Neil Simon’s 1976 mystery satirized the star-studded whodunit.
During the publicity cycle for Knives Out, writer/director Rian Johnson frequently cited his love of the kinds of star-studded murder mystery films from the 50s through the 70s that used to air on broadcast television in the 80s. There are various adaptations of the books and plays of Agatha Christie that fall into this category and which were referenced by Johnson along with many others.
These movies were great outlets for some great actors, and assembling a group of them worked to get the public’s attention to a movie that might seem a little stodgy or old-fashioned to the youth of the day but which held great appeal to older audiences. My generation, of which Johnson is a part, saw these later on because our parents wanted to watch them on TV and many of us grew to love their twists and turns. Not only that, but they frequently exposed us to a number of actors who, as youths, we weren’t already familiar with.
In 1976 writer Neil Simon teamed with director Robert Moore to offer the genre a gentle tweak of the nose with the movie Murder By Death.
The name itself is the first clue those involved are not playing by the book but know the rules nonetheless, since cause and effect are transposed. But it still sounds kind of right, the kind of “mistake” that takes a minute to comprehend and understand, rewarding those who are paying attention. In other words it’s exactly the kind of gag Simon was already well known for.
Murder By Death uses one of the most familiar setups of mystery stories, the assembly of a group of characters at a spooky house none are familiar with on a dark and stormy night. In this case, many of the world’s most famous detectives are brought together by the eccentric Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), who claims by the end of the night he will have proven himself to be better than them all. Those he’s brought together are all slightly skewed versions of familiar characters.
- Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), a play on Sam Spade, the hard-boiled detective of Dashiell Hammett’s stories.
- Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), a play on Charlie Chan by Earl Derr Biggers.
- Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith), a play on Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles.
- Milo Perrier (James Coco), a play on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Piorot.
- Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), a play on Christie’s Miss Marples.
Each is accompanied by an associate that is similarly an analogue for the source character’s sidekick or assistant. As the names make clear, the parody here is done with a light touch. “Spade” becomes “Diamond,” Marples” becomes “Marbles” and so on. This isn’t biting deconstruction of the genre, just having a few laughs while making the audience feel they know who all these characters are.
Columbia Pictures’ marketing for the film, released in late June of ‘76, was geared toward audiences that would appreciate the ways in which Simon gently laughed at the genre and its tropes.
The poster features the artwork of Charles Addams, creator of The Addams Family. In his clearly identifiable style the characters are shown standing outside the wall of a spooky looking estate. For audiences of the time the analogues should be largely recognizable, especially given the context created by the tagline, which warns “By the time the world’s greatest detectives figure out whodunit…you could die laughing.”
All that makes it clear this is a comedy audiences should expect, one with a little sense of style and showmanship since using a drawing like that instead of a collection of headshots conveys a bit of attitude. Again, though, there’s nothing dangerous about the comedy that’s being sold here. The copy is pretty toothless and while the artwork is much more interesting than a bunch of photos would be, it’s still not overly dark, even with the half-naked person lying on the ground with a dozen knives sticking out of his back.
(Side note: When Columbia released the movie on VHS the cover featured Addams’ key art but for some reason it was jettisoned for the later DVD, which used just the kind of lazy headshot photos the poster is keen to avoid. SHOUT! Factory smartly brought back Addams’ work for its recent Blu-ray of the film.)
Simon’s sense of humor is on display immediately in the trailer. While it starts fairly traditionally, the narrator quickly establishes the meta jokes by calling Twain “a short sinister man who looks just like Truman Capote” before introducing all the tweaked variations on literature’s greatest detectives, who here all exist in the same shared universe. Some of the movie’s great jokes, including how the detectives are fairly dismissive of Twain – as well as their companions – as they go through the events of the night. Those events are hinted at and shown to varying degrees in a way that presents them as roughly 23 percent more ridiculous than they’d be if they appeared in a more straight-faced take on the material.
That the movie doesn’t exactly deconstruct the detective genre is clear. It’s adhering to the same tropes and contrivances that are used in other stories and films even as it asks the audience to laugh at them. That works, though, because of the wit in Simon’s script and the self-aware performances of the impressive cast. It would seem attractive to those who knew the subject of the light satire as well as fans of Simon’s previous work.
Murder By Death would go on to gross $32 million at the box office. That tally, as noted by Bill Higgins who also revisited the film due to its similarity to Knives Out, would amount to $150 million in 2019, which would put it in the top 15 films of the year to date and the second highest-grossing original film, behind only Jordan Peele’s Us. In fact that’s only slightly below where it wound up in 1976, coming in at #13 for the year.
It’s not a movie that gets talked about a lot these days, but know that when you watch something like Knives Out or Kenneth Branagh’s Murder On the Orient Express adaptation, uniting a group of well-known actors to be part of a murder mystery is a genre so established it’s already been satirized by one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.