Friday, 19 February 2010

Murder By Death (USA, 1976)

It is a dark and stormy night … The world’s five finest detectives – Inspector Wang (read: Charlie Chan), Jessica Marbles (read: Miss Marple), Sam Diamond (read: an amalgamation of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe), Dick Charleston (read: Nick Charles, ‘The Thin Man’) and Milo Perrier (read: Hercule Poirot) – are enticed to the mysterious, mechanised and misleading mansion of ‘short madman’ Lilo Twain, by his cordial invitation ‘to Dinner and a Murder’. After surviving several absurd attempts on their lives, these preeminent private dicks are eventually informed that, at midnight, there will be a murder and, in the morning, there will be a million dollars for whosoever is able to solve it. There follows a film so deliciously ludicrous that its most straight-faced scenes feature a blind butler arguing with a deaf-mute cook.

Astonishing silliness and astonishing intelligence seldom arrive together onscreen. When they do, as they do throughout Murder By Death, the comedy is always exquisite. Everything in this movie is calculated to entertain. The cast is listed ‘in diabolical order’; the opening credits, designed by Wayne Fitzgerald and drawn by Charles Adams, are a fine warm up act for the film; and, once the dialogue begins, we immediately attempt to memorise every line of it. The term ‘big name screenwriter’ is almost an oxymoron, and Neil Simon’s is one of the very few names that keeps it from being a complete contradiction. Though not as intellectual, or as frequently studied, as some of his other scripts, his work here should be as celebrated as anything else in his oeuvre.

Forced, by the Machiavellian machinations of a short madman, to pick a favourite line, I would probably opt for: ‘Locked from the inside! This can only mean one thing … but I don’t know what it is.’ However, practically every joke in the film would be in contention: its lowliest one-liner would be the standout gag in a hundred Hollywood comedies. Just as there are sing-along screenings of The Sound of Music, so should there be (and perhaps there already are) speak-along showings of Murder By Death.

The cast set loose on Simon’s lines is so superb that the best praise it can be given is simply to list its members: Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Peter Falk … and, of course, Truman Capote. Capote’s turn as Lionel Twain (a character who is, according to the trailer, ‘a short, sinister man who looks exactly like Truman Capote’) is a joyous and unrestrained explosion of himself, and un-reproachable proof that, given correct casting and understanding direction, a performance beyond the capabilities of any actor can be wrung from someone who is not any kind of actor at all.

Praise for (generally engendered by surprise at) Capote’s performance should, though, never be allowed to overshadow appreciation of the other actors on show. No one has ever been better at giving glimpses of the lecherous and the louche underneath an ‘enormously well-bred’ exterior than David Niven, and he was never better at doing it than he is as Dick Charleston. Not even Jerry Lacy – who provided a priceless impersonation of Humphrey Bogart throughout Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam has ever been better at aping Bogey than Peter Falk is as Sam Diamond. But what is most impressive about the performances exhibited in Murder By Death is that its actors are able to present such obvious and individual caricatures and yet, somehow, to tessellate as an ensemble.

Set designers are seldom the subject of a sentence in film reviews, but Stephen B. Grimes’s work is worthy of a whole paragraph here. Twain’s house, all of which was constructed upon a soundstage, is an incredible creation and enhances the hilarity of every scene: it is every country mansion from every country mansion murder mystery Hollywood ever made, and every haunted house from every haunted house thriller you’ve ever seen. It’s fitting that a film that thrives on its cast’s high-class scenery chewing has such high-class scenery for them to chew.

Outstanding as it is, the film has faults. Any picture this absurd is almost certain to be uneven (cf. Monty Python’s inability to concoct a cohesive plot in anything other than The Life of Brian) and Murder By Death has too many moments that bemuse more than they amuse. The film’s ending, although it makes a clever and amusing point in a clever and amusing way, is also dramatically disappointing.

To pick at such imperfections, though, is not just to miss the point of this movie, but to miss the point of moviegoing. This is a spoof so spot on it is often incapacitatingly entertaining. Next time you want to feel a little more alive, prescribe yourself a little Murder By Death.