It's almost offensive to have such an embarrassment of riches in one movie and throw them away in such an off-handed, almost absent-minded way. One look at the awesome cast brought together for this original script by playwright Neil Simon, and at some of the choice repartee he is known for, and you wish someone like Richard Quine or Blake Edwards were in charge of this scathing spoof of murder mystery novels set in the spooky manor of the reclusive Lionel Twain (Truman Capote).

     Unfortunately, most of Mr. Simon's film work seldom had the good fortune of being handled by a genuinely inspired film director. Murder by Death was the debut feature of the late Robert Moore, a Tony-winning stage director with extensive television work behind him, but showing little or none comic flair in this flat, somewhat clumsy debut; as if the script and the cast merely required a functional director that would make sure everything was in focus. The irony, of course, is that Murder by Death was an original film screenplay rather than the stage play Mr. Moore's handling makes it seem like. (Before his death in 1984, he was only to direct two further features, both scripted by Mr. Simon.)

     The plot's inbuilt zaniness scathingly rips apart the codes of murder mysteries through thinly-veiled takes on five celebrated literary detectives (their names evidently changed) working together to solve a murder: Peter Falk and Eileen Brennan as Sam Spade and his secretary; David Niven and Maggie Smith as Nick and Nora Charles; Elsa Lanchester and James Coco as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and Poirot; and Peter Sellers as Charlie Chan. The story, however, demanded a lighter, fleeter touch than Mr. Moore's heavy-handed, TV-level staging. That doesn't make Murder by Death any less enjoyable, as the inspired one-liners and game performances betray a love and knowledge of murder mysteries and are delightful enough to carry the movie. But these are not enough to overlook the film's disappointing lack of rhythm and the sense of an insufficiently developed script somewhat wasted - the plot moves forward in fits and starts that make a point of not making sense, and the climax suggests Mr. Simon might have backed himself into a corner he could only get out of by pushing the surreal to a maximum.

Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker, Estelle Winwood.
     Director, Robert Moore; writer, Neil Simon; cinematography (colour), David M. Walsh; music, Dave Grusin; production designer, Stephen Grimes; costume designer, Ann Roth; supervising editor, Margaret Booth; editor, John F. Burnett; producer, Ray Stark (Columbia Pictures, Rastar Productions), USA, 1976, 94 minutes.
     Screened December 20th 2011.


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