When I was writing my review for Clue some months back, I came across the name of another murder mystery comedy: Murder by Death. It actually predates Clue by almost a decade and has an absolutely fantastic cast including Maggie Smith, Alec Guiness, Peter Falk, Elsa Lanchester, Peter Sellers, James Cromwell, Eileen Brennan, and Truman Capote, of all people.
Well, obviously, I had to watch this.
Eccentric millionaire Lionel Twain (Truman Capote) invites the world’s five most famous literary detectives — and their various sons/spouses/chauffeurs — for a dinner party that, quite rightly, turns into a murder investigation.
1. Murder by Death and Clue have a few things in common, other than the fact that they’re both murder mystery comedies. For example, they both have Eileen Brennan. They also both share the same house. Okay, not really; it’s not the exact same house, but there are definite similarities.
But the movies are different too because while both films have been characterized as spoofs or parodies, I don’t really think of Clue in those terms — or at least “parody” is not the first term that comes to mind. Whereas Murder by Death is DEFINITELY a parody.
2. Now, this is a very silly movie. Sometimes, it’s too ridiculous for my tastes — we’ll get to that in a minute — but a lot of it is laugh-out-loud funny, especially the ending, which was even more overtly meta than everything else that had come before. Of course, all parodies are pretty much self-referential by definition, but the ending kind of moved past silly jabs and went straight on to full-out commentary. That can be a tough balance — no one wants to be a preachy asshole — but it works here. I feel like any mystery fan who has ever been frustrated by some of the failings of the genre will appreciate this end.
3. Still, I think this film has its fair share of problems. For instance, almost every gag with the blind butler and the deaf maid.
It took me way too long to realize that the blind butler is one in the same with Obi-Wan Kenobi, despite the fact that Guinness’s voice is extremely distinctive — part of it, I suppose, is the lack of beard; also, the lack of lightsaber, and the fact that Guiness has his eyes rolled up into his head the whole movie. Anyway, Guinness — or rather, Bensonmum — spends way too much time slapping stamps down on tables instead of envelopes and starting fires on mattresses instead of in fireplaces. Similarly, the new maid, Yetta, is deaf, mute, and illiterate — or at least doesn’t read English. (I can’t remember which.)
There are one or two jokes that land here, but mostly, it just gets really old really fast. This isn’t a terribly long movie, but at least fifteen minutes could have been shaved off just by trimming this shit down. It’s kind of pointless filler that could have been spent on almost anything else — like, for instance, more Maggie Smith awesomeness.
4. Also . . . we have to talk about Peter Sellers. Sellers, you might know, is famous for playing this guy:
However, in Murder by Death, he’s playing this guy.
Now. What’s important to mention here is that all of the detectives in this movie are based off of actual literary detectives — for instance, we have Dick and Dora Charleston instead of Nick and Nora Charles, Perrier instead of Poirot, Miss Marbles instead of Miss Marple, etc. Inspector Wang is based on Charlie Chan, and if you’ve never seen a Charlie Chan movie, well, they were made in the 1930’s and 40’s, which means the title role always went to a white guy. (Seriously, one of the guys who repeatedly played Charlie Chan was from Sweden. You don’t fucking get more white than Sweden, do you?)
Peter Sellers is actually pretty funny in the role, especially after watching a clip of one of the earlier Charlie Chan movies and seeing how closely he’s imitating them. But that being said . . . if the movie was going to do yellowface, even to make fun of it, I think I needed it to be addressed more directly in the film by other characters because it was definitely making me uncomfortable. And, honestly, I think I’d rather have seen a Chinese man making fun of Chinese stereotypes anyway.
5. Still, this is a very talented cast. After all, we have the Bride of Frankenstein, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Inspector Clouseau, Mrs. Peacock, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, and The Grandfather from The Princess Bride. (Okay, Columbo is probably the more relevant credit here, but like most people in my generation, I primarily know Peter Falk from The Princess Bride.)
It’s particularly fun for me to see Maggie Smith so young.
I adore Maggie Smith, have for years, but I think the very first thing I ever saw her in was either Sister Act or The Secret Garden, both of which were made in the 90’s when she was already pushing sixty — which, admittedly, is not as old to me now as it was when I was seven. Still, it’s always neat to see Maggie Smith in something from the 1970’s, and she’s a lot of fun here. Her constant back-and-forths with Dick Charleston (David Nevin) are awesome.
It’s also a little funny to see James Cromwell so young.
Cromwell plays Perrier’s French chauffeur, and he’s funny enough, but I wish that he played some variant of Captain Hastings instead. If you don’t read a lot of Agatha Christie, Captain Hastings was one of Poirot’s recurring sidekicks, and while I don’t much like him, it would have been a nice touch. Plus, then I would finally get to see someone drop something heavy on Hastings’s head. (Oh, shush, the chauffeur lives. It’s a very minor spoiler.)
And it’s definitely weird for me to see Eileen Brennan as anyone other than Mrs. Peacock.
Here, Eileen Brennan plays Tess Skeffington, Sam Diamond’s faithful, lovestruck secretary. She doesn’t get quite as many good lines as Maggie Smith, but she’s funny too, probably actually funnier than her counterpart, Peter Falk, whose Sam Spade shtick occasionally wears me out a little.
6. I love mysteries, but sometimes it’s hard not to laugh at how ridiculous some of the deductive reasoning is in these books. These characters are rarely mere detectives — instead, they are Super Detectives who know everything there is to know about everything and thus can never be fooled, at least not for very long. Which don’t get me wrong, I’m still a giant Poirot fan, but it does make for good material to mock, especially here, when you have five of the greatest detectives in the world trying to out-detect one another. It’s good stuff, and it’s still relevant today. I was watching The Mentalist the other day — that fucking show; I just can’t fucking quit it — and couldn’t stop giggling to myself as Patrick Jane stares at a dead body for about six seconds and lists four things about the victim that none of the other cops could deduce in thirty minutes. I mean, that’s pretty much the whole point of the show — that and countless other stories like it — but it made me laugh after just having seen this film.)
7. Finally, some quotes. Like, a lot of quotes:
Sidney Wang: “And you, Mr. Charleston, did not approve of Mrs. Charleston dying her hair blonde?”
Mr. Charleston: “What do you mean?”
Sidney Wang: “Mrs. Charleston’s hair red. You have blonde hairs on shoulder. This means she has dyed red hair blonde, then back again to red, or else you have been . . . so sorry. Wang is wrong.”
Sam Diamond: “First they steal the body and leave the clothes. Then they take the clothes and bring the body back. Who would do a thing like that?”
Mr. Charleston: “Possibly some deranged dry cleaner.”
Sidney Wang: “What meaning of this, Mr. Twain?”
Lionel Twain: “I will tell you, Mr. Wang, if you can tell me why a man who possesses one of the most brilliant minds of this century can’t say prepositions or articles. What IS THE, Mr. Wang? What IS THE meaning of this?”
Milo Perrier: “What do you make of all this, Wang?”
Sidney Wang: “Is confusing.”
Lionel Twain (from behind moose head, where he’s watching them): “IT! IT is confusing! Say your godamn pronouns!”
Willie Wang: “Who do you think the murderer is?”
Sidney Wang: “Must sleep on it. Will know in morning when wake up.”
Willie Wang: “But what if you don’t wake up?”
Sidney Wang: “Then you did it.”
Dora Charleston: “What a godforsaken spot to get lost.”
Dick Charleston: “I’m sure I saw a much better spot a few miles back.”
Sidney Wang: “Very interesting theory, Mr. Charleston. However, leave out one important point.”
Dick Charleston: “What’s that?”
Sidney Wang: “Is stupid. Is stupidest theory I ever heard.”
Dick Charleston: “Just as I thought: another test that could have cost us our lives, saved only by the fact that I am enormously well-bred.”
Sam Diamond: “Look all over him.”
Dick Charleston: “All over his body?”
Sam Diamond: “Well, somebody’s gotta do it. I’m busy standing guard.”
Dick Charleston: “Why don’t I stand guard? You look all over the body.”
Sam Diamond: “All right, we’ll take turns. You look over the first dead, naked body we see, and I’ll look over the second.”
Dora Charleston: “I want you to know, Dickie, that if you’re the murderer, I’d still love you. I don’t think it would be right for us to make love, but I’d still love you.”
Dick Charleston: “They can kill instantly. I suggest we don’t move.”
Dora Charleston: “For how long?”
Dick Charleston: “Quite possibly for the rest of our lives.”
Dora Charleston: “I don’t understand. Why would anybody want to steal a dead, naked body?”
Dick Charleston: “Well, dear, there are people who, um . . . (whispers in her ear)
Dora Charleston: “Oh, that’s tacky. That’s really tacky.”
That’s all but the spoilers. For those of you who’ve seen this before, carry on.
First, a few more quotes that are somewhat spoiler-y.
Sam Diamond: “You say you know who’s going to get it?”
Lionel Twain: “Intimately.”
Milo Perrier: “And you know how the crime is to be committed?”
Lionel Twain: “Definitely.”
Sidney Twain: “And exactly what time murder is to take place?”
Lionel Twain: “The murder. Precisely.”
Dora Charleston: “Well, I know it’s none of my business, but doesn’t that mean you’re the murderer, Mr. Twain?”
Bensonmum: “Tell me, as the only survivor, how did you deduce it was me?”
Sidney Wang: “Went back to theory seldom used today: butler did it.”
So, Lionel Twain invites everyone there to solve a murder, only he ends up being the one murdered. It is quickly revealed that everyone has a secret motive for killing him, but they cannot (as of yet) deduce who actually did. So everyone goes to bed, only to be locked in their room with various death traps. (Poisonous scorpion, deadly gas, collapsing ceiling, etc.)
At first, it appears that only Sidney Wang and his adopted son, Willie, have survived. Wang confronts Bensonmum, who it turns out is neither dead nor blind. But wait! It turns out the others are alive too, each trickling in one by one (well, with their respective companions, so technically two by two) to explain how they each managed to escape from their various death traps. (My favorite? Dora Charleston actually didn’t escape without getting stung and wants to leave for the hospital now instead of bothering with the Big Reveal. Dick’s all like, hush now, darling; we have fifteen minutes, plenty of time. Hee.)
Each detective also explains why Bensonmum killed Twain, with each explanation progressively getting more and more ridiculous. Bensonmum is secretly Twain’s lawyer. No, he’s Twain’s accountant. No, he’s Twain’s daughter. Bensonmum plays along with all of these reveals as if each hypothesis is accurate — Alec Guinness channeling Irene Twain is terribly amusing.
But then Bensonmum/Ms. Twain/Whoever Else has a Big Reveal of his own. All of the detectives are wrong. In a precursor to Mission Impossible, Guinness rips off his face to reveal . . .
Truman Capote, that is, Lionel Twain!
Yes, Lionel Twain faked his own death. (How? Well, that’s not really discussed, but presumably he used a mannequin in place of his supposed dead body. That doesn’t really matter at this point, though, because nothing makes any kind of logical sense by the end of the movie. I only bring it up because the whole mannequin thing kind of bugged me while watching the film, but I may be warming up to it as an exaggerated example of how ludicrous some twists can be.)
But why did he do it? Well . . .
Lionel Twain: “You’ve tricked and fooled your readers for years. You’ve tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You’ve introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You’ve withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it. But now, the tables are turned. Millions of angry mystery readers are now getting their revenge. When the world learns I’ve outsmarted you, they’ll be selling your $1.95 books for twelve cents.”
And that? That just cracks me up.
The movie ends with everyone leaving the house and going back home. (In a deleted scene, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson apparently show up, late for their dinner invitation, and Wang decides not to warn them. I wish this had been in the actual movie, since Holmes and Watson are actually more famous than a lot of the other characters, and their exclusion from this story strikes me as odd.)
And then, back at the mansion, Twain takes off another face-mask to reveal . . . Yetta, the deaf cook. (Who was, supposedly, just a mannequin herself.)
And that’s about the end.
Funny and often clever, but some of the incessant gags seem to dumb down the humor and grow tedious long before they should.
Maggie Smith, although Peter Sellers deserves a lot of credit for making the role as funny as he did, even though it still kind of bugs me he was cast at all.
Write better mysteries, or someone will mock the hell out of you for it.