The Set of 400: #164 – My Favorite Blind Butler

Today! Because conversation like television set on honeymoon – unnecessary –

Murder by Death (1976)

Directed by Robert Moore (x2)

Starring David Niven, Maggie Smith (x2), Peter Sellers (x4), Peter Falk (x4), Elsa Lanchester, James Coco (x3), Alec Guinness, Eileen Brennan (x2), Estelle Winwood, James Cromwell (x2), Nancy Walker, Truman Capote, Richard Narita

Neil Simon’s epic comedy mashup of legendary 20th century mystery novel sleuths is half brilliant, half standard Neil Simon-esque jokes, with a like 20% horribly racist overlay. It was the ’70s, and I know that’s no great excuse, and you had master of accents and buffoonery Peter Sellers as Charlie Chan-lite Sidney Wang, but that’s also no great excuse. Wang has some funny lines – not just funny accent bits – but it’s not for today’s audience, I’ll readily admit that.

However, Niven and Smith as Dick and Dora Charleston, Peter Falk’s Sam Diamond, James Coco’s Monsieur Perrier, and Elsa Lanchester’s Jessica Marbles take off wonderfully on Nick and Nora, Sam Spade, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple. The plot revolves around a secluded mansion where the detectives have been gathered to solve a murder by their host Lionel Twain, the ultimately murdered man, played fairly tongue-in-cheek by Truman Capote. It’s absurdist zaniness, with the house functioning very much as a character itself, moving rooms at will and facilitating numerous attempts on the detectives’ lives. It’s basically a wilder take on Clue, just ten years earlier and with only one ending.

I think I declared Hannah and Her Sisters to have basically the greatest cast ever assembled, but hell, it might be Murder by Death. Look at that group! Nine Oscar nominees and three winners! Plus, Neil Simon’s script and that solid director of Neil Simon movies Robert Moore! So popular and successful in its day that it spawned list film #273 The Cheap Detective, which, while not quite as solid, doesn’t have the whole yellow-faced racist aspect to it.

Here’s an interesting one – does Neil Simon’s brand of comedy hold up today? I mean, on stage, sure, it’s fine. As I mentioned somewhere else, I was in a bunch of Simon plays back when this brain still memorized lines. They are great for amateur theater groups and small towns, but is this stuff still funny as a whole? Most comedy from more than, what, 30 years ago probably wouldn’t be all that funny to a younger generation, but I think stagey comedy translated to film has more inherent problems than other genres. The conversations feel timed out for live audiences, and the movies tend to incorporate this pattern in some minor way, giving the films an unnatural and forced rhythm, at times. I don’t know, that could just be me, but Neil Simon’s films from the ’70s were crazy popular at the time – The Goodbye Girl, Plaza Suite, Chapter Two, The Sunshine Boys – and it just doesn’t seem like these get a ton of play in this day in age.

Murder by Death picked up a weird Golden Globe nomination –  Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture, for Truman Capote, who’s fine, I guess, but not doing a ton of acting. Also, really, Golden Globes – you go back a few decades and they gave out awards for every damn thing. This is why no one takes you seriously! It also managed a Best Original Screenplay nod from the WGA, so that’s something! This movie is a near miss for our Sherlock Holmes list collection, as there is a scene only in the TV edit where Holmes and Watson are headed to the mansion after the mystery has been resolved. So, Best Game Almost Being Afoot? 

A couple of new Two and Three-Timers, including Cheap Detective director Moore, but the Peters Falk (Cheap Detective, #237 Princess Bride, #219 The Player) and Sellers (#245 Lolita, #166 Pink Panther Strikes Again, #206 Being There) lead the advancement, both jumping to the Fours!

Look, I’m not going to apologize for it. Sellers was funny, but it’s not a great choice

Coming Monday! The possibility of physical and mental collapse is now very real –

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