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'Murder By Death' Cast List Of One Of The First Cult Classics Ever

Entertainment | May 19, 2020

Peter Falk, David Niven and Truman Capote in 'Murder By Death.' Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Murder By Death, the 1976 whodunit starring a who’s who of comedic talent is a cult classic like none other. Written by award winning playwright Neil Simon and starring everyone from Peter Falk and Alec Guinness to Truman Capote of all people, this farcical take on the country house mystery is absolutely bonkers and even if it’s not exactly Oscar caliber it’s still a pretty fun ride.

Fans of the mysteries of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle definitely got a kick out of this movie even if it doesn’t hold up to the classics it's spoofing, like Murder on the Orient Express or The Hounds of the Baskervilles. Murder By Death is such a strange movie that it’s worth investigating how it all came together and what people thought when it was released. 

The world’s greatest detectives descend on one film

source: Columbia Pictures

The basic premise of Murder By Death is that all of the world’s greatest detectives are invited to a creepy old mansion by eccentric multi-millionaire Lionel Twain (Truman Capote) who wants to get to find out which one of them deserves their vaulted status.

Peter Sellers plays Sidney Wang, based on detective Charlie Chan, as a detective with poor English skills and a flamboyant style of dress. It’s hard to watch this performance today without focusing on the yellow face. While you’re watching just try to remember that this level of political incorrectness doesn’t happen any more (at least not in a major motion picture).

David Niven and Maggie Smith play variations on Nick and Nora Charles, alcoholic detectives who basically steal the show. There’s a Poirot style character named Milo Perrier, there’s a faux Miss Marple named Jessica Marbles and Peter Falk shows up to play Sam Diamond, a take on Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon.

Each of these detectives is drawn to Twain’s home with the invitation to solve a “murder by death,” they take it up and hijinks ensue.

You will never guess the ending - seriously there’s no way to figure it out

source: Columbia Pictures

When writing Murder By Death Neil Simon wanted to comment on the ridiculous lengths that mystery writers will go to in order to shock readers and viewers and throw them for a loop no matter how close they’ve been paying attention. The film ends with twist after twist after twist, revealing facts about the characters that were never set up, and offering multiple takes on the identity of Twain.

This is a spoiler free zone (in case you haven't seen a film from 1976) but let's just say that there are episodes of Scooby Doo that are more logical than the end of this movie. It's not awful or anything, but it is weird that a Tony Award winning playwright penned the script.

The reveal of the finale more or less unravels the fun had throughout the rest of the film. Simon’s undercutting of the central mystery is to show how useless the detectives are which keeps the film from being a truly great mystery. Even so, the bunk ending of Murder By Death only adds to its campy nature.

Charles Addams illustrated the opening credits

source: Columbia Pictures

One of the coolest things about this movie is the opening credits. Fans of The Addams Family will be familiar with the odd looking cartoonish versions of the detectives on screen. 11 detectives are shown as well as a body with a 11 knives in its back, it’s clear that Addams had a lot of fun with these drawings. Aside from the knives in the art, the eyes on the characters move back and forth like there’s someone behind them watching the audience. It’s the first of many sly takes on the tropes of the mystery genre and honestly it’s just cool watch on its own.

The movie was a hit at the box office

source: Columbia Pictures

As strange as it sounds in an era where the only hit movies at the box office are CGI fueled superhero movies and studio remakes Murder By Death was a cash making machine for Columbia Pictures. It pulled in $32,511,047 at the box office, which is equivalent to $150 million in 2019, not bad for a little genre film that features Truman Capote riding a mechanized dining chair and jokes about a blind butler trying to work with a deaf-mute maid. This is the kind of power that comes with a movie uniting a bunch of major stars and a simple premise. It’s likely that the filmmakers behind Clue saw the success of this film and went ahead with their Parker Brothers approved spin.

Sherlock Holmes and Watson were almost in the movie

source: Columbia Pictures

Two very notable detectives are missing from this whodunit - Sherlock Holmes and his best buddy Doctor Watson. The two A-List detectives were in drafts of the script all the way up to the shooting but their parts were cut shorter and shorter supposedly because the cast felt that they would be overshadowed by these mystery solving fan favorites. Their roles were cut down to cameos at the end of the film and then cut out completely for the film’s theatrical run. When it went to television the single scene featuring the duo was added back to the movie.

As cool as it would be to watch Holmes and Watson botching up a mystery with some of their famous counterparts it's for the best that they ended up on the cutting room floor. The film is overstuffed as it is and the addition of two more characters would make the whole thing impossible to follow.

Critics were half and half on the film

source: Columbia Pictures

Even though Murder By Death was a hit with audiences, critics weren’t super hot on the film. The biggest take away from writers like Vincent Canby and Gene Siskel was that the film was too insubstantial and that Truman Capote’s performance was not what you’d call great acting. Canby writes:

Mr. Capote possibly is acting, but it looks more as if he's giving us an over-rehearsed impersonation of himself as people see him on unrehearsed TV talk shows.

Even so, Capote received a Golden Globe nomination for best male acting debut. Murder By Death is a lot of fun for audiences who just want to kick back and watch a group of famous goof off while they attempt to solve a murder mystery. How can you go wrong with that?

Tags: Alec Guinness | Cast Lists From Popular Movies | David Niven | Murder By Death | Neil Simon | Peter Falk | Peter Sellers | Truman Capote

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.