Sunday, May 13, 2018

Movie #458: Murder by Death

Murder by Death is one of those movies they don't make anymore: A well done parody. It stars David Niven, Maggie Smith, Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan, Peter Sellers, Truman Capote, Alec Guinness, James Coco, Elsa Lanchester, Estelle Winwood, Richard Narita, and, in his first feature film role, James Cromwell.

This film is a send-up of the whodunit, Agatha Christie style murder mystery. Lionel Twain (Capote) invites the five greatest detectives in the world: Inspector Wang (Sellers, and we'll get to that), Milo Perrier (Coco), Sam Diamond (Falk), Jessica Marbles (Lanchester), and Dick Charleston (Niven) to his spooky-ass house to solve a murder. He tells them that at the stroke of midnight, there will be a murder, and since they won't be able to solve it, that'll make him the greatest living criminologist.

Now, that's flimsy logic on its face (and the characters point out that if he's the one orchestrating this, then he's the murderer), but stick with me, because it gets sillier. Twain is the one who seemingly gets murdered at midnight, after the blind butler Bensonmum (Guinness) has already been poisoned. The guests theorize and point out increasingly absurd preexisting connections between each other and Twain (he's Wang's father! He picked up Diamond in a gay bar!) until finally they all gather in the accusing parlor and discover that Bensonmum, very much alive, is the real killer...kinda.

So, I enjoy the detective story, and I like a good parody. The problem is that there are so few good parodies. This article from the AV Club kinda runs down how the parody genre has tanked in the last couple of decades, but Murder by Death ticks the right boxes - it requires a knowledge of the genre and it certainly helps if you've read Hammett and Christie or seen some of the film adaptations, but it's funny regardless.

Now, let's not ignore the problematic shit. Sellers is playing Wang, a sendup of Charlie Chan, and he's a white dude in yellowface speaking broken English. That said, as Michelle points out, the portrayal here isn't any worse than Warner Oland or Sidney Toller playing him, and here some of the worst bits (like Wang's broken English) actually get called out. I personally thought it would have been better to have "Wang" reveal that he's really a white guy from Fresno or whatever; wouldn't have been any more over the top than the "revelations" we actually get. Lot of ableist humor surrounding Bensonmum's blindness and the maid's (Nancy Warner) deaf/mute-ness, too, which is kinda cringey.

The central takeaway, here, I think, is the metafiction at the end, in which Twain berates them all for their novels, introducing last-minute characters and clues that don't play fair by the reader. The plot and twists of the movie are impossible to follow, you can't trust that anything that people say is true, and of course there are huge plot holes - but I think that's the point, it's all an over-the-top way to "surprise" the reader, which is itself kind of a perversion of what the genre is about.

Dated content aside, too, there are some very funny people in this movie. I love the subtle (and not-so-subtle) callouts to Nick Charles being the "real" detective while Nora ("Dora," here, played by Smith) get relegated to "wife" status. Likewise, the detectives continually one-up each other with their observations and deductions of what's going on around them, but miss some of the context. It's a smart movie with some low gags at times, which is a damn sight better than what passes for "spoof" these days.

My Grade: B+
Rewatch Value: Medium-high

Next up: The Musketeer