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Murder by Death

The Golden Age of detective stories from the 1930s and '40s was rich with now-familiar tropes and types. Hardboiled gumshoes, artistocratic hobbiest sleuths, and genteel amateur puzzle-solvers stepped beyond the pages of Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett to inhabit our pop culture alleyways and vicarages. So of course someone would eventually burlesque the whole thing. Here it's playwright Neil Simon, who wrote the screenplay for 1976's Murder by Death to poke fun at the famous characters and situations he enjoyed in his boyhood. Sam Spade, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Charlie Chan, and Nick and Nora Charles are all given a comedic sendup by an all-star cast — Peter Sellers, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker, Eileen Brennan, James Coco, young James Cromwell in his first movie, and even aging hipster socialite writer Truman Capote.

The world's greatest detectives (and their assistants) are invited to dinner at the spooky mansion of eccentric millionaire Lionel Twain (Capote), who warns them that a murder will occur at the stroke of midnight — and he bets one million dollars that none of the sleuths can solve whodunit. When the thoroughly stabbed body arrives on cue, the detectives bring all their own characteristic eccentricities to bear against a murderer who plays devious tricks among them. It's all played for laughs and a few easy chuckles emerge from the lampooning. Highlights include Peter Falk's Bogart-like Sam Diamond, Peter Sellers as Sidney Wang, Alec Guinness for anyone who associates him with Obi-Wan Kenobi instead of the Ealing comedies, and Niven and Smith as the starchly well-bred Dick and Dora Charleston. (As an actor, Truman Capote was a great writer, though he did inexplicably nab a Golden Globe nomination.) Unfortunately, the most important part of any classic murder mystery is the Big Reveal climax, and that's the spot in Murder by Death that falls the flattest. Even as a gag it's a cheat, and a forced one at that, leaving the few remaining minutes to just peter out rather than tie up into a satisfying conclusion.

So it all doesn't amount to much, and — some knuckle-dragging "he's gay"/"no I'm not" humor aside — it's more Scooby Doo than Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Still, it's an amusing tea-cozy of a spoof with an enjoyable cast. This was the first big-screen directing assignment for TV veteran Robert Moore, and it probably all plays better on home video than it ever did at the cineplex.

*          *          *

Columbia TriStar's DVD of Murder by Death presents both anamorphic (1.85:1) and full-frame (1.33:1) transfers from a good, clean source print. The audio is a solid but unenthusiastic monaural Dolby 2.0.

The chief extra is a ten-minute "Conversation with Neil Simon" about the movie and the influences he drew upon for this, his first screenplay. Also here are the theatrical trailer, perfunctory Talent Files, and pull-out production notes. What's not here is the cameo appearance by Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, a short bit that made it into the TV broadcast version. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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