“You are cordially invited to dinner . . . and a murder!”
The late 1970s and early ’80s experienced yet another revival of the murder mystery spoof. There were films like 1974’s heavily British, stylish but overly long Murder on the Orient Express and, four years later, its direct follow-up, the even longer, less successful Death on the Nile. Both movies, every role filled by a big-name star, contained the illusion of seriousness but coated with a dash of fluff that informed the audience rather early on that they weren’t to take the proceedings too seriously.
Putting aside the films of this period that were in the slasher or bloodbath genre, the likes of Class Reunion and the terrible Psycho revisits with Anthony Perkins, there are also movies of the drawing room variety. Most of these, and others, make no pretense at seriousness, some becoming out-and-out slapstick.
Especially intriguing is the spooky old house genre, whose prototype has to be, aptly titled, The Old Dark House (1932), with such big stars of that day as Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Raymond Massey and Ernest Thesiger. Later versions of this theme include Haunted Honeymoon, House of Long Shadows, The Spiral Staircase (1975), Clue and the often-filmed The Cat and the Canary.
Two films of this time, both scripted by Neil Simon, specifically spoof not only the haunted house movies in Murder by Death but the private detective capers in The Cheap Detective, which grew out of the success of the first. The Cheap Detective spoofed Humphrey Bogart movies and carried over some stars from the first film—Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan, James Coco and James Cromwell. The idea that had begun with Murder on the Orient Express, that of the all-star cast, was continued in both Simon films.
Murder by Death avoids for the most part slapstick, which might have helped it in its weaker moments. It incorporates—and exaggerates—all the haunted house clichés and requests that the audience suspend credibility in this gathering, in one place, of many of the most famous fictional detectives and their sidekicks, with slightly changed names. Not so unrealistic an idea after all, as these sleuths were created at the height of the detective genre, the ’20s and ’30s, by the likes of Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and Earl Derr Biggers.
The obvious exclusions are Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, who, actually, would have needed a time warp to have joined the others, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters were active at the turn of the twentieth century. (In fact, ending up on the proverbial cutting room floor was a scene from the end of Murder by Death when the famous pair are met en route to the mansion, too late to participate in the shenanigans.)
To begin the story—— Lionel Twain (Truman Capote) invites five detectives to a dinner . . . and a murder . . . at his dark old mansion, at 22 Twain. He is “aided,” if that’s the right word, by his blind butler Jamesir Bensonmum (Alec Guinness), who applies the Eisenhower stamps, not to the envelopes, but to Twain’s desk top, securing each with a blow of his fist. One wonders how the recipients ever got their invitations, or ever showed up! But, hey, we’re not dealing with reality here! Hasn’t the audience already been asked to suspend its belief?
Anyway, four of the detectives and their associates are traveling through the fog in their cars. The first pair are a couple actually, Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith), stand-ins for Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles, who, lost, have stopped to make a phone call for directions. Here occurs the first of some weak jokes, not always a good sign so early in any movie. “Sounded as though somebody snipped the wire,” he says. “Really? What did it sound like?” she asks. “Snip,” he replies.
Biggers’ Chinese sleuth Charlie Chan is introduced as Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) and his adopted Japanese son Willie (Richard Narita), best remembered in the ’30s/’40s series as either Lee or Jimmy Chan. After Wang has established his fondness for maxims—“Conversation like television on honeymoon: unnecessary.”—they approach a rickety bridge. Father suggests his son first drive the car across to ascertain its stability. “Then why do I get to drive the car?” “’Cause I smart enough to get out first.”
Also en route is Monsieur Milo Perrier (Coco), alias Hercule Poirot, driven by his chauffeur, Marcel (James Cromwell with a garbled French accent), who doesn’t exist in the Christie mysteries. They share some strained comic rapport regarding Perrier’s eating a candy bar and getting some chocolate on his chin.
The fourth detective, another creation of author Hammett, Sam Spade and secretary Effie Perine, have, now, become Sam Diamond (Falk) and Tess Skeffington (Brennan). They have run out of gas, and he sends her back down the road with a canister for more, saying he’ll be waiting for her, à la Bogart’s closing speech to Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon. If she doesn’t return? Well, so be it; he doesn’t seem to care.
The entrance of the final detective is announced at the mansion by butler Bensonmum after the others have arrived. The matronly Miss Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), called Jane Marple by Agatha Christie, pushes her invalid nurse Miss Withers (Estelle Winwood), added by the script, in a wheelchair. Withers’ main presence is to exchange sexual innuendos with gumshoe Diamond.
These guests experience falling gargoyles, a screaming doorbell, rain that only falls outside one window (a Twain electronic trick), a few blind butler skits, shutters and grates that lock in the guests, moving eyes in a stuffed moose head, a burning bedspread and the cobwebbed room of Twain’s late wife who “murdered herself.” Owing to a butler who cannot see and a cook (Nancy Walker) who is practically deaf and doesn’t speak English, dinner is a lost cause. Bensonmum “serves” soup from an empty bowl.
Although little is consumed—there are, of course, the beans!—most of the film is centered in the dining room. A pair of what looks to be Scottish broadswords plunge from the ceiling into chairs moments after being occupied by Dick and Wang. Dick Charleston had urged a proper seating arrangement, and congratulates himself for his foresight, lives saved by his being “enormously well-bred.”
Duplicate rooms seem to appear and disappear as well as their human occupants. Twain himself pops in and out, sometimes only his eyes seen in a moose head; he is forever condemning—to excess, the viewer will soon feel—Wang’s omission of pronouns and articles from his speech, which would seem more a concern of the writer Capote than the character Twain.
There’s much ado about the butler’s murder, his appearing nude one moment, then only his clothes appearing the next. By the end of the film and the final dénouement, things become confusing—and protracted in the name of humor. First, the detectives disclose dark secrets about their comrades, usually sexual or breeding improprieties. Then the apparent murderer is revealed to be first one individual then another until there remains the last culprit, smiling and self-satisfied in the best of villain tradition.
Director Robert Moore, who would also direct The Cheap Detective, sets a rather snappy—a better word “active”—pace, although exactly where things are leading, or the point of it all, isn’t always clear. Maybe in a comedy such as this, with the audience forewarned, having a point isn’t a primary concern. From such a fine comic writer/playwright as Simon, the jokes are often a bit obvious and tired. There must be some kind of inherent weakness, a resorting to the easy and off-color, when a writer relies on sexual innuendo and interminable jokes about bathroom functions. One trip to the “can,” it would seem, should suffice. That long stretch of dialogue shared among Dick, Dora and the butler targeting a play on the name “Bensonmum” is funny—and, at the same time, it isn’t funny. Dora has the last line, which she should have said earlier: “Leave it be, Dickie. I’ve had enough.”
Decidedly, the best thing about the film, and what goes a long way in saving Murder by Death from its ongoing tediousness, is the performances by such a distinguished cast of vintage actors. The cream of the dialogue goes to Falk, Niven and Sellers. Their partners seem slighted by comparison; Maggie Smith, especially, is wasted in mostly one-line responses, and is subservient to Niven. The two remaining detectives, Miss Marples and Monsieur Milos, are rendered second-class sleuths.
Dave Grusin, who would also score The Cheap Detective, writes music that, at one point, adds the required light touch, altogether appropriate for the visual humor, and, when needed, exaggerates the melodramatic in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. The orchestration is always accordingly light, never ponderous or against the spirit of the film.
But, then again, something is lacking. Presumably, in a genre where the interest is strongest in the dialogue and in the visuals (Marvin March’s elaborate sets are exquisite), and especially true of comedy, the music is usually secondary. For those more keenly attuned to the presence of a score, the lack here of variety and development seems a major failing—or maybe it’s knowing what has been done by other composers. Alan Silvestri took a different approach in Mouse Hunt (1997), whose centerpiece is also an old house, fleshing out his material and taking his main theme through a series of ingenious variations. He was aided, too, by a fine team of orchestrators and excellent instrumental soloists. (Nathan Lane, in light of the acclaim he has achieved since Mouse Hunt, would undoubtedly disown the movie, but it’s always been a favorite—talk about your slapstick!—with another eccentric performance from Christopher Walken as Caesar the exterminator.)
The main title visuals, too, provide an immediate clue that Murder by Death is to be a lark. A pair of black-gloved hands—the same gloves that will later cut the phone cord and do other mischief—open a steel trunk, revealing cutouts of eleven of the actors. Altogether appropriate, as the characters themselves are little more than silhouettes. Cromwell and Narita are denied cutouts and are given an “also starring” credit.