"You are cordially invited to dinner... and a murder!"
Murder by Death is a 1976 comedy-mystery film, written by Neil Simon and using a star-studded cast to parody the Mystery Fiction genre with a nod towards Agatha Christie.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.
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.
Casting Gag: Peter Falk had started playing Columbo five years before.
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.
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?
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.
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".
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?
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.
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".
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 villian 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.