Monday, March 9, 2009

Murder by Death

Since by now you know that I abhor the time change, I had to make last weekend more tolerable. Recalling that the wife and kids awhile back enjoyed Clue--don't blame me, I didn't pick it--I decided to bring out its superior forerunner for family movie night. The oldie-but-goodie, Neil Simon's Murder by Death. We all had a great time enjoying this 1976 mystery-comedy spoof directed by Robert Moore. And, screenwriter and playwright Simon had a grand time in writing this send-up/homage to the classic detectives of yesteryear. The cast for this was also extraordinary in their representative roles.

Peter Sellers as Sidney Wang (as the Charlie Chan character), Elsa Lanchester as Jessica Marbles (Miss Marple), Peter Falk as Sam Diamond (Sam Spade), James Coco as Milo Perrier (Hercule Poirot), and David Niven and Maggie Smith as Dick & Dora Charleston (Nick & Nora Charles). Of course, Truman Capote was at his most flamboyant here, too. They were all fantastic (as well as the supporting characters). I recall first viewing this film at the now long gone Lido Theatre in L.A., and it's still very funny then and now. Back then my favorites amongst the cast was Sellars as Wang and Falk as Diamond. Nowadays, I found that I really admire Maggie Smith in her craft of the character Dora. Her classy, British deadpan wit always has me watching her in each scene she's in. Plus, she's the best thing there, visually, too.

My only complaints, though, is with the DVD. Released in 2001 under Sony/Columbia Pictures, it is more than dated and needs a new re-issue:
  1. not a very good print--newer DVD production techniques and re-mastering are sorely needed here
  2. missing scenes!!!--when I first got and viewed it, I thought there were things missing. This was confirmed by others with regard to the early VHS release, for shame!
  3. flip disc--widescreen on one, and full-screen on the other--'nuff said
  4. the absolute worst artwork for a DVD (especially when compared to the VHS version or the original movie poster)
Come on, Sony! This picture deserves much better!!! For next weekend, we'll probably do its sequel, the lesser The Cheap Detective. But hey, they're still better than Clue...


  1. I love both movies but 'The Cheap Detective' is my favorite. The first time I saw it I laughed so hard and so long that my friends thought I had gone over the edge. The only thing about 'Cheap Detective' is that anyone who hasn't seen 'Maltese Falcon' and 'Casablanca' will miss a lot of the jokes. Plus there's the one-scene spoof of 'Chinatown' to enjoy. I still get a little goofy when I think of Peter Falk and Eileen Brennan bursting out into that awful version of 'Deep Purple.'

    Maggie Smith was a delight in 'Murder By Death.' I think David Niven was very ill at the time though, which may explain why his role hadn't the 'oomph' that one might expect from spoofing Nick Charles.

    Which reminds me that it's been at least 30 years since I read one of Niven's books, 'Bring On the Empty Horses.' I recall it being very funny. I should probably seek it out again.

  2. Yes, The Cheap Detective is especially fun for those of us who love private detective films and Casablanca. And I remember catching that one scene of Chinatown, too. MbD and CD make quite a set. I hope the studios will get their act together and release them again with the extras and care they deserve.

    You bring up a great memory with your recall of Bring On the Empty Horses. I remember it fondly, especially Niven's recount of his long time friend, Errol Flynn. I'd say it's been 30+ years since I first read that Niven book, too. I'd wish they would be more like DN in this day and age.

  3. I think the classy, elegant gentlemen of the cinema are pretty much extinct. And God knows wit is in short supply.

    It was probably Niven's book that spurred me to read Flynn's auto-bio. As a read, Niven's book was better, but I've always been a fan of Flynn's work. "All right, men! You know the plan!" He made me think I really did know.

  4. You've done it again, Corey. Eerily, I read My Wicked, Wicked Ways after finishing Niven's book, way back when!

    Yes, class, wit, and elegance seem to have a hard time, lately. They've been replaced with press releases, snark, and media analysis.

  5. Separated at birth, do you think?

  6. Murder By Death was a funny movie, but I don't recall The Cheap Detective. I'll have to look it up and see if it rings any bells visually.

    For a while there Neil Simon movies were yearly. Your post makes me want to do a Simon marathon at home.

  7. The Cheap Detective (1978) came out two years after Murder by Death. Though, its parody stuck more to the Bogart films like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. The director for both, Robert Moore, also did another Simon play/screenplay, Chapter Two, a year later.

    You're right, VP, about a period in time that Neil Simon written films came out steadily. Thanks for your comment and stopping by.