Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Murder By Death (1976)

Perhaps it was because Neil Simon had become fiends with fellow comic filmmaker Mel Brooks (vis a vis his wife, Anne Bancroft, Simon’s Prisoner of Second Avenue star) and was inspired by his trademark spoof sensibilities. Or maybe he needed a break from adapting his stage material and writing adult-oriented seriocomic fare. Whatever the reason, Neil Simon, in 1976, wrote Murder By Death, an homage of sorts to the classic murder mystery dime-novels and movies from the 30s and 40s. In his words, it was a movie he could’ve written at 16 or 17, as that was the ilk of flick he munched popcorn to as a pulp-devouring teen. 

The plot is fairly basic put pretty ingenious: a wealthy recluse, Lionel Twain (Truman Capote) invites all the world’s famous detectives to his house for “dinner and a murder.” All the guests’ names are slight reworkings of famous sleuths, like Sam Diamond (Spade), Milo Perrier (Hercule Perot), Jessica Marbles (Miss Marple), Dick and Dora Charleston (Nick and
Nora Charles), and Sidney Wang (Charlie Chan). Twain announces that he will pay a reward of one million dollars to the solver of an upcoming murder – which turns out to be that of himself – and that’s when the high jinks ensue, replete with robotic cooks, disappearing rooms, scorpions, poison gas, falling ceilings… whew! When each guest escapes death from their own would-be murder, he or she propounds a theory, each erroneous, of the villain’s dastardly motives. They don’t even get the villain right! It’s not the butler (Alec Guiness), but what all had thought in the first place – Twain himself – and he fooled them all as comeuppance for cheating him with their respective whodunit dĂ©nouements, endings that “make no sense” and concealing key information that could allow anyone to solve the mystery. Ah, vengeance at last! 

And it is this villains’ motive that is the crux, and utter charm, of Murder By Death, a catharsis for anyone who threw down their copy of Murder on the Orient Express in total frustration (for me it was Encyclopedia Brown, who mostly repudiated his nemesis’s story with some claim either vague, invalid or circumstantial). This is not the heavier fare Simon had heretofore been known for, but nor is it the broad farce purveyed by Mel Brooks at the time, a genre later made even broader by the success of Airplane!  This is an affectionately made send-up, and it’s dialogue is as sharp and fast as anything Simon had written up to that point. And seeing the finest comic and dramatic actors of the era (James Coco, Peter Falk, Peter Sellers, David Niven, Eileen Brennan, to name a few), is just as pleasurable as listening to the dialogue they trade in their madcap attempts to solve the crime. I suppose it will invoke comparisons to the much later Clue, but this is far wittier, and much funnier. 

At 95 minutes, it’s a short, breezy clip, successful enough to earn a sequel of sorts: 1978’s The Cheap Detective. Murder was produced by Ray Stark and his Rastar Pictures, who did the previous The Sunshine Boys and would do Detective and the next Simon film, The Goodbye Girl.

Stage in Simon’s life: no stage per se, but a reverent send-up of his favorite mysteries from his youth.

Rating: ***

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