Murder by Death released June 23, 1976
Murder by Death is a 1976 comedy movie with a star-studded cast, 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.
Orson Welles was originally considered for the role of Inspector Wang but was unable to accept because he was appearing in a play in Italy.
Neil Simon remained on the set to take care of re-writes, as he did with this picture’s sequel, The Cheap Detective (1978). Simon took such a shine to Alec Guinness during the picture’s production that he told him if he did not like anything in the film, he’d immediately rewrite it for him, but Guinness assured him it was great fun for him.
Myrna Loy was originally offered the part of Dora Charleston (a role that was a spoof of the character that she had played in the Thin Man movies) but she declined, later stating that “it would have been ridiculous to have Myrna Loy doing Myrna Loy”. She also stated that she didn’t want her “ass pinched by David Niven”.
During the first scene when Alec Guinness licks the stamps for the invitations, the stamps used were the 8 cent Dwight D. Eisenhower “No Dot”, three-color stamps released in May 1971 and not the more popular 6 cent stamp released nearly a year earlier. First-class postage stamps were up to 13 cents by the time the movie was produced.
It was while working on this film that Alec Guinness received the script for Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977). He read it between scenes in his dressing room.
All of the detectives in the film are parodies of the work of three authors: Dashiell Hammett, whose Nick Charles and Sam Spade were the basis for Dick Charleston and Sam Diamond, respectively; Agatha Christie, whose Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple inspired Milo Perrier and Miss Marbles; Earl Derr Biggers Charlie Chan was the basis for Inspector Sidney Wang and his son.
Immediately after completing the film, Peter Sellers was so convinced it was going to bomb, he convinced the producers to buy back his percentage share in the movie, thus depriving himself of a cut of the profits with the film when it went on to be a hit.
The screaming woman sound used as a doorbell is Fay Wray’s screams from King Kong (1933).
Originally Katharine Hepburn was meant to play a character called Dame Abigail Christian (a spin on Agatha Christie). Hepburn dropped out after hearing Myrna Loy would not do the film. The character was changed to Dame Abigail Christmas, and Estelle Winwood took the role. After numerous re-writes Estelle became Nurse Withers to a new character, Elsa Lanchester’s Miss Jessica Marbles.
Nancy Walker’s last movie. Ironic in that she does not utter a single word throughout the entire film.
An interview with writer Neil Simon in a DVD extra Murder by Death: A Conversation with Neil Simon (1999) (V) has him reveal that he and director Robert Moore at one time wished to replace Truman Capote with a real actor in the part of Lionel Twain but ultimately this never eventuated.
Peter Sellers also played a taxi driver, but the scene was deleted.
Peter Sellers reportedly played a number of practical jokes on cast and crew during filming, including once calling Neil Simon up whilst imitating co-star Alec Guinness and demanding a re-write of a key scene in the middle of the night. Neither Guinness nor Simon was amused.
In the opening credits, each character’s eyes move except for Peter Falk’s (which may be an in-joke reference to his glass eye), and Alec Guinness’s blind butler.
David Niven plays Dick Charleston, a role based on Nick Charles which was originated by William Powell in the Thin Man movies. This is the second time Niven has played a role originated by Powell, having also played the titular role in the remake of My Man Godfrey (1936).
Phil Silvers had a small role in this film, but his scenes were deleted in the final release print.
Filed under: Mystery
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