Director: Robert Moore
Release Date: 23 June 1976
Running Time: 94 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Editorís Rating: 4 out of 4 schtars, schweethart.
The 1970ís were really a magical time for comedy. A lot of chances were taken back then that set precedents for the future. Animal House, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Cheech & Chongís Up In Smoke, The Jerk, and Blazing Saddles, all comedy classics that were huge in their day, and have only gotten more revered as they went forward. Among those were a couple play translations from the great Neil Simon. He had started a string of hits in the 60s, and kicked off 1970 with the classic The Out of Towners starring Jack Lemmon, and a couple years later, he had a little-known film called Murder By Death. The verdict is out as to if it was a successful movie, but from what I can dig up, it made about $32 million when the average movie cost around $3-4 million to make. So it didnít do too bad, Iíd say.
Nevertheless, itís not as well-known as other Neil Simon fare, but itís become a sort of cult movie in later years. Its campy and witty humor skewers old whodunit movies, television, and novels of the 1950ís and 1960ís, with absolutely no regard to reverence or plot. The movie is self-admittedly about nothing, and honestly, that alone makes it worth watching.
The movie opens on the greatest collection of super sleuths the world has ever known all descending upon the home of a wealthy eccentric named Lionel Twain. Theyíre all here to solve a mystery Twain is promising, with a prize of one million dollars on the table, in addition to getting the story rights for the book the person would inevitably write afterward. The characters are transparent spoofs of famous literary detectives and stereotypes, from the hard-nosed film noir (played by Peter Falk), to Charlie Chan (played by Peter Sellers). Twain, played by Truman Capote, is a quirky guy out to expose everyone he invited for dinner as frauds, out of some frustration that seems to be born of an over-obsessed fanboy not being able to figure out just how his heroes did what they did (think The Incredibles). The twist comes when the murdered person ends up being Twain himself, and the plot moves forward from there. And by moves forward, I mean spins around like a hamster ball being spun by a motorcycle tire. Itís really entertaining, but the hamster inside is really nauseous.
The movie feels like a rip-off of the movie Clue, but itís important to remember that Murder By Death has Clue beat out by almost a decade. Clue by far had the best press, you know, since it has a world-famous board game behind it. If anything, it could be said that Neil Simon was playing a game of Clue one night and just happened to catch a rerun of Charlie Chan at the same time, and a movie was born.
This is a movie not to be taken seriously. Or semi-seriously for that matter. Itís like if Mel Brooks wrote a murder mystery. The plot is holier than swiss cheese, and the characters are as well-developed as an eighth-graderís photography project. But bottom line - it is rapid-fire funny. Itís one of those movies that requires multiple viewings to get even half of the jokes, and even by then, theyíre not old. Theyíre quick and delivered by experts, except maybe James Cromwell.
Some of the humor is a little dated, maybe even a little racist, in the case of Peter Sellers and his pidgin accent, but itís still good. However, I wouldnít say that the movieís demerits disqualify it from being watchable. Far from it. I own this movie, and if you want to be my friend, you better find it funny, because I quote it all the time. This is usually where I post my ďwatch without the kids line,Ē but I think that this is good enough to be watched with the kids. If anything, the language might get a bit strong, but to be fair, the line Iím thinking about is delivered by a talking moose.
**I was not compensated for this review.**