Saturday, January 03, 2009

Revisit: Murder By Death

A Columbia Pictures release 1976

Directed by Robert Moore

Written by Neil Simon

Five famous literary detectives and their sidekicks are invited to a bizarre mansion to solve an even stranger mystery.

This screwball detective story takes jabs at some of the literary (and film) world's most popular crime-solving characters. Full of fast wordplay, puns, slapstick and absurdities, the humor is fairly antiquated (especially the Chinaman jokes), as are many of the spoofs -- in a few generations I doubt any one will get all the Thin Man or Charlie Chan references -- but it's all kept light and breezy and in good fun, and the talented cast helps give it legs of it's own. What other screwball comedy can boast a cast comprised almost entirely of Oscar winners and nominees? The flick has David Niven, Maggie Smith, Peter Sellars, Alec Guinness, Estelle Winwood, James Cromwell, Eileen Brennan, Elsa Lanchester -- all of whom were nominated or won an Oscar in their careers. Not too mention it features Truman Capote in his first and only screen role.

But the star of the show is Peter Falk. His Sam Diamond - the hard headed, fast talking, trigger happy take on the classic Sam Spade character from noir detective stories - has all the best dialogue, and the best delivery. He even manages to upstage Peter Sellars, which is pretty incredible. Some quotes:

Sam Diamond: The last time that I trusted a dame was in Paris in 1940. She said she was going out to get a bottle of wine. Two hours later, the Germans marched into France.

Sam Diamond: Why don't you push her wheelchair down the driveway? We got business here!

Sam Diamond: Wouldn't you know, out of gas.
Tess Skeffington: I saw a station about five miles back, Sam.
Sam Diamond: [hands her a gas can] I want you to know I'm gonna be waitin' for ya, baby

Dick Charleston: Another diversion. He gives us meaningless clues to confuse us, dangles red herrings before our eyes, bedazzles us with bizarre banalities, while all the time precious seconds are ticking away towards a truly terrible murder still to come.
Sam Diamond: You're good, Charleston. You're not my kind of cop, but you're smart and you smell good. You're not a pansy, I know that, but what the hell are ya?
Dick Charleston: Classy, I suppose.

Sam Diamond: Shut up, all of ya's. Nobody move!
Dick Charleston: What is it?
Sam Diamond: I have to go to the can again. I don't wanna miss nothin'.

All classic. His mysogionisty insecurities provide some of the heartiest laughs, and are probably the most likley to translate in years to come. Falk's range is really incredible.

Worth a view if you're a fan of old literary detective stories, Clue, or older styles of comedy they just don't seem to make any more. Also, Peter Falk. God bless that man.