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

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

2011 #26
Blake Edwards | 110 mins | TV (HD) | PG

Breakfast at Tiffany'sBreakfast at Tiffany’s is a stonkingly famous film — it’s the one most of the famous images in the cult of Audrey Hepburn come from — this despite the fact that, as one IMDb review puts it, the plot makes it sound like “a gritty, vulgar film”.

It originates from a Truman Capote novel. That makes “gritty” and “vulgar” less startling adjectives. This was the early ’60s, though, so George Axelrod’s adaptation sanitises things for a mainstream US cinema audience. You can’t help but wonder if there’s a more faithful remake to be done, but how would that sit with those who idolise Hepburn’s take on Holly Golightly? Not well, I suspect. But faithfulness aside, in the hands of director Blake Edwards any grittiness disappears in a wave of pastel-coloured humour and frivolity.

And a happy ending. Not that the novel’s ending is unhappy per se, but this version is certainly more Hollywoodised. Some hate it, and I can see their point, but as the whole film has been appropriately smoothed in parts from the original, the modified finale doesn’t sit too badly. Casting Mickey Rooney as an OTT Japanese character really was a bad idea though. Another strike against the film could be that it originated the song Moon River, which I hate; Tiffany's kissbut it works here, especially when sung plainly by Hepburn.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s isn’t Capote’s novel, but it is fun, and it’s plain to see why men and women alike have fallen for Hepburn’s Golightly. A more sordid adaptation of the book might be interesting, but that doesn’t negate the unique qualities of the film.

5 out of 5

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is on Film4 tomorrow, Tuesday 28th October 2014, at 11am.

Capote (2005)

2007 #61
Bennett Miller | 110 mins | DVD | 15 / R

CapoteIt is, unsurprisingly, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning lead performance that dominates this movie. While the title might suggest a biopic, the film actually concentrates on the five year period in which Truman Capote researched and wrote his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood.

While this process forms the structure of the plot, the title gives away what the movie is actually ‘about’ — in and around the mechanics of the murder investigation and Capote’s work process, it’s the character of the man, and how it’s affected, that is really revealed to the viewer (in a subtler way than my blatant highlighting of it here would suggest).

4 out of 5

The ‘other’ Truman Capote movie from the mid-noughties, Infamous, is on BBC Two tonight, Friday 5th June 2015, at 11:50pm.