There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.
Sometimes, the term “I guess you had to be there” has never been used better…
Murder by Death (1976)
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Director: Robert Moore
In “fanfic,” there is a term for putting fictional characters together: “shipping,” or “ship” for short. It’s often meant romantically but can be just as likely having them simply be in the same room together.
It’s a concept that’s been around at least as long as when Neil Simon, of all people, threw five pastiches together for the sake of a comedy:
In a creepy old house in a creepy unidentified area, five detectives roll up in their cars:
- Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith, respectively) based on the characters from the Dashiell Hammett novel The Thin Man but owing a lot more to the six Thin Man films from the 1930s and 40s
- Inspector Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) and his “Number Three Son” Willie (Richard Narita) based on Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan and carrying on the not-that-funny-then-and-REALLY-not-funny-now tradition of portraying the character through “yellowface”
- Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) and his secretary Tess (Eileen Brennan), based on the main character from Hammett’s book The Maltese Falcon, and with large parts from the classic film adaptation
- Milo Perrier (James Coco) and his chauffer Marcell (James Cromwell in his first feature role) attempting to suggest the classic Agatha Christie character Hercule Poirot
- Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) and her elderly nurse (Estelle Winwood in her last feature) also just sort of suggesting another Christie character, Jane Marple
Their needs are “attended to” by their host’s blind butler Bensonmum (Alec Guinness) and the deaf-mute cook Yetta (Nancy Walker, in her last feature). They interact with the guests before their host shows up, the notorious Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), who shocks them all by announcing that at midnight, someone in the room where all have gathered would be stabbed twelve times in the back and killed, by someone else in the room.
And from there, it gets nasty…
…not to mention silly and on a few occasions actually funny. Simon manages to set up some decent jokes that could have been funny as anyone’s lines, but that’s the problem: He takes less care fleshing out his Christie knock-offs than he does the other three, who had been in more popular film adaptations before the movie than either of the other two.
As a result, some of the more biting observations of these characters that could have come up in the script just never materialize as well as they do for the American detectives. (Somehow Simon seemed to have missed Murder on the Orient Express; as for Marple, it would still be a few years before a decent model came to screen to build off of, so we can assume that there just wasn’t anything at hand to crib from…)
Allowing for these lost opportunities to slide, the film tries to go back and forth between biting and zany, managing to hit a good line more often than would have been expected in a film with so much talent in featured roles. Some actors in their roles, like Niven’s Dick and Falk’s Diamond, have lots of material to wallow in, and do so gracefully. However, Guinness’ butler pretty much steals every scene he’s in, and his inability to interact with the deaf and mute Yetta is actually a major drive to keep the film’s momentum going for a good third of it.
The big mystery is how they could get a lot of serious film and television talent in the project and think that putting the untrained Capote in his only serious acting role up against them was a good idea. He comes across more annoying and spiteful than anything else, and you never feel like he belongs in the film, that Simon and frequent on-stage collaborator Moore just thought it’d be cool to do it and then live with regret over their choice for the rest of their lives.
Interestingly, the Capote that was making audiences squirm every time he opened his mouth in the film was not that far removed from the real-life Capote during this time as he was doing the talk show circuit, a slow motion train wreck as he destroyed himself before our eyes.
It’s during the time this film was in production that he authorized the four short segments from what was going to be Answered Prayers be published by Esquire magazine; his supposed use of his contacts and confidences among the beautiful people as gist for the work led to his being ostracized from the A-listers and sped up his downward spiral.
Despite the lack of Christie representation, the yellowface, and Capote’s dancing too damn close to the edge right before falling off the cliff, the film did well in its time. Notices were good, and audiences gave the film good box office. Which was a surprise to Nivens and Sellers, who reportedly got the producers to buy back some of their backend shares out of the profits, imagining that their film would not be embraced as well as it was.
Interestingly, despite the success of the film, there was no effort towards further shipping, to replicate another such meeting of fictional detectives like this by this team or any other. The closest we’d get to a continuation would be Falk doing another Hammett character pastiche for Simon in 1978’s The Cheap Detective.
Which leads one to conclude that if asked, that Simon would refuse to go down with the ship…