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Film: Murder by Death

The 1976 mystery-comedy film Murder By Death, written by Neil Simon, used 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 to solve an impossible murder that will help them 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.
  • All-Star Cast: Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Dame Maggie Smith, the first appearance of James Cromwell and a rare acting appearance by Truman Capote. Probably quite a case of Hey, It's That Guy! in some cases.
    • Apparently at this late date 35+ years later the dvd producers felt Peter Falk the most recongizable star given his placement on the cover. The original 1976 posters featured all the characters equally.
  • 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.
  • 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!
  • Ass Pull: In-Universe, this is what the real culprit feels about how the writers end their stories.
  • 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, and Miss Skeffington)
  • 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 Eater: Milo Perrier
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • Deleted Scene: Some TV versions contain it, though. It is an endscene wherein a Sherlock Holmes Expy arrives late, after the whole thing is over.
    • This was one of several scenes that, typically for the era, were made especially for the film's network TV airing. All can be found on YouTube.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: The title.
  • Descending Ceiling: Used in an attempt to kill Perrier.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: "Where's my Dickie?! I mean, where's my husband?"
  • Grammar Nazi (Twain) "Pronounce 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?)
  • 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.
  • Insult Misfire: When called on his racism toward Sydney Wang, Sam Diamond apologizes by way of saying, "Sorry, slanty."
  • 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.
  • Playing Against Type: Sir Alec Guiness as a strange butler may surprise people, as well as Peter Falk playing a Humphrey Bogart-style hard-boiled detective instead of his usual Columbo.
    • The trench coat that Peter Falk wears in several scenes is the same one he wore on Columbo.
  • Poison Is Corrosive: When poisoned wine is poured onto a cloth napkin, it burns holes through it.
  • Portrait Painting Peephole: Surprisingly noticeable.
    • Also Stuffed Animal Head Peephole:
      Wang: Shhh ... voice come from cow on wall.
      Twain: Moose! Moose, you imbecile!
    • At least one painting has the mouth cut out, with accompanying wagging tongue hanging out.
  • Precision F-Strike: "Jesus H. Christ."
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Stranger Behind the Mask: Done multiple times in a row, just to debunk the trope in general.
  • Summation Gathering: Parodied
  • Take That: To mysteries that use Ass Pull endings.
  • Talking to Himself: A deleted scene featured Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) giving a Sherlock Holmes stand-in (also Peter Sellers) directions to the house.
  • Ten Little Murder Victims
  • The Butler Did It: ... or did he?
  • The Ending Changes Everything (And how!)
    "I don't get it, Pop: was there a murder, or wasn't there?"
    "Yes. Killed good weekend."
  • The Reveal: Parodied to hell and back, to the point where it becomes The Unreveal.
  • Weather Control Machine: Creates an isolating thunderstorm.
  • What Could Have Been: Orson Welles was originally considered to play Sidney Wang but had a scheduling conflict.
  • 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.
    Jamesir:My father's name, sir.
    Dick: What was your father's name?
    Jamesir: 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 No Take Candle: Inspector Sidney Wang speaks like this.


The ConversationMysteryFiction/FilmCruising
The Man Who Knew Too MuchMystery And Detective FilmsMurder on the Orient Express
The Mouse That RoaredCreator/Columbia PicturesOliver!
Mother Jugs And SpeedFilms of the 1970sNetwork

alternative title(s): Murder By Death
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