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Neil Simon pays homage to classic detective films in his parody Murder By Death (1976). The original screenplay by the author of The Odd Couple (1968) and The Sunshine Boys (1975) features an all-star cast spoofing well-known detectives like Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, Hercule Poirot, and Charlie Chan. The New York Times called the comedy one of Simon's "nicest, breeziest screenplays."
Eccentric millionaire Lionel Twain (Truman Capote) invites the world's greatest detectives to his castle-like home and challenges them to solve a murder that hasn't been committed yet. The guests include Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith), Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), Milo Perrier (James Coco), and Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers). Also on hand are Twain's blind butler, Bensonmum (Alec Guinness), and his deaf and mute maid, Yetta (Nancy Walker). According to Jon Tuska in The Detective in Hollywood, Myrna Loy was offered the role of Dora Charleston but turned it down "because she felt it would ruin her image as Nora Charles to have her seventy-one-year-old bottom pinched by David Niven."
The detectives stumble across more than one apparent murder while avoiding numerous attempts on their own lives. Along the way, they also discover everyone has a motive for murder. Plot twists and rapid-fire dialogue continue right up to the final scene. The New Yorker described Murder By Death as, "sophisticatedly funny, full not only of one-liners but also of production gags; a scream, for instance, turns out to be the doorbell." Nothing is ever as it appears in the Twain mansion.
Neil Simon reportedly wrote the part of Lionel Twain with Truman Capote in mind. He wanted the author of Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood to play a character much like himself, but Capote had something else in mind. The author told an interviewer, "The original intent may have been for me to parody myself, but that's not how it's going to work out." Capote had wanted to be in the movies since he was a boy and considered this his chance to act. Making his screen debut opposite such an experienced and acclaimed cast, however, proved very difficult. Director Robert Moore stated, " To put Capote at a table with international stars was too much of a test for any literary figure to withstand."
In spite of the impressive cast, some had their doubts about how the film would do at the box office. The company David Niven's son worked for invested in the film expecting it to be a tax loss. Instead, Murder By Death became the number eight moneymaker of 1976. Niven responded, "So much for a tax loss? But isn't it rather alarming to have a son who has absolutely no faith in his old man's pictures?" Peter Sellers also didn't realize how well the film would do. He wasn't pleased with his performance or the final film. He told producer Ray Stark the film was "the epitome of 8mm home moviemaking" and sold his percentage for about $1.3 million.
Alec Guinness, however, considered Murder By Death "a very funny film." The Academy Award winning actor rarely went to Hollywood, but he liked the script so much, he made the trip in order to play Bensonmum. Guinness said, "The script made me laugh, and not many things in recent times have done that."
Director: Robert Moore
Producer: Ray Stark
Screenplay: Neil Simon
Cinematography: David M. Walsh
Art Direction: Harry Kemm
Music: Dave Grusin
Cast: Eileen Brennan (Tess Skeffington), Truman Capote (Lionel Twain), James Coco (Milo Perrier), Peter Falk (Sam Diamond), Alec Guinness (Jamesir Bensonmum), Elsa Lanchester (Jessica Marbles), David Niven (Dick Charleston), Peter Sellers (Sidney Wang), Maggie Smith (Dora Charleston), Nancy Walker (Yetta).
C-95m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Deborah Looney