Film: Murder by Death

"You are cordially invited to dinner... and a murder!"

Murder by Death (1976) is an American comedy-mystery film, written by Neil Simon, directed by Robert Moore, and using a star-studded cast to parody the Mystery Fiction genre in general and Agatha Christie in particular.

Five of the world's greatest detectives find themselves invited to a dinner party by the enigmatic Lionel Twain, who challenges them to solve an impossible murder in order to keep their precious reputations (and earn one million dollars on the side). Hilarity Ensues as each detective stumbles around trying to solve the case.

This film contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Acme Products: Yetta's notes are written by the Acme Note Writing Company.
  • Affair Hair: Spoofed.
  • Affectionate Parody: It's affectionate toward the genre and icons, in its own odd way, but Neil Simon said that he basically wrote the thing as his revenge against all those mystery stories that introduced new information or otherwise used impossible cheats in their solutions. He actually rather identified with Twain. However, the affection varies. While Twain never gets around to a Take That against the plot in the Charlie Chan or Hardboiled Detective stories, unlike the others, he takes every opportunity to hang a lampshade on Sydney Wang's racist speech patterns (Wang is a brilliant detective who speaks in You No Take Candle style and has the Critical Research Failure of being a Chinese man who is unable to pronounce R's). Similarly, Sam Diamond is the only detective who comes close to really solving the mystery, but he's also depicted as a despicable racist and an Armored Closet Gay.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Lionel Twain is rather camp. He's played by Truman Capote, after all.
    • At least until the ending reveals "him" to be Yetta the cook.
  • Animal Assassin: A snake and a scorpion.
  • Armoured Closet Gay: Sam Diamond, although he never did anything to a man that he wouldn't do to a woman. And he didn't kiss nobody, neither.
  • Artistic Title: Which was designed, along with the original poster art, by Charles Addams.
  • Asian Speekee Engrish: Sidney Wang to a T. This is apparently Lionel Twain's Berserk Button:
    Milo Perrier: What do you make of all of this, Wang?
    Sidney Wang: Is confusing.
    Lionel Twain: It! It is confusing! Say your goddamn pronouns!
  • Asshole Victim: Lionel Twain. Abusive boyfriend, racist, animal abuser, and overall creep. And yet it was someone that he HADN'T mistreated that did him in.
  • Ass Pull: In-Universe, this is what the real culprit feels about how the writers end their stories.
  • Backhanded Apology: When called on his racism toward Sidney Wang, Sam Diamond apologizes by way of saying, "Sorry, slanty."
  • Bedmate Reveal: After Milo Perrier gets into bed, he looks across and sees his male chauffeur Marcel Cassette in bed with him.
  • Beleaguered Assistant: Willie Wang, Marcel Cassette, and Tess Skeffington. All of whom also qualify as Butt Monkey.
  • Berserk Button:
    Milo Perrier: I'm not a Frenchie, I'm a BELGIE!
  • Blind Mistake: The blind butler Jamesir Bensonmum does this a lot.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Discussed in-universe, when Sam Diamond randomly asks Dick Charleston if he's ever slept with a fat waitress.
  • Big Eater: Milo Perrier
  • Bizarchitecture: Played for laughs when Sam Diamond decides to investigate the house while everyone else is waiting in the dining room, but the rooms keep shifting around to Sam's confusion.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: All the detectives are extremely eccentric, being over-the-top parodies of characters who were eccentric to begin with. Doesn't stop them from being clever at their work.
  • The Butler Did It: Parodied and subverted. While the man who introduced himself as Jamesir Bensonmum, the butler, appears responsible, all explanations past the first involve him clearly not being the butler, including the final one that none of the cast see. Since this is a Dead Unicorn Trope, the real joke is that Neil Simon has Shown Their Work.
  • Calling Your Bathroom Breaks: Sam Diamond, fully two times. What a charmer.
  • Captain Ersatz: Dick and Dora Charleston are Nick and Nora Charles, Sidney Wang is Charlie Chan, Milo Perrier is Hercule Poirot, Sam Diamond is Sam Spade, and Jessica Marbles is Miss Marple.
  • Casting Gag: Peter Falk had started playing Columbo five years before.
    • Even though his character doesn't spoof Columbo, before he changes into his white tuxedo jacket, Falk wears the same trench coat he wore when playing Columbo.
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: Dick and Dora Charleston have an extremely nonchalant — indeed emotionless — conversation about the deadly scorpion on their bed which will force them to remain perfectly still, quite possibly for the rest of their perhaps short lives. Later, when the killer asks Dick how they escaped:
    Dick Charleston: (breezily) We didn't; it stung Dora. The poison's in her system right now. We have fifteen minutes to get to a hospital. Cue hilarious ecstatic expression on killer's face Fortunately it proved to be a nonlethal type of scorpion. That, or a fake scorpion.
    • Though afterwards, Dora quite adamantly asks Dick if he's sure it was fake.
  • Clueless Mystery: Anger at the detectives writing stories like this is the true reason for all the events of the night.
    Number 2 Son : I don't get it, Pop! Was there a murder or wasn't there?
    Wang: Yes. Killed good weekend! Dlive, please.
  • The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: The butler Jamesir Bensonmum has the following conversation with Mr. Dick Charleston.
    Bensonmum: This is the room where Mrs. Twain murdered herself.
    Charleston: (confused) You mean suicide?
    Bensonmum: Oh, no, it was murder. Mrs. Twain hated herself.
  • Deconstruction Crossover
  • Deconstructive Parody
  • Department of Redundancy Department: The title.
  • Descending Ceiling: Used in an attempt to kill Perrier.
  • Dramatic Unmask
  • Eek, a Mouse!!: Dora screams when she sees a mouse in the bedroom. Dick assures her it's fake but finds that it is very real after he picks it up.
  • Empty Piles of Clothing: At one point, the butler is found dead, sitting in the kitchen. Then he's missing but his outfit is still there. Then he's back, but his outfit is gone, leaving the detectives to puzzle over a naked dead Sir Alec Guiness.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: And how!
    "I don't get it, Pop: was there a murder, or wasn't there?"
    "Yes. Killed good weekend."
  • Everyone Is a Suspect
  • Evil Laugh: At the end, The maid laughs like this after fooling all of the detectives.
  • Follow the Leader: A 1979 television movie called Murder Can Hurt You! took the same concept and used it towards '70s police shows with characters such as Nojack, Lt Polumbo, Sgt. Salty Pepper and Studsky & Hatch.
  • Fluffy Fashion Feathers: Tess has a feather trimmed nightgown.
  • Gainax Ending: Played for Laughs.
    Willie: I don't get something, Pop: Was there a murder, or wasn't there?
    Sidney: Yes: killed good weekend.
  • Gasshole: Jessica Marble's nurse is implied to be one. When Jessica smells poison gas, her nurse apologizes and says "I'm old I can't help it."
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: "Where's my Dickie?! I mean, where's my husband?"
  • Grammar Nazi: Twain, as noted above. "Say your goddamn pronouns!"
    • Also Sidney Wang himself:
      (dog barks)
      Sidney Wang: Listen.
      Willie Wang: I don't hear nothing. What do you hear?
      Sidney Wang: Double negative, and dog.
  • Hardboiled Detective: Sam Diamond
  • Ice-Cream Koan:
    • Many from Sidney Wang. He never does finish his "dangerous road like fresh mushroom" one, though, at least audibly and onscreen. Perhaps it was something like "must always be careful which to pick since even ordinary-looking ones can be deadly"?
    • Jessica Marbles has one too, and it sounds really neat and literary: "The chain is stronger if the links are unbroken." (Yeah, well, that's rather the point of the thing, isn't it?)
      • It's probably a garbled version of "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link".
  • Insane Troll Logic:
    • Somehow Sam links a girl walking off with his money in 1940 Paris with the German invasion of France that by chance occurred two hours later. Of course, it's played for laughs. It's also a Shout-Out to Casablanca, another film Humphrey Bogart is famous for.
    • While all of the explanations each detective offers at the end are superficially plausible- as is the one the mastermind gives in his Motive Rant, which they accept to be the truth- it nonetheless requires that every one of them accepted that the maid was actually a mannequin the whole time.
  • Lady Looks Like a Dude: Twain's daughter Rita, who is actually the butler. Only not, since he's Twain himself. Or is she?
  • Lampshaded Double Entendre:
    Twain: No, don't look at each other! Look at me! I?m the greatest! I'm number one!
    Sam Diamond: To me, you look like number two. Know what I mean?
    Dora Charleston: ... What does he mean, Miss Skeffington?
    Miss Skeffington: I'll tell you later. It's disgusting.
  • Latex Perfection: The maid, wearing a mask of the butler's face over a mask of Lionel Twain's face, made doubly humorous by the massive height differences between the three actors.
  • Little Old Lady Investigates: Jessica Marbles.
  • Load-Bearing Hero: Marcel saves Perrier from the Descending Ceiling, "being one of the world's strongest men".
  • Mind Screw: "Just what the hell was going on?" is a not uncommon phrase uttered by viewers as the movie ends.
  • Mistaken Identity: Jessica Marbles and her nurse are initially mistaken for each other. Younger viewers not knowing when the movie was made might possibly mistake her to be a parody of Jessica Fletcher.
  • Old Dark House
  • Pet the Dog: Sam Diamond is horribly rude and abrasive to everyone - except Jessica Marbles, who he seems quite fond of.
  • Poison Is Corrosive: When poisoned wine is poured onto a cloth napkin, it burns holes through it.
  • Portrait Painting Peephole: Surprisingly noticeable; at least one painting has the mouth cut out, with accompanying wagging tongue hanging out. Also Stuffed Animal Head Peephole:
    Wang: Shhh ... voice come from cow on wall.
    Twain: Moose! Moose, you imbecile!
  • Precision F-Strike: "Jesus H. Christ." Itself a Lampshade of Mssr. Perrier's previous line, which has the same meaning but sounds polite because it's in French.
  • Precious Puppies: The Charlestons' dog Myron.
  • Pretty in Mink: Tess has a few furs.
  • Punny Name: Lionel Twain's is a reference to the famous toy train manufacturer Lionel—and on top of that his address is "22 (Two-Two) Twain".
  • The Reveal: Parodied to hell and back, to the point where it becomes The Unreveal.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons. Towards the end, each detective team claims to have solved the case, and each one makes a series of deductions which are plausible on their face (and the villain plays along too), but all are subsequently proven wrong.
  • Rube Goldberg Device: The mansion, and it's implied that the maid is, too. Despite both of these, however, the suggestion that the murder weapon may be one is derided as stupid.
  • Rule of Funny: The ending wouldn't work without it.
  • Running Gag:
    • The French phrase "N'est-ce pas?" being mistaken for "Nestlé". As in the following exchange:
    Perrier: You have cocoa, n'est-ce pas?
    Bensonmum: I'm afraid we don't have N'est-ce Pas, sir, just Hershey's.
    • Lionel Twain correcting Sidney Wang's lack of personal pronouns and articles.
  • Scary Scorpions: The Animal Assassin scorpion that stings Dora Charleston, which "can kill instantly" and gives her only minutes to live.
  • Shaped Like Itself: The title.
  • Sherlock Scan: Parodied.
  • Shocking Swerve: Played for laughs. invoked
  • Someone's Touching My Butt
  • Stock Scream: The doorbell. The scream is actually Fay Wray's from King Kong (1933).
  • Stranger Behind the Mask: Done multiple times in a row, just to debunk the trope in general.
  • Summation Gathering: Parodied, naturally.
  • Take That: To mysteries that use Ass Pull endings.
  • Ten Little Murder Victims
  • Weather Control Machine: Creates an isolating thunderstorm.
  • When the Clock Strikes Twelve: Lionel Twain says that the murder will take place at midnight.
  • Who's on First?: The butler's name is Jamesir Bensonmum. Cue the confusion-based exchanges.
    Dick: How odd.
    Butler: My father's name, sir.
    Dick: What was your father's name?
    Butler: Howodd. Howodd Bensonmum.
    • Then lampshaded as an Overly Long Gag by Dora Charleston with "Oh, let it go, Dickie."
  • Wrong Insult Offence: Milo Perrier objects to being called a Frenchie. He's a BELGIE!
  • Yellow Face: Casting British Peter Sellers as Chinese Sidney Wang is used to underscore how racist Charlie Chan is as a character.
  • You Look Familiar: Sellers and Niven squared off in the original Pink Panther film.
  • You No Take Candle: Inspector Sidney Wang speaks like this.

Alternative Title(s):

Murder By Death