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Murder by Death (Robert Moore) 1976 

    Yeah, so I enjoyed Murder by Death a good deal when I saw it when I was about 12 years old… This prompted me to order it when I saw it was being released on DVD, and I’m realizing, at the ripe old age of 23 that sometimes, you can’t go back. This parody of murder mysteries is almost passable, but so far from great that I wonder what was in the water at my parent’s house that made me enjoy it. There are indeed some small pleasures to be found here. Certainly, Peter Falk’s Bogart impression is pretty damn funny, even to the cynical 23-year-old guy that I’ve become. His dialogue is a mishmash of nonsensical non-sequiturs, hilariously elaborate clichés, and proclamations that he has to go “to the can.” The big problem with this though is that there are about a dozen other characters, none with anything near the same appeal. The most god-awful of the lot is Truman Capote, as Lionel Twain (ho-ho), the flaming master of ceremonies (he apparently got a Golden Globe nomination, which makes sense since this was during that award’s Pia Zadora days).  Looking like Elton John as the Pinball Wizard in Tommy, the guy is clearly out of place among the group of assembled sleuths. His running gag incessantly points out that Peter Sellers’ Chinese Detective Wang (ho-ho) fails to use proper grammar (ho-ho). 

    This might all be forgivable if there was actually a decent mystery to be solved, but there isn’t. Apparently, the film is attempting to poke fun at the way that many detective novels cheat when presenting a wrap-up to their mysteries, but by making its own resolution completely incomprehensible it hasn’t done a very good job. As such, the film is obviously constructed so that we get to watch each of the six detectives arrive at the castle where this all takes place, each show off a bit of their prowess, each go to bed and face danger, and so on. There’s nothing inherently wrong with ensemble writing that attempts to give equal running time to each of its members, but when it’s so obvious about it, the pacing of the film suffers and the tension drops off dramatically, since we know the story won’t proceed until everyone delivers their one-liner. There’s little that’s remarkable about the film’s production, outside of some decently generic art direction, and the direction doesn’t do a lot to remove the staginess of the endeavor. Overall, Murder by Death stands out to me now as such a scuttling of an inspired premise that it makes me think that perhaps my teenage appreciation of Clue might have been equally misguided. 

* * 


Jeremy Heilman