Wednesday, October 05, 2005

MURDER BY DEATH (1976) - Robert Moore

I hesitate to even put director Robert Moore’s name next to the title here. This is definitely one of those movies where the “auteur theory” simply does not apply. Murder by Death is all Neil Simon’s show (the screenwriter), not to mention the assembled cast of brilliant character actors. And, oh, what a politically incorrect show it is.
Sellers plays Inspector Sidney Wang, a broad Asian stereotype rivaled in its complete lack of subtlety only by Mickey Rooney’s wince-inducing turn as the Japanese butler in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Let’s not tap dance around the issue – Sellers is doing “yellow-face” here, his eyes pulled downward with makeup and his teeth protruding ever so slightly. Whether or not you find it funny or offensive depends on your sense of humor or your sensitivity to these matters. But look past the costume and I think you have to admit, he’s doing a damn good Charlie Chan. As a comedic actor, what more can you ask for?
For one, how about an ensemble of other brilliant comic actors willing to go the distance with you (Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, James Coco, Eileen Brennan). Then throw an oddball cultural cherry on top with Truman Capote as the master of ceremonies and you’ve got a pretty sweet little comedic confection.
The setup is similarly sweet and simple. The greatest detectives from around the world are invited to the mansion of Lionel Twain (Capote) for an evening of fun and murder. Everyone’s spoofing a famous detective (or their sidekick) as well as the conventions of this Ten Little Indians meets Clue premise. Alec Guinness plays the very blind butler. Peter Falk is doing his best Sam Spade along with secretary Eileen Brennan. James Coco is doing the French sleuth Poirot with his driver, a young James Cromwell. David Niven and Maggie Smith are doing their upper-crusty Nick and Nora routine. And Elsa Lanchester is doing, I think, Miss Marple, the octogenarian detective. And, last but not least, Sellers as Wang, his Charlie Chan, along with his Japanese adopted son, Willie.
Yes, the jokes are very broad and the genre a very easy target. But when you’re throwing out a joke a second and you’ve got Neil Simon on the mound and Sellers, Falk, and Coco at the plate you’re bound to connect more than half the time. I laughed out loud more than a few times, which is exceedingly rare. We’re in Zucker Brothers territory here, but a little more controlled, a little less random simply because of the closed confines of its premise. Yes, it’s politically incorrect, but comedy-wise its mostly right on the money.

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