Robert Moore | 1976 | 94 mins | USA
There appears to have been a strange and mysterious time in US history when Neil Simon could just write anything at all and it would instantly turn to gold. Perhaps this Midas touch made it impossible for his contemporaries and fans to imagine that one day we would look back on some of that work and think "what the fuck, 1976?" Still, here we are.
The mysterious happenings in Murder By Death take place in a gloomy old castle, perpetually shrouded in fog and thunderstorms, at the end of a long and winding road and on the other side of a rickety bridge. The doorbell sounds with a piercing woman's scream. The butler (Alec Guinness) is blind, the cook is deaf and dumb, and the eccentric millionaire host, Lionel Twain, is a sinister fiend. In the '30s, he was arrested for smuggling a truckload of rich Americans into Mexico to pick melons! Har har har.
The guests to this mysterious party are a familiar bunch - spoofs of the world's five greatest criminologists. They include Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), the famous Chinese detective; Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) the hard boiled San Francico private eye; Milo Perrier (James Coco), the fat Belgian sleuth; Miss Marbles (Elsa Lanchester - a.k.a. the Bride of Frankenstein), the tweed-swathed English granny; and Dick and Nora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith), cool as cucumbers and never without a martini in their hands.
After the detectives and their companions (assorted chauffeurs, secretaries and adopted sons) arrive at the creepy castle, the purpose of their get together is revealed. The occasion is murder!
It seems that the eccentric host (played by none other than Truman Capote) of the night's festivities has planned a crime so brilliant that he didn't think a motley crew of the greatest detectives in the world would be able to solve it, so he brought them all together to prove a point.
The idea of a parody of the pulp crime novels and films of the '30s and '40s is compelling, but its execution in this film is at times shockingly unfunny. Full of so many bad puns and lame gags, the whole thing is saved from being a total fiasco by the performances alone. Peter Falk's Bogart impression is impeccable and his straight talk is a welcome breath of fresh air among the otherwise stuffy Brits (and, oh yeah, the "Chinese guy"). Alec Guinness is terrific as the blind butler. In fact, everyone in the absurdly stacked cast does a great job. It's too bad the script is such a groaner.