Murder by Death

Murder by Death
Murder by Death

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Robert Moore
Produced by Ray Stark
Written by Neil Simon
Starring Truman Capote
James Coco
Peter Falk
Alec Guinness
Elsa Lanchester
David Niven
Peter Sellers
Maggie Smith
Music by Dave Grusin
Cinematography David M. Walsh
Editing by Margaret Booth
John F. Burnett
Studio Rastar
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date(s) June 23, 1976
Running time 94 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $32,511,047[1]

Murder by Death is a 1976 comedy film with a cast featuring Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker, and Estelle Winwood, written by Neil Simon and directed by Robert Moore.

The plot is a spoof of the traditional country-house whodunit, familiar to mystery fiction fans from classics such as Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, a form also parodied for the stage in Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound. The cast is an ensemble of British and American actors playing send-ups of well-known fictional sleuths, including Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Charlie Chan, Nick and Nora Charles, and Sam Spade.

It also features a rare acting performance by In Cold Blood author Truman Capote. The film was presented at the Venice International Film Festival in 1976.



A group of detectives, each accompanied by a relative or associate, is invited to "dinner and a murder" by the mysterious Lionel Twain (Capote). Having lured his guests to his mansion (the address of which is shown early on as "22 Lola Lane" and spoken later as "Two-Two Twain") managed by a blind butler and a deaf-mute cook, Twain announces that it is in fact he who is the greatest detective in the world. In order to prove his claim, he challenges the guests to solve a murder which will take place in the house at midnight that very night; a reward of $1 million will be presented to the winner. Before midnight, the butler is found dead, and at midnight Twain himself appears, also dead; the cook is discovered to have been an animated mannequin, now packed in a storage crate. The party spends the rest of the evening investigating, dining and bickering. They are manipulated by a mysterious behind-the-scenes force, confused by red herrings, baffled by the "mechanical marvel" that is Twain's house and ultimately find their own lives threatened. The ending piles on twist after twist as each sleuth presents his or her theory on the case.

After a brutal night during which one pair is almost killed by a snake, another by a scorpion, another by a falling ceiling, a fourth by poison gas and the fifth by a bomb, they all collect in the office where the butler—believed to have been murdered earlier—is sitting behind the desk very much alive and not at all blind: "The butler did it". However, each detective then claims that the butler is in fact various incarnations of Twain's associates (such as Irving Goldman [by Jessica Marbles] or Marvin Metzger [Dick Charleston]) or even his daughter. At first the butler plays the part of each of the persons with whom he's identified, but then pulls off a mask to reveal Lionel Twain himself, very much alive. Twain then disparages each of the detectives (and effectively the authors who created them) for the way in which the plots in their adventures have been handled, including: introducing crucial characters at the last minute for the traditional "twist in the tale" (something the assembled detectives had been doing a few minutes earlier) and withholding clues and information that made it impossible for the reader to find out who had done it. None of the detectives walks away with the million dollars.

It is not clear whether any murder has actually taken place. In the last spoken line of the movie, Sydney Wang, when asked if there had been a murder or not, replies "Yes; killed good weekend!" After the guests leave, Twain pulls off another mask, revealing "himself" to be Yetta, the cook.

Cast and characters

The plot takes place in and around the isolated country home populated by eccentric multi-millionaire Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), his blind butler Jamesir Bensonmum (Alec Guinness) and a deaf-mute cook named Yetta (Nancy Walker). The participants are all pastiches of famous fictional detectives:

  • Inspector Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) is based on Charlie Chan and appropriately accompanied by his adopted Japanese son Willie (Richard Narita). Wang wears elaborate Chinese costumes, and his grammar is frequently criticized by the annoyed host.
  • Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith) are polished, sophisticated society types modeled on Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man film series. Their excellent breeding gets them out of a few scrapes during the course of the weekend.
  • Milo Perrier (James Coco) is a take on Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and arrives at the house with his chauffeur, Marcel Cassette (James Cromwell in his first feature film role). The portly Perrier is overly fond of food and appears annoyed that he must share a room with lowly Marcel. He is repeatedly annoyed by being mistaken for a Frenchman, as he is Belgian.
  • Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) represents the hard-boiled, American-style detective, a parody based on The Maltese Falcon's Sam Spade and Richard Diamond, Private Detective. He is accompanied by his long-suffering secretary Tess Skeffington (Eileen Brennan).
  • Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) parodies Christie's other great creation, Miss Marple. In the film, Marbles appears as a hearty, tweed-clad Englishwoman with a frail, seemingly senile companion—her ancient "nurse" Miss Withers (Estelle Winwood)—for whom she is now caring. In real life, the two English-born actresses did not care for each other and exchanged mordant, biting insults.[2]

Production notes

Deleted scenes

Some time after the film's initial release, four scenes were cut. The first finds Jessica Marbles and Miss Withers discussing payment with their taxi driver (played by Peter Sellers).

In the second, Dick and Dora Charleston narrowly avoid running over Tess Skeffington, who has been hiking for miles back to Sam Diamond's car from a service station (because she and Sam ran out of gas on the road). Satisfied that Tess is all right, the Charlestons drive off, leaving her there.

The third falls between the discovery of Twain's body and the discussion of motives. Willie Wang has found a note in Twain's hand and, thinking it is a clue, makes a speech about how he will solve the case and win the prize. However, the "clue" is a worthless note.

In the fourth, another detective in a deerstalker cap and his doctor friend (Keith McConnell and Richard Peel, obviously meant to be playing Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson)[4] arrive late and are directed to the house just as the other characters are leaving hastily. Author Ron Haydock states that an early draft of Neil Simon's script featured Holmes and Watson actually solving the mystery, but their roles were reduced to a cameo appearance and finally deleted because the lead actors felt they were being upstaged.[5]

None of these deleted scenes are included in the current DVD release. They were, however, included in the network television broadcast of the movie on the ABC television network.


  1. ^ [1], accessed September 30, 2010
  2. ^ Anger, Kenneth. Hotel Babylon. From Estelle Winwood Biography: accessed 11/23/10
  3. ^ [2] web site for video release, accessed April 2, 2007
  4. ^ Ronald B. De Waal, The Universal Sherlock Holmes, accessed 4 March 2011
  5. ^ Haydock, Ron. Deerstalker! Holmes and Watson on Screen. Scarecrow Press, 1978. ISBN 0-8108-1061-1

External links

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