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.