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Film / Murder by Death

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"You are cordially invited to Dinner and a Murder."

Murder by Death is an American comedy-mystery film released in 1976. Written by Neil Simon and directed by Robert Moore, the film employs a star-studded cast to parody the Mystery Fiction genre in general as well as several famous writers (chiefly Agatha Christie) and characters in particular.

Five of the world's greatest detectives are each accompanied by an associate to a dinner party held by the enigmatic multi-millionaire Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), who challenges the whole group to solve a murder that will take place at midnight. If any of the detectives can figure out who committed the murder, they will earn the reputation as the single greatest detective in the world — and win a million dollars, to boot. Once the murder occurs, each detective stumbles around trying to gather clues that will help them solve the case, and hilarity ensues as they all compete for the ultimate bragging rights (and all that cash).

The detectives themselves are pastiches based on various famous fictional sleuths:

Simon, Moore, and several of this film's cast members collaborated again two years later on the Film Noir spoof The Cheap Detective.

Murder by Death contains the following tropes:

  • Acme Products: Yetta's notes are written by the Acme Note Writing Company.
  • Actually, That's My Assistant: When Jessica Marbles and her nurse are introduced, everyone assumes that the old lady in the wheelchair is Jessica and the spry and energetic woman pushing her is the nurse. It's the other way around.
  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: Depending on whether you think a murder actually happened in the film (other than of a good weekend). There was a novelization of the movie released at the time. It backs off some of the film's absurdist elements, for example showing that the butler's name was James Benson and the whole Jamessir Bensonmum exchange was just him messing with the detectives on Twain's orders. In the same vein, it changes the film's Gainax Ending by having both the butler and the maid walk into the room following Twain's The Reason You Suck speech, revealing that all of the Twain household are alive and well, so no one actually died and it was all a con on the detectives.
  • Affectionate Parody: The film is affectionate toward the genre and its its own odd way. Neil Simon said he wrote the film pretty much as his revenge against mystery stories that introduced new information or otherwise used impossible cheats in their solutions; he rather identified with Twain. But the affection varies: while Twain never gets around to a Take That! against the plot in the Charlie Chan or Hardboiled Detective stories, he takes every opportunity to hang a lampshade on Sydney Wang's racist speech patterns (Wang is a brilliant detective who speaks in Asian Speekee Engrish style and is a Chinese man who is unable to pronounce R's). Similarly, Sam Diamond is the only detective who comes close to solving the mystery, but he's depicted as a despicable racist and an Armored Closet Gay.

  • Ambiguously Gay: Lionel Twain is rather camp—he is played by Truman Capote, after all.
    • At least until the ending reveals "him" to be Yetta.
  • Armored 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:
    Perrier: What do you make of all of this, Wang?
    Wang: Is confusing.
    Twain: It! It is confusing! Say your goddamn pronouns!
  • Asshole Victim: Lionel Twain was an abusive boyfriend, a racist, an animal abuser, and an overall creep. And yet, it was someone 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.
  • Astonishingly Appropriate Interruption: When Dick Charleston approaches Sidney Wang's car to ask for his dog:
    "I say, you don't happen to have seen a little white...(recognizes Wang)...Wang!?
  • Author Filibuster: At the end of the movie, Twain delivers a scathing rebuke against lazy mystery writers who use cheap tricks in order to make sure the audience does not figure out the mystery before the detective has a chance to explain it.
  • Backhanded Apology: When called on his racism toward Sidney Wang, Sam Diamond apologizes by way of saying, "Sorry, slanty." And of course, Wang is played by a white actor in the first place to add another level to the gag.
  • 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:
    • For Lionel Twain: Sidney Wang's Asian Speekee Engrish.
    • For Milo Perrier: Being called a Frenchman.
      Milo Perrier: I'm not a Frenchie, I'm a BELGIE!
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Sam Diamond randomly asks Dick Charleston if he's ever slept with a fat waitress.
  • Bizarchitecture: This is played for laughs. Sam Diamond investigates the house while everyone else is waiting in the dining room, but the rooms keep shifting around to Sam's confusion.
  • Blind Driving: Discussed. Dora Charleston doesn't want the blind butler to park their car for obvious reasons.
  • Blind Mistake: The blind butler Jamesir Bensonmum does this a lot.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: All of the detectives are extremely eccentric since they're over-the-top parodies of characters who were eccentric to begin with. That doesn't stop them from being clever at their work, though.
  • The Butler Did It: This is parodied and subverted. While the man who introduced himself as 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 sees. Since this is a Dead Unicorn Trope, the real joke is that Neil Simon has Shown Their Work.
  • Captain Ersatz: Dick and Dora Charleston are Nick and Nora Charles, Sidney Wang is Charlie Chan, Milo Perrier is Hercule Poirot, Sam Diamond and Tess Skeffington are Sam Spade and Effie Perine, 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.
    Willie Wang: I don't get it, Pop! Was there a murder or wasn't there?
    Sidney Wang: Yes. Killed good weekend! Dlive, please.
  • Cobweb Jungle: The suite for the Charleston's is full of cobwebs. Turns out they are props made of candied sugar.
  • The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: The butler Jamesir Bensonmum has the following conversation with Dick and Dora Charleston.
    Bensonmum: Here we are. The late Mrs. Twain's room. She died in here.
    Dora: Oh, dear.
    Dick: Died of what?
    Bensonmum: She murdered herself in her sleep, Sir.
    Dick: (confused) You mean suicide?
    Bensonmum: Oh, no, it was murder alright. Mrs. Twain hated herself.
  • Corrupted Character Copy: All of the detectives are Nominal Hero takes on classic detective characters, reimagined as selfish, nasty Man (and Woman) Children.
  • Cut Phone Lines
    Dick: It sounded as though somebody snipped the wire.
    Dora: Really? What did it sound like?
    Dick: "Snip".
  • Dunking the Bomb: Sam Diamond and Miss Skeffington face death by Time Bomb in their room. As we later learn, Miss Skeffington dumped it down the john in an Offscreen Moment of Awesome.
  • 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 (and dead) butler.
  • 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: All guests had reasons to kill the host, which come up during the course of the film.
  • Evil Laugh: At the end, The maid laughs like this after fooling all of the detectives.
  • Faint in Shock: Moments after her boss Sam Diamond is apparently crushed to death by a falling gargoyle (he gets better), Tess announces she's going to faint and orders the butler to catch her. The butler (who's blind), misses her completely and she thuds to the floor.
  • Fake Mystery: What the detectives have all concluded by the end of the film.
  • Faking the Dead: Twain fakes his death in order to demonstrate the inferiority of the methods used by his guests, and his ability to outsmart them all.
  • 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 Marbles' nurse is implied to be one. When Jessica smells poison gas, her nurse apologizes and says "I'm old, I can't help it."
  • 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.
  • Hidden Villain: There are several shots of the villain from an angle that hides his/her face. Sometimes we only get a close-up on their Conspicuous Gloves.
  • Hurt Foot Hop: Wang does this when Jessica runs over his foot with her nurse's wheelchair.
  • 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".
  • Incorrect Animal Noise: The cat of the house is making barking sounds offscreen. Wang wonders if they fed it too much dog food.
  • Insane Troll Logic:
    • Sam links a girl walking off with his money in 1940s Paris with the German invasion of France that, by chance, occurred two hours later. Of course, it's played for laughs—and it's also a Shout-Out to Casablanca, another film Humphrey Bogart is famous for.
    • While all of the solutions offered by each detective at the end are superficially plausible—as is the one given by the mastermind in his Motive Rant, which they accept to be the truth—it nonetheless requires that every one of the detectives accept the fact that the maid was actually an animatronic 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: To me, you look like number two. Know what I mean?
    Dora: ... What does he mean, Miss Skeffington?
    Miss Skeffington: I'll tell you later. It's disgusting.
  • Latex Perfection: The maid is wearing a mask of the butler's face over a mask of Lionel Twain's face. This is doubly humorous thanks to the height differences between the three actors.
  • 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.
  • Motive Rant: Lionel Twain delivers his at the end when he rips into the detectives—and, effectively, the authors who created them—for the way their adventures are handled.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Dora Charleston and Tess Skeffington both wear sexy dresses.
  • Multilayer Fašade: The villain is hidden behind two layers of masks.
  • Never Split the Party: While the sleuths are aware of this trope, they still manage to get themselves isolated from time to time.
  • Noodle Incident: Apparently happened while Perrier was away
    Perrier: Don't ask me.
    Charleston: What are you doing in the butler's uniform?
    Perrier: I said don't ask me!
  • Occam's Razor: Used by Mrs. Charleston. The other detectives ask Twain if he knows who is murdered, when it will be committed, the location of the crime, and what time it will occur. Twain confirms that this is all true. Dora then remarks that this would mean that Twain is the murderer. Quite oddly, Twain does not deny this only saying that he will not listen to the wife of a detective. When Dick pushes the issue, Twain immediately changes the subject by offering a reward and the rights to the story to be published.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: We are only told how the guests solved the Death Trap in their rooms.
  • One Size Fits All : 5' 10" Alec Guinness' character pulls off his mask to reveal... 5' 3" tall Truman Capote, who also had a rather thicker build as well as a completely differently shaped skull.
  • 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!
  • Precious Puppies: The Charlestons' dog Myron.
  • 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.
  • Pretty in Mink: Tess has a few furs.
  • Proverbial Wisdom: Parodied with Sidney Wang, see Ice-Cream Koan.
  • 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".
  • Red Right Hand: Twain has no pinkies — still a total of ten fingers, but they're all too long to be pinkies.
  • The Reveal: This trope is parodied to the point where it becomes The Unreveal.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: In the ending, each detective team claims to have solved the case, and each one makes a series of deductions that are plausible on their face. The villain plays along, too. But each solution is subsequently proven wrong.
  • Rube Goldberg Device: The mansion, and it's implied that the maid is, too. Despite both of these, 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: Now, I require a cold compress for my chauffeur, and a cup of hot chocolate for me, n'est-ce pas?
      Bensonmum: I'm afraid we don't have any Nespa, sir, just Hershey's.
    • Lionel Twain correcting Sidney Wang's lack of personal pronouns and articles.
  • Samus Is a Girl: It's subtly implied by the Twist Ending that Lionel Twain never actually existed, and was in fact Yetta the cook the entire time. If this really is the case, then she not only somehow managed to outwit the greatest detectives in the world with a fake mannequin of herself, but she may have actually murdered her blind butler Jamesir Bensonmum in cold blood just to humiliate the eccentric sleuths even further...and got away with it in the end!
  • Scary Scorpions: The Animal Assassin scorpion that stings Dora Charleston, which "can kill instantly" and gives her only minutes to live.
  • Secret Path: Wang suspects one of these after finding the dining room empty and the door locked from the inside. Twain assures him that there is no such thing.
  • Shoot Out the Lock: Sam shoots the lock of the dining room to get it to open up.
  • "Shut Up!" Gunshot: At one point, Sam shoots in the air to get everyone to shut up.
  • Someone's Touching My Butt: The main characters are seated together around a table. Suddenly the room goes dark.
    Dora Charleston: Dickie, don't! You know how I get when you touch me there!
    Dick Charleston: Not me, darling. I got my hands in my pockets.
    Sam Diamond: I'm afraid they're my pockets.
    Dick Charleston: Oh. Sorry about that.
    Dora Charleston: Dickie, behave yourself!
  • Spiritual Sequel:
    • The Cheap Detective, also written by Neil Simon and directed by Robert Moore and also featuring Peter Falk and Eileen Brennan in the cast, which spoofs Film Noir and was released two years later.
    • There was also a Made-for-TV Movie called Murder Can Hurt You!, which spoofs TV detectives like Kojak, McCloud, and Columbo. (Though, alas, Peter Falk doesn't appear in that one.)
    • Later, the movie adaptation of Clue is extremely similar to Murder by Death in its themes and comedy, and also features Eileen Brennan.
  • Stock Scream: The doorbell. The scream is actually Fay Wray's from King Kong (1933).
  • Take That!: To mysteries that use Ass Pull endings.
  • Taxidermy Is Creepy: The walls of the dining room are decorated with stuffed animals.
  • Ten Little Murder Victims: The trope is subverted when it turns out the villain isn't really interested in killing the sleuths off, but in embarrassing them instead.
  • 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: Howard. Howard 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: Peter Sellers's role as Sidney Wang is used to underscore how racist Charlie Chan is as a character... Or least as portrayed in adaptations. The original character in the books is at least Fair for Its Day.