You are a detective. You are invited to dinner and a murder by the mysterious Lionel Twain at his mansion along with a group of the world’s foremost detectives and their companions. Twain, accompanied by his blind butler and deaf-mute cook, announces that he is the greatest detective in the world and challenges all of those in attendance to solve a murder that will take place in the house at midnight. The prize? One million dollars. The midnight murder? Twain’s. Solve it. Go.
Murder by Death (1976) is seminal American writer Neil Simon’s homage/satirization of the entire murder-mystery genre popularized on film and TV as well as in literature. In case you were wondering about Simon’s pedigree as a writer, he wrote plays such as The Odd Couple, The Goodbye Girl and Biloxi Blues, and highly successful film adaptations of many of those same works. He won Tony Awards, Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, a Pulitzer Prize and several Writers Guild of America Awards. The relevance and influence of his work is still felt throughout the industries he worked in.
The brilliance of this red herring-ladened comedy lies in its full acceptance of the classic murder-mystery tropes as well as its caricatures of well-known literary figures, including portrayals of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Versions of Sherlock Holmes and his constant companion Doctor Watson were edited out of the film, though this scene did appear in a TV edit and as a special feature on a DVD release.
The legendary Peter Sellers plays Inspector Sidney Wang, an over-stylized version of Charlie Chan and a part originally slated to be played by Orson Welles. David Niven and Maggie Smith play versions of Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man films. Truman Capote, in a rare film appearance, steals the scene as the previously mentioned Lionel Twain with Alec Guinness at his side as the blind butler. Guinness’ next role was Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope.
But it is Peter Falk’s performance as Sam Diamond, a hard-nosed pulp detective in the most classic of styles, that takes this movie over the top. Think Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon crossed with Richard Diamond, Private Detective but infinitely less competent. To add to the insanity, he is accompanied by his paramour Tess Skeffington who is adeptly played by Eileen Brennan. Falk delivers what can only be described as an epically Falk-ian performance, an acting style you should be well acquainted with if you have ever seen an episode of Columbo.
Amongst his many other films, Neil Simon followed Murder by Death up with The Cheap Detective (1978), an homage focusing on the Humphrey Bogart films of the same genre. This film featured Peter Falk as gumshoe Lou Peckinpaugh, a rather blatant reference to film director and screenwriter Sam Peckinpah. Featuring appearances by Sid Caesar, Dom DeLuise, James Cromwell (Murder by Death was his first feature film), and Abe Vigoda, it is yet another ensemble defined by the tropes of the genre it lovingly spoofs. Of particular importance are the female tropes; Ann-Margret, Eileen Brennan, Stockard Channing, Louise Fletcher, Madeline Kahn and Marsha Mason all appear as different female archetypes from the pulp murder-mystery world. There is one epic scene where they all appear in Peckinpaugh’s apartment simultaneously yet unbeknownst to each other.
If you are a fan of comedies, murder-mysteries, or the combination of the two genres in a satirical symbiosis then Murder by Death is waiting for you on Netflix now, perfect for a dark and stormy night.
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