Murder by Death may be an onslaught of a murder mystery, but it revels in the genre’s tropes and classic characters.
When thinking of ensemble mystery film about a group of people invited to a remote mansion to solve a murder, your mind will likely land on either Clue or Murder by Death. And, these days, it seems that the former gets all the love and the latter is largely forgotten. Aside from being released nine years prior, Murder by Death is a different beast entirely. As written by Neil Simon, the film isn’t about strangers forced to take part in a murder mystery because of blackmail but parodies of great fictional detectives, such as Charlie Chan, Nick and Nora Charles, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Sam Spade. Inherent in the parody-homage is a send-up of the many, sometimes questionable, misdirections utilized by Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, etc. to obfuscate the final reveal. Murder by Death may be an onslaught of a murder mystery, but it revels in the genre’s tropes and classic characters.
In the opening credits, illustrated by Charles Addams, we see a body with 11 knives lodged in its back, followed by the 11 suspects: Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), Tess Skeffington (Eileen Brennan), Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith), Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), Milo Perrier (James Coco), Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), his adopted Japanese son Willie (Richard Narita), Bensonmum (Alec Guinness), Yetta (Nancy Walker) and Lionel Twain (Truman Capote). Twain is the millionaire who instigates this entire whodunit in an effort to prove which sleuth is the best. Depending on the character, reactions to the other guests range from respect to pitiable disdain. Perrier, for one, is extremely judgemental. Each parody brings it’s own gags, but Sellers’ horrific turn as Wang – complete with slanted eyes and affected accent – is offensive to say the least.
Simon’s best homage comes in the form of Falk’s Diamond, a throwback to the wisecracking Sam Spade. He takes no joy in the proceedings, nor his worshipping assistant and mistress, Tess. At one point in the “investigation” (these professionals are so unorganized it’s hardly apt to use the word genuinely), he follows up the stock phrase “That can only mean one thing” with “and I don’t know what it is.” Given Simon’s writing chops, it’s no surprise that there are one liners galore here. For instance, Dick Charleston muses that the person responsible for removing a body, except its clothes, only to return said body and make off with the garments is “possibly some deranged dry cleaner.”
Like counterparts such as Clue, or influential novels such as Murder on the Orient Express, Murder by Death takes its time to allow every suspect to seem viable. And although Twain’s preface to the night takes aim at murder mysteries that wrap up unrealistically, introducing new characters at the final hour, etc., Simon’s script is not guilty of that. It may be more cluttered due to the sheer number not only of suspects but acting sleuths, but it maintains a brisk pace and logical flow.
And while this is certainly an homage to classic mystery novels and movies, it balances that well with parody, in every sense of the word. These may be celebrated detectives, but Miss Marbles is definitely missing some of her marbles, Dick and Dora are wholly above it all and Perrier is too self-involved to have any decent chance of finding the killer. The murder may ultimately be solved, but the sly undercurrent of the entire film shows just how useless these famed detectives can be. It’s part call-out, part self-deprecation and just as much a commentary on the genre as an entry into the genre unto itself.