Neil Simon was the biggest comedy writer of the 60s and 70s. He had plays on Broadway, books on the bestseller list and movies opening with his name above the title. What Steven King was to horror stories, Neil Simon was for comedies. His work was not always deep, but sometimes it was poignant and meaningful. He won the Pulitzer prize for one of his plays in the 1980’s. So it is inevitable that one of his works turns up on my list for summer movies in the 1970’s. Although many of the plays and movies were lighthearted romantic comedies, it is his slapstick work that seemed in tune with the summer seasons of my youth. The first of these movies I’ve watched this summer is “Murder by Death.”
The story is a take-off on every mystery movie cliche from the thirties and forties. Including Charlie Chan, Sam Spade and the Thin Man movies. Throw in a couple of late arrivals like Miss Marple and Herciot Peroit and you have a meal that is much like on of the lines in the film, “lamb stew, a lot of ingredients gone to pot.” These characters are all invited to a weekend at a spooky mansion for dinner and a murder. The mystery actually makes no sense at all by the end of the movie, and it is not really supposed to. The whole point is to baffle the audience and divert them with funny dialog and rich performances by the stars. All the actors do a terrific job impersonating the original movie characters, but making them memorable for completely different reasons.
Cast and dialog are the main reasons to see this movie. If you watch the trailer above, you will notice no shortage of star power. Peter Falk and Peter Sellars are dead on and politically incorrect beyond belief. The non-sequiters that Falk’s Sam Diamond tosses out are hysterical, but you have to listen for them. Sellar’s Sidney Wang could give fortune cookies a boost by comparison to some of his stupid sayings. Everyone is just a gas. I don’t remember how much longer David Niven worked, but his light touch and elan were perfectly suited to an English version of Nick Charles. Most of the light comedians of today have him to thank, Hugh Grant may not know it but he steals from Niven in every movie he is in. The only link in the chain that seemed weak to me was James Coco, but I believe it was due to his part being broadly written that makes the performance a little too shrill. By the way, his driver/assistant in the movie is played by a young James Cromwell (Farmer Hogget from Babe).
A special note must be made of the appearance of Truman Capote in the film. He basically plays himself with a different name. Of all his work I only read “In Cold Blood” and I had seen “Breakfast at Tiffanys”, but I knew him best as a kid through his appearances on talk shows. He was on Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin’s shows quite often I think. He made up stories to share about people he had never even met. If anyone really believes that Errol Flynn and he had a love affair, they never saw an Errol Flynn movie. His high nasally voice was creepy by itself, but put into this silly plot, it stood out like it’s own weird joke.
The movie is sometimes a criticism of the sloppy writing that detective stories might sometimes employ. Lionel Twain’s rant at the end about characters that appear in the last five pages of a book, or clues that are not revealed to the readers until the climax of the story, sound a little too on point just to be taken as a joke. By the way if you miss the joke in Capote’s character’s name, you will miss a lot of the clever puns and plays on words that make the movie entertaining. There are other things to recommend it as well, but the writing of the dialog is the key element in the films success.
This movie played at the Hasting Theater in Pasadena, which at the time was a huge stand alone movie house. Later they added some other screens to the complex to make it more profitable, but if you got 1500 people in to see a movie there, I doubt they were losing money, and when I saw it the theater it was packed. Inspired by the success of this work, Neil Simon tackled another spoof based on the same kind of characters a couple of years later. Peter Falk returned as “The Cheap Detective”. As I recall, I did not enjoy it as much and was a little let down, but that could be faulty memory. I hope by the end of the current summer blog to be more definitive and add that film to the list here.