MOVIE REVIEW | Murder By Death (1976)

In a nutshell, Bored and Dangerous says: “Is it as simple as people in the 70s thought it was funny to say that Chinese and Japanese people all looked the same?  Because as terrible as it is, that’s the only ‘joke’ I can see the movie attempting with these characters.”

Murder 1
“He gives us meaningless clues to confuse us, dangles red herrings before our eyes, bedazzles us with bizarre banalities, while all the time precious seconds are ticking away towards a truly terrible murder still to come.”

The murder mystery is a very unique TV and movie genre.  It’s been a standard on big and small screens as long as they’ve existed, while almost always being regarded as low rent, schlock, cheap entertainment.   Detective stories and murder mysteries are rarely seen as prestigious, yet they’re obviously crowd pleasers.  For every high end hit like the current BBC, Benedict Cumberbatch incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, there are half a dozen low budget, long running detective series that your mum loves, but you’d never waste your time on.  It’s a genre I assume I don’t I like, but when I think about it, I realise that there are plenty of examples that have thoroughly entertained me.  It’s also a genre that when I found out there was a star studded parody made in the 70s, I knew I had to see Murder By Death.

At the invitation of eccentric millionaire Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), the world’s foremost detectives descend on his creaky mansion on a dark and stormy night.  There’s the Miss Marple like Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester).  The Bogart style gumshoe, Sam Diamond (Peter Falk).  The offensive Chinese stereotype and Charlie Chan facsimile Sydney Wang (Peter Sellers).  Hercule Poroit clone, Milo Perrier (James Coco). And crime solving, posh couple, Dick (David Niven) and Dora (Maggie Smith) Charleston.

At first confused to see each other there, the sleuths soon figure out that they are there as some sort of competition.  Over dinner, and after a few botched murder attempts, Twain lets them know that they’re right.  He informs them that a murder will take place at midnight.  A murder so expertly executed, not even this collection of investigative heavyweights will be able to solve it.  When Twain’s blind butler (Alex Guinness as Bensonmum) is found dead, the game is afoot.

Writer Neil Simon might be an American, by Murder By Death is a very British movie in tone.  The Brits are responsible for some of the greatest TV and movie comedy ever filmed.  They’re also guilty of clinging to the dodgiest and most old fashioned forms of comedy long after they pass their used by date.  The British comedy industry still thinks the only thing funnier than a flaming, mincing gay character, is a bloke in a dress.  And Murder By Death suffers from some of that.

Not only is Sellers in appalling yellow face as Sydney Wang, the movie also thinks it’s hilarious that this “Chinese” character has an adopted Japanese son.  I really struggled to see where the joke was here, but the movie definitely delivers it with the cadence of a joke.  Is it as simple as people in the 70s thought it was funny to say that Chinese and Japanese people all looked the same?  Because as terrible as it is, that’s the only “joke” I can see the movie attempting with these characters.  Not to mention his dialogue consisting of almost nothing but cheap and corny puns in the style of Confucian sayings.

On the other hand, there’s a major plot point built on some just as old fashioned, farcical humour that really worked for me.  When the blind butler Bensonmum tries to talk to the new, deaf, mute, foreign maid, Yetta (Nancy Walker), these scenes are obvious and predictable, but hilarious none the less.

MMDMUBY EC002

Sometimes, when watching older movies, I have to remind myself that cultural shifts mean that what is clearly offensive now, was innocently oblivious to its offensiveness at the time.  With that in mind, there were a few small sections of Murder By Death that were funny enough and even enjoyable.  The problem is, so much is offensive now, that way too much of it just comes off as tone deaf and even kind of mean.

Murder By Death
Directed By – Robert Moore
Written By – Neil Simon

Other Opinions are Available.  What did these people have to say about Murder By Death?
The New York Times
eFilm Critic
Cinema Parrot Disco

5 thoughts on “MOVIE REVIEW | Murder By Death (1976)

  1. I absolutely LOVE this film! It’s one of my all-time favorites and I’ve seen it at least 20 times. You’re right that it contains many gags and jokes that are politically incorrect today, but it’s important to remember that it’s a satire more than simply a comedy. With regard to Peter Sellers’ character, I think Neil Simon was actually poking fun at the fact that it was a white man (Warner Oland) who portrayed Charlie Chan in those 30s films.

    1. I really wish I could see something worthwhile in this movie. But it’s just too dated and flat out lame. I know times and attitudes change, but good movies don’t need a “Irtwas a different time” disclaimer. They just stay good.

  2. Thanks for the link! : ) Yeah, I can see where the film definitely won’t work for a younger generation due to the politically incorrect jokes. But, those bits aside, I actually did find this one quite funny whereas I very rarely find modern comedies funny. I don’t “get” Peter Sellers myself but otherwise thought this was a cleverly written film. I do agree with the first commenter that they were poking fun at Charlie Chan being played by white men in the past but it doesn’t translate nowadays since younger people won’t realize that unless they look into it. I think it’s a shame as it taints the rest of the movie now for a younger generation.

    1. I can get past older movies having not so enlightened views on social issues, but at the end of the day, I just didn’t find much of the movie funny. Just obvious, corny and always happy to go for the laziest jokes.

      1. That’s how I feel about modern comedy. 😉 It’s all just lazy nowadays. I thought this one had the obvious & the corny jokes as well as the smart & subtle ones, such as them all being based on existing detectives, etc, but that all went over my head a bit as I don’t have experience in that genre. : )

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