Thursday, March 19, 2020

Neil Simon's Murder By Death

Peter Falk as Sam Diamond.
Wealthy eccentric Lionel Twain has invited the world's six greatest detectives to his isolated mansion for "dinner and murder." Once his guests have been assembled, Twain reveals that a murder will take place at midnight and the first detective to unveil the killer will receive $1,000,000.

That's the premise for Neil Simon's Murder By Death (1976), a modestly amusing comedy that pays homage to some of literature's most famous detectives. Of course, the names and the characters have been tweaked for comedic purposes. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot has become Milo Perrier (James Coco) and her Miss Marple transformed into Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester). Likewise, Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles have been turned into private eye Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) and socialites Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith). Finally, there's Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), a thinly-veiled version of Earl Derr Bigger's Charlie Chan.

Simon's affection for these characters and the mystery genre is apparent throughout Murder By Death. However, that's not to say that he's above poking fun at the detectives' best known traits. For example, Twain constantly expresses irritation at Sidney Wang's broken English and his wise sayings ("Conversation like television set on honeymoon--unnecessary"). Simon also delights to sending up some of the mystery genre's best-known conventions, such as revealing new information just before the culprit is unmasked.

Peter Sellers as Sidney Wang.
Simon's script for Murder By Death is filled with one-liners and sight gags. His strategy is one of quantity over quality, so that when a funny line falls flat, there's another one--hopefully more amusing--on the way. No topic is off limits, with Simon spinning jokes about Asian stereotypes, blindness, and gay people. Indeed, in this day of increased political awareness, one can envision Murder By Death being labeled as controversial  (especially for Sellers' portrayal of an Asian character).

The all-star cast appears to be having a grand time, especially Alec Guinness as the blind (or is he?) butler. The best detective portrayal belongs to James Coco, who would have made a fine Poirot in a serious mystery (with less emphasis on eating!). Neil Simon liked Peter Falk's hard-boiled private eye so well that he wrote The Cheap Detective (1978), a follow-up starring Falk in a similar role and with his Murder By Death co-stars James Coco and Eileen Brennan.

Alec Guinness as the butler.
There are multiple versions of Murder By Death due to outtakes being reinserted to increase its running time for broadcast television. The additional scenes include an appearance by Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson at the end of the film.

In an interview on one of the DVDs, Neil Simon expressed his admiration for Alec Guinness. During a break on the set, he said that Guinness was reading a script called Star Wars: "I said 'What's that about, Alec?' He said 'The future. Good stuff, I think. We'll see.'"


  1. Simon originally included Sherlock in the group - the other actors complained of being overshadowed. It's like having Superman in the Justice League - you don't really need anyone else.

  2. Neil Simon cracks me up! And Murder by Death, in particular, gets to this B mystery series fan.

    Reading what Bill had to say about Holmes not making the cut makes me wish Simon had worked up something with the world's first consulting detective as the star.

  3. Love the comments. Don't completely agree about Sherlock, though. He is a great detective, but there have been so, so many others. What about Poe's Dupin, who was really one of the "UR Detectives"?

    I heard on a Podcast (that seems pretty reliable) that Guinness was not all that excited about doing Star Wars. That he thought it might ruin his career. But, also, when he got on set he was a thorough going professional and gentleman.

    Agree about Sellars' mildly racist depiction. However, is it possible that the character is, itself racist, so whoever plays it would be contributing to that? Sellars was a true genius, and it comes through in Murder by Death. In spite of the possible racial insensitivity of the character.

  4. I believe Guinness got a Star Wars percentage. Something he learned from Wm Holden on River Kwai.He did brag about ordering some Star Wars fan, who'd seen it something like 100 times, to never see it again. "I could see incipient madness in his eyes....".

  5. I've read many versions of Sir Alec Guinness vs. Star Wars.
    The story you have here indicates that when Sir Alec was reading the script on the Murder … set, he was still considering whether to do it at all.
    As a working actor, he would likely be thinking about the money, the location, and the time involved.
    If offered a percentage, that would be a factor as well ( but remember, at that point nobody knew what Star Wars was - or had any idea what it would turn out to be).
    In subsequent memoirs, Sir Alec wrote of his mixed feelings about Obi-Wan Kenobi's "icon" status, which his classical background didn't prepare him for.
    About the meeting with the megafan, his response read (to me at least) as a mixture of astonishment and embarrassment - no "brag" at all.

  6. Star Wars marked the birth of The Fanboy.Uniting a generation in a (massively) merchandised culture. True, no one could foretell its impact, but Lucas was knowingly making the film HE would've wanted to see. His comment was one of pride. He felt he'd saved a life.He didn;t understand the culture. If someone had seen Kind Hearts and Coronets a 100 times, he might've felt more comfortable.

  7. I agree that James Coco would have made a fabulous Poirot in a serious movie.

  8. Belatedly:

    Not long ago, I came across a novelization of Murder By Death, which apparently was only released in Great Britain.
    The interesting part (to me, anyway) is that the author here was H.R.F. Keating, one of the best-known and most respected mystery writers in the UK - and comes to that, in the world.
    And the interesting part of that is that Harry Keating decided to turn Neil Simon's joke machine into a real novel - you know, where the characters try to make sense of it all, and like that.
    Mind you, Keating didn't lose the jokes - far from it.
    But my sense of it was that he had more real affection for what he was spoofing; this showed most clearly in his ending, which differs somewhat from Simon's.
    I hesitate to put a spoiler in here: as I mentioned above, what I've got here is a British paperback, which I found by chance in a second-hand bin.
    Getting it here at this late date would be a task for whoever reads this; anybody who wants to try, good luck - I think it's worth the effort.