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|Murder By Death
by Alexandre Paquin
In "Murder by Death", the world's five most famous detectives are gathered in a sinister manor, where they are to solve a murder which has yet to be committed. Several wisecracks and nonsensical plot twists later, it is finally revealed that it was a case of murder by comedy overkill.Prestigious actors can do a great deal for a film, especially if the screenplay is competent but by no means extraordinary. They can lift a film if they are well cast and at the top or their form, or can sink it if they are unenthusiastic about the project or simply miscast, and there is always the danger that too many stars in a film will only distract the attention of the viewer or force the creation of smaller yet unimportant parts (or even cameos). Ideal situations for an all-star cast are plots that include several leading roles of almost equal importance, and one early example of this ideal setting is the 1932 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, "Grand Hotel". Whodunnit films have traditionally been particularly well suited for such a stellar cast as well because, even though the star of the film was undoubtedly the detective, the usual array of suspects required for plot purposes were almost equally important roles, and thus could attract well-known actors. Two notable examples from the 1970's are "Murder on the Orient Express" (1974) and "Death on the Nile" (1978), in which nearly every suspect was played by a star. A third example from that decade is 1976's "Murder by Death", written by playwright Neil Simon and directed by Robert Moore, which was distinguished by the fact that the suspects were also the detectives hired to solve the case.
"Murder by Overkill"
"Murder by Death" is a send-up of various whodunnit films or books and of their detectives. In the 1950's, Lionel Twain (the novelist Truman Capote) is the owner of a typically lugubrious manor isolated from the rest of the world, and decides to invite the world's five greatest detectives for the week-end, during which they will test their skills on a baffling murder case: Catalina inspector of Chinese origin Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), accompanied by his Japanese adopted son number three Willie (Richard Narita); Belgian mustachioed detective Milo Perrier (James Coco) and his chauffeur Marcel (James Cromwell); New York socialites Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith); venerable Englishwoman Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) and her nurse Miss Withers (Estelle Winwood); and hard-boiled Frisco private eye Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) and his mistress Tess Skeffington (Eileen Brennan).
The guests arrive while Twain is out, and attempts on their lives begin with gargoyles being pushed off the roof -- which the detectives are expected to avoid. They are finally greeted by a blind butler (Alec Guinness) who leads them to their room, and while waiting for their elusive host to materialize, they take the opportunity to introduce themselves to one another. After yet more attempts on the detectives' lives, Twain finally appears, and explains the meaning of the invitation: Twain offers one million dollars to the detective who would solve a murder which has yet to be committed. In the event of failure, the detectives would see their reputations tarnished, presumably forever. Thus begins a most extraordinary case, and before its solution is finally revealed, the protagonists would experience some of the most intriguing plot developments.
Except that the plot makes no sense whatsoever, and that audiences had been in the know from the start.
If this argument is not entirely convincing, please consider the following: If the idea of including a blind butler in the story appears incredible enough, how are we supposed to react when we learn that his name is Jamesir Bensonmum? Are we still supposed to believe anything when a conveniently deaf, dumb, and illiterate maid shows up? And what about this electronic device Twain has created to simulate a thunderstorm when inside the house? Or the host's chair-switching trick shortly after his arrival? Or the way some of the detectives escape from what seems to be a certain death?
If this is not enough, there is more. Why is it, for instance, that the detectives all start suspecting each other when they were all in the same room while some events of a criminal nature took place outside that room? Of course, the audience is aware of this, and even before this became fully obvious, nobody really expected any of the detectives, or their companions, to have committed a crime, so the number of suspects is diminished to a dismally low level. Also, how is it technically possible to build two identical rooms and design a mechanism that would presumably interchange them much in the manner of an elevator without everyone inside or outside the room noticing any movement or sound? Don't try to make sense of it; it is a waste of time. This goes on until the very end, when we reach it, nobody really cares who did it, because the modus operandi is all wrong anyway.
"Murder by Death" manages to deliberately annoy the audience which would have been most likely to enjoy the film -- the mystery lovers -- by demanding too much of a suspension of disbelief too early in the film, or rather by not demanding the audience to believe the story at all, and Neil Simon is the person to blame for this. By pitting several detectives against each other in an ultra-clichéd setting, Simon had an excellent basic idea for spoofing the whodunnit genre, but fumbled in the treatment to such an extent that it hardly can be forgiven. Simon undoubtedly attempted to write a mystery comedy, but ended up jettisoning the entire mystery aspect to concentrate on comedy, a choice emphasized by Dave Grusin's musical score. Viewers expecting a decent mystery with a sense of suspense and a plot that makes a minimum of sense will feel cheated from the very beginning, while people expecting to see a comedy must understand and appreciate the various references to detectives of fiction to get the maximum out of the film. While everyone may be aware of the existence of the seedy hard-boiled detective stereotype (in this instance, the reference is to Sam Spade, the detective in Dashiell Hammett's novel "The Maltese Falcon"), the Belgian detective, and the old Englishwoman (Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple), it may take a connoisseur to fully appreciate the aphorisms and the risible accent of Sidney Wang, modeled on Charlie Chan (popularized by film in the 1930's and 1940's), or the debonair, easy-going Dick Charleston, his wealthy wife and their pet terrier , based on characters (Nick and Nora Charles) created by Dashiell Hammett in "The Thin Man" but also made more popular through films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. To have enough knowledge to understand the references in this context probably implies that the person has an interest in the mystery genre, and while such a person may enjoy the tongue-in-cheek approach of the film, there is likely to be disappointment, and perhaps frustration, at the realization of having wasted time on a mystery that never was. "Murder by Death" ends up satisfying nobody, because it does everything it can to disgust its traditional audience while giving very few reasons why anybody else should enjoy the picture.
It was undoubtedly Simon's intent to poke fun at the expense of crumbling mystery clichés, but his main mistake was to attack the structure at the core of the genre's success -- the quest to solve a crime -- rather than the adaptation of this structure to suit individual writers' style, and although Simon indeed made a few valid points regarding the genre (for example the reader's inability to solve the crime because vital information is withheld), his apparent belief that the only possible way to denounce the situation was to do it through a plot that makes no sense, and that we needed to be reminded of this every now and then, is irritating, to say the least. "Murder by Death" adopts an in-your-face, no-holds-barred approach very early in the film, reaches a ceiling not even halfway through it, dies there, and by the time we reach the ending we could very well be in dullsville were it not for the cast and the dialogue. Interest is not sustained; it is discouraged.
A later film which followed the model of "Murder by Death" was "Clue" (1985), and although most critics would hail the former to be the best of the two, I would in fact consider the latter to be the superior one. "Clue", while being a mystery comedy that also took place in a clichéd large manor during a thunderstorm in the 1950's, had maintained a sense of suspense throughout the film, and had sustained interest by introducing new murders, a trick used by virtually every crime writer (remember how Agatha Christie usually included as many as three murders in her books?). The only major flaw "Clue" had was due to the much-advertised three different endings, which implied that, in order for all the conclusions to make sense, the mystery had to be kept as broad as possible. With a single ending, the film could have worked, but with three possibilities in the can, the audience knew that almost anyone could have committed the crimes, and the identity of the culprit was thus rendered unimportant. "Murder by Death", in comparison, does not even bother to give the impression of making sense at any point in the film, and only the experienced actors and some of the lines keep one watching.
"Murder by Death"'s cast is exceptional, and perfectly suited for their roles. Peter Sellers's Inspector Wang is a collection of once-popular stereotypes regarding the Chinese, but which were afterwards considered offensive, for excellent reasons. The purpose here is not to perpetuate or glorify these stereotypes, but simply to acknowledge their existence and to make fun of those old prejudices which were present in Charlie Chan films four decades before, in which the detective was portrayed by a white actor. Basing his performance on his over-the-top predecessors, Sellers imitates Chan to perfection, with his broken English and aphorisms providing a good part of the laughs. Sellers would get the opportunity to further explore the theme of Chinese stereotyping in "Revenge of the Pink Panther" (1978), in which his character, the bumbling inspector Jacques Clouseau, goes to Hong Kong, and decides that the best way to mix with the crowd is to be dressed in traditional Chinese attire (silk garb and conical hat), and in the actor's last film, "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu", as the Oriental criminal mastermind.
David Niven and Maggie Smith, two actors known for their sophisticated demeanor, were perfectly chosen for the parts of Dick and Dora Charleston, the classy couple who can be imagined frequenting New York's most distinguished social circles, or in any other fashionable city for people of their rank. The only flaw, albeit a minor one, is the two actors' unmistakably British accents, but of course anyone with a minimum of class must speak as though they were sons and daughters of Albion. James Coco is hilarious as the pompous Milo Perrier, while Elsa Lanchester as Jessica Marbles lacks the screen presence and more inspired lines to make her performance more noteworthy. Perrier and Wang could bring the house down with their respective accents; The Charlestons could engage in a game of wits; Sam Diamond could exhibit his lower-class hard-boiled talk and no-nonsense attitude. Jessica Marbles has none of these attributes, not even a companion visible enough to converse with (Estelle Winwood, playing Marbles's nurse, has about a dozen lines of dialogue), so she comes across as somewhat blander than the rest of the guests. Guinness is a pleasure to watch as the blind butler, and Eileen Brennan was a perfect choice as Sam Diamond's mistress Tess Skeffington. James Cromwell as Marcel and Richard Narita as Willie take advantage of every opportunity to make their small roles memorable. Even Truman Capote is convincing as the eccentric Lionel Twain, his only major role in a motion picture.
The best actor of the film, however, is Peter Falk as Sam Diamond, for three reasons: because Falk succeeds in doing a convincing impression of Humphrey Bogart, the only actor who could convincingly play a hard-boiled detective; because he is given some of the best lines; and because Diamond is the character about whom we learn the most in the film. Diamond is a penny-pinching private eye who trusts no one, but we also learn that his tough and virile front in fact hides a cowardly and possibly homosexual man. Falk's success in the role led to a follow-up film, "The Cheap Detective" (1978), also written by Neil Simon and directed by Robert Moore, in which Falk reprised the same part with only the character's name changed, and in which Eileen Brennan also played.
Without the splendid cast, it is very likely that "Murder by Death" would not have obtained the success it had, because the actors somehow manage to achieve the almost impossible feat of giving more depth to a plot as thin as a sheet of paper. It would be possible to argue that nobody should expect an intellectually stimulating plot in a film that is essentially a parody. Parody, however, is no excuse for the various plot contradictions, for the vacuous story line, and for the film's smug and pretentious attitude towards mystery enthusiasts. It has been proved that comedy can successfully be added to a whodunnit to create a light and pleasant detective story, but "Murder by Death" is ultimately unbalanced, favouring comedy over mystery, and the result looks overwrought yet empty. Thankfully, the quick pace and the actors make it easier to endure until the very end, when it is finally revealed that "Murder by Death" in fact died from comedy overkill.I'm not mourning, though.
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originally posted: 01/16/02 06:27:25