Thoughts From The Music(al) Man (2022) on… Murder By Death (1976)

-Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) – “Never consider murder to be business, Mr. Diamond”

And yet, for the Fall 2022 blogathon from the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA), that is the business, as the theme is “Movies Are Murder!” On that note, I decided to go with a murder comedy I’ve enjoyed for a long time (but haven’t gotten around to writing about yet), 1976’s Murder By Death, starring Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker and Estelle Winwood!

Five famous detectives and their associates have received an invitation to “dinner and a murder” at the mansion of Lionel Twain (Truman Capote). This group includes Dick Charleston (David Niven) and his wife, Dora (Maggie Smith); Inspector Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) and his adopted son Willie (Richard Narita); Milo Perrier (James Coco) and his chauffeur, Marcel Cassette (James Cromwell); Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) and his secretary, Tess Skeffington (Eileen Brennan); and Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) with her nurse, Miss Withers (Estelle Winwood). In the leadup to the dinner, there are various attempts on their lives, which all fail. During the dinner, their host (who had previously kept to himself) appears, and explains why he brought them all there. Every one of those detectives had a reputation for solving every one of their cases, and Mr. Twain wanted to bet them all that he could solve a murder before them. He predicted that one person sitting at that table would be murdered at midnight, and another would be the murderer. While he disappears, everyone else vows to stay together, although at various times, they leave the room to investigate some of the goings-on in the house. At midnight, Mr. Twain himself appears, dead (and murdered exactly as he had predicted). So, the detectives and their associates all set out to figure out who indeed murdered Twain. But will they succeed, or will Mr. Twain get the upper hand (even though he’s dead)?

Ah, the murder mystery. The genre has long been a favorite with readers and moviegoers alike. Of course, with good murder mysteries come various detectives, who become famous for their wit and their ingenuity in solving these crimes. Some authors were able to create memorable detectives that audiences loved and followed through entire series, both on the big screen and in the written word. Murder By Death was writer Neil Simon’s spoof of the detective genre. In particular, he parodied detectives from Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple), Dashiell Hammett (Nick and Nora Charles, Sam Spade) and Earl Derr Biggers (Charlie Chan). A number of big stars were offered roles (including original Thin Man actress Myrna Loy), but they turned them down. Those that did decide to take part in the film enjoyed themselves. Alec Guinness in particular thoroughly enjoyed himself, as he made the trip to Hollywood to make the film (not something he was prone to doing). In fact, he had to reassure author Neil Simon that he was having fun with it (since the author liked him so much that he offered to rewrite anything to suit him). Admittedly, some of the cast didn’t exactly have a lot of faith in the film, as Peter Sellers sold his share of the percentage back to the producers of the film, and the company that David Niven’s son was working for (and which had invested in the film) believed they would be writing it off as a tax loss. And yet, the movie ended up being the eighth biggest hit of 1976.

I first saw this film when it was given to me on DVD along with two other Peter Falk films (this film’s 1978 “sequel”, The Cheap Detective as well as the 1979 film The In-Laws). Even though I had no experience with any of the detectives that the film was spoofing (outside of Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon), I took to the film right away! The movie has a lot of twists and turns as we see the murder occur and then get solved (if you can call it that) by the film’s end. Admittedly, the film’s ending does leave you with a number of rather big plot-holes, but, at the same time, it’s so fun that I can easily forgive the movie as I get swept up in the proceedings! In general, I think all of the cast do quite well, from Peter Falk’s excellent imitation of Humphrey Bogart, to David Niven and Maggie Smith, who come off quite similarly to William Powell and Myrna Loy’s Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man films. Personally, I think that Alec Guinness’ role as the blind butler Jamessir Bensonmum is one of his best, as he is quite funny (especially with that name!). I have to throw in a SPOILER ALERT to say this, but he is at his absolute best when we see him at the end of the film, revealed as the culprits by the various detectives, and he changes his manner and character so well every time that one of the detectives comes in and accuses him of being somebody different. END SPOILER ALERT

Besides Alec Guinness, I also really like Peter Sellers here. Normally, I don’t care for him at all, but his performance as Sydney Wang is a real delight (even if it isn’t exactly politically correct, since he’s wearing yellowface to appear Asian). Quite frankly, he’s one of the most quotable characters in the film for me, with this line being a personal favorite:

-Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) – “Conversation like television set on honeymoon. Unnecessary!”

But aside from some of his sayings (or “stories” as he calls them), I most enjoy his interactions with Truman Capote’s Lionel Twain, who is almost a grammar Nazi with regards to Wang’s ability to speak English, as exemplified by this exchange:

-Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) – “What meaning of this, Mr. Twain?”

-Lionel Twain (Truman Capote) – “I will tell you, Mr. Wang, if you can tell me why a man who possesses one of the most brilliant minds of this century can’t say his prepositions or articles. ‘The,’ Mr. Wang, ‘What is the meaning of this?”

-Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) – “That’s what I said. What meaning of this?”

Of course, I just love how Wang refers to a moose head mounted on the wall (which Twain is using to watch them) as a “cow on wall.” Quite frankly, my only really serious complaint about this movie is that these two don’t interact enough.

Apart from that, I do know that this movie isn’t for everyone. Aside from Peter Sellers being made up to look Asian, the movie has a number of other things going on that keep it from being politically correct. In general, there are a handful of racist comments (usually directed towards Peter Seller’s Wang or his Japanese son, played by Richard Narita). There are definitely some issues with sexism going on, and a number of homophobic comments as well. Plain and simple, it’s not a perfect film. But, it’s one I have enjoyed seeing on an almost yearly basis (especially around the Halloween season) ever since I first saw it, and it’s one that I highly recommend (at least, for those who can get past its issues). And with that, I leave with a quote that admittedly needs another spoiler warning (since it comes from the end of the film, and hints enough at the film’s ending), but it’s one that feels apropos for the whole “Movies Are Murder!” blogathon (not to mention, it’s certainly how things sometimes feel when things don’t go our way). So thank you all for reading (and don’t let the “murder” referred to in this quote be the situation for you this weekend, either 😉 )!

SPOILER ALERT

-Willie Wang (Richard Narita) – “I don’t understand, Pop. Was there a murder or wasn’t there?”

-Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) – “Yes. Killed good weekend.”

What’s Old Is A New Release Again (2018) with… Murder By Death (1976)

This movie is available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory. The transfer seems to be using an HD scan. For the most part, it looks pretty good. There is some damage in the form of specks and dirt, but it’s really only visible on bigger and better TVs. Overall, it’s the way that I would recommend seeing the movie.

Film Length: 1 hour, 35 minutes

My Rating: 10/10

*ranked #9 in Top 10 Movies Watched In 2022

List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

Robin And The 7 Hoods (1964) – Peter Falk

Naughty Marietta (1935) – Elsa Lanchester

Magnificent Doll (1946) – David Niven

The Notorious Landlady (1962) – Estelle Winwood

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Thoughts From The Music(al) Man (2019) on… Robin And The 7 Hoods (1964)

“Oh gee, I’m a hood! I’m a hood! Ho!” – Allen A. Dale (Bing Crosby)

“That’s a hood?” – Six Seconds (Hank Henry)

We now have another take on the Robin Hood legend. This time, the story has been transplanted to late 1920s/1930s Chicago in musical form (with music provided by Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen), and features Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bing Crosby in Robin And The 7 Hoods.

When gangster Big Jim (an uncredited Edward G. Robinson) is gunned down by all the gangsters in town, Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk) takes over, charging everyone for “protection” provided by the sheriff. Robbo (Frank Sinatra) and his men don’t want to go along with that. In their feud, the two groups end up destroying each other’s nightclubs. Meanwhile, a young lady named Marian (Barbara Rush) (who turns out to be Big Jim’s daughter) wants Big Jim’s murder avenged by Robbo (who doesn’t want to do it). When Guy offs the sheriff for not preventing the destruction of his own nightclub, Marian tries to pay Robbo. Wanting nothing to do with the money, he orders it to be given away. It ends up going to an orphanage, and the resulting publicity, started by Allen A. Dale (Bing Crosby), who worked at the orphanage, turns Robbo into a popular celebrity in Chicago. This makes Guy mad, and he tries (and fails) to take Robbo down.

For me personally, this movie has always felt like it had two halves. The first half mainly features the feud between Robbo and Guy. While it certainly has comedic elements to it, they mostly take a back seat to the action. Then, a little before the halfway point, Bing Crosby shows up as Allen A. Dale and the comedy aspects come to the forefront. Personally, I have always enjoyed the second half more because of Bing Crosby, as I think he got some of the movie’s better songs (even if Frank did come out of this movie with the song “My Kind Of Town,” which seems to be the film’s big hit).

One of those songs that I like is the song “Style.” Apparently, Bing Crosby was colorblind, and was generally known for wearing some loud outfits because of that. With this song (or rather, the stuff they are doing while singing it), it seems like they are poking a little fun at Bing for that. But the real fun here is getting to hear Bing, Frank and Dean Martin singing together (and, of course, the song itself is fun and catchy, too)!

Next up is the song “Mr. Booze.” For one scene, Guy, out of frustration, wants to destroy Robbo’s newly rebuilt club, this time through an official police raid. However, Robbo made sure the new architect made preparations for such an event, and they turn the club into a room for a “revival” meeting. With Bing’s Allen A. Dale “acting” as the reverend leading the meeting, they end up going into the song “Mr. Booze.” It’s just a hilarious song (and I can’t help but laugh when they show some of the raiding policemen really getting into the meeting)!

The last song I want to mention is “Don’t Be A Do-Badder.” This song seems to be the theme for the character Allen A. Dale, as it seems to accompany him in the background for some of his appearances. When it is done as a full musical number, it is done with him and all the kids in the orphanage. Apparently, they were going for a similar staging to the Oscar-winning song “Swingin’ On A Star” from the Bing Crosby movie Going My Way. While it wasn’t quite that effective, I still think it was fun!

These were the three main songs that I enjoyed in this movie (although I believe it has many more wonderful moments)! I think one half is better than the other, but I like the whole movie and would easily recommend it! This movie is available individually on Blu-ray and DVD, and as part of the five film Frank Sinatra Collection from Warner Home Video.

“Take it from me, don’t be a do-badder…”

Film Length: 2 hours, 3 minutes

My Rating: 9/10

List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

The Road To Hong Kong (1962)Frank SinatraNone But The Brave (1965)

The Road To Hong Kong (1962) – Dean Martin

Pocketful Of Miracles (1961) – Peter Falk – Murder By Death (1976)

The Road To Hong Kong (1962)Bing CrosbyStagecoach (1966)

As an Amazon Affiliate, this site gets a small percentage for every purchase made upon using one of the Amazon links, even if it’s not the movie I linked to (and it’s at no extra cost to you). If you like what I’m doing with the blog, please consider using them so that I can continue to do more!