Grade: B
Entire family: No (13 and up?)
1976, 94 min., Color
Shout! Factory
Rated PG for some language and crude/sexual references
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Mono
Bonus features: C
Amazon link

It’s not often that you hear of a TV comedy writer who goes on to become one of his generation’s most successful playwrights, but that’s what happened with Neil Simon, who started by writing for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and became the toast of Broadway for two decades, during which he produced such long-running plays as Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot in the Park, and, most famously, The Odd Couple.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Murder by Death has a very staged feel to it, with many of the scenes performed in a single dining room at a neogothic mansion. Typical of Simon, the humor is also the gentle kind, with plenty of verbal and conceptual jokes that make you smile . . . and occasionally laugh out loud. But this murder-mystery comedy was produced in 1976, two years after fellow Sid Caesar writer Mel Brooks amused audiences with the irreverent Blazing Saddles. You could do things like that back in the ‘70s, when Archie Bunker was TV’s undisputed king of non-political correctness. Now? Not so much.

Simon’s clever Murder by Death pokes fun of the mystery genre and also lampoons the great detectives in pop literature and movies. The premise is simple: an eccentric named Lionel Twain who lives at 22 Twain, invites the world’s best detectives to “dinner and a murder.” Once they get past the blind butler (Alec Guinness) and deaf-and-dumb cook (Nancy Walker) and are seated in the dining room, Twain announces that at midnight there will be a murder—someone in this very room will die, and he challenges them to crack this case. His motive? Twain wants to prove that he’s more brilliant than the world’s most brilliant detectives.

James Coco is Milo Perrier, a character obviously that’s based on and pokes fun of Hercule Poirot, while Peter Falk plays hardboiled Sam Spade clone Sam Diamond, Elsa Lanchester is Jessica Marbles (Miss Marple), David Niven and a very young Maggie Smith are Dick and Dora Charleston (The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles), and Peter Sellers plays Sidney Wang (Charlie Chan), who’s accompanied this time by an adopted Number 3 son from Japan. It’s the Chan character—with a Caucasian playing an Asian speaking in pidgin English and offering up fortune cookie advice—that contemporary audiences might find cringe-worthy, as are the original Charlie Chan B-movies in which European-Americans always played the Chinese detective. But like a good satirist or caricaturist, Simon identifies the prominent traits of each detective and plays them for laughs—including stereotypes.

“Why do I do all the dirty work, Pop?” Willie Wang asks his adoptive father. “’Cause your mother not here to do it,” the detective responds.

When Wang says, “What meaning of this, Mr. Twain?” their flustered host loses it. “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. ‘What IS THE Mr. Wang. “What IS THE meaning of this?” And Wang counters, “That what I said! What meaning of this?”

Then there’s the hardboiled Sam Diamond. When the female assistant who accompanies him (Eileen Brennan) says, “I’m scared, Sam. Hold me,” he responds, “Hold yourself. I’m busy.” When Dick and Dora arrive, Dick points, “Up there, Dora, look: a blind butler!” and Dora responds, “Don’t let him park the car, Dickie.”

Even the butler gets into the act. When he announces that Mrs. Twain murdered herself in her sleep, Dick says, “You mean suicide?” The butler continues, deadpan, “Oh, no, it was murder all right. Mrs. Twain hated herself.”

There are so many one-liners that Murder by Death isn’t dependent upon viewers’ knowledge of these famous fictional detectives. But there are a lot of jokes that will fly past unless you’re familiar with the tropes of the mystery genre and the individual styles of the detectives. Some of the jokes are innuendo, but subtle enough that smaller children won’t really catch them. That said, because most of the jokes are verbal and the action is restricted to few hours in a mansion, Murder by Death is probably for 13 year olds and up.

Language: Pretty mild, though there is some racist language (“Jap,” “slanty”) and references to “caca” and “Number 2”

Sex: Mostly innuendo, with the only onscreen sexuality being a man grabbing his wife’s clothed bottom; there are also jokes about necrophilia, homosexuality, and groping

Violence: Only a few instances of attempted violence that are so mild they’re hardly worth mentioning.

Adult situations: Mostly the aforementioned innuendo

Takeaway: As a parody of classic detectives and mysteries, Murder by Death is both clever and fun