Murder by Death (1976)

2015 #120
Robert Moore | 91 mins | download | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

A gaggle of famed detectives are summoned to a remote mansion to solve a murder in this detective spoof by playwright Neil Simon. The twist is, all the characters are spoofs of famous literary/film/TV ‘tecs. Also, that the murder hasn’t happened yet. And also, that the person inviting them is Truman Capote. Not “someone playing Truman Capote”, but “Truman Capote playing someone”.

A comedy where a bunch of people are invited to a remote mansion to solve a murder? Yes, it does sound an awful lot like Clue. Indeed, based on my reading, almost all modern assessments of the film seem to boil down to two straightforward alternatives: “it’s not as good as Clue” or “it’s better than Clue”. As it pre-dates Clue by almost a decade, maybe that shouldn’t be our only point of reference? Still, I guess the ’80s-ness and name-y cast of the later film has helped it gain more traction — it certainly seems to be on TV regularly, whereas I only learnt of Murder by Death as a footnote when reading up on the Thin Man series.

For what it’s worth, I think its quality is about level with Clue. Such appreciation may partly depend on one’s familiarity with the characters being spoofed, however: it’s a funny story in and of itself, but a fair dollop of the humour revolves around riffs on the personalities, quirks, and storytelling tropes of Nick & Nora Charles, Poirot, Miss Marple, Sam Spade, and Charlie Chan, whereas Clue requires, at most, that you know the icons from Cluedo.

I said Clue has a namier cast, but Murder by Death is no slouch, including Maggie Smith, David Niven, Peter Falk, and Alec Guinness as a blind butler, an affliction that’s mined for all its comedic value (and then some). They all give great comic performances, as does James Coco as the film’s version of Poirot. There are some neat send-ups of the genre — the literally-impossible mysteries and all that — as well as some good old-fashioned wordplay and silliness. The only downside is it loses its way a bit by the end. I suppose it doesn’t strictly need a satisfactory conclusion to the mystery, because it’s only a spoof ‘n’ all, but I feel like it would’ve benefitted from a stronger finale nonetheless.

However, it’s a consistently amusing film, and everyone involved seems to be having a whale of a time. It’s definitely worth seeking out for fans of detective fiction who don’t mind the genre being gently ribbed.

4 out of 5

Clue (1985)

2010 #28
Jonathan Lynn | 93 mins | TV | PG / PG

Although Disney have recently treated (I use the word loosely) us to a glut of films based on theme park attractions, movies adapted from good old board games seem a lot rarer. This is probably for good reason — even more so than Disney rides, the majority have no kind of useable narrative. Cluedo (aka Clue in the US) is one of the few that does, and consequently is one of the few (only?) board games that has reached the silver screen. So far, anyway.

I’m going to put Clue into the same category as Flash Gordon: it’s the kind of film that’s unremittingly daft, but it knows it is, and if one gets on board with that then it’s a very enjoyable experience. The story sees an exuberantly excellent Tim Curry gather a group of disparate-but-secretly-connected individuals at a remote stately home, each under a fake name based on those infamous monikers from the game. Eventually there’s a murder, and then a few more, all of which is conveyed in a mix of hilarious farce and fast-paced screwball comedy. It’s Agatha Christie meets Fawlty Towers.

It’s not all funny, certainly — there’s a fair share of puerile gags — but the abundant good bits more than make up for them. On the other hand, you may agree with Roger Ebert that most of the gags fail to hit home. That it has a cult following (plus frequent airings on digital channels like ITV3, suggesting it might pull relatively decent viewing figures (all things considered) whenever it’s on) goes to show it’s all a matter of taste.

Other than the board game connection, Clue is best known for its three different endings, all of which were released, with each screening having just one attached. On TV the film shows with all three consecutively, and they perhaps work best this way — there’s a rising scale of ridiculousness, and the varied repetition of a couple of gags underlines rather than steals their amusement value. My personal favourite variant was the first, incidentally.

Surely the only reasonable reaction to a task as ludicrous as adapting a board game into a film is to turn it into a comedy. Clue does so with aplomb. Ridley Scott, take note.

4 out of 5

Clue placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010, which can be read in full here.