Murder By Death (***)

Posted on June 2nd, 2003 in Movie Reviews by mynagirl

This movie came up randomly on cable last night, and it’s ridiculous and almost so silly you want to turn it off. But we just couldn’t! First of all, it’s hard to resist such a cast:

  • Sir Alec Guinness
  • David Niven
  • Maggie Smith
  • Peter Falk
  • Peter Sellers
  • Truman Capote
  • … and VERY young James Cromwell

The premise of the movie (which is a Neil Simon, by the way) is spoofy in the extreme: a psychotic and eccentric millionaire has invited the world’s greatest sleuths to his rambling, creaky English country house for a planned murder that they must all solve. The sleuths include:

  • Inspector Sidney Wang, a very toothy and hilariously un-PC Chinaman Peter Sellers
  • Dick and Dora Charleston, an upper-crust British crimefighting couple (Niven and Smith)
  • Sam Diamond, a hard-boiled San Francisco private eye (Falk, doing his best Bogart)
  • Jane Marbles, a tweedy old English sleuthing bird
  • Monsieur Perrier, an uptight and constantly ravenous crime-solving Belgian

The targets to be spoofed can hardly be mistaken. Having grown up on Agatha Christie novels (I literally read every single one and every play by the time I was 12), this was too hilarious to pass up. Although the premise hasn’t aged that well (what with the Clue movie, Austin Powers, and the like), the actors were so great in their adopted personae. Alec Guiness is especially hilarious as the blind butler; he looks like he’s just having the best time. Truman Capote is perfect as the effete marionette-master eccentric millionaire.

Of course, the murder occurs and the sleuths band together to try and solve the crime. There’s much silliness and slapstick, but some of the dialog is truly hilarious. To wit: Dick Charleston (David Niven) is inspecting the naked body of the dead butler (Guiness) for signs of a gunshot wound. “Wait, I think I found one… oh, nevermind, not a bullet hole.” It’s delivered so deadpan you almost miss it.
The movie has enough of these type of treasures to make it truly worth it. It’s a trifle, an old movie spoofing an even older literary genre, but it’s pretty darn funny. Set a Wish List on your TiVo, and check it out if you’re ever in the mood to watch something but you’re not sure what. This would be perfect.

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