As penned by Neil Simon, this satire of movie mysteries is set in motion when several prominent detectives are invited to the mansion of the reclusive Lionel Twain (Truman Capote). In Ten Little Indians fashion, the gathered sleuths are locked into the forbidding mansion, and subject to various death-dealing devices. While struggling for their lives, the vainglorious gumshoes continue to try to one-up one another. Each character is broadly based on a famous literary detective: Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) is an aphorism-spouting Charlie Chan clone: Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith) are patterned on the protagonists of the Thin Man flicks; Milo Perrier (James Coco), a Hercule Poirot takeoff, stalks through the proceedings declaring "I'm a Belgie, not a Frenchie!"; Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) is Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade rolled in one; and Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) is a dottier variation of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. Best bit: a "conversation" between blind butler Jamessir Bensonmum (Alec Guinness) and deaf-mute maid Yetta (Nancy Walker). The fade-out gag of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson showing up late for Lionel Twain's party was edited from the theatrical version of Murder by Death, but was restored for TV. The film marked the big-screen directorial debut of Robert Moore, who'd previously directed several of Neil Simon's Broadway productions. Moore went on to direct another Simon spoof, The Cheap Detective (1978), before his untimely death.
by Hal Erickson synopsis