Murder Comedies: Murder by Death

Liz on Murder by Death

The butler did it. Only the butler isn’t really the butler. He’s someone else, who’s really someone else. Oh, wait. Now, he’s a she. So, she did it. Or did she? Did anyone actually die?

As you might imagine from the title, Murder by Death is a spoof of murder mysteries—a revenge of the reader on the some of the most popular sleuths (and their creators). Several of my favorite detectives are parodied in the movie: Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), Miss Marple, and Charlie Chan. There is also a hard-boiled American detective modeled after Richard Diamond and Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon).

Made in the 1970s, Murder by Death is, not surprisingly, crude at times. However, from Poirot’s character’s insistence he’s not French to Charlie Chan’s poor grammar and wise sayings to Miss Marple’s tweed to Nick and Nora’s good breeding saving them from danger (you never know when sitting in the proper place at dinner will prevent you from being skewered), the movie is quite entertaining. You needn’t be familiar with the “real” characters to enjoy the movie, but I think you would appreciate it more if you were.

The story is set up to be a stereotypical murder mystery. The detectives and their companions are invited by a mysterious, unknown host to an isolated country house for the weekend. They arrive on a dark and foggy night. The servants are strange. Bodies pile up and then disappear, and there are several attempts on the lives of the detectives. There is also information withheld and crucial characters not introduced until the end—just like in so many mysteries.

So, was there a murder? As Chan’s character says, “Yes, killed good weekend.”

 Jaz: Miss Marple. Hercule Poirot. Sam Spade. The Thin Man. Charlie Chan. Murder by Death spoofs all of these detective greats and throws in a blind butler, a barking cat, and a series of crimes to add to the fun.

You won’t go one second into the film without bumping into star talent. Truman Capote, David Niven and Maggie Smith (Dick and Dora Charleston), Elsa Lanchester (Jessica Marble), Peter Sellers (Sidney Wang), Peter Falk (Sam Diamond), James Coco (Milo Perrier) and Sir Alec Guinness (Jamesir Bensenma’am) all play a part in this quirky crime comedy.

“You are cordially invited to dinner and a murder,” Capote’s invites read in the opening scene. And what a murder it is. Two, in fact. But the most important question, as Perrier points out, is: where is the butler? And why did he not return … with their dinner?!

The detectives are baffled. And even more so when they find a bill in the corpse’s hand revealing that the entire murder has been (gasp!) catered. Who would do such a thing? Who is the murderer? Surely not the host, because he’s dead too. Or so everyone believes…

What ensues involves scorpions, a deaf-mute cook, plenty of sly jabs at the characters, a moose on the wall, and franks and beans, not to mention innumerable hilarious quotes:

Sam Diamond: “I don’t get it. First they steal the body and leave the clothes, then they take the clothes and bring the body back. Who would do a thing like that?”
Dick Charleston: “Possibly some deranged dry cleaner.”

The ending leaves all the detectives stumped for an answer for the first time in their lives, which is rather refreshing. If you’re a fan of classic mysteries, you’re guaranteed to love this film—and get all the jokes.

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Murder Comedies: Arsenic and Old Lace

This month’s theme is comedy … with a dark twist. And in keeping with the mystery element present in most of them, none of the titles will be revealed beforehand. How exciting is that!

July is my month to post, and I will do my utmost to be an excellent host. Yes, that rhymed. I welcome comments and suggestions for film discussions, and may do extra posts on the latter if I have time.

Our first selection is the 1944 comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane. Here is Liz’s take:

Liz: Confession: I have never seen the play Arsenic and Old Lace, so my opinions are formed solely on the 1944 movie of the same name with Cary Grant.

This is one of those laugh out loud movies that leaves you feeling a little strange once it’s over. It’s a movie about crazy women murdering lonely old men and a sadist trying to murder his own brother, and I’ve been laughing? That’s right—loudly, until you cry (at least I cry when I laugh).

The script is witty and the characters well-cast. Cary Grant plays his part excellently. I prefer him in comedy roles than in the more dramatic roles he sometimes played. I just like Peter Lorre, so having him in a movie is a plus. The play running on Broadway at the time the movie was made featured Boris Karloff as Cary Grant’s evil brother Jonathan. Karloff couldn’t play the part in the movie because of a time conflict, but his replacement, Raymond Massey, did a good job in the role and even resembled Karloff. Being a classic movie fan, I enjoyed the Boris Karloff references in the film.

I like the way Cary Grant’s character cares for his aunts and his brother Teddy, who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt. The family affection shared by all, except Jonathon, helps make up for the morbid murdering and stashing of bodies part of the story.

If you need a laugh, or a non-horror movie to watch on Halloween (the day during which this story takes place), then I highly recommend this film.

Jaz: A newly-wed marriage skeptic, two sweet old aunts and a corpse in the window seat make the perfect concoction for a screwball comedy – with just a pinch of the macabre – in Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace. Add to that a brother convinced he’s Teddy Roosevelt and a psychotic murderer on the lam with his personal plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein (played brilliantly by Peter Lorre), and you’ve got comedic bliss.

(Which by the way, I wasn’t aware plastic surgery was common in the early 40’s – but then again, I’m not surprised. Hollywood is very knowledgeable with respect to this science.)

Cary Grant is a natural in screwball comedies. There’s something so endearing about his bewilderment and reactions when thrust in ridiculous situations. You can say all you like about North by Northwest and An Affair to Remember, but I’d still rather see him chasing and being chased by leopards and knife-wielding lunatics than wooing diamond-clad mistresses or scaling buildings.

Arsenic and Old Lace perfectly blends its dark and humorous elements. Consider the scene where Mortimer Brewster sits tied up in the dark, listening as Jonathan Brewster details different options for death by knife. Or when the head of the Happy Dale Sanatorium tells Mortimer they have too many Roosevelts but “we’re short on Napoleon Bonapartes at the moment.”

After the hilarious situations and quotable lines, the ending felt incomplete. Maybe Capra was unsure how to top all that. Or perhaps Joseph Kesselring, the author of the original play, chose to end it that way. Regardless, this film is a highlight of the murder comedy genre. And Grant is believable and natural as Mortimer Brewster (as believable and natural as an actor can be in such a role, anyway). We share his relief when he runs out of the house and yells, “I’m not a Brewster, I’m the son of a sea cook!”

And I’m not a blog writer, I’m a teapot!