Murder By Death

I recently took in a showing of Kenneth Branagh’s iteration of “Murder On The Orient Express”.  I had never once read a work of Agatha Christie’s (supposedly the most widely read female writer), and I left that movie thinking that, if the film was a faithful adaptation of the book of the same name, I would never need to bother with her.  Her writing style was less “The Curious Case of…” and more “In A Day of The Life of…”, by which I mean that she was less concerned with the depiction of the crime and evidence than she was with the characters performing against the backdrop of a crime scene.  To her, the crime itself was incidental to the story.  But this is not a movie review for “…Orient Express”, because Rian Johnson’s “Last Jedi” forced me to a perform remedial lobotomy on the part of my brain responsible for movie reviews.  I am sure I severed something, because I cannot remember now what was so wrong about “The Force Awakens” which, apparently, I once considered a crime against humanity.  To clear my head, I decided to watch a favorite in the mystery genre, Clue. I was reminded that I had always grouped that detective comedy with another, 1976’s “Murder by Death”, as two bookend pieces in my mind.

It is hard to change people’s minds about movies, but I want to inform the movie consuming populace of the importance of 1976’s star-studded comedy “Murder by Death” in the formation of our shared culture.  It is not easy to immediately see what could be important about what seems to be another instance of a (by then) very typical and frankly tired film formula — moody, culturally reflexive and retrograde, pastiche patchwork of literary references, vaguely contemporary, and ensemble casting.  But it managed to exemplify the best possible use of each of its components.  In fact, it was one of the last examples of that type, a sort which first began to appear in theaters in the late 1950s, as an exercise in the self-indulgence of Hollywood insiders, but which became an industry ‘tentpole’ in the 60s.

“Murder by Death” was, simply, a crime comedy written by the legendary Neil Simon which parodied the detective genre, though most of the humor was directed at detective films’ literary source material, especially the works of Agatha Christie.  It drew inspiration from the Marlow/Spade pulp adaptions, Charlie Chan, Nick and Nora from “The Thin Man”, and dinged Christie twice with twisted caricatures of her Poirot and Marples.  Each character represented not only the writing style of their various respective creators, but also injected the movie with the appropriate corresponding mood with their accompanying musical and camera cues.  They each even go about “solving” the crime in their own particular fashion native to their origins (the Spade parody just bungles into clues, while the Poirot stand-in just seems to know stuff at the right time).  For these virtues only, this film deserves the scrutiny of cinephiles for delivering a prepared broad survey of the market of its day.

However, what will immediately impress new viewers is the stellar cast.  Not only did Peters Falk and Sellers (I know, two “dicks” named Peter in the same shot), ol’ Colombo and Clouseau themselves, appear as parody detectives, but David Niven and Alec Guinness generously lend their august presence, their reputations having already been secured.  Tripled-crowned (Academy Award, Tony Award, Emmy Award) Maggie Smith is, perhaps, first introduced to most Americans in this film, as is the ageless James Cromwell (you will instantly recognize him in his minor role).  Genuine acting royalty is represented by Elsa Lanchester (THE ORIGINAL bride of Frankenstein).  Honest working American actresses Nancy Walker and Eileen Brennan are actually the mortar which binds all the brickwork and without whom the film would have been just a bunch of famous people reading lines in separate takes.  Anyone who has grown up watching these sorts of films already expects to see James Coco appear somewhere.  Oh, and Truman Freak’n Capote.

But why, besides its historical value as a cultural snapshot, would I claim that it was important?  Well, I would first have to explain the state of the movie industry at the time of its production.  Contrary to popular belief, the film industry was already in steep decline before the advent of affordable home recording (and therefore home playing) technology which, if anything, would actually be more injurious to the profitability of the advertisement scheme of American broadcast television itself.  In most large urban centers, the once prolific single screen theaters had been devolving into dens of pornographic exhibition because large family-based audiences were staying home to enjoy newer, fresher, and more relevant material on TV.  The projection rooms had long before lost the monopoly on public news dissemination, the Movietone News and such having collapsed into the dust of obsolescence, and most American households had also turned to syndicated programming for their evening entertainment.  In truth, most feature length “movie” material for the time was of the made-for-TV variety.  The effect of this was a vanishing investor base for large studio production.  By the mid-70s, the public view of the film industry was that it was largely a retreat for frustrated artists who were either indulging in the spasmic death-throws of Hollywood decadence or else engaging in the sort of self sabotage employed by the kind who need cover for poor life choices.

To combat this trend, most film studios began to partner with broadcast networks to bring their movie libraries to TV in syndication, not unlike the arrangement that the networks had employed to bring more locally produced network member programming to national audiences.  They did this while simultaneously restructuring the production of feature film to be more readily adapted to the standard television broadcast format (more friendly to aspect ratio cutting, pacing suitable for commercial breaks, lose-able filler material for variable run times), but arranging first-run rights with theater chains (remember, this is after the collapse of the “studio system” in mid-60s following anti-trust litigation).  This development would attract investors accepting of more long-term ROI, and let studio executives keep the lights on back on their film lots.  It was a stop-gap that would keep the American film industry alive long enough for Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola to show Hollywood how new movies would have to be made, but the immediate effect was that the studios were producing television features for theatrical release.

And…my point?  The fact that Spielberg and others were able to turn it around proves that the damage was self-inflicted and that the industry had simply failed to appeal to the market.  My proof?  Well, one of those self-indulgent frustrated artists to whom I previously referred, Gene Wilder, had previously been struck with the notion of producing a Sherlock Holmes feature and, having just come from the production of Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein”, was operating under the influence of his most recent experience.  Consequent to Brooks’ impression upon him, Wilder set himself to recreating, essentially, the same alchemical reaction he had enjoyed with Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn and, pursuant to this, reemployed his friends and (attempted to) recapture Brooks’ style and humor.  He failed, and though “Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” would eventually make back nearly ten times its budget, it only cost a couple of million to make and is almost entirely forgotten and unknown today even among Wilder fans.  Though cheap looking and campy, it was, despite first appearances, not actually produced for future television syndication and would never enjoy the repeated viewings that more TV friendly features would experience in the following years.  In fact, “…Smarter Brother” has never had even a fraction of the syndication success that “Young Frankenstein” or even “Blazing Saddles” would obtain despite those films decidedly being NOT television friendly and requiring judicious editing.

Wilder’s Holmes movie didn’t hurt the studio, the industry, or even himself, but it did take up space in a market increasingly saturated by detective genre material and it was, perhaps, hurt by the simultaneous release into theaters of another crime comedy, one which DID hurt the industry.  Though Ray Stark, who held the film rights for “The Maltese Falcon”, had originally wanted John Milius to direct a serious art piece crime drama, Milius walked away and Stark turned to his script writer to direct the film instead (hmmm, let the writer direct the movie…what could go wroRIAN JOHNSON!!!).  “The Black Bird” is one of the worst films ever produced, it is almost certainly the worst detective movie ever made, and is, incredibly, the official sequel to “The Maltese Falcon”, which is the most famous detective movie ever made.  “The Black Bird” was another attempt at reproducing Mel Brooks magic, only nobody involved in the production understood the concept of humor.  Like “…Smarter Brother”, it is also a formulaic parody, but was painted into the corner by its reference material and left to play upon only its own legacy — it features such zingers as, “it’s black and as long as your arm”, which is supposed to be funny when you realize that this line only MAYBE refers to the eponymous falcon.  Anyway, the lead role of (and I am not joking) Sam Spade JUNIOR was played by George Segal and it is probably because of the performance of “The Black Bird” versus “…Smarter Brother” that he was replaced by Gene Wilder for the lead role in “Silver Streak”, which is kind of a crime comedy (but not really).

Just six months after the industry took the one-two punches of these stinkers hitting theaters, yet another Ray Stark crime comedy would release, “Murder by Death”.  This movie could have been the final death-blow to the detective comedy in film.  By the time of its release, the expectations for this project had been driven so low that David Niven’s son convinced the firm he worked for to invest in the property so they could claim it as a revenue loss in tax calculations and Peter Sellers sold his stakes in the film.  It was the ninth (according to Ultimate Movie Rankings, eighth, according to TCM) highest earning movie in a year which included “Rocky”, and “Marathon Man”.  Actually, Box Office Mojo, IMDB, The Numbers, TCM, and Ultimate Movie Rankings all give wildly divergent and contradictory information about this film’s performance as a theatrical release.  Anyway, the film which was expected to be the final nail on the lid of the coffin for the whole genre instead woke the slumbering corpse and, as result of the surprise success of the film, Stark soon had Simon at work on the sequel, “The Cheap Detective”, in which Falk, Brennan, Kahn, and Coco returned and sort of reprised their roles.  Of course, Sellers went on, in no small part because of the unexpected success of a movie in which he played a parody of Charlie Chan, to portray Fu Manchu in “The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu”, which just shows how much he knew.

“Murder by Death” was directed by Robert Moore, a veteran television director, and the movie would go on to enjoy wide play in broadcast television syndication in decades to come.  It was clearly shot with the intention that the feature would not suffer degradation in the transition to 4:3 television aspect ratio and the pacing prevents egregious scene breaking for commercials.  It went on, for some time, to be a widely known, well liked movie and was often referenced in the nerdy social circles of my youth through the 80s.  It stands in testimony to the success of the partnership which Hollywood had struck with television, even if under duress, and shows what an innovating industry can do to evolve in the face of challenge.  While films like “Murder” are not credited with saving Hollywood, the case can certainly be made that it carried the suffering ‘detective’ and ‘murder mystery’ themed comedies.  As I see it, no “Murder by Death”, no “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” and perhaps, because “The Fiendish Plot…” should have destroyed Peter Sellers’ career, no more Pink Panther movies (and, by way of synthesis, no Steve Martin Pink Panthers, either).

But, for all this, the reason I think “Murder by Death” is important in film history is because of the commentary contained within the movie, not just the subject matter, but to whom the movie seems addressed and by whom the comments are delivered.  Right up to the very ending of the film, the whole screenplay was written as a straight parody (as straight as a parody can be) which, while it did take the time to skewer each of the representative character types in turn, mostly employed the sort of general purpose humor used to fill out any lighthearted show of the time.  But the exactness with which the particulars where targeted was precise and sometimes vicious, whether addressing society’s (then newfound) distaste for the “yellowface” portrayals of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan (and John P. Marquand’s Mr. Moto, to a lesser extent) or the middle class pretensions of Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles (and, by extension, those of Hammett and his readers).  The comedic exchanges between the characters only succeeded in amusing audiences of the time because the dialogues correctly highlighted the frustrations from which readers of mystery and detective novels had so long suffered.

But the finale of the movie was an epic take down of Agatha Christie by Truman Capote.  Capote was a celebrity eccentric himself (that is, he was both famous and crazy, famous for his craziness and maddened by fame), a writer whose primary acclaim was authorship of the true crime novel “In Cold Blood” (an exercise in Gonzo journalism before Hunter Thompson gave it a name), though he had also written fiction.  Though Christie, herself, had actually died only months before the film’s release (during its production, actually), Neil Simon, through Capote, nevertheless unsparingly excoriated the famed Dame (actual title, Dame of the British Empire, DBE).  Capote bursts through the fourth wall like a cranked up Kool-Aid Man full of unsweetened meta-commentary, waving around his corpse-like accusing finger like it was loaded with reputation piercing FU and talking about “your readers” as if Christie et al. were personally present.  This was a fiction-lover’s movie.  This was a fiction-writer’s reflection.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes was not only conspicuously spared, presumably because Doyle wrote detective fiction correctly, but Sherlock was originally meant to sweep in at the last moment and solve the crime to the humiliation of the assembled talent (detectives and authors both).  However, the characters’ actors protested this upstaging and Holmes’ presence was reduced to a last second cameo in which Peter Sellers’ Charlie Chan clone, “Sidney Wang”, mischievously directs the newly arrived Watson and Holmes back towards the death trapped mansion from which they had all just been released.  At first it seems that Peter’s Wang was a little sore from the climax of the film, but I think this was really just salty Sellers being a pain in the ass.  I have no doubt that he insisted on that little revision and the scene itself never appeared in the theatrical release, being included only in the TV cut of the film.  He was not even supposed to be in the film and was a second choice substitution for Orson Welles, who could not reconcile the production schedule with his previous commitments to stage.

FUN FACT:  During the production of “Murder by Death” Alec Guinness would sometimes be found by his thespian fellows reading through a script for a little project entitled “Star Wars”, later be to a victim of MURDER! (Star Wars, not Sir Guinness).

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