Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Murder by Laughter

If I ever die laughing, I could well be watching a Neil Simon play or film.

Simon is the undisputed king of the deceptively simple one-line zinger...he understands how to set up and pay off a joke so quickly and cleverly that audiences never even see it coming—instead, they dissolve into delightedly surprised laughter. For within every Neil Simon witticism is the human truth that makes it funny. In his plays and films, Simon creates a context in which the most mundane and banal situations are pregnant with humorous possibility.

Unlike his warmhearted romantic comedies about ordinary New Yorkers like Barefoot in the Park, Come Blow Your Horn and The Goodbye Girl, Murder By Death (1976) is a breezy lark with no basis in reality, in which he takes beloved literary stereotypes and imbues them with his earthy humor. The plot is pure mystery movie cliché—a wealthy eccentric invites a group of the world’s greatest detectives to solve a murder that has yet to be committed. The result is nonstop fun.

In this über-clever mystery satire, Simon and a stellar cast bring human failings and foibles to the stock storybook characters that mystery readers know as well as they know themselves—and then Simon performs his magic trick of mining the comedy gold via rapid-fire, rapier-witted dialogue. To breathe life into the story, Simon and director Robert Moore assembled a  talented ensemble of actors, almost all of whom were also stage veterans, adept at fashioning a character and blessed with lightning-accurate timing and feel for pace, rhythm and style. Watching these disparate group of actors working together is a joy to behold.

Guinness and Walker: "My Name Is Yetta. I Cannot Hear or Speak"

Smith and Niven: "A blind butler? Don't let him park the car, Dickie."

Falk: "I think we picked ourselves a queer bird, angel."

Lanchester: "Up yours, fella!"

Coco: "He's dead, all right. That was one of my funniest faces."

Sellers: "Conversation like television set on honeymoon. Unnecessary."
Imagine Sir Alec Guinness as a blind butler saddled with Nancy Walker as a deaf mute cook. Maggie Smith and David Niven as elegant Dick and Dora Charleston, complete with an Asta-lookalike dog.  Peter Falk as the Bogie-inspired Sam Diamond. Elsa Lanchester and James Coco essaying the Agatha Christie-esque characters of British Jessica Marbles and Belgian Milo Perrier. And as the inscrutable Chinese gumshoe Sidney Wang, notorious scene stealer Peter Sellers, so uniquely gifted that he threatens to walk off with the entire film every time he opens his mouth to spout Simon’s fortune-cookie aphorisms. (In spite of his dazzling performance, Sellers reportedly hated making this film, and wrongly predicted it would be a huge flop.)

Capote: "You all mistake what you assume. They never left the dining room!"
Flamboyant Truman Capote, who looks as if he just wandered onto the set from The Merv Griffin Show, was savaged by critics for his performance, unfairly, in my opinion—Capote was forever being (homophobically) excoriated for something, for just being his outrageous self. Here, he strikes the perfect note in his cameo role of Lionel Twain (the name itself a Simon joke, whenever spoken by Sellers’s Sidney Wang). Thank the pop culture gods we have this celluloid remembrance of the famed author and raconteur captured on film.

With their period costumes and stylized portrayals, films like this can really turn off audiences—compare the soufflé light Murder By Death to the execrable and leaden Clue a few years later...or even Simon’s own failure The Cheap Detective. There is, after all, a not-so-subtle distinction between a satire and a spoof.


  1. You are so on the money in pointing out how delicate this kind of comedy is and how hard it is to pull off. The two examples you offer "Clue" and "The Cheap Detective" are perfect illustrations of how you can have have all the proper ingredients and still wind up with a flat souffle.

    This film is one of my all time favorite comedies, and for yours my computer was full of WAV clips of the film's dialog. I love everything about it. By the way, I was so happy to read your defense of Truman Capote here. He is no actor, but he was right on point with his comedy performance here (especially his increasingly frustrated and comical admonitions to Sellers to use his pronouns).
    Your wonderful recapping of the film's best bits makes me want to pop in my DVD and watch the film again. A great write up on a marvelous comedy.

  2. Glad to be able to share our mutual enthusiasm for this wonderful movie!! I remember going to the movies to see this over and over, pre VHS and DVD...of course I also now own the DVD and have watched it many times more.

    I forgot to mention the wonderful Eileen Brennan as Sam's girl friday...a super elderly Estelle Winwood and a fun early role for James Cromwell as the chauffeur...also thought that the young actor playing Wang's son was charming and had good chemistry with Sellers. I don't know if he did much after that.

    Yes, do see it again if you haven't recently. It is such a joy.