MURDER BY DEATH was a box-office success in 1976, taking in nearly $36,000,000. It offers fitful amusement thanks mainly to several (not all) members of a stellar cast, rather than to Neil Simon’s script, which thuds at least as often as it scores. Robert Moore’s direction flattens things out a good halfway before the 94 minutes have run down.
Gimmick has sendups of famous literary detectives invited to dinner at the stylishly forbidding home of ‘Lionel Twain’, where someone attempts to bump them off one at a time, ala Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None.
Fun comes from Peter Sellers, a hoot as ‘Inspector Sidney Wang’, Peter Falk as ‘Sam Diamond’, Eileen Brennan (Diamond’s ‘dame/toots/skirt’), and ‘Dick & Dora Charleston’, put over with effortless class by David Niven and Maggie Smith. These five actors and their shticks get the best gags, Sellers non-P.C. topping them all: “Voice come from cow on wall.“
Otherwise, the limp material offered to Alec Guinness, James Coco, Elsa Lanchester, Nancy Walker, James Cromwell, Estelle Winwood and James Narita just lies there, groaning.
Worst is the casting of non-actor Truman Capote, who can’t deliver a line to save his soul. I confess to never being a fan of Capote’s writing, either, outside of In Cold Blood, but as an actor he’s just out and out dreadful here, sorry (not).