Wednesday 26 August 2015

Movie Review: Murder By Death (1976)

A whodunit comedy satire, Murder By Death offers laughs aplenty but also runs out of ideas rather quickly.

The world's best detectives are invited to a spooky mansion for an evening of dinner and death. The detectives include Sidney Wang (modeled on Charlie Chan, and played by Peter Sellers), Dick and Dora Charleston (Nick and Nora Charles, brought to life by David Niven and Maggie Smith), Milo Perrier (Hercule Poirot, portrayed by James Coco), Sam Diamond (representing Sam Spade, played by Peter Falk) and Jessica Marbles (Miss Marple, interpreted by Elsa Lanchester). They need to overcome a rickety bridge and falling gargoyles just to make it into the mansion, where they are greeted by the blind butler Jamesir Bensonmum (Alec Guinness). Deaf-mute maid Yetta (Nancy Walker) is supposed to be helping to get dinner ready.

Their host is erratic millionaire Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), who promises them that one person in the mansion will be dead by midnight, and offers a reward of $1 million to whichever detective can solve the crime. In fact, by the time midnight rolls around two people appear to be dead, the rooms of the mansion are playing tricks of their own, and deep dark personal secrets about all the guests will soon be revealed. The detectives not only have to solve the crimes, but also fight to stay alive as they all come under personal attack.

Written by Neil Simon and directed by Ray Stark, Murder By Death is a good idea with mediocre execution. Making fun of the Agatha Christie-style detective genre is a promising premise, and the gathering of great minds in a stormy mansion to match wits with an evil schemer does set the stage for plenty of zingers, one-liners, and obvious convolutions. The great cast, spooky mansion setting and a clear sense of lighthearted self-depreciation create an agreeably entertaining film.

But the momentum only goes so far, and Simon surprisingly seems to have trouble developing the concept. The running time is about 90 minutes, and the first 30 minutes are fully occupied with the detectives arriving at the mansion. They all encounter the bridge, they all encounter the falling gargoyles, and they all encounter the blind butler, in what amounts to dullness by prolonged repetition. The remaining hour has an unexpectedly high number of flat patches. Too much time is invested in a limited number of gags, for example opening and closing the dining room door to find the room alternatively full and empty. This seems to go on forever and is repeated ad nauseam (and never properly explained).

To tide over the rough patches, there are jokes aplenty to keep things sort of humming along. Alec Guinness as a haplessly blind butler generates the most laughs. Peter Sellers mangling the English language with his eastern morsels of faux wisdom and trite traditional sayings adds plenty of fine comic timing. Peter Falk goes all-in as hard-boiled detective Sam Diamond. Less successful is James Coco as the food-obsessed Perrier, while Elsa Lanchester as Jessica Marbles is under-written. The cast also includes Richard Narita as Wang's adopted son, Eileen Brennan as Diamond's assistant, and James Cromwell as Perrier's driver.

Simon navigates the story towards his punchline, poking fun at detective stories that reveal key information in the frantic last few pages simply to try and outwit the audience. He probably carries that joke too far, as the rushed ending disintegrates into a muddled anti-climax of anything goes.

Murder By Death is a passable satire, and at the end, the butler maybe did it. Or maybe not.

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