Murder by Death (1976)


An eccentric millionaire, played by someone who looks like author Truman Capote, invites the world’s greatest detectives to his mansion and offers $1 million to the sleuth who solves a murder that is about to be committed.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Locked, from the inside. That can only mean one thing. And I don’t know what it is.”

Writer Neil Simon (The Odd Couple and The Sunshine Boys) took a break from his zinger-filled comedy-dramas to make this zany parody of whodunits. Although pretty tame compared to something like Mel Brooks’s anything-goes western satire Blazing Saddles (1974), Simon’s Murder by Death is full of belly laughs.

I have seen this film several times, and each time I enjoy it a bit more. Murder by Death is naughty, but never mean-spirited, and the top-notch cast is fantastic. It goes without saying that you won’t get most of the jokes if you aren’t familiar with the works of mystery stalwarts like Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett.

Today, I’m sure some jokes will offend sensitive viewers. What can I say? I thought most jokes hit the target. In my opinion, director Robert Moore (Chapter Two) and the excellent cast work hard to squeeze every drop of humor out of Simon’s hilarious script, and I thank them for that — they all conspire together to poke fun at literature’s most famous detectives in a silly but genuinely affectionate manner.

Peter Falk (TV’s Columbo) is Sam Diamond (aka Sam Spade), David Niven (Separate Tables) and Maggie Smith (California Suite) are Dick and Dora Charleston (aka Nick and Nora Charles), Elsa Lanchester (Bride of Frankenstein) is Miss Marbles (aka Jane Marple), James Coco (Only When I laugh) is Monsieur Perrier (aka Hercule Poirot), and Peter Sellers (Being There) is Sidney Wang (aka Charlie Chan).

They’re all terrific, and the secondary characters are as funny as the main ones. Sir Alec Guinness (Star Wars) is a hoot as a blind butler. Eileen Brennan (Private Benjamin) is wonderful as Falk’s long-suffering secretary, Tess Skeffington. Nancy Walker (TV’s McMillan & Wife) delivers a few laughs as a deaf-mute cook, and Estelle Winwood (John Huston’s The Misfits) plays Lanchester’s senile nurse.

By the way, the movie isn’t entirely brainless. There are sporadic bursts of criticism embedded in the humor. For example, the film makes a point of ridiculing Falk’s character (the hard-boiled gumshoe archetype), who is an incorrigible sexist. Niven is also the brunt of a bunch of jokes for treating wife Smith dismissively.

Most interesting is the movie’s attitude towards Charlie Chan. It’s important to mention that Sellers isn’t making fun of the Asian detective, he is making fun of a white actor playing an Asian man, and this is an important distinction. There is a running gag about Chan misusing prepositions, and the joke is directed at Hollywood’s stereotypical interpretation of Biggers’s legendary Chinese detective.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

I always forget how much I like this movie until I watch it again. Murder by Death has all the ingredients of a great satire. Every time the film tried to make me laugh, I laughed, and that’s something that rarely happens to me. P.S. Cartoonist Charles Addams (creator of The Addams Family) designed the cool theatrical poster. It would make a great double-feature with Clue (1985). Color, 94 minutes, Rated PG.

This is my contribution to The Great Muppet Guest Star Caper Blogathon, hosted by Taking Up Room and Realweedgiemidget Reviews.

Guest Stars: Nancy Walker, Peter Sellers and James Coco


20 responses to “Murder by Death (1976)

  1. I have the Shout! Factory Blu Ray of this, one of my all time favorite comedies, so much fun. Neil Simon had a somewhat different cast in mind when he originally wrote the script: He always had Peter Falk and David Niven in mind for their parts, but he wanted Orson Welles as Milo Perrier, James Coco as Sydney Wang, and Katherine Hepburn as Dame Abigail Christian (a direct parody of Agatha Christie). Welles originally accepted, but a prior commitment to a play forced him to leave and Coco got the Perrier part and the Abigail Christian character at first became Abigail Christmas with Estelle Winwood in the part, and this finally became Miss Jessica Marbles with Elsa Lanchester and Winwood as her elderly childhood nurse. The most surprising casting change was that of Dora Charleston: Myrna Loy was offered the part to in-joke parody her own character from the Thin Man films, but she turned it down; publicly she said it was because she had too much respect for Nora Charles to poke fun at her, but privately she admitted it was because she didn’t want David Niven pinching her ass throughout shooting.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I finally saw Murder By Death last year and I’m sorry to say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as Clue. I may prefer the more serious whodunnits nowadays. But comedic whodunnits for the 20th century can still be nostalgically interesting. Thank you, Eric, for your review.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: It’s the Final Act of the Muppet Show Blogathon Tonight – Realweegiemidget Reviews Films TV Books and more·

  4. This is another one pulled from deep down by you…lol. I know I’ve seen this…but I can’t remember. I must have seen it once, when I was a kid! The write up is so good, though, I’m totally ready to see it again. Love so many of the actors in this movie. Hubby and I were just talking about Peter Sellers’ genius in Dr. Strangelove.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You can’t take the Oscars seriously. It is hard to believe that Sellers’s tour de force in Strangelove lost to Rex Harrison’s fine but unremarkable Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. Sellers was also brilliant in Being There (1979).

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s