Movie: Murder by Death
Release Date: June 23, 1976
Director: Robert Moore
Starring: Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellars, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker, Estelle Winwood.
Tag Lines: “By the time the world’s greatest detectives figure out whodunnit… you could die laughing!”
“By the time Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker and Estelle Winwood figure out whodunnit, you’ll die laughing.”
“Since June 23, 1976 millions of men and women have seen Neil Simon’s ‘MURDER BY DEATH.’ Only 17 have understood the ending of the picture. Ask any one of them. Any one.”
“You are cordially invited to dinner… and a murder!”
Relevance: As previously reported on this blog (see 341. Murder on the Orient Express), I was a huge fan of Agatha Christie novels as a child. In fact, I was a fan of anything “whodunit” no matter the source. From Sherlock Holmes to Scooby-Doo, as long as their were murderers, thieves and clues to solve the crimes, I was hooked. I also loved myself a good laugh. Being silly was one of my favorite things to be in this crazy yet “too serious” world. So with that knowledge, it is no surprise that ‘Murder by Death’ is on my list of most influential movies of all time.
‘Murder by Death’ was released to mostly favorable reviews and modest box office success in 1976. Although I was alive, it definitely was not something that I went to see at the theaters at the age of five. I was first exposed to it like a majority of other movies from my childhood, HBO. Although HBO was known for their “world premieres” of big blockbuster films, their schedule was filled with smaller, lesser known movies or movies from the past. Sometime in the early 1980’s, I ran across this title in the handy, dandy HBO Guide and thought I would give it a whirl. That was one of the best whirls I ever made in my life.
I watched the movie with my father and the both of us were hysterically laughing from beginning to end. Its premise was ridiculous and its cast of characters parodies of all my favorite detectives making it extremely entertaining to my then pre-teen self. It was laugh after laugh after laugh, to the point of tears. To the simplicity of “2 2 Twain” house, to silly slapstick stunts to some of the best one liners I had ever heard, it was comedy gold. As we did with all movies playing on HBO in the 1980’s, we watched the hell out of it. Every time it was on, our TV was set to that channel. Even my mom who was not a fan of “silly” comedies couldn’t help fall in love with the buffoonery.
The movie was often billed ‘Neil Simon’s Murder by Death’ but I didn’t make the connection of the movie and the playwright until the late 1980’s when the movies ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ and Biloxi Blues’ played on HBO, not to mention the filmed stage version of ‘Barefoot in the Park’ with Bess Armstrong and Richard Thomas (Oh how I adored watching that). When I got to college I started reading his plays and soon realized how genius the man was at writing comedy. Comedy is hard. Trust me. And playing it is even harder. I had the luxury of portraying two of Neil Simon’s characters on stage and they were two of the most challenging roles I have had to date.
The VHS of the film became part of our family movie collection and one that I eventually swiped when I went away to college. I used to watch it all of the time when I needed a good laugh. I also loved sharing the film with friends who had not seen it. Hearing them laugh at those jokes for the first time seemed to make me laugh even harder. I eventually upgraded my VHS to DVD and have kept watching this movie throughout the years whenever I needed to chase the blues away.
Today’s Thoughts: “Conversation like television set on honeymoon: unnecessary.”
‘Murder by Death’ remains one of the funniest films ever made with one of the best comedic ensembles ever assembled. I laughed just as much today as I did back in the 1980’s. I last watched it a couple of months ago with my husband when he told me he had never seen or heard of it. Even still, the laughter poured out of me today as I sat and watched it alone.
Sure, the casting of Peter Sellers as Chinese detective Sidney Wang is definitely cringe-worthy as are some of the racial jokes made toward that character. But welcome to 1976, right? Once you overlook that faux pas, the film is extremely funny and entertaining. The cast, including Mr. Sellers is downright perfection. Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker, Estelle Winwood and James Cromwell are incredible in their portrayals of these over-the-top and outlandish characters.
The one liners are a plenty in this Neil Simon comedy. It is a movie that you have to see more than once to catch the things that you missed because you were so busy laughing at something else. As I have said before, Mr. Simon knows comedy and luckily he had the talent to pull off his wit flawlessly. It really is a funny, ridiculous spoof that needs to be seen to be appreciated.
‘Murder by Death’ comes highly recommended for those that need a laugh, forget their troubles or just simply want to be entertained for ninety minutes. Go ahead, give it a try.
Awards: Golden Globe for Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture – Male, Truman Capote (nomination), Writers Guild of America Award for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen, Neil Simon (nomination).
Ways to Watch: Pluto TV, Vudu, Google Play, DVD Availability.