Murder By Death
Sam Diamond, Dick and Dora Charleston, Inspector Milo Perrier, Inspector Sidney Wang & Jessica Marbles
Created by Neil Simon
Sam Diamond: I don't get it. First they steal the body and leave the clothes, then they take the clothes and bring the body back. Who would do a thing like that?
Dick Charleston: Possibly some deranged dry cleaner.
Lionel Twain, an eccentric millionaire (played with mad brilliance by Truman Capote) invites five of the "world's greatest detectives" to his secluded castle for the weekend, and offers $1 million to the one who can solve a murder, in Neil Simon's 1976 at-times delightful send-up of the mystery genre, Murder By Death.
Of course, it turns out that the intended murder victim is none other than ther crazy old coot himself! Knowing that the murderer must be one of their own group, the detectives match wits and trade barbs in a race to nab the loot, and in the process, uncover each others' dirty little secrets, each of which gives him/her a motive for the murder.
The plot's servicable, if a little creaky, but that's not the point. The point is to skewer the pretensions and clichés of popular detective characters from films of the thirties and forties, and it does that in spades.
Hard-boiled private eyes, for instance, are given a good working over -- nailed to the wall by Peter Falkas low-rent gumshoe SAM DIAMOND. Falk, doing his best Bogart, plays Diamond like a dick right out of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Despite the presece of Tess Skeffington (Eileen Brennan) as his long-time secretary and girlfriend, whom he introduces as "the lady here in the rented dress," the over-boiled macho overtones of the genre are delightfully tweaked, with Diamond coming off as more than a little sexually ambiguous, as in the scene where Tess asks Sam "What are all those pictures of naked men doing in your desk?"
Sam's point-black reply? "Research!" But he later attempts to reassure her: "I never did nothin' to a man that I wouldn't do to a woman."
(In fact, Falk returned to the screen two years later to once again spoof the P.I. genre, this time as Lou Peckingpah, in Simon's 1978 The Cheap Detective, a sequel of sorts to this movie.)
Meanwhile, Dashiell Hammett's more genteel private eye-couple, Nick and Nora Charles, get their lumps, too, when David Niven and Maggie Smith DICK CHARLESTON and his wife, DORA are played by , in a delightful parody of . Okay, Nick and Nora weren't British, and Nora wasn't quite the ditz she's portrayed as here:
Dora Charleston: Where's my Dickie?
[everyone stares at her]
Dora Charleston: Sorry. Where's my husband?
... but this is still alot of fun.
Rounding out the roster of "the world's greatest detectives" are Elsa Lanchester as Jessica Marbles (think Agatha Christie's Miss Marple), James Coco as Christie's Hercule Poirot as the finicky, anal-retentive MILO PERRIER ("I'm not a Frenchie, I'm a BELGIE!"), accompanied by his long-suffering chauffeur/secretary (James Cromwell) and Peter Sellers doing a masterful job as Earl Biggers' Charlie Chan as the suitably inscrutable Sidney Wang, complete with Richard Narita as Willie Wang, his adopted Japanese "number three son."
Rounding out the great cast are Alec Guiness and Nancy Walker in smaller roles as Twain's blind butler, Bensonmum, and the deaf-and-dumb cook, Yetta, respectively.
The film's never quite as good as it could be, and is disappointingly uneven, dipping a bit too frequently into the well of toilet humour, and just plain silliness at other times, but the one-liners sure keep on coming. In other words, if you don't like that particular gag, wait a few seconds. A worthwhile way to spend an hour or so, especially if you're a fan of old detective flicks.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Dennis Bendy for the lead.
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