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

The Mirror Crack’d (1980)

2008 #5
Guy Hamilton | 105 mins | TV | PG

The Mirror Crack'dA star-studded cast and the director of Battle of Britain, Goldfinger and three other Bond films can’t raise this adaptation of an Agatha Christie Miss Marple mystery far above the level of an ’80s TV movie.

There are some good lines, and it’s a Christie so obviously the fundamental story is good, but the direction is flat and lacks suspense, half the cast phone in their performances, and Angela Lansbury, lumbered with a sprained ankle and premature aging, seems to be in a dry run for Murder, She Wrote. The lack of involvement by the main character is something I always find problematic with Marple stories, even when the actress involved has the necessary twinkle. Edward Fox is her match as the detective who actually does most of the detecting for once (but is still robbed of the final revelation, of course).

The best bit, which I’ll just take a moment to highlight, is the opening. It’s a black & white murder mystery, the scene of the final revelation… and the print burns up just before the killer is revealed. The film cuts to a village hall, where the film was being screened and the projector’s just died. Miss Marple proceeds to explain what will happen to everyone, based on what she’s deduced from the film so far. A man at the back who’s seen it confirms she’s right. Much better than my summary makes it sound, this is by far the film’s highlight, one of the few whole scenes that rises above the pervading flaws.

Despite a few commendable elements, this is a good tale that’s not told as well as it could be.

2 out of 5