Murder by Death

Murder by Death

No pulse, no heartbeat. If condition does not change, this man is dead.

This is Neil Simon’s attempt to do a Mel Brooks number of the genre of detective fiction and it’s probably for the best that he tackle it, because I think that the director of Blazing Saddles and High Anxiety would have wielded too blunt an instrument to make it work. Even with Simon’s slightly more sophisticated touch, Murder by Death is comedy in broad strokes, but even if you’re not a fan of murder mysteries, enough jokes score to make it a diverting 90 minutes.

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Lampooning five of the most famous characters in detective fiction, the humor swings from fast-paced wordplay to broad slapstick with a few politically incorrect stereotypes thrown into the pot. Cartoonish and grumpy Chinese detective Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) is accompanied by his all-American Japanese-born adopted son (Richard Narita). Bogart-esque private dick Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) has brought his secretary, Miss Skeffington (Eileen Brennan), who’s in love with her boss despite all the “investigating” he does in gay bars. Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith) are impeccably dressed and well-mannered. Miss Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) is along with her ancient and infirm nurse (Estelle Winwood). Finally, a not very fussy eater named Mssr. Milo Perrier (James Coco) is present, along with his driver, Marcel (James Cromwell in his feature film debut).

They have been invited to “dinner and a murder” by reclusive millionaire Lionel Twain (Truman Capote) at Twain’s remote and bizarre mansion (address: “Two Two Twain.”). Dinner may be a little late, because the butler (Alec Guinness) is blind and the cook (Nancy Walker) is a deaf mute.

As you might have already guessed, the humor is rarely subtle or high-brow, but it hits more often than it misses, sometimes with subtlety than you realize the first time through. The light touch and eternally stiff upper lips of David Niven and Maggie Smith nicely complement the broad caricatures from Peter Sellers and Peter Falk. The plot, as befitting the subject, is needlessly complicated and often completely illogical. That might be infuriating if it weren’t part of the joke.

The nicely atmospheric set design and creative use of sound serve the story well, lending a twisted but eerie mood to the slapstick shenanigans in the foreground. In a nice touch, the opening credits were designed in part by Charles Addams of Addam’s Family fame. The doorbell sound effect was voiced, forty years earlier, by Fay Wray.

This is not deep or insightful satire by any means, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny most of the time. Try to imagine Noël Coward and Raymond Chandler writing for Mad Magazine and I think you’ll get the picture.

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