Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Death By Laughter

I have mentioned before that my parents were devoted fans of the murder mystery.

They were familiar with all of the great literary and film detectives, and they passed along a fondness for the genre to me — along with a collection of paperback novels by Agatha Christie, which are still in the book collection on my shelves today.

In fact, they were so familiar with the genre that they got every joke, every reference that Neil Simon wrote into his entertaining cinematic spoof of murder mysteries, "Murder By Death," which premiered 35 years ago tomorrow.

That was a definite plus for me. I remember seeing the movie with them and then having them explain the jokes I didn't get after the movie was over.

I wound up returning to the theater to see the movie again (a couple of times) after they told me the inside jokes I had missed — and the movie actually inspired me to read some books I hadn't read before.

As a result, when I watch that movie now, I am filled with admiration for Simon's wit.

There really isn't much more to say about the plot of the movie. I mean, if you're familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the famous sleuths who were parodied, you will see that many of the devices Simon used were written primarily to set up the gags. But many of those set–ups were, themselves, inspired by the detectives' actual tendencies.

I would never suggest that it didn't take a lot of knowledge to write a clever script. It certainly did. Simon's a clever writer whose works have frequently been successes on Broadway — and, in 1976, there may have been no screenwriter who was as hot as Simon.

Nevertheless, it was a simple story. The world's greatest living detectives were invited to spend the weekend at the country home of a mysterious benefactor, where they would be treated to "dinner and a murder." The benefactor was played by Truman Capote, and he offered $1 million to any detective who could solve the crime.

His objective was to stump them all and claim the title of world's greatest detective for himself.

The rest of the film was a delightful collection of gags based on the eccentric behavior of the detectives and the writing habits of the authors who created them.

All that certainly had appeal for my parents — but I think what clinched the deal for them was the cast. They always had a particular fondness for British actors (I think that may have been due, in part, to the fact that they spent some time in Scotland after they were married), and "Murder By Death" was loaded with their favorites — Peter Sellers, David Niven, Alec Guinness, Maggie Smith, Elsa Lanchester.

They were great, as always.

But I think almost any actor would have been great with the lines Neil Simon gave them.

For some reason, I particularly liked the lines that were given to Peter Falk (who played a combination of Sam Spade and Richard Diamond in his unique Columbo style).
  • When asked if the blind butler (Guinness) was dead (the audience could see a knife protruding from his back), Falk replied, "With a thing like that in his back, in the long run, he's better off."

  • On another occasion, Falk made this observation about a locked door: "Locked ... from the inside. That can only mean one thing. And I don't know what it is."

  • Another time, upon rejoining his colleagues after a trip to the restroom, Diamond was told that there was a bullet hole in the back of his jacket.

    "You should see the other guy," he replied.

  • Then there was the time when he introduced his female companion as "my secretary and mistress."
Well, they all had great lines.

Oh, and who was crowned the world's greatest detective?

Well, no one, really. There was some question, you see, as to whether anyone had been killed or not.

"Was there a murder or wasn't there?" demanded Willie Wang, adopted son of Sidney Wang (a parody of Charlie Chan, played delightfully by Sellers) as they drove away from the country estate.

"Yes," Sidney replied. "Killed good weekend."

Perhaps — but the time in the theater was far from wasted. I didn't have to be a detective to deduce that.