The dinner-turned-murder-mystery scenario is a pretty durable one, and in some cases it comes off better than in others. 1976’s Murder By Death is one of the most memorable in my opinion, and we’re going to dive on into it.
Murder By Death was written by Neil Simon, and opens, literally, with the opening of a trunk. It’s the proverbial dark and stormy night, and we see a mysterious figure in spectacles and a black fedora, filling out invitations to a murder and death and signing them, “Lionel Twain.” He’s got five invites to send out, and he rings for his butler, Bensonmum (Alec Guiness) to stamp and mail them. Only thing is, Bensonmum is blind, and he affixes the stamps to the desktop.
On the appointed night, which is still dark and stormy, the guests begin to make their way to the mansion, where preparations are underway. Doors are adjusted so they creak properly, the grandfather clock is being disabled so people feel rightly disoriented, eyeholes are being cut in paintings and hunting trophies to enable spying. All the usual arrangements.
The first guests to make it to the Twain mansion are Inspector Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) and his son, Willie (Richard Narita). Their first clue that something isn’t quite normal is that the doorbell screams. The second is that a bear statue almost falls on them.
When Bensonmum finally answers the door, Wang wonders why there are storm sounds inside the house as well as out. Bensonmum replies mysteriously, “Mr. Twain, as you’ll soon discover, prefers his atmosphere…murky.”
Okeydokey. The second and third guests are Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith), and Dora is very shaken from the falling bear statue. Yeah, there was a fresh one rolled off the roof just for them. Dick brings her a martini from goodness knows where, and Bensonmum takes them to Mrs. Twain’s old room. She murdered herself nine years ago, and the room is kept exactly as it was when she died. Read: It’s full of cobwebs and dust, with the occasional mouse squeaking through. Naturally, Dora doesn’t want to stay there, but Bensonmum goes out and shuts the door without another word.
At the side door, the maid (Nancy Walker) shows up, and she’s deaf and mute. She also can’t read English, so she and Bensonmum are quite a pair. Bensonmum gestures toward the menu, and the maid seems to understand. Maybe.
Next to arrive are Milo Perrier (James Coco) and his chauffeur, Marcel (James Cromwell). After dodging the falling bear (another fresh one), Perrier tries to use the phone, only Bensonmum informs him it hasn’t worked in a week. “Nonsense,” says Perrier, and shows him the cut phone line.
Perrier is suspicious because Bensonmum isn’t looking at him. “He’s blind, monsieur,” Marcel tells him. Perrier doesn’t believe him until he makes a few faces at the very nonplussed Bensonmum.
The fourth and fifth guests are Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) and his mistress, Tess (Eileen Brennan). Not at all scared by falling statuary (in his case, it’s a lion), Sam holds Bensonmum at gunpoint. It’s a rather fruitless effort, because Bensonmum reveals nothing about what’s in store.
Last but not least are Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) and her former nurse, Miss Withers (Estelle Winwood), who bustle in and make themselves at home.
Now that they’re all assembled, a fearful groaning is heard coming from a molded face on the wall. Everyone is mystified until Bensonmum comes in and explains that the groan means dinner is served. Only there’s no dinner because the maid can’t read English and has been sitting in the kitchen doing nothing, but our guests don’t know that yet. They’re too busy speculating about the wine being poisoned.
Yes, the pattern here couldn’t be more obvious: All of these characters are spoofs of famous detectives, and the film takes care to remind the audience of that over and over again. They’ve been called to Lionel Twain’s estate to see who’s the greatest sleuth of all.
Except…Lionel Twain hopes to prove that it’s none of them.
While the group is sitting at the dining room table wondering what they’re doing there, the mysterious Lionel Twain (Truman Capote) makes an entrance worthy of Elton John, complete with colored strobe lights and an ornate throne of a chair. Of course, darlings, he looks fabulous, decked out in a fur collar, a fedora, tinted glasses, and lots of bling, including pinky rings. Lionel has no pinkies, a quirk that only makes him more interesting.
Anyway, Lionel informs the group that he knows their reputations are built on always solving their cases. Rather smugly, he tells them that someone in the house is going to be murdered, and not one of them will be able to figure out whodunnit.
Naturally, the assembled company are aghast, but there’s nothing they can do. The doors are locked and bolted, as are all the windows. They can’t even walk around the house without getting confused, because doors don’t always lead where they seem to lead. Will they ever find their way out? Can they get anything to eat besides franks and beans? I’m not going to tell, except that there are twists upon twists, and even the craftiest won’t be able to predict how it’ll all turn out. It doesn’t do for anyone in the august assembly to get too smug.
The cast is absolutely superb, and they play off each other so effectively. Murder By Death is one of those films that actors love to do, because while it’s a mystery, it’s also a farce, which kicks regular comedy up a notch. I hesitate to say more because it would spoil it too much.
Now, the film is a wee bit dated. Peter Sellers wears prosthetic eyelids, which is always creepy, and spouts all the stereotypes. Sam even calls him “Slant Eyes” at one point. Still, I can’t imagine anyone else in this role, because the movie is wall-to-wall camp, and no one did camp like Peter Sellers. He also gets one of its best lines: “Bickering detectives like giant lamb stew. Everything go to pot.”
It might go to pot, but it’s an immensely enjoyable pot, and just when it seems it can’t get zanier, it does. In spite of it being of its time, Murder By Death is cathartic for anyone who reads mysteries, whether they like them or not.
October starts on Monday (can you believe it?) and we have lots of goodies in store. Here are next month’s blogathons, for a start:
If anyone’s interested in joining these, please feel free to contact these wonderful ladies:
- Michaela at Love Letters To Old Hollywood
- Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood
- Robin at Pop Culture Reverie
It’s going to be a fun month, everyone. Thanks for reading, and see you next week!