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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, I Am Him: 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.
  • Affair Hair: Spoofed.
  • 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 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 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.
  • Animal Assassin: A snake and a scorpion.
  • 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 seen above, 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 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.
  • 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."
  • 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!
      • Although Perrier himself later says to never underestimate a Frenchman's nose, so...
  • Blind Mistake: The blind butler Jamesir Bensonmum does this a lot.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Sam Diamond randomly asks Dick Charleston if he's ever slept with a fat waitress.
  • Big Eater: Milo Perrier
  • 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.
  • 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 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 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.
    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 Dick and Dora Charleston.
    Bensonmum: Here we are. The late Mrs. Twain's room. She died in here.
    Dora Charleston: Oh, dear.
    Dick Charleston: Died of what?
    Bensonmum: She murdered herself in her sleep, Sir.
    Dick Charleston: (confused) You mean suicide?
    Bensonmum: Oh, no, it was murder alright. Mrs. Twain hated herself.
  • Cut Phone Lines
    Dick: It sounded as though somebody snipped the wire.
    Dora: Really? What did it sound like?
    Dick: "Snip".
  • 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 (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
  • Evil Laugh: At the end, The maid laughs like this after fooling all of the detectives.
  • 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."
  • 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:
    • 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 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 Un-Reveal.
  • 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 which 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: 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
  • 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).
  • Stranger Behind the Mask: This is done multiple times in a row to debunk the trope in general.
  • Summation Gathering: Parodied, naturally.
  • Take That!: To mysteries that use Ass Pull endings.
    • also to the fact that Charlie Chan hasn't been played by an Aisan actor in a live action adaptation since 1930, (the two attempts in the 1920's cast a Japanese and Korean, but his role was minimal) though this might be unintentional.
  • Ten Little Murder Victims
  • Unfortunate Name: Sidney Wang's adopted son Willie.
  • 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.
    • as portrayed in adaptations. The original character in the books is at least Fair for Its Day.
  • You No Take Candle: Inspector Sidney Wang speaks like this.


Example of: