A few years ago I discovered and became a big fan of the movie Clue, and learned about another, earlier Clue-type movie, Murder by Death, which became an even greater favorite. All of the elements seem to have been put into place specifically to appeal to me, from the title sequence designed by one of my favorite cartoonists, Charles Addams, to the appearance of my favorite comedian, Peter Sellers.
Murder by Death is of a type of intelligent comedy that came about in the mid-‘70s and has since gone the way of disco. With a script by Neil Simon, this is a somewhat urbane comedy which presupposes a familiarity with Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett and the Charlie Chan and Thin Man movies. It has a cast of the highest pedigree as well, including ’30s icon Elsa Lancaster, distinguished thespians Alec Guinness and Maggie Smith, stage actor James Coco and even writer Truman Capote, who for some reason or another decided that that time had come to appear in a comedy-mystery film, playing the eccentric man who invites the world’s greatest detectives to “dinner and a murder.”
But the humor is often very silly, with lots of farce and corny gags. This was made long before the concept of politically correct filmmaking. Peter Sellers plays Sidney Wang, a Charlie Chan parody, and speaks in an endless stream of fortune cookie lines. There are a lot of fairly handicap jokes about the blind butler (Guinness) and the deaf-mute maid (Nancy Walker). There is also some pretty course humor from Peter Falk in a Sam Spade parody. But the film is lots of fun, probably because the actors were so obviously having fun while making it. Maggie Smith is enjoying making fun of her own persona, Peter Falk parodies his Columbo character, and James Coco is incredibly funny as he does an exaggerated on Albert Finney’s already exaggerated Belgian detective in Murder on the Orient Express.