Created by Neil Simon
Lionel Twain, an eccentric millionaire (played with some kind of awkwardly mad brilliance by Truman Capote) invites five of the “world’s greatest detectives” to his secluded castle for the weekend, and offers $1 million to the one who can solve a murder, in Neil Simon’s 1976 at-times delightful send-up of the mystery genre, Murder By Death.
Of course, it turns out that the murder victim is none other than the crazy old coot himself! Knowing that the murderer must be one of their own group, the detectives match wits and trade barbs in a race to nab the loot, and in the process, uncover each others’ dirty little secrets, each of which gives him/her a motive for the murder.
The plot’s servicable, if a little creaky, but that’s not the point. The point is to skewer the pretensions and clichés of popular detective characters from films of the thirties and forties, and it does that in spades.
Uh, Sam Spades in the case of SAM DIAMOND.
Hard-boiled private eyes are given a particularly good working over–nailed to the wall by Peter Falk as low-rent gumshoe Diamond. Falk, doing his best Bogart, plays him like a dick right out of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Despite the presece of Tess Skeffington (Eileen Brennan) as his long-time secretary and girlfriend, whom he introduces as “the lady here in the rented dress,” the over-boiled macho overtones of the genre are delightfully tweaked, with Diamond coming off as more than a little sexually ambiguous, as in the scene where Tess asks Sam “What are all those pictures of naked men doing in your desk?”
Sam’s point-black reply? “Research!” But he later attempts to reassure her: “I never did nothin’ to a man that I wouldn’t do to a woman.”
Meanwhile, Dashiell Hammett‘s more genteel private eye-couple, Nick and Nora Charles, get their lumps, too, when David Niven and Maggie Smith sink their teeth into DICK and DORA CHARLESTON. Okay, Nick and Nora weren’t British, and Nora wasn’t quite the ditz she’s portrayed as here:
Dora Charleston: Where’s my Dickie?
[everyone stares at her] Dora Charleston: Sorry. Where’s my husband?
… but this is still some kind of fun.
Also so in for a drubbing are Elsa Lanchester as JESSICA MARBLES (think Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple), and James Coco as finicky, anal-retentive MILO PERRIER who gently savages Christie’s Hercule Poirot (“I’m not a Frenchie, I’m a BELGIE!”), who’s accompanied by his long-suffering chauffeur/secretary (James Cromwell). And Peter Sellers does a masterful if now somewhat cringey job playing the suitably inscrutable SIDNEY WANG, who lampoons Earl Biggers’ Charlie Chan and is saddled with Richard Narita as Willie Wang, his adopted Japanese “number three” son.
Rounding out the great cast are Alec Guiness and Nancy Walker in smaller roles as Twain’s blind butler, Bensonmum, and the deaf-and-dumb cook, Yetta, respectively.
The film’s never quite as good—or as savage–as it could be, and is disappointingly uneven, dipping a bit too frequently into toilet humour, and just plain silliness at other times, but the one-liners sure keep on snapping. In other words, if you don’t like that particular gag, wait a few seconds. Another will be along in a few seconds.
Still, a worthwhile way to spend an hour or so, especially if you’re a fan of old detective flicks.
- “Of all people in the world [and whomever acted in the history of movies], thank God somebody thought of casting David Niven as Nick Charles, even if it WAS just a hilarious spoof… To this day I can’t think of any other actor but Powell [and Niven] who could’ve played that part.”
— Dennis Bendy
- “Considering the tone and manner of Murder by Death, it would seem to be very much a Neil Simon work, but that may be to underestimate the contributions of Robert Moore, a talented theater director (“The Boys in the Band,” “Promises, Promises”) who is making his debut as a film director here. Whoever should get the credit, Murder by Death is as light and insubstantial as one could wish.”
— Vincent Canby in The New York Times
- “Be quiet everyone! I smell something!”
— Milo Perrier
- Sam Diamond: I don’t get it. First they steal the body and leave the clothes, then they take the clothes and bring the body back. Who would do a thing like that?
Dick Charleston: Possibly some deranged dry cleaner.
- “Locked, from the inside. That can only mean one thing. And I don’t know what it is.”
— Sam Diamond shows just how sharp he really is
- Dora Charleston: Mr. Diamond, there’s a bullet hole in your jacket.
Sam Diamond: You should see the other guy.
- Lionel Twain: You’ve tricked and fooled your readers for years. You’ve tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You’ve introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You’ve withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it. But now, the tables are turned. Millions of angry mystery readers are now getting their revenge. When the world learns I’ve outsmarted you, they’ll be selling your $1.95 books for twelve cents.
- “The last time that I trusted a dame was in Paris in 1940. She said she was going out to get a bottle of wine. Two hours later, the Germans marched into France.”
— Sam Diamond remembers how time went by
- “Room filled with empty people.”
— Sidney Wang
- “No pulse, no heartbeat. If condition does not change, this man is dead.”
— Sidney Wang
- Sidney Wang: Did you see that?
Willie Wang: No.
Sidney Wang: Neither did I.
- Dora Charleston (fumbling in the dark): Dickie, don’t. You know how I get when you touch me there.
Dick Charleston: Me, darling? I’ve got my hands in my pockets.
Sam Diamond: I’m afraid they’re my pockets.
Dick Charleston: Oh, sorry about that.
Dora Charleston: Dickie, behave yourself.
- “You pit your wits with me, little man, and you won’t have your wits to pit with, know what I mean?”
— Sam Diamond
- Tess Skeffington: I’m scared, Sam. Hold me.
Sam Diamond: Hold yourself. I’m busy.
- MURDER BY DEATH | Buy this video | Buy this DVD | Buy the Blu-Ray | Watch it now!
(1976, Columbia TriStar)
Screenplay by Neil Simon
Directed by Robert Moore
Produced by Ray Stark .
Associate producer: Roger M. Rothstein
Original Music by Dave Grusin
Starring Truman Capote as Lionel Twain
With Peter Falk as SAM DIAMOND
David Niven and Maggie Smith as DICK and DORA CHARLESTON
James Coco as INSPECTOR MILO PERRIER
Elsa Lanchester as MISS JESSICA MARBLES
and Peter Sellers as SIDNEY WANG
Also starring Eileen Brennan, Alec Guinness, Nancy Walker, Estelle Winwood, James Cromwell, Richard Narita
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Dennis Bendy for the nudge.