Saturday, March 30, 2019

Movie Review: "Murder by Death" (1976)

Director: Robert Moore
Year: 1976
Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

The five greatest detectives in the world are invited to a remote mansion where they are tasked with solving a murder that has yet to happen as they are pitted in a game of wits with their eccentric host.

Murder by Death movie 1976 gif Dog painting comes to life
"Mr. Twain has a macabre sense of humor, yeah? (Image Source)
Have you ever read a mystery novel or watched a murder mystery movie and been upset by a contrived ending that came out of left field? We know we have...we're looking at you, "The Snowman." It's clear that writer Neil Simon has as well, and "Murder by Death" is his raucous response to such stories. This film is directed by Robert Moore, who is best known as being the director of the TV series "Rhoda." It focuses on the wealthy, eccentric Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), who has invited the five greatest detectives, Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), Dick Charleston (David Niven), Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), and Milo Perrier (James Coco), to dinner at his secluded mansion. Little do they know, they are there to solve a murder that has not yet happened. Twain wants to have a battle of wits with the detectives so he can prove that he is the world's best criminologist, not them. He challenges them to solve what he believes to be an unsolvable murder and offers a million dollars to anyone who can unravel the mystery.
Murder by Death 1976 comedy gif Maggie Smith Oh that's tacky That's really tacky
"I need no clues from you. I find my own, you demented lollipop!" (Image Source)
Let us start by saying that if Peter Sellers in 'yellowface' and Peter Falk's Sam Diamond making racist, sexist, and homophobic jokes will bother you, "Murder by Death" may be a film that's best left in the past. Of course, being a spoof, Wang's (Sellers) broken English and physical appearance are meant to poke fun at the character Charlie Chan, who was an Asian detective played by a white actor that also spoke in broken English. Sellers ups the ante and leans waaaaaay more into the Asian stereotypes side of his portrayal. It's pretty jarring to see what was acceptable in 1976. The same can be said for Sam Diamond, a knock-off of Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade from "The Maltese Falcon," and James Cromwell's stereotypically French Marcel, who have overly embellished accents and exaggerated features as well. Beyond how poorly those aspects have aged, which as we said may be sticking points for modern audiences, "Murder By Death" does manage to have a lot of sharp dialogue and rapid-fire wit that pretty darn funny. The script pokes fun of the contrived nature of many detective novels and films, amplifying them to the nth degree: evidence is left hidden around a creepy, vast mansion, red herrings abound, and last minute character introductions and cheap plot devices add easy, lazy ways to bring about a surprise twist ending. The whole thing is a bit ridiculous and silly, but it sure made us laugh at the absurdity and quickness of it all. It helps to have a passing familiarity with the characters being made fun of, including the previously mentioned Sam Spade and Charlie Chan, as well as Nick and Nora Charles from "The Thin Man," Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot. If you are not familiar with any of these characters, many of the jokes pass you by. That being said, there is some humor that isn't totally referential and exists as goofball zaniness that is more universal. The acting is also excellent as well. Truman Capote steals the show as insane mastermind Lionel Twain. Maggie Smith, Peter Falk, David Niven, Eileen Brennan, Elsa Lanchester, and Alec Guinness round out an exceedingly talented ensemble cast, and they each get their chance to shine.
Murder by Death 1976 spoof movie Truman Capote reveals himself
"My school is the streets and the barrel of my revolver is my teacher." (Image Source)
In the end, "Murder by Death" is a funny (albeit dated) mystery spoof with a terrific ensemble cast who can still make you laugh after all these years. Its quick wit will keep you interested, though the jokes may hit or miss if you're not "in the know" about certain characters.

My Rating: 7/10
BigJ's Rating: 7/10
IMDB's Rating: 7.4/10
RT Rating: 65%
Do we recommend this movie: Sure, why not?

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