Despite the fact that they are often subject to cliches, I actually quite like murder mysteries. In my view, Death on the Nile (1937) and Murder on the Orient Express (1934) are genius, Columbo is one of the greatest fictional characters of all time and, despite being pretty silly, I still enjoy shows like Murder She Wrote and Diagnosis Murder. So, when I found out that there was a film which parodied one of my favourite genres of all time, I was pretty excited. So, did Murder By Death (1976) live up to my expectations? Is Piers Morgan the worst thing since the film adaption of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin? The answer to both questions is the same; yeah, pretty much.
Five of the world’s greatest detectives, each a parody of a famous fictional detective, are invited to a dinner party hosted by the enigmatic Lionel Twain (Played by Truman Capote of all people) who is served by his blind butler, Jamesir Bensonmum (Alec Guinness). There, Twain tells his guests that a murder will be committed at the stroke of midnight with the first person to solve it winning one million dollars and proving themselves the world’s greatest detective. Naturally, hilarity ensues as the detectives try and outdo each other and solve both the murder and the huge array of mysteries that surround it.
Murder By Death is a great parody of classic detective stories with very few flaws. The cast is outstanding, Maggie Smith, David Niven, Peter Falk, Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness and Truman Capote; this is one of the best ensemble casts I’ve ever seen. However, Truman Capote is thoroughly outclassed here. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why he was cast at all; he’s a great writer but not much of an actor, with only this and a few cameos to his name. That’s not to say Capote ruins the film, he’s still funny and he isn’t terrible but he stands out a bit when compared to some of the finest acting talent of the time. Another slight issue that I have with the film concerns the casting for the character of Chinese detective Sidney Wang, based on Earl Derr Bigger’s Chinese detective Charlie Chang. That’s a Chinese detective. Chinese. Who plays him? This guy:
Yep, Peter Sellers. Now, don’t get me wrong, from what I’ve seen of him, Peter Sellers seems like an amazing talent and a very versatile comedy performer. However, when I first saw Peter Sellers in full ‘yellow-face’ dressed in elaborate Chinese dress, I felt pretty uncomfortable. Sure, this was the 70’s and this sort of thing was considered comedy gold but I couldn’t help but see it as a racist stereotype…
I began to feel really uncomfortable once I realised he spends the first 20 minutes talking about today’s Hoisin Duck special…
However, having done several hours of intense research; which here means I ate a family sized lemon tart and pissed about on Wikipedia for a whole 15 minutes, I discovered that Peter Seller’s casting and that tepid uncomfortable feeling you only get from watching a white, middle-aged actor hilariously mispronounce the letter R for an hour and a half, was completely intentional. Charlie Chan, the character on which Sidney Wang is based, was played predominately by white actors and was a very stereotypical view of a Chinese man. With that in mind, I actually find Sidney Wang a fun character, he has a lot of good lines and some of the fun poked at his way of pronouncing things is amusing. Nevertheless, I still feel a little uncomfortable watching Sellers dress up like that, regardless of how much sense the explanation makes.
The majority of the characters are hilarious and are given plenty of screentime to allow the actors involved to show off their full comedic potentials. Alec Guinness, Peter Falk and Maggie Smith are especially hilarious in this. Guinness’s portrayal of a blind butler leads to a lot of pretty obvious blind man jokes but the majority of them are really funny and there’s even a ‘Whose on first’ style segment where Niven’s character questions him about his name; it’s a very funny character. Falk plays Sam Diamond, based on Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon (1941), and just stinks of Humphrey Bogart. He’s accompanied by that most typical of film noir characters, the secretary/mistress. In the average film noir there’d be a lot of sexual chemistry and tension between these two characters but in this film Diamond wants nothing to do with her and is secretly gay, claiming that his six months of trawling gay bars in drag was actually an undercover assignment.
No doubt you could get under a lot of covers in 6 months…
Peter Falk’s comedic talents may have come as a suprise to me but I knew Maggie Smith could be funny. Smith plays one half of a married, upper-class detective couple with David Niven playing her husband, and both have a lot of funny scenes. Her reaction when her husband whispers to her why someone might be interested in stealing a corpse (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more) is one of amusement; she calls it “tacky”. The other actors are also great and most of their characters are engaging and fun. That is, however, apart from two main players. Miss Marbles (based on Miss Marple) and Milo Perrier (Hercule Poirot) aren’t given a great deal of focus. It seems strange that the two characters that most people will know out of the five detectives featured are Miss Marple and Poirot, hell, Agatha Christie is the undisputed Queen of crime fiction, how can you not focus almost entirely on her characters? The answer, I feel, is revealed in a deleted scene where Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson arrive at the house and solve the mystery. Apparently, some of the other actors felt that they were being overshadowed and protested the inclusion of Holmes and Watson, eventually leading to the scene being deleted. I think that the more recognizable actors; Sellers, Smith, Niven and Falk, were given more attention because they were more famous and because they would’ve complained if they felt they were being overshadowed by less established actors. It’s a shame because there are some good jokes focused on Perrier and Marbles. Perrier spends the entire film talking about food and there’s a running gag about his nationality where characters call him French and he asserts that he’s Belgium (although even he seems to forget as he refers to himself as French multiple times), very similar to how many people assume Poirot is French because they’re illiterate.
To be honest though I was 3/4 of the way through The Murder of Roger Ackroyd before I realised Poirot wasn’t Native American…
Mrs Marbles turns up with her elderly nurse who is immediately mistaken for Marbles herself and spends the rest of the film either falling asleep or talking exclusively in baby talk, calling murder “murderpoos” etc. These are two funny characters who get far too little screentime and have little to do. The end of the film features all five characters driving away and the only ones that don’t get a closing line are Marbles and Perrier. The things you could’ve done with these two characters, what if they both hated one another, or if Marbles spent the entire film talking about knitting patterns and Perrier’s ego was pushed to the extreme, which is closer to how the characters are represented in Christie’s novels. It’s a shame because there’s a lot of untapped potential there for both characters.
The story itself is great, it’s really nice to see some of fiction’s greatest detectives in the same room and their interactions are priceless. The fact that Falk’s tough talking, film noir inspired character and the cosy, quintessentially English Miss Marbles somehow have a history is brilliant and Sidney Wang’s moments with Perrier are just as good. As a parody, the film works perfectly. Mel Brooks once said that in order to parody something you have to love it first and I think that’s very true with Murder by Death. All the great tropes and cliches of the murder mystery genre are laid bare here with a scene at the end where the killer rips into the characters for having books which introduce plot points and characters at the last second meaning that readers never stood a chance at solving the crime themselves; very similar to the actions of the character at the end of the film where they each reveal their theories as to who the killer is. The parody element stretches across the entirety of the film, even to the point where there’s a scene where each character accuses another of being the murderer and revealing their motive for it. Pretty much every major motive used in a murder mystery is seen from the typical “did it for the money” to the “jilted at the altar” and even the classic “he was my adopted father but got annoyed after ten years when he noticed I was Chinese and had terrible English so he threw me out”.
Oddly enough that is exactly the relationship I have with my father
I’ve seen a lot of complaints leveled at a particular scene where one minor character is revealed to be a shop mannequin, calling it highly unrealistic and a little bit stupid. I don’t know though, after all, there are plenty of unrealistic things in crime fiction, how come everyone on the Orient Express knew the victim? Why does murder follow Jessica Fletcher like Oliver Reed following a bottle of vodka? Why did Diagnosis Murder have an episode where the killer was a vampire?
The music and visuals are also really good. The setting of the old Gothic mansion in the middle of nowhere is something you’d probably find in a large number of murder mystery stories and is the perfect location for a film spoofing them. The little animations at the beginning and end of the film set the quirky/eerie tone of the film perfectly, which makes sense because they’re actually designed by Charles Addams, the same guy who created the Addams Family.
He is everything you’d imagine him to be…
Murder By Death is a hilarious movie; the perfect parody of the murder mystery genre. The cast is excellent, the plot is great and the characters memorable. The interactions between them really are priceless and, despite the fact Marbles and Perrier aren’t given nearly enough attention as they deserve, I’ll be sure to be watching this gem over and over again.