Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Murder By Death (1976)
Studio Line: Columbia Pictures You are cordially invited to dinner... and a murder!

The world's greatest detectives have been invited to dinner. But when murder is on the menu, who will make it to dessert? You are cordially invited to join an all-star cast featuring Peter Sellers, David Niven, Peter Falk, James Coco, Elsa Lanchester, Maggie Smith, Alec Guinness, Eileen Brennan, Nancy Walker, James Cromwell and Estelle Winwood for Neil Simon's hilarious murder-mystery spoof Murder by Death.

The isolated mansion of eccentric millionaire Lionel Twain (celebrated author Truman Capote in a Golden Globe-nominated performance) is the setting for the twisted puzzler. Twain informs his guests that one of them will be murdered at the stroke of midnight. The pay-off: $1 million to whoever lives through the night. Murder by Death neatly lampoons both the mystery genre and the characterizations of these instantly recognizable gumshoes. Match wits with the super sleuths, but remember, you can't win if you end up dying from laughter!

Director: Robert Moore
Cast: Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Estelle Winwood
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, Standard 1.33:1; audio English Monaural, Spanish Monaural; subtitles English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai; closed-captioned; double sided - single layered; 28 chapters; rated PG; 94 min.; $24.95; street date 12/18/01.
Supplements: Exclusive Interview: A Conversation With Neil Simon; Theatrical Trailers; Talent Files; Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/C+/D+

As Iíve noted in other reviews like Jaws 2 and The Towering Inferno, itís always dangerous to revisit flicks one liked as a kid. That concern was extreme in regard to those two flicks, as I have very positive memories of them. The issue seemed much smaller when it related to 1976ís Murder By Death since it was never on the same level as those two classics-in-my-childhood-mind.

Still, I remembered Murder positively, so I ran the risk of disappointment with a new viewing. Happily, my experience contradicted those fears. Murder By Death offered a surprisingly witty and clever flick that was consistently enjoyable.

A spoof of classic murder mysteries, Murder follows a special weekend in which all of the worldís greatest detectives amass to solve a particular crime. Fey recluse Lionel Twain (Truman Capote) thinks he can top all of them, so he brings together a large crew to prove his supremacy. Invited to this crusade are Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) and his adopted son Willie (Richard Narita), Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith), Milo Perrier (James Coco) with his chauffeur Marcel (James Cromwell), Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) and secretary Tess Skeffington (Eileen Brennan), and Miss Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) with her nurse Miss Withers (Estelle Winwood).

After a welcome from blind butler Bensonmum (Alec Guinness), the evening starts in earnest during dinner. There Twain sets up the theme and the events start to unfold. Trying to explain the plot to Murder would be tough, as it follows little more than a loose mystery structure. It also would be impossible for me to describe the film without potential spoilers; the script delights in absurd moments that lampoon traditional mysteries.

A familiarity with that genre will definitely make Murder more enjoyable. Iím definitely not an expert on the form, but I had enough knowledge to allow the film to seem sensible and to pick up on the inside gags. In any case, the movie goes down a very winding and almost nonsensical path that wraps up with the most confusing ďsolutionĒ in history; I suppose it might make some sense if I thought about it really hard, but I doubt it, as I believe the conclusion was meant to be daft.

And goofy it is - delightfully so, as Murder provides a sly and wicked send-up of mysteries. Neil Simonís script clearly took glee in attacking the genreís conventions and silly aspects. Not that itís a nasty piece; as with the best parodies, Murder shows an affection for the source material that makes it all the more winning. At times the movie seems a little oriented toward potty humor, but Simon packs it with enough clever and witty zingers to become consistently entertaining.

The film also benefits from a fine roster of performers. Most of the principals offer solid turns, with Lanchester the only exception. The former Bride of Frankenstein seems out of place among these superior talents, and her work feels somewhat forced and awkward. To be sure, I donít think that Lanchester actively harms the movie, but she makes Marbles the least effective and interesting participant.

Best of the bunch is Sellers, who turns what could have been a silly stereotype into another winning portrayal. He delivers some inane lines with great timing and precision, and he works magic with the better material. Falk also turns in a nice spoof of Humphrey Bogart, and Brennan is a delight as Diamondís long-deprived assistant.

Iím not a big fan of parodies, as too many go down unpleasant and witless paths such as Scary Movie. Happily, Murder By Death largely avoids those pitfalls as it offers a consistently funny and entertaining experience. The movie packs a lot of cleverness and absurd glee into its running time, and it proves to be a definite winner.

The DVD:

Murder By Death appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the letterboxed picture was reviewed for this article. I expected little from the image, but the very solid picture found on this DVD pleasantly surprised me.

Sharpness consistently looked nicely crisp and detailed. A few foggy exterior shots came across as slightly murky, but that resulted mainly from the atmospheric setting. The image stayed clear and distinct otherwise, and the movie remained accurate and distinct. Jagged edges and moirť effects caused no concerns, but I did detect some modest edge enhancement at times. Print flaws stayed quite modest for an older film. A few specks and a little grit appeared on occasion, but as a whole, this was a clean and fresh picture.

Colors looked quite rich and vivid throughout the movie. Various costumes offered the best hues, but the entire package seemed nicely vibrant and well delineated. I saw no problems related to bleeding, noise or other issues; the film stayed very fine in regard to the colors. Black levels also came across as reasonably warm and deep, and shadow detail usually looked appropriately clear but not excessively thick. A few low-light sequences were slightly muddy, but these occasions were rare. Overall, I found Murder By Death to offer a very pleasing visual experience.

While not as strong, the monaural soundtrack of Murder By Death seemed satisfying for its age. At times, speech came across as slightly thin and tinny, but the dialogue always remained crisp and intelligible, with no signs of edginess or other concerns. Some louder sounds like gunshots demonstrated a little distortion, but as a whole, those elements remained acceptably clean and accurate. The dynamics stayed fairly flat, but the pieces sounded fairly solid. Music also showed somewhat limited fidelity, as highs were a bit bland and lows lacked much depth. Still, the score seemed reasonably distinct and vivid for an older film. Overall, the audio seemed pretty average for its era, but I found it to provide a pretty solid experience.

Murder By Death only tosses in a few extras, most of which are minor. We get trailers for both Murder and The Cheap Detective along with some brief but decent text Production Notes; the latter are valuable mainly because they listed some actors who almost performed in the film. The Talent Files gives us very perfunctory entries for director Robert Moore and screenwriter Neil Simon as well as actors Capote, Falk, Sellers, Niven, Smith, and Guinness.

The only significant supplement is a Conversation With Neil Simon. This 10-minute and 20-second piece combines film clips with a few production stills and ďtalking headĒ shots of Simon from 1999. It includes too many snippets from the film, but Simon manages to offer some good comments along the way. He relates his intentions for the piece as well as the challenges of writing for the screen instead of for the stage. He also discusses the cast and his overall impressions of the film. Itís not a tremendous interview, but itís decent enough.

Despite the lack of serious extras, Murder By Death remains a winner. I found the movie itself to offer a surprisingly witty and clever experience. It had its slow spots, but as a whole, it provided solid performances and a winning and amusing piece. The DVD featured a very good picture along with good but unexceptional sound and that modest roster of supplements. Fans of both classic mysteries and bright comedies alike should give Murder By Death a gander.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.5641 Stars Number of Votes: 78
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