Sony // 1976 // 94 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // January 21st, 2002
You'll die laughing figuring it out!
Over the years Neil Simon has penned some pretty funny plays and movies. In his illustrious career Mr. Simon has written such gut-busting films (many of them originally for the stage) as The Odd Couple, The Out-Of-Towners, Biloxi Blues and The Cheap Detective. In 1976 an all-star cast was assembled for Simon's whodunit comedy Murder By Death. The top notch talent for this farce included Peter Falk (The Princess Bride), David Niven (Dodsworth), Peter Sellers (The Pink Panther), James Coco (The Muppets Take Manhattan), Alec Guinness (Star Wars), Eileen Brennan (Jeepers Creepers), Maggie Smith (Hook), Elsa Lanchester (The Bride Of Frankenstein), James Cromwell (Star Trek: First Contact), and in a Golden Globe nominated performance (and one of his only starring roles), author Truman Capote as macabre host Lionel Twain. Columbia TriStar buries the hatchet and lets out a scream (of laughter) with this first ever widescreen DVD of Murder By Death.
A take-off of many detective movies, books, and characters of the past, Murder By Death is a comedic mystery of goofy proportions.
Lionel Twain (Capote) has invited some of the best detectives to his mansion for a night of murder and mayhem! The all star lineup includes Sam Diamond (Falk) and his lady Tess (Brennan), the rotund Belgium Milo Perrier (Coco) and his chauffeur Marcel (Cromwell), Dick (Niven) and Dora Charleston (Smith), Sidney Wang (Sellers) and his adopted son Willie (Richard Narita), Miss Jessica Marbles (Lanchester), the blind butler (Guinness), the mute maid (Nancy Walker), and an assortment of other wild and wacky characters. In Twain's mansion the group is locked up and told that a murder shall take place at midnight -- with one the victim and one the murderer! A million dollars is at stake for the person who can solve the dastardly crime...if they can keep their sanity in Twain's house of games!
There's no denying that Neil Simon is a funny guy. This is the same person who penned such guffaw-inducing movies like the Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau tickler The Odd Couple (and its sequel), the fish-out-of-water tale The Out-Of-Towners, and the very funny The Cheap Detective. Simon has a way of pumping out humorous dialogue that is both intelligent and witty. While some films he's written may be slightly dated and stale by today's standards (anyone seen Plaza Suite lately?), Simon is still one of the best comedic writers in Hollywood. Murder By Death is a prime example of Simon at the top of his game.
Before I continue with this review I want to point out that Murder By Death is not a laugh-'till-you-cry movie. The Odd Couple is a fine example of that type of film. More than anything Murder By Death leaves one lightly chuckling -- there are moments of zaniness and silliness, but never anything so funny as to warrant this one of the great comedies of all time.
However, I digress. Murder By Death is fluffy entertainment that pokes fun at the mystery genre while simultaneously sending it a love letter. Simon obviously has a genuine affection for this sort of genre. The script is filled with all kinds of odes and observations that only the seasoned mystery aficionado will catch. The movie includes take-offs of various famous detectives including Miss Marple, Sam Spade, and Charlie Chan. Each actor plays his part accordingly, though some of them end up stealing the show. Peter Sellers as Wang is downright hysterical as he spouts fortune cookie analogies that annoy everyone around him. Peter Falk does a nice Humphrey Bogart impersonation, and Maggie Smith shines as Niven's wife (when told in secret why some people would steal a dead body, Smith responds with deadpan accuracy "Tacky. Absolutely tacky.") Truman Capote, in one of his first starring roles, seems to be channeling the spirit of Liberace, Elmer Fudd, and Larry "Bud" Melman. The rest of the cast, including Alec Guinness doing some nice slapstick comedy and James Coco blundering his way through the film, are all adept in their roles and very entertaining.
I have the sneaking suspicion that most comedy fans below the age of 20 won't appreciate Simon's offbeat humor. In an age of fart jokes, sperm gags, and shooting snot comedy, Murder By Death may seem a trifle bit...well, boring. However, given the chance this is a movie that has a lot of entertaining moments and a classic cast that knows how to play this material -- with their tongues firmly in cheek.
Murder By Death is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Columbia has done an admirable job on this transfer. While there are a few slight imperfections (grain abounds, and there is a fair amount of edge enhancement), overall this is a nice looking presentation for a film over 25 years old. Colors look very vivid and bright with the black levels solid and evenly dark. There was a slight amount of halo in the picture, but nothing that should detract from the viewing.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital Mono 1.0 in both English and French. As expected this is an only passable audio track that does the job, and nothing more. Murder By Death is a dialogue driven comedy and wasn't in need of a newly remixed 5.1 track (though it certainly would have been welcome). Dialogue, effects, and music are all clear and free of distortion. Also included on this disc are subtitles in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai.
Special features for Murder By Death are slim, including some information on the principle cast players, two theatrical trailers for the Neil Simon films Murder By Death and The Cheap Detective, and an exclusive interview titled "A Conversation With Neil Simon" that includes Simon discussing some behind-the-scenes information about the film and the actors. This interview is a nice extra, though in the end it's all too brief.
Murder By Death is an entertaining little romp that should leave both Neil Simon fans and murder mystery junkies happy. Columbia has done some nice work on this disc, though a commentary track or in-depth interview with Simon would have been a lot of fun.
Murder By Death is free to go, as is Columbia for above passing work on this disc! Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Exclusive Interview: "A Conversation With Neil Simon"
* Two Theatrical Trailers
* Talent Files