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Reviews

Murder By Death

Murder By Death

Robert Moore

USA, 1976

Credits

Review by Adam Balz

Posted on 18 January 2011

Source Netflix On-Demand

It is a dark and stormy night. A line of cars approaches an old manor, each carrying one of the world’s great detectives. The first to arrive is the wise and mustachioed Charlie Chan, accompanied as always by his son. Following them are Nick Charles and his wife Nora, both well-bred and impeccably dressed. Hercule Poirot arrives soon after, as does the street-wise Sam Spade, a brand new woman on his arms. They are shown to their rooms by an unassuming butler, then meet downstairs over drinks. After they are joined by the revered Miss Marple, they take their seats for dinner. Their host, a mysterious man, appears and reveals the purpose for this meeting: Tonight there will be a murder, and these assembled detectives—the best in their respective parts of the world—have been invited for the sole purpose of solving it. Thus begins an incredible mystery story.

Except this dark and stormy night is an effect rendered over the manor’s many windows – fake rain, thunder, and lightning when the weather beyond the front door is calm and misty. The butler is a hired man and blind to boot, forced to navigate the winding stairs and halls the home with a simple white cane; later, he is joined—and aggravated—by a deaf-mute maid who cannot read. And the guests aren’t great detectives but a cadre of parodies. Charlie Chan is Inspector Sidney Wang, a grammatically-impaired stereotype who spouts fortune-cookie aphorisms to the annoyance of others. Nick and Nora Charles are Dick and Dora Charleston, their fine breeding rendering both stuffy and emotionally vacant. Hercule Poirot becomes Milo Perrier, a “Belgie” who worships food and scoffs childishly at the naivete of his chauffeur, Maurice. Sam Spade is Sam Diamond, a San Francisco loudmouth and deadbeat closet-case who delights in ridiculing the others, all the while keeping his distance from the most recent “dame” in his life, Tess. And Miss Marple is Jessica Marbles, a fun-loving woman who arrives fashionably late with her nurse, a flirtatious nonagenarian named Miss Withers, in tow. They all get acquainted—or, it seems, reacquainted—over drinks before they’re summoned to dinner. It’s there, over empty plates and poisoned wine, that they meet their host, the short, nasally-voiced Lionel Twain, played by none other than Truman Capote himself.

It’s at this point that screenwriter Neil Simon truly begins to have some fun. While the first half of the film was filled with jabs at detective-story motifs, sight gags, and sex puns, what follows Twain’s punchy introduction is a descent into delirium for all involved. The butler is found dead, then naked; the dining room is found empty, only to be filled once again after ten seconds and some swift knocks on the locked door; and the deaf-mute maid is discovered in a suitcase, her body disassembled into the mannequin parts that made her up. None of it makes any sense, and it’s not supposed to: the longer this mystery proceeds, the more confused the assembled criminologists become, their minds racing with increasingly bizarre theories until, gathered together in a sitting room, they turn on one another and reveal what they know. It turns out that each has a motive to commit crime this night; from dead poodles and jilted liaisons to shattered family relationship and a gay-bar tryst, all of the revered detectives suddenly become suspects.

And yet, as Simon demonstrates, none of it matters. In every scene, the screenwriter finds a wealth of opportunities to throw hammers and wrenches into the mechanized cliches of detective stories until, our expectations exhausted, he reunites the detectives one final time and brings the storyline to full climax. One by one, Simon lets each detective spout off their lurid and far-reaching deductions before, one by one, he not only debunks their theories but their very genre through a clever monologue delivered by the true criminal. It becomes an opportunity for Simon to rail against a genre that, by the 1970s, had become stale and predictable, its great works having been copied to death. And not only does Simon get to deliver his frustrations to stand-ins for the great detectives themselves, but his words are delivered to—and at times through—a cast of actors and actresses that any screenwriter would cherish: Peter Sellers, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan, Elsa Lanchester, James Cromwell, James Coco, and Estelle Winwood. (The film’s greatest performance, however, is saved for Alec Guinness, but that’s all I can say.)

Still, as the film ends, Simon himself can’t resist indulging in the very same technique his screenplay lambasts, sending the film to fade with a puff of smoke and the harsh, echoing laughter of a red-haired trickster. And if I’m not mistaken, there are subtle little images scattered throughout the film—a daughter who is never seen, a calendar with the number 13—almost as though they were clues to something. A mystery, perhaps.

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