The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Murder by Death

What's more fun than a murder mystery in film and on TV? The people who solve the murder mysteries!!! And no, I'm not talking about police procedurals where police officers follow the clues and catch the crooks. We're talking the out of this world observant and intelligent sleuths and detectives who follow all the minute, excruciating little details and pull theories out of thin air. They certainly get their due in a great spoof from 1976, Murder by Death.

Coming from all around the world, five world-class detectives have been brought together at an isolated country mansion by eccentric recluse Lionel Twain (writer Truman Capote). His goal? Present a murder with little evidence and let his five detectives piece things together. Whoever figures things out and fingers the murderer by dawn will receive a $1 million reward. Who are his contestants of sorts? They include Milo Perrier (James Coco), the whiny Belgian, Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), the tough guy detective, Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), the very English middle-aged woman, Dick Charleston (David Niven), the gentlemanly, smooth aging detective, and Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), the pronunciation challenged Chinese detective. Each detective has brought a partner/sidekick/spouse but can any of the manage to solve a seemingly impossible murder mystery?

From director Robert Moore and screenwriter Neil Simon, 'Murder' is a gem in the Whodunnit genre. Throw a bunch of characters together, add in a mystery/murder or something that needs to be solved, and let the fun begin. This is a spoof of the Whodunnit genre, but it's not a stupid spoof, far from it. While the humor is far from high brow laughs, it's snappy, smart and quick. This is a very talented cast assembled here, the actors and actresses playing off each with remarkable ease. It's a quick movie at just 94 minutes, but there are laughs throughout. It was filmed on a mansion set in Burbank Studios, a closed-in, claustrophobic feel to the ever twisting and turning story. Self-contained and the better for it.

You really just can't go wrong with the sick amount of talent brought together here in the cast. Each detective is based off a classic literature character (Perrior = Hercules Poirot, Diamond = Sam Spade, Marbles = Miss Marple, Charleston = Nick Charles/The Thin Man, and Wang = Charlie Chan), each given their quirky personality traits that bring it all together nicely. Coco's Perrier is dying of starvation -- or so he believes -- as the mystery develops, Diamond does his best Humphrey Bogart impression throughout, Marbles quirky, mousy and excited, Charleston the upper class, smooth-talking Englishman, and Wang the master of logic and observation (with a touch of political incorrectness thrown in for good measure). It would be easy to see any/all of these characters getting their own movie, but when assembled together, we're talking impeccable chemistry with some sublimely perfect laughs.

Improving on the talent brought together is that each character is given a sidekick of some sort, a spouse, child, whatever. More cast listing!!! The recently departed Eileen Brennan plays Tess Skeffington, Sam's secretary and mistress, Maggie Smith plays Nora Charleston, Dick's longtime and loving wife, Estelle Windood as Miss Marple's wheelchair bound and ancient nurse, James Cromwell as Marcel, Perrier's very French chauffeur and Richard Narita as Willy, Wang's adopted Japanese son.

Oh, there's more. One of the movie's most perfectly executed running bits has Alec Guinness as Bensonmum, Twain's personal assistant and butler.....who's blind. It's almost inappropriate, a little politically incorrect when you hear about it, but like so much else going on in Simon's script, it just works. He answers the door, never realizing if anyone entered but speaking as if they're standing in front of him. He serves dinner with poor results, guides the guests to their rooms, and has a great running gag with the new cook, Yetta (Nancy Walker), a Hungarian woman who's deaf, can't talk and doesn't understand English in any way, but Guinness' Bensonmum can't see that she's holding up notes explaining herself. It's stupid almost as an idea, almost infantile in its humor, but oh goodness, it works so well. Here's a montage of so many of those great lines, watch it HERE.

Director Moore's film runs just 94 minutes, flying by at a breakneck speed. The first 60 minutes are about as perfect as a comedy can be, smart and stupid but balanced out between the two. It's beyond funny on all levels. The last 30 minutes or so come up a little short, the goofiness becoming a little too much. Capote -- an obvious scene-stealer -- delivers a great monologue ripping all these great detectives apart. He criticizes their storytelling techniques, their introduction of characters out of nowhere, ridiculous twists that come out of nowhere, and basically making it impossible to solve the mystery, whatever it should be. The ending is flat out stupid, but it's supposed to be. If you can decipher it in any way, you let me know. The struggles of the last 30 minutes prevent it from being an all-time great comedy, but flaws and all, it is still a gem.

Murder by Death (1976): *** 1/2 /****

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