Because Murder by Death is a silly riff on vintage detective stories, it’s tempting to think the picture was intended to mimic Mel Brooks’ crowd-pleasing style of throwback spoofery, although it’s just as possible the film merely rode a mid-’70s boom in nostalgic crime films. Whatever the motivation for making the picture, the result is the same—Murder by Death is goofy but uninspired, a harmless romp that never quite achieves liftoff. Fans of detective stories will, of course, get more out of the picture than anyone else, because the film’s characters are gentle caricatures of famous literary sleuths. Casual viewers might simply enjoy the star power of the cast and the occasional glimpses of screenwriter Neil Simon’s signature wit. But, alas, this is a minor effort for everyone involved.
The plot isn’t really worth describing, since it’s just a perfunctory contrivance, but the gist is that a mysterious millionaire named Lionel Twain (played by author/TV personality Truman Capote) invites a coterie of detectives to his estate and challenges them to investigate a murder that will take place during the detectives’ visit. Whoever solves the crime will get $1 million. The detectives include Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith), based on Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man movies; Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), based on Maltese Falcon hero Sam Spade; Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), based on Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple character; Milo Perrier (James Coco), based on Christie’s Hercule Poiroit; and Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), based on Charlie Chan.
Obviously, any film that attempts to put these diverse characters together isn’t striving for consistency or credibility—the Spade-esque character emanates from hard-boiled fiction, for instance, whereas the Thin Man types emerge from a bubbly light-comedy milieu. Rather, Simon and producer Ray Stark (abetted by undistinguished director Robert Moore) concentrate on stringing sight gags and verbal zingers together. Unfortunately, none of the humor is memorable, and the actors give such cartoonish performances that Murder by Death feels juvenile. Falk probably comes off the best, since his version of Sam Spade is fairly close to his Columbo role from TV, and Falk’s rat-a-tat interplay with his secretary, Tess (Eileen Brennan), has some energy. In sum, Murder by Death is exactly as clever and funny as its title, which is to say not very.
Murder by Death: FUNKY