The sad irony of Neil Simon’s Murder by Death, a grating and smug exercise in parody, lies in its dogged devotion to stereotype, a comedic mean streak that parallels the material it intends to ridicule, emerging as a wolf in sheep’s clothing more insidious than its points of reference. Constructed of the riddles and red herrings that occupy Agatha Christie’s thrillers, Simon’s script glazes over the predominant themes, making Christie’s flimsy characterizations the butt of the joke and stripping the story of a satisfying payoff, cutting all attempts at mystery off at the knees. The resulting study in tedium is one huge false start, loosely-structured to the point of indifference and so enamored with its own wit that it forgets to disguise racism as satire.
Hosting a “Dinner and a Murder” soiree for his competitors, Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), an eccentric private investigator with a taste for the “macabre” and absent pinky fingers, lures his gumshoe foes from every corner of the globe to his sprawling estate for a night of cocktails and benign recreation. Unbeknownst to his lodgers, the evening’s murder won’t be simulated and the inspector who’s crafty enough to survive the night unscathed and collar the assassin will take home a million dollar purse. Standing in the way of victory are an omnipresent black-gloved prowler, precariously dangling swords, toppling stone gargoyles and a poisoned bottle of red wine, booby traps aimed to knock the jetsetting private dicks off of their respective games. Regrettably, a stockpile of promising setpieces can’t save a film devoid of suspense, bogged down by an endless amount of insubstantial character development and rushed to an inadequate resolution.
Simon’s characters are insignificant enough to be described in a single word, many functioning solely to embody ethnic typecasting or perform pratfalls to match their physical disability. The great Alec Guinness struggles to add shading to his take on a blind butler, but little can be done to rehabilitate a character employed exclusively to roll his eyeballs around in their sockets and ladle out bowls of non-existent soup. His difficulty training the manor’s new chef, who just so happens to be deaf and mute, leads to an endless string of miscommunications, many of which delay the already plodding and dreary storyline.
The film’s most flagrantly distasteful performance belongs to Peter Sellers, who seems to take on his buck-toothed, Changshan-bedecked detective with great aplomb. Prattling endlessly in choppy, faux-philosophical aphorisms, Sellers’ Sidney Wang is a riff on Charlie Chan in more objectionable facepaint, each of his stale jokes sinking like a stone before the resounding blast of a gong on the soundtrack. If this characterization sounds offensive as a member of the audience, imagine how appalling it must have been for the Asian actor employed to play Sellers’ adopted Japanese son.
A startling number of Murder by Death’s bits revolve around ethnic accents and manners of speech, showing a blithe disregard for cultural differences in the name of broad humor. The aforementioned Mr. Wang’s inability to elocute in a non-native language is taken to task on multiple occasions, often resulting in a rather uncomfortable and sophistic lesson in pronouns and prepositions from the host of the party. Though the intention of the gag may have been to shed light on class-based racism, it didn’t direct its punchline at the host’s arrogance, but at the struggle of the embarrassed guest, exploiting his linguistic difficulties in the name of comedy. If conveying an underlying theme or exaggerating to illustrate a social concern, race and heritage can be used as fodder for slapstick, but Neil Simon prostitutes identity in the name of a cheap laugh and every one of his cunning attempts at satire is more gutless than the last.
Murder by Death (Columbia Pictures, 1976)
Directed by Robert Moore
Written by Neil Simon
Photographed by David M. Walsh