If you’re having one of those days where nothing seems to go right and trials and tribulations have left you downhearted then slip the comedy spoof Murder By Death disc into your DVD player and let its medicine revive your spirits. With a superlative cast and a laugh a minute script it offers entertainment with great value. It all takes place in a remote mansion owned by one Lionel Twain who insanely believes his deductive powers are far better at solving murders than those of the five best fictional detectives on the planet. He is of course insane but it was far from foolish to cast that prolific writer Truman Capote in the role even though he had little acting experience.
Twain invites the detectives, who he secretly despises, to dinner and a murder. The five are all spoofs of famous fictional sleuths who arrive individually with a companion during a violent storm, taking timely action to avoid falling masonry delivered by an unknown assailant. The first to arrive, with adopted son in tow, is Sidney Wang a pseudo of the fictional Charlie Chan creation. The hilarious Peter Sellars brings his idiomatic dialect skills to the part although at times he tends to slip into a Goon character that left me half expecting a rendition of the Ying Tong song.
Obviously one of those invited had to be a quasi Hercule Poirot and writer Neil Simon subtly pens the name of Milo Perrier for this character inferring he’s French: Sacré bleu! James Coco is imperious in the role reminding us all that although Perrier is a connoisseur of good food he is in fact Belgium, or is that Belgique I never know. The sidekick is Marcel his chauffeur played by James Cromwell who I always mistake for a former USA President.
Form time to time there is a sudden scream but no one is being murdered it’s just the sound of the doorbell. This time it’s Dick Charleston and wife Dora who are sleuths in the style of the long running Thin Man couple, Nick and Nora Charles admirably played out by David Niven and Maggie Smith. The next scream announces the arrival of Peter Falk playing Sam Diamond who is a take on Sam Spade from the Maltese Falcon made famous by Humphrey Bogart. If anyone had made a movie based on Bogart’s life, Falk would surely have been on the shortlist for the lead role. Eileen Brennan plays his secretary and feminine fatale with the name changing from Effie Perine to Tess Skeffington.
Last to arrive is Jessica Marbles and there are no prizes for guessing who she is imitating. It was one of her last roles for Elsa Lanchester the bride of Charles Laughton and Frankenstein. Marples has brought along her disabled nurse who has a mind like a sewer and often smells like one due to rampant flatulence.
The guests are met and welcomed by Jamesir Bensonmum the Butler who happens to be blind, which provides an endless source for riotous comedy scenes particularly when the agency cook hired for the evening turns out to be deaf, dumb and unable to read English. Yet another faultless performance from Alec Guinness as butler Bensonmum.
Twain enters after dinner to inform the gathering that there will be a murder at midnight and the culprit as well as the victim are present in the room. He offers a million dollars to whoever solves the crime wagered against all their reputations, which are based on the fact that none of them have ever failed to solve a murder. We are then treated to a string of comical events including the butler’s body that vanishes leaving only a starched set of clothes, a plastic replica of the cook, a talking moose and rooms that have the ability to reproduce. These are mere trifles for the detective ensemble to solve, which they do with consummate ease and wit. Just as the guests begin to feel safe when the midnight chimes finish, the door opens and there is Twain with a knife in his back.
The gathering begin to accuse each other of the crime and it turns out that they all had a prior connection with Twain and a motive to do away with him, just like in any good detective story. We learn that Poor old Marbles was left at the altar by Twain; perhaps he’s not so insane after all. Lots of obtuse theories are then bandied about as they try to outdo each other. Eventually they decide to retire for the night to their respective rooms locking themselves in and the killer out. The killer however had already planned and set what he thought were foolproof traps for each of them and locked the bedroom doors from the outside once they were inside. As the couples laid together in king size beds, with so much money at stake, the sleuths’ brains were in overdrive to establish how and why a knife was plunged into Twain’s back. The traps are sprung and surely there’s no way they can escape from a poisonous snake, a deadly scorpion, noxious gas, a hidden bomb or a lowering ceiling. They must surely all meet their end, but…
The following morning someone sitting at a writing desk is crossing the detectives’ names one by one off a list when Wang enters claiming the money as he provides a resolution to the case, having hypnotised the snake sent to kill him. Then one by one the other detectives appear, having dealt with the weapon sent to slay them, claiming the money with a different solution. The last to make an entrance is Sam Diamond who escaped death by making Tess his secretary flush the bomb left in his room down the loo. Sam reveals he’s just an actor hired by the real private eye Diamond who is the man sitting at the desk. The man seems to be Bensonmum the butler until he rips off his facemask to reveal he’s Twain; but is he? Once all the guests leave the manor, having been stumped and beaten by their host, Twain lets down his golden locks and removes yet another face mask. Is this the killer and if so who was the victim? Send for Sherlock.
The movie is a comedy out of the top drawer and if I had to give an award for the best performance it would go to Peter Falk who in his own words was terrific.