Murder by Death belongs on any list of the most overlooked comedies of the last few decades. A spoof on the mystery genre written by Neil Simon, the story involves caricatures of every prominent literary detective portrayed by a who's who of acting talent. Charlie Chan (Peter Sellers), Hercule Poirot (James Coco), Sam Spade (Peter Falk), Nick Charles (David Niven), and Miss Marple (Elsa Lanchester) all get the royal treatment, and the elaborate setup involves a recluse, played by Truman Capote, challenging them to a battle of wits. The jokes come like cannon fire and nearly every line of dialogue is a one-liner. Simon throws enough mystery elements into the script to keep things interesting, most exemplified by the blind butler played to perfection by Alec Guinness. One of the singular pleasures of this film is watching actors not ordinarily associated with laugh-out-loud comedy handle the material with tremendous amount of aplomb, particularly Niven, Guinness, and Maggie Smith as Niven's wife, who has perhaps the most sarcastic and funny part in the film. Capote is miscast, but the very fact of that makes his role even funnier. The mystery setup goes absolutely nowhere and there are shots of what could be assumed to be clues for the audience that are just red herrings. The whole thing is centered on the characters and the portrayals. Falk does a tremendous Humphrey Bogart impersonation and Sellers gives what has to be one of his more restrained performances, but hilariously funny, nonetheless. If there's one drawback it's that things may move too fast for a present-day audience. It seems more complicated than it really is, but Murder by Death is a good place to find consistent laughs.
by Dan Friedman review