Murder by Death (1976)

*. Movies with a catalogue of big-name stars are rarely any good, but they are sort of fun. On a level with watching how many people can be crammed into a phone booth or Volkswagen Beetle.
*. It would be hard to top the cast of Murder by Death, a spoof of detective stories written by Neil Simon. Among the talent assembled: Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, and Maggie Smith. Also noteworthy: James Cromwell in his first movie role and Nancy Walker in her last. Phil Silvers apparently had a small part too that was later cut.
*. That’s a lot of star power, and it’s the saving grace of Murder by Death. It’s an enjoyable enough premise, with a mystery man (Capote) inviting the world’s greatest detectives (and their plus-ones) to dinner and a murder. Mystery fans will get a kick out of seeing versions of Charlie Chan (Sellers), Hercule Poirot (Coco), Nick and Nora Charles (Niven and Smith), Miss Marple (Lanchester), and Sam Spade (Falk) doing their thing. Even if it’s not a terribly funny script, and it isn’t, you can still smile at most of it.
*. Coco’s Milo Perrier and Falk’s Sam Diamond have the hammiest parts, and they’re both very good in them. Cromwell and Brennan (their respective sidekicks) may be the most interesting characters to watch though. Poor Elsa Lanchester seems to have been an afterthought, coming late to the party and then not receiving an envoi while driving away.
*. A time before political correctness, so Sellers as Sydney Wang just has to be taken for what it is, which is not so much a riff on Asians as on Warner Oland. Throw in some blind/deaf/dumb jokes and Sam Diamond’s defensive denigration of “pansies.” Those were the days.
*. I remember a couple of laughs from when I first saw it. Perrier choking over a bad vintage, and his outrage at being served franks ‘n’ beans are still pretty funny. Some of the banter between Niven and Smith holds up reasonably well. But really, after being one of the twentieth-century’s most critically and commercially successful comic playwrights, I don’t think Neil Simon works any more. He was very good in his time, but tastes change. I don’t mean politically but in terms of style. The tendency today is for comedy to be more naturalistic, with less of a scripted feel to it.
*. As with Clue nine years later, which saw the return of Eileen Brennan to the murder mansion, one has the sense that nobody was really invested in the genre being sent up, which means that no effort is put into constructing even a superficially plausible mystery to be solved. This leaves the cast even more at sea, just doing their character bits and cracking some jokes before driving off. I can’t help thinking that an opportunity was lost. Mystery and comedy shouldn’t be that difficult a combination, but they’ve rarely worked well together. I like Murder by Death, but mostly because I first saw it when I was a kid, when I was already a big fan of detective fiction. In the years since it’s stuck in my head, but I can’t imagine caring as much for it if I were seeing it for the first time today.

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