Murder by Death
|Murder by Death|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Robert Moore|
|Produced by||Ray Stark|
|Written by||Neil Simon|
|Music by||Dave Grusin|
|Cinematography||David M. Walsh|
|Edited by||Margaret Booth
John F. Burnett
|Distributed by||Columbia Pictures|
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 broad parody or 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 Jamessir Bensonmum, who is later joined by a deaf-mute cook named Yetta, Twain joins his guests at dinner. The house is then sealed off. Twain announces that he is the greatest detective in the world. 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 Twain disappears, only to re-appear 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.
When they retire to their guest rooms for the night, each of the guests are confronted in their rooms by things that threaten to kill them: a snake, a venomous scorpion, a descending ceiling, poison gas, and a bomb. They all survive, and in the morning they gather in the office, where they find the butler waiting, very much alive and not blind. Each detective presents a different piece of evidence with which they each independently solved the mystery, and in each case, they accuse the butler of being one or another of Twain's former associates.
At first the butler plays the part of each of the persons, male or female, with whom he is identified, but then he pulls off a mask to reveal Lionel Twain himself, alive. Twain disparages the detectives, and metafictionally, 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 to make it impossible for the reader to solve the mystery. Each of the detectives departs the house empty handed, none of them having won the million dollars. When asked whether there had been a murder, Wang replies, "Yes: killed good weekend."
Alone in his home, Twain pulls off yet another mask to reveal Yetta, who smokes a cigarette and laughs diabolically while rings of cigarette smoke fill the screen.
Cast and characters
The story takes place in and around the isolated country home populated by eccentric multi-millionaire Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), his blind butler Jamessir 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 is appropriately accompanied by his adopted Japanese son Willie (Richard Narita). Wang wears elaborate Chinese costumes, and his comically broken English is criticized by Twain 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 heavily-French-accented chauffeur Marcel Cassette (James Cromwell in his first feature film role). The demanding, portly Perrier is overly fond of food and appears annoyed that he must share a room with the lowly Marcel, although the two are later seen sharing not only a room but a bed, quibbling like a married couple. Perrier is repeatedly annoyed by being mistaken for a Frenchman as he is Belgian, saying "I am not a 'Frenchie'...I am a 'Belgie.'
- Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) parodies another Dashiell Hammett character, The Maltese Falcon's hardboiled Sam Spade. He is accompanied by his long-suffering, hard-boiled, sexy but needy secretary Tess Skeffington (Eileen Brennan), whom he continually denigrates and mistreats. Tess Skeffington's name is a riff on Spade's secretary Effie Perine.
- Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) parodies Christie's Miss Marple. In the film, Marbles appears as hearty, robust and tweed-clad, wheeling a frail, ancient-looking, seemingly senile companion—her ancient "nurse" Miss Withers (Estelle Winwood), for whom she is now caring—but who everyone initially assumes is Miss Marbles.
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. 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."
- "MURDER BY DEATH (A)". Columbia-Warner. British Board of Film Classification. June 14, 1976. Retrieved March 15, 2014.
- "Murder by Death, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved January 23, 2012.
- Canby, Vincent (June 24, 1976). "Murder By Death (1976) Simon's Breezy 'Murder by Death'". The New York Times.
- Angel Tagudin (January 22, 2013). "Murder by Death (1976)". Art of the Title. Retrieved January 29, 2016.
- De Waal, Ronald B. "The Universal Sherlock Holmes". University of Minnesota. Archived from the original on 22 January 2016. Retrieved 22 January 2016.
- Haydock, Ron. Deerstalker! Holmes and Watson on Screen. Scarecrow Press, 1978. ISBN 0-8108-1061-1
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