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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Murder By Death (1976)

Sam Diamond: No pinkies? You mean Twain has only got eight fingers?
Tess Skeffington: No, no, he's got ten. He just doesn't have any pinkies.

- Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan

Review By: Dan Lopez   
Published: December 18, 2001

Stars: Peter Sellers, David Niven
Other Stars: Alec Guiness, Truman Capote
Director: Robert Moore

Manufacturer: DVXX
MPAA Rating: PG for (mild language)
Run Time: 01h:34m:23s
Release Date: December 18, 2001
UPC: 043396079342
Genre: comedy


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B B-A-B- C-

DVD Review

Writer Neil Simon's Murder By Death is, if nothing else, certainly somewhatunique in cinema. It's one of the few films to satirize the genre of mystery writing and its bunch of famous characters, doing so in such a way that it requires at least a familiarity with the books to see the humor. It mercilessly skewers bold, noble, fictional, British icons like Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, and doesn't apologize for anything that might be considered in bad taste. This is both good and bad; the final result is a partially successful comedy that, at the very least, showcases a wonderful cast who seem to enjoy making fun of their targets.

Like your typical mystery plot, Murder By Death is about a dinner party being set-up in the mansion of enigmatic millionaire, Lionel Twain (as played by author Truman Capote; a memorable screen appearance). He promises his guests "dinner and a murder," and who better to invite than five of the world's greatest sleuths? Guests include Milo Perrier (James Coco), Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), Miss Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), and Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven, Maggie Smith). Once on the scene, they discover Lionel Twain's sick sense of humor and how he intends to use it to confuse and bewilder them throughout the entire affair. Twain promises an elaborate crime that they will have to solve, but the crime seems to be more in the bizarre way he treats his guests, rather than anything else. As a reward for solving the mystery, Twain will award the super-sleuth with one-million dollars. Although the money seems hardly worth bothering with, given their massive egos, however, these celebrities can not resist the challenge.

If it is not immediately obvious, the characters are intended to be spoofs of: AgathaChristie's Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Charlie Chan, Dashiel Hammet's Sam Spade, and Thin Man series heroes, Nick and Nora Charles. Of course, an idea like this would fall utterly flat if the characters were not being spoofed by top talent, and we get about the best you could ask for in this case. Ironically, it is not so much a comedy legend like Peter Sellers who gets the best laughs (who goes a bit overboard in his Charlie Chan impression), but rather the subtle, calmly accurate performances by Peter Falk, David Niven, and Maggie Smith. In the style of, say, Airplane, Murder By Death is quite silly and this is probably its most significant flaw. All the goofiness is fun, but at times, it goes out of hand at the expense of the satire. This is typical of Neil Simon's work, though, which often is a blend between clever and downright senselessness. So, when the writing works, it works very well, but when it doesn't, the jokes fall rather awkwardly flat.

Another complaint is the heavy-handed musical score, which drives home the"goofy" factor with a sledgehammer, sending an unnecessary current of slapstick into the entire affair. But most of the film works well, sometimes with precision resulting in earnest laughter. One of the treats is the short performance by the legendary, late Alec Guiness as Lionel Twain's blind butler. I suppose that's part of the ultimate joke of Murder By Death, that some of the actors are better known for dramatic performance, so to see them letting loose like this is impressive. It accurately manages to latch on to the most obvious things to make fun in mystery literature, but doesn't ruin the joke by pushing these actors too far. Overall, an impressive comedy that, despite all its flaws, really is a classic in and of itself, almost placing it in the arena of the very same classics it makes fun of.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-

 

Image Transfer

 OneTwo
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen1.33:1 - P&S
Original Aspect Ratioyesno
Anamorphicyesno


Image Transfer Review: The two sided disc contains an anamorphic widescreen version and a full-screen version. The widescreen side (cropped to 1:85:1) is extremely impressive given the age of the film. It is very clean and smooth, presented from a very good quality source print. Despite the challenging photography (including the opening 10 minutes or so which are layered in dense mist), there are no signs of aggravated artifacts or compression problems. Very accurate colors compliment the generally dark mood, and there do not seem to be any over-sharpening problems or ringing. From the first scene to the last scene, I was pleasantly surprised by this disc, looking almost "restored." Much of these positives carry over to the full-screen side, but there seem to be obvious compression problems, including some distinct shimmering and movement in the foggy sequences. There is also some loss of picture composition. While the image stays crisp and solid for the most part,the film grain is brought out more heavily in the full-screen version, resulting in a verydifferent feeling to the movie. Putting aside it not being in the proper aspect ratio, I'd rate it about B-.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Spanishyes


Audio Transfer Review: An impressive Pro-Logic mono audio track manages to capture all the elements of the sound without sounding badly lacking. While there is nothing dazzling in terms ofactivity, the soundtrack, dialogue, and effects all blend together very nicely with enough mid-range and low-end to feel very complete, and not tinny or flat. Overall, a functional, satisfying track. The Spanish dub is of the same quality, though the dubbing come across rather strangely.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in Enlgish, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Cheap Detective
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Interview with Neil SimonInterview with Neil Simon
Extras Review: A 10-minute interview with writer Neil Simon reveals some of the trivia behind themaking of the film. He discusses some brief aspects of what he wanted to accomplish and how some of the actors were talked into their parts. There is a little too much footage from the actual movie mixed in, making the interview more like 7-minutes. Additionally there are numerous subtitle tracks, the original trailer, and a trailer for The Cheap Detective, the continuation of Neil Simon and Robert Moore's mystery satire collaboration.

Extras Grade: C-

 

Final Comments

Murder By Death stands as a definitive spoof, certainly one that's influenced at least a few films (especially Clue). It was "sequelled," technically, in form by The Cheap Detective, which is less accessible, but brought more "maturity" to the format. Worth at least a rental by mystery buffs.

 


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