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 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. The house is then electronically sealed off; doors, windows, etc.
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 survive and collect in the office where the butler—believed to have been murdered earlier—is waiting, very much alive and not blind. Each detective "solves" the mystery with claims that the butler is one or another of Twain's former associates, complete with backstories and motives.
At first the butler plays the part of each of the persons, male or female, with whom he's identified, but then he pulls off a mask to reveal Lionel Twain himself, 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 leave. Wang, when asked if there had been a murder or not, replies: "Yes; killed good weekend!"
After the guests, freed to leave, do so, and all alone, Twain pulls off another mask—revealing Yetta, who chain smokes and laughs hysterically 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 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 is appropriately accompanied by his adopted Japanese son Willie (Richard Narita). Wang wears elaborate Chinese costumes, and his comically broken English is eventually 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 (which may be an indirect reference to theories regarding lifelong bachelor Hercule Poirot's sexual tastes, which Christie never acknowledged). 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.
- Charles Addams, creator of The Addams Family, drew the art and caricatures displayed at the beginning, during the end credits, and on the poster.
- 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 onscreen on the dinner invitations as "22 Lola Lane" and then shown later as 22 Twain ("Two-Two Twain").
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.
- Amazon.com web site for video release; accessed April 2, 2007.
- Ronald B. De Waal, The Universal Sherlock Holmes, accessed 4 March 2011
- Haydock, Ron. Deerstalker! Holmes and Watson on Screen. Scarecrow Press, 1978. ISBN 0-8108-1061-1
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