Murder by Death (1976)

PG | 94 mins | Comedy | 1976

Director:

Robert Moore

Writer:

Neil Simon

Producer:

Ray Stark

Cinematographer:

David M. Walsh

Editor:

John F. Burnett

Production Designer:

Stephen Grimes

Production Company:

Rastar Films
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HISTORY

A news item in the 2 Jun 1975 HR announced producer Ray Stark’s casting choices for Murder by Death, which included Katharine Hepburn in the role of “Dame Abigail Christian,” along with Tony Randall, Orson Welles, Peter Falk, James Coco and Truman Capote. The 14 Jun 1975 LAT reported that Stark was seeking five unknown or character actors, rather than major stars, for lead roles in the film. The 20 Jun 1975 DV announced Myrna Loy and David Niven for the roles of “Dick and Dora,” based on the protagonists from the The Thin Man (1934, see entry), and Welles was cast as a character based on Agatha Christie’s “Hercule Poirot.” The article also stated that Murder by Death would be filmed on two sets designed by Stephen Grimes that would fill Stages 15 and 16 of The Burbank Studio. Niven was quoted in the 24 Dec 1975 LAT, saying that the film would mark his eighty-ninth starring role. As reported in the 25 Aug 1976 People, Loy later quit the production, describing the script as “too risqué for a lady.”
       According to the 15 Jul 1975 DV, filming for Murder by Death was scheduled for 1 Oct 1975. Joyce Haber’s column in the 21 Jul 1975 LAT mentioned that James Coco was being considered to play “Sidney Wong,” a character based on Earl Derr Biggers’s “Charlie Chan.” However, a news item in the 7 Aug 1975 announced that Peter Sellers, cast as “Sidney Wong,” was visiting Los Angeles, CA to ... More Less

A news item in the 2 Jun 1975 HR announced producer Ray Stark’s casting choices for Murder by Death, which included Katharine Hepburn in the role of “Dame Abigail Christian,” along with Tony Randall, Orson Welles, Peter Falk, James Coco and Truman Capote. The 14 Jun 1975 LAT reported that Stark was seeking five unknown or character actors, rather than major stars, for lead roles in the film. The 20 Jun 1975 DV announced Myrna Loy and David Niven for the roles of “Dick and Dora,” based on the protagonists from the The Thin Man (1934, see entry), and Welles was cast as a character based on Agatha Christie’s “Hercule Poirot.” The article also stated that Murder by Death would be filmed on two sets designed by Stephen Grimes that would fill Stages 15 and 16 of The Burbank Studio. Niven was quoted in the 24 Dec 1975 LAT, saying that the film would mark his eighty-ninth starring role. As reported in the 25 Aug 1976 People, Loy later quit the production, describing the script as “too risqué for a lady.”
       According to the 15 Jul 1975 DV, filming for Murder by Death was scheduled for 1 Oct 1975. Joyce Haber’s column in the 21 Jul 1975 LAT mentioned that James Coco was being considered to play “Sidney Wong,” a character based on Earl Derr Biggers’s “Charlie Chan.” However, a news item in the 7 Aug 1975 announced that Peter Sellers, cast as “Sidney Wong,” was visiting Los Angeles, CA to research the role by viewing the numerous portrayals of “Chan” on film, dating from 1926 to 1957.
       Murder by Death was director Robert Moore’s first feature film, an assignment he credited to the influence of screenwriter Neil Simon, with whom Moore had worked on several Broadway productions, according to the Jan/Feb 1976 Action.
       Truman Capote made his acting debut as “Lionel Twain” in the film, a part that was written with him in mind, according to the 11 Sep 1975 Rolling Stone. “After all the mean things I’ve said about actors, now they can get back at me, said Capote.” He was also quoted in the 29 Dec 1975 People: “What Dom Perignon is to champagne, I am to acting.” However, a news item in the 6 Nov 1976 LAT reported that Capote was humbled after seeing his performance in the film, and formally apologized for his past insults to the acting profession.
       The 27 Oct 1975 Box reported that principal photography for Murder by Death began on 16 Oct 1975. According to Robert Moore’s comments in the Action article, Neil Simon was on the set throughout filming, and readily available for revisions and rewrites to the screenplay. The two weeks of scheduled rehearsal that were to precede principal photography were cut to five days so that the British cast members could be home for Christmas. In the film’s one outdoor scene, Moore wanted to reproduce the look of “old Warner Brothers melodramas,” which he was best able to achieve on an indoor set. Moore compared the working habits of actors David Niven and Peter Sellers, explaining that Niven liked rehearsing, while Sellers preferred spontaneity. The director said of Capote, “Truman is the only actor in this picture who needs me more than I need him.”
       An article in the 23 Oct 1975 HR reported that the pop-up centerfold advertisement for the film from the previous week’s issue was drawn by cartoonist Charles Addams and designed by advertising executive Tony Seiniger. The illustration also appeared during the film’s opening credits.
       Upon its release, Murder by Death received positive reviews from the 24 Jun 1976 NYT, the 23 Jun 1976 Var, and the 5 Jul 1976 Box. However, the Aug 1976 The Cinemaphile called it, “The worst film ever to bear Neil Simon’s name.”
       According to a news item in the 11 Jan 1976 LAT, a novelization of Murder by Death was published by Warner Books. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Action
Jan/Feb 1976
p. 22—28.
Box Office
27 Oct 1975.
---
Box Office
5 Jul 1976.
---
Daily Variety
20 Jun 1975.
---
Daily Variety
15 Jul 1975.
---
Daily Variety
7 Aug 1975.
---
Hollywood Reporter
2 Jun 1975.
---
Hollywood Reporter
23 Oct 1975.
---
Hollywood Reporter
23 Jun 1976
p. 2.
Los Angeles Times
14 Jun 1975.
---
Los Angeles Times
21 Jul 1975.
---
Los Angeles Times
24 Dec 1975.
---
Los Angeles Times
11 Jan 1976.
---
Los Angeles Times
23 Jun 1976
p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
6 Nov 1976
p. B7.
New York Times
24 Jun 1976
p. 26.
People
19 Dec 1975.
---
People
25 Aug 1976.
---
Rolling Stone
11 Sep 1975.
---
The Cinemaphile
Aug 1976.
---
Time
1 Sep 1975.
---
Variety
23 Jun 1976
p. 16.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Columbia Pictures Presents
A Ray Stark Production of
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Prod
Assoc prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Key grip
Gaffer
Stills
Asst cam
ART DIRECTORS
Prod des
Art dir
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
Supv film ed
Asst film ed
Apprentice film ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Prop master
COSTUMES
Cost des
Men`s cost
Women`s cost
Asst to Ann Roth
MUSIC
SOUND
Sd mixer
Sd eff ed
Re-rec
Boom op
VISUAL EFFECTS
Title des
Title drawings
Spec eff
MAKEUP
Makeup supv
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
Scr continuity
Asst to prod
Asst to prod mgr
Dial coach
Auditor
Unit pub
Prod services by
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
Neil Simon's Murder by Death
Release Date:
1976
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles and New York openings: 23 June 1976
Production Date:
began 16 October 1975
Copyright Claimant:
Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
Copyright Date:
23 June 1976
Copyright Number:
LP46200
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Lenses
Lenses and Panaflex Camera by Panavision®
Duration(in mins):
94
MPAA Rating:
PG
Country:
United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Lionel Twain sends invitations to master detectives Dick and Dora Charleston, Inspector Sidney Wang, Milo Perrier, Sam Diamond, and Jessica Marbles. The invitation reads, “You are cordially invited to Dinner and a Murder at 22 Lola Lane, Saturday evening 7 P.M.” On Saturday night, the Charlestons are lost in the fog. Dick tries to call his host, but Twain’s telephone line has been cut by an unseen culprit. Sidney Wang and his adopted Japanese son, Willie, stop to read a map and encounter Dick. In another car, Tess Skeffington recites Twain’s dossier to her employer/paramour, Sam Diamond. The car runs out of gas and Tess is required to hike five miles to the nearest station. When Sidney and Willie arrive at Twain’s door, they barely miss being struck by a falling gargoyle. They are greeted by Bensonmum, the blind butler, who takes them to their room, where “a cozy fire” is consuming the bed. The Charlestons arrive next, sipping martinis to ease the shock of their close call with a falling gargoyle. Bensonmum leads them to their room, which is covered in dust and cobwebs. In the kitchen, Bensonmum informs Yetta, the kitchen maid, of her duties. His effort is wasted, as she is deaf, but he cannot see the note explaining her condition. Bensonmum returns to the living room to find Milo, who complains that Marcel has received a minor injury from a falling gargoyle. Sam is less passive about his gargoyle encounter and threatens Bensonmum at gunpoint. The guests gather in the drawing room for cocktails and deduce that the world’s greatest ... +


Lionel Twain sends invitations to master detectives Dick and Dora Charleston, Inspector Sidney Wang, Milo Perrier, Sam Diamond, and Jessica Marbles. The invitation reads, “You are cordially invited to Dinner and a Murder at 22 Lola Lane, Saturday evening 7 P.M.” On Saturday night, the Charlestons are lost in the fog. Dick tries to call his host, but Twain’s telephone line has been cut by an unseen culprit. Sidney Wang and his adopted Japanese son, Willie, stop to read a map and encounter Dick. In another car, Tess Skeffington recites Twain’s dossier to her employer/paramour, Sam Diamond. The car runs out of gas and Tess is required to hike five miles to the nearest station. When Sidney and Willie arrive at Twain’s door, they barely miss being struck by a falling gargoyle. They are greeted by Bensonmum, the blind butler, who takes them to their room, where “a cozy fire” is consuming the bed. The Charlestons arrive next, sipping martinis to ease the shock of their close call with a falling gargoyle. Bensonmum leads them to their room, which is covered in dust and cobwebs. In the kitchen, Bensonmum informs Yetta, the kitchen maid, of her duties. His effort is wasted, as she is deaf, but he cannot see the note explaining her condition. Bensonmum returns to the living room to find Milo, who complains that Marcel has received a minor injury from a falling gargoyle. Sam is less passive about his gargoyle encounter and threatens Bensonmum at gunpoint. The guests gather in the drawing room for cocktails and deduce that the world’s greatest detectives have been brought together for a reason. Sam and Tess enter, followed soon after by Jessica Marbles and her wheelchair-bound nurse, Miss Withers. The group is summoned to the dining room. Bensonmum serves soup from an empty tureen. He apologizes and goes to the kitchen to fire Yetta, still unaware of the futility. After narrowly escaping death from poisoned wine and falling swords, the guests meet their host, whose entrance is accompanied by flashing colored lights. Twain announces that he will prove himself to be the world’s greatest criminologist. A murder is to be committed at midnight, and both the killer and the victim are currently at the table. Twain wagers $1 million against their reputations that none of the five detectives will be able to solve the crime. With the push of a button, he seals them inside the house, and then makes a dramatic exit. Yetta storms into the dining room and “screams,” although she produces no sound. Sidney, Jessica and Milo go to the kitchen, where they discover the body of Bensonmum, and notice a butcher knife missing from the knife rack. Locked out of the dining room, Milo retrieves the key from Bensonmum, but the body has disappeared and only the butler’s clothes remain. They find the dining room deserted, but Twain, watching from the moose head on the wall, assures the detectives that no one has left the dining room and instructs them to leave the room and re-enter. They follow Twain’s instructions and find all the guests in place. The sound of gunshots emanates from the kitchen, prompting Dick and Sam to investigate. Bensonmum’s body has reappeared, but without clothing. While Dick uses the bathroom, Sam returns to the dining room, which is again deserted. When he opens the bathroom door, Sam sees a cobweb-covered bed occupied by the Charlestons’ terrier. Dick reappears when Sam closes the door and reopens it. Sam enters the dining room and tells the other guests of his experience, which leads them to deduce that Twain has “two of everything” in the house. Milo leaves the room to demonstrate by knocking three times. Dick returns, followed moments later by Milo, who has been squeezed into Bensonmum’s suit. As the clock is about to strike midnight, Dora notices that Yetta has disappeared and there is a knock on the door. Twain stands in the doorway and falls forward, revealing a butcher knife and multiple stab wounds in his back. Dora concludes that Yetta is the culprit, but Sam discovers a case containing Yetta’s components, proving the maid to be an automaton. Dora then asserts that one of the guests must be the murderer. The guests assemble in the drawing room, where they posit their theories. Dick believes the murder was an elaborate suicide. Sidney suspects Dick, explaining that the Charlestons are destitute and have been borrowing money from Twain at seventeen percent interest. Dick draws attention to Jessica, explaining that Twain, her former fiancé, left her at the altar. Milo suggests patricide, and Tess admits that Twain was her uncle, but he was also Sidney’s adoptive father. When Twain realized, after nineteen years, that his son was Asian, Sidney was forced to leave home. Wang counters by reminding Milo of Marie Louise Cartier, Milo’s poodle, which Twain hunted and killed. Tess divulges that Sam also hated Twain because he had photographs of Sam wearing women’s clothing from the night they met in a gay bar, although Sam argues that he was undercover. When they retire to their bedrooms, the Wangs are threatened by a deadly snake, the Charlestons are frozen in fear as a scorpion crawls toward them, Jessica and Miss Withers smell poison gas, Sam and Tess receive notice of a hidden time bomb, and Milo and Marcel are about to be crushed by a descending ceiling. In the drawing room, Bensonmum crosses the detectives’ names off of a list. However, each has miraculously cheated death, and offers his or her solution in hopes of winning the $1 million wager. Sidney relies on the old adage, “the butler did it,” while Jessica knows Bensonmum to actually be Irving Goldman, Twain’s attorney. Dick suggests that Bensonmum is an accountant named Marvin Metzner, but Milo believes him to be Twain’s daughter, Rita, whose hatefulness stems from her manly appearance. Sam announces that he and Tess are actors, and Bensonmum is the real Sam Diamond, who created this ruse to prove his superiority to his colleagues. After humoring each of them, the butler removes his mask and reveals himself to be Twain. He berates the detectives for exploiting their readers with nonsensical surprise endings and other unscrupulous devices. Their reputations will be ruined when the world learns that Twain outsmarted them. As the guests leave, Sam admits to Tess that he really is Sam Diamond, while Dick explains to his wife that everything they’ve experienced was fake, including the fog. Inside the house, Twain removes another mask, exposing the face of Yetta, who laughs hysterically. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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