Years ago, I disintegrated the Murder by Death VHS because I couldn’t stop watching it and re-watching it. Now I finally bought it on DVD and I re-watched it yet another time after so many years and I laughed a lot and I found it as brilliant as I remembered it as a kid. But what’s Murder by Death? It’s a 1976 film (44 years have already passed since its release, it seems incredible) written by Neil Simon, playwright and screenwriter who died in 2018, directed by Robert Moore, and with a fantastic cast:
- David Niven and Maggie Smith play Mr. and Mrs. Charleston, always with a Martini with olives in hand (based on Nick and Nora Charles, two characters of The Thin Man, 1934);
- Peter Falk and Eileen Brennan play Sam Diamond and his blonde escort Tess (he’s based on the Sam Spade played by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, 1941);
- Elsa Lanchester as Miss Marbles (parody of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple);
- James Coco as Milo Perrier (parody of Hercule Poirot, another character created by Agatha Christie);
- and the legendary Peter Sellers in the role of the Chinese Sidney Wang (parody of Charlie Chan, a detective created by Earl Derr Biggers).
And what are so many investigators doing in a movie? That’s an easy question. The movie is a parody of the mystery classics starring a highly intelligent detective who solves a mystery which is unsolvable for anyone else. In fact, the movie’s antagonist Lionel Twain (played by the writer Truman Capote, only because Orson Welles was busy in Italy, apparently) is an avid reader angry at those detectives for having created stories that are too convoluted and incomprehensible to solve. Also, he finds it unacceptable that they keep hidden some key information until the very last moment so that the readers never have the possibility to guess who’s the guilty character before the final revelation of the book.
Does it seem nonsensical to you? Well, add a blind waiter played by Sir Alec Guinness named Jamesir Bensonmum who has to work with a deaf and dumb cook who cannot read in English (Nancy Walker), and the level of non-sense will quickly go to 11! The humor varies from the simplest slapstick to silly puns, and including amusing dialogues and elaborate gags which are developed over the course of several minutes.
To make a long story short, a lot of people went crazy about Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019), but I think that a classic like Murder by Death should be (re)discovered by anyone considering themselves a movie buff! Even the anecdotes told by Wang about dark forests or big houses are worth the price of admission. The film could easily be a theatrical play (as Neil Simon admits himself in the interview contained in the DVD in my possession) and it works particularly well if you enjoy thrillers and/or the amazing skills of the stellar cast. I never tire of watching this movie, and if you’ve never seen it, please give it a chance. I’m sure you won’t regret it, ciao!