Murder by Death

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For the rock band, see Murder by Death (band).
Murder by Death
Murder by death movie poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Robert Moore
Produced by Ray Stark
Written by Neil Simon
Starring Eileen Brennan
Truman Capote
James Coco
Peter Falk
Alec Guinness
Elsa Lanchester
David Niven
Peter Sellers
Maggie Smith
Music by Dave Grusin
Cinematography David M. Walsh
Edited by Margaret Booth
John F. Burnett
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • June 23, 1976 (1976-06-23)
Running time
94 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Box office $32,511,047[2]

Murder by Death is a 1976 American mystery comedy film with a cast featuring Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker, and Estelle Winwood, written by Neil Simon and directed by Robert Moore.

The plot is a spoof of the traditional country-house whodunit, familiar to mystery fiction fans of classics such as Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. The cast is an ensemble of British and American actors playing send-ups of well-known fictional sleuths, including Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Charlie Chan, Nick and Nora Charles, and Sam Spade.

It also features a rare acting performance by In Cold Blood author Truman Capote. The film was presented at the Venice International Film Festival in 1976.


A group of five renowned detectives, each accompanied by a relative or associate, is invited to "dinner and a murder" by the mysterious Lionel Twain. Having lured his guests to his mansion managed by a blind butler named Bensonmum, who is later joined by a deaf-mute cook named Yetta, Twain announces that it is in fact he who is the greatest detective in the world. In order to prove his claim, he challenges the guests to solve a murder which will take place at midnight; a reward of $1 million will be presented to the winner.

Before midnight, the butler is found dead, and later Twain himself appears, only to later re-appear clearly dead from a stab wound immediately after midnight; the cook is also discovered to have been an animated mannequin, now packed in a storage crate. The party spends the rest of the night investigating and bickering. They are manipulated by a mysterious behind-the-scenes force, confused by red herrings, and baffled by the "mechanical marvel" that is Twain's house, and they ultimately find their own lives threatened. Each sleuth presents his or her theory on the case, pointing out the others' past connections to Twain and their possible motives for murdering him.

After retiring to their guest rooms to sleep, during which one pair is almost killed by a snake, another by a scorpion, another by a descending ceiling, a fourth by poison gas, and the fifth by a bomb, they all collect in the office early in the morning where the butler—believed to have been murdered earlier—is waiting, very much alive and not at all blind, ultimately confessing, "The butler did it." However, each detective then claims that the butler is in fact various incarnations of Twain's associates.

At first the butler plays the part of each of the persons with whom he's identified, but then he pulls off a mask to reveal Lionel Twain himself, still alive. Twain disparages the detectives (and effectively the authors who created them) for the way their adventures have been handled, including such misdeeds as introducing crucial characters at the last minute for the traditional "twist in the tale" (something the assembled detectives had been doing a few minutes earlier) and withholding clues and information so as to make it impossible for the reader to solve the mystery. None of the detectives walks away with the million dollars, and they all drive away from the house. One detective, when asked if there had been a murder or not, replies: "Yes; killed good weekend!"

After the guests leave, Twain pulls off another mask—revealing himself to be Yetta, the cook—and laughs hysterically.

Cast and characters[edit]

The story takes place in and around the isolated country home populated by eccentric multi-millionaire Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), his blind butler Jamesir Bensonmum (Alec Guinness) and a deaf-mute cook named Yetta (Nancy Walker). The participants are all pastiches of famous fictional detectives:

  • Inspector Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) is based on Earl Derr Biggers' Chinese police detective Charlie Chan and appropriately accompanied by his adopted Japanese son Willie (Richard Narita). Wang wears elaborate Chinese costumes, and his broken English is criticized by the annoyed host and others.
  • Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith) are polished, sophisticated society types modeled on Dashiell Hammett's characters Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man film series. The Charles' wire-haired terrier "Asta" is also lampooned, appearing here named "Myron."
  • Milo Perrier (James Coco) is a take on Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and arrives at the house with his chauffeur, Marcel Cassette (James Cromwell in his first feature film role). The portly Perrier is overly fond of food and appears annoyed that he must share a room with lowly Marcel. He is repeatedly annoyed by being mistaken for a Frenchman, as he is Belgian.
  • Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) parodies another Dashiell Hammett character, The Maltese Falcon's hard boiled Sam Spade. He is accompanied by his long-suffering secretary Tess Skeffington (Eileen Brennan), a riff on Spade's secretary Effie Perine.
  • Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) parodies Christie's other great creation, Miss Marple. In the film, Marbles appears as a hearty, tweed-clad Englishwoman with a frail, seemingly senile companion—her ancient "nurse" Miss Withers (Estelle Winwood), for whom she is now caring. In actuality, the two English-born actresses did not care for each other and exchanged mordant, biting insults.[3]

Production notes[edit]

  • Charles Addams, creator of The Addams Family, drew the art and caricatures displayed at the beginning, during the end credits, and on the poster.[4]
  • The film was shot entirely at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California, then named "The Burbank Studios."
  • The address of Twain's mansion is shown on onscreen on the dinner invitations as "22 Lola Lane," and then shown later as 22 Twain ("Two-Two Twain").

Deleted scenes[edit]

An additional scene, not in the theatrical version but shown in some television versions, shows Sherlock Holmes (Keith McConnell) and Doctor Watson (Richard Peel) arriving as the other guests are leaving.[5] Author Ron Haydock states that an early draft of Neil Simon's script featured Holmes and Watson actually solving the mystery, but their roles were reduced to a cameo appearance and finally deleted as the lead actors felt they were being "upstaged".[6]


  1. ^ "MURDER BY DEATH (A)". Columbia-Warner. British Board of Film Classification. June 14, 1976. Retrieved March 15, 2014. 
  2. ^ "Murder by Death, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved January 23, 2012. 
  3. ^ Anger, Kenneth. Hotel Babylon. From Estelle Winwood Biography: accessed 11/23/10
  4. ^ [1] web site for video release, accessed April 2, 2007
  5. ^ Ronald B. De Waal, The Universal Sherlock Holmes, accessed 4 March 2011
  6. ^ Haydock, Ron. Deerstalker! Holmes and Watson on Screen. Scarecrow Press, 1978. ISBN 0-8108-1061-1

External links[edit]