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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Murder by Death

I am a big fan of mystery novels, but even I am aware of their inherent ridiculousness. Whether you are talking about the English Golden Age mysteries of Agatha Christie, or the hard-boiled American crime novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the familiar tropes of each are ripe for satire.

That's what is so disappointing about Neil Simon's Murder by Death. It takes a killer premise, backs it up with a fantastic cast, and does so little with it all that it is offensive.

The set-up is your classic country house murder plot. A mysterious and eccentric millionaire named Lionel Twain has invited the five greatest living detectives to his manor for dinner and a murder. Twain is played by the author Truman Capote, in an odd bit of stunt casting that works fairly well. The detectives are send-ups of Christie's Poirot and Miss Marple, Earl Derr Biggers' Charlie Chan, and Hammett's Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles.

The cast is comprised of great comedic and dramatic actors, David Niven and Maggie Smith are the Nick and Nora couple, Alec Guinness is Twain's blind butler (relegated to idiotic blind guy jokes) and Peter Sellers (no stranger to makeup and foreign accents) plays Charlie Chan. This last bit might seem offensive but is likely meant to make fun of the popular Charlie Chan movies, in which white actors were used to play the Chinese detective. (One of the movie's funnier gags involves Capote's Twain angrily correcting Chan's grammar, as the Chinese detective leaves out his articles and pronouns.)

The movie's laughs are few and far between, and this is troubling enough in a comedy. What is more troubling is the movie's nonsensical plot, which though it may be meant to poke fun at mystery novels really just seems lazy and poorly thought out. The murder mystery at the heart of the plot is inexplicable and the movie's revelation of the secret is only partially complete but fully dumb.

It may be an unfair comparison because this movie pre-dates Clue, but Clue treads much the same ground (albeit without the detective bit) and does everything better. The jokes are funnier and more frequent, and even the mystery makes more sense (despite that film's multiple conclusions, a gambit this movie also used to much worse result.)

For all this, it gets a 2.8 out of 10.

Next? Well, I've got Vertigo and Rope coming in, as part of my effort to see more Hitchcock movies.

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