel Twain; fortunately, he’s not on-screen for very long. While the script itself isn’t quite as consistently amusing or clever as fans may remember from earlier viewings, I’m nonetheless including Murder by Death here as a Missing Title, given its enduring cult status — film fanatics will want to watch it at least once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Falk as Sam Diamond
    Murder by Death Falk
  • Alec Guinness as Bensonmum
    Murder by Death Alec Guinness
  • David Niven and Maggie Smith as Dick and Dora Charleston
    Murder by Death Niven
    Murder by Death Smith
  • Eileen Brennan as Tess Skeffington
    Murder by Death Brennan
  • Plenty of clever satirical dialogue

Must See?
Yes, as an enduring cult favorite.

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One Response to “Murder by Death (1976)”

  1. Yes, a missed title and a must as a cult favorite.

    In particular because of this cast! You just can’t beat the line-up, and do they sell it! And they all seem to be clearly having a good time.

    I actually don’t mind Capote at all here. Yes, he’s limited but director Robert Moore (a short career; taken too soon, from AIDS) plays into Capote’s strengths and, esp. toward the end, uses him well as a literary figure.

    The first two-thirds of the film is not the laugh-riot that many feel it is (imho). There are plenty of isolated one-liners throughout, but there are also quite a few gags that are quaint. It’s as if the film is simmering for the finish.

    And finish it does!: the latter part of the film delivers in Sam Spades! The form is quite fine here, with complication building on complication and the laughs should come full and hearty. I especially like Guinness throughout the last section, as he shifts in his reactions from revelation to revelation.

    But if I have a favorite performance overall, it’s probably given by Eileen Brennan. Hers is not the largest role in the film but, to me, she’s so ever-present (watch her body movement and facial expressions) – and I love how she throws herself into her lines (“Please excuse Sam. He was shot in the head last week. He shouldn’t even be out of the hospital.”, etc.).

    There’s also a refreshing addition of gay humor: the idea of Sam Spade being a closet case is priceless!

    Another fave: the doorbell!

    [Note: interesting to compare this with the pairing of Guinness and Sellers years earlier in ‘The Ladykillers’.]

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