Friday, May 17, 2013

Movie Review: Murder by Death

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Brilliant spoofs of the classic age detectives
Cons: Racist at times; climax weak but funny
The Bottom Line:
Funny, funny film
Mystery elements weak
Perfect as a spoof

"You Call Poisoned Wine and Near Decapitation Comfortable?"  "No.  I Call It Inspiration."

As a mystery fanatic, I knew I had to watch Neil Simon's Murder By Death the first time I heard about it.  I enjoyed it then, and I enjoyed it again when I rewatched it recently.  It expertly spoofs some of the great characters and writers of the golden age of crime fiction.

Mr. Lionel Twain (Truman Capote) has called together the greatest detectives of all time for a weekend of murder at a remote estate.  (Naturally, it includes thunder and lightening).  These five detectives consist of Milo Perrier (James Coco), Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), and Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith).

The guests arrive to find themselves served by a blind butler (Alex Guinness) and a deaf/mute maid (Nancy Walker).  At dinner, their host appears and announces that someone at the table will be killed at midnight.  But preventing the murder will be hard since rooms seem to come and go at will.  As do bodies.  Can these great detectives figure out what is going on?

Considering this is Neil Simon, I expected a laugh riot, and I was not disappointed.  The one liners come fast and furious, as do the gentle jabs at these classic characters.  Naturally, the more familiar you are with the characters, the better you will understand the jabs, although there are enough funny lines to make anyone laugh multiple times.

Having said that, I will say the characters are hit and miss.  Milo Perrier, Sidney Wang, and Sam Diamond fare the best.  The Charlestons just don't have quite the right chemistry for me.  Jessica Marbles isn't really old enough.

I'm blaming this more on the writing than the acting.  All the actors in this ensemble piece are brilliant.  Some of the bits between Alec Guinness' blind butler (named Jamessir Bensonmum) and Nancy Walker's maid are hilarious.  And remember, Nancy Walker only gets to use body language.  Of the main cast, Peter Falk is brilliant as Sam Diamond.  His Bogart impression is worth the time spent watching this movie alone.

Okay, now it is time for the mystery fanatic side of me to come out.  Yes, I know this movie is a spoof.  The point is the laughs and not the mystery.  Still, the ending frustrates me.  It aims a bit too much toward humor of any logical conclusion.  That aside, it is downright hysterical and its jabs are spot on.

Another potential issue is several racist moments in the film.  A few of them are well pointed spoofs, like Wang's bad accent.  But some of them go a bit too far.  For me, it is a small irritant in a mostly funny film, but others might think differently.

This is definitely one of the better spoofs of the mystery genre.  Those looking to laugh can do far worse than Murder By Death.

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