Murder by Death

Murder by Death is a 1976 American comedy mystery film directed by Robert Moore and written by Neil Simon. The film stars 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.[3][4]

Murder by Death
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Moore
Produced byRay Stark
Written byNeil Simon
StarringEileen Brennan
Truman Capote
James Coco
Peter Falk
Alec Guinness
Elsa Lanchester
David Niven
Peter Sellers
Maggie Smith
Nancy Walker
Estelle Winwood
Music byDave Grusin
CinematographyDavid M. Walsh
Edited byMargaret Booth
John F. Burnett
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • June 23, 1976 (1976-06-23)
Running time
94 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Box office$32,511,047[2]

The plot is a broad parody or spoof of the traditional country-house whodunit, familiar to mystery fiction fans of classics such as Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. 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 author Truman Capote.

The film was presented at the Venice International Film Festival in September 5, 1976.


A group of five renowned detectives, each accompanied by a relative or associate, is invited to "dinner and a murder" by the mysterious Lionel Twain. Having lured his guests to his mansion managed by a blind butler named Jamessir Bensonmum, who is later joined by a deaf-mute, illiterate cook named Yetta, Twain joins his guests at dinner. The house is then sealed off. Twain announces that he is the greatest detective in the world. To prove his claim, he challenges the guests to solve a murder which will take place at midnight; a reward of $1 million will be presented to the winner.

Before midnight the butler is found dead and Twain disappears, only to re-appear immediately after midnight dead from a stab wound. The cook is also discovered to have been an animated mannequin, now packed in a storage crate. The party spends the rest of the night investigating and bickering. They are manipulated by a mysterious behind-the-scenes force, confused by red herrings, and baffled by the "mechanical marvel" that is Twain's house. They ultimately find their own lives threatened. Each sleuth presents his or her theory on the case, pointing out the others' past connections to Twain and their possible motives for murdering him.

When they retire to their guest rooms for the night, the guests are each confronted by things that threaten to kill them: a snake, a venomous scorpion, a descending ceiling, poison gas, and a bomb. They all survive, and in the morning they gather in the office, where they find the butler waiting, very much alive and not blind. Each detective presents a different piece of evidence with which they each independently solved the mystery, and in each case, they accuse the butler of being one of Twain's former associates.

At first the butler plays the part of each of the persons, male or female, with whom he is identified, but then he pulls off a mask to reveal Lionel Twain himself, alive. Twain disparages the detectives—and metafictionally, the authors who created them—for the way their adventures have been handled. He points out misdeeds as 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 to make it impossible for the reader to solve the mystery. Each of the detectives departs the house empty handed, none of them having won the $1 million. When asked whether there had been a murder, Wang replies, "Yes: killed good weekend."

(Television Version) As Wang and his son leave, they are met by the incoming Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and Wang graciously provides directions to the Twain house. When he son asks if he should have warned them, Wang replies, "Let idiots find out for themselves."

Alone in his home, Twain pulls off yet another mask to reveal Yetta, who smokes a cigarette and laughs diabolically while rings of cigarette smoke fill the screen.

Cast and characters

The story takes place in and around the isolated country home populated by eccentric multi-millionaire Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), his blind butler Jamessir Bensonmum (Alec Guinness), and a deaf-mute cook named Yetta (Nancy Walker). "Lionel Twain" is a pun on "Lionel Train".[5] The participants are all pastiches of famous fictional detectives:

  • Inspector Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) is based on Earl Derr Biggers' Chinese police detective Charlie Chan and is appropriately accompanied by his adopted Japanese son Willie (Richard Narita). Wang wears elaborate Chinese costumes, and his comically broken English is criticized by Twain and others.
  • Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith) are polished, sophisticated society types modeled on Dashiell Hammett's characters Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man film series. The Charles' wire-haired terrier "Asta" is also lampooned, appearing here named "Myron".
  • Milo Perrier (James Coco) is a take on Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and arrives at the house with his heavily French-accented chauffeur Marcel Cassette (James Cromwell in his first feature film role). The demanding, portly Perrier is overly fond of food and appears annoyed that he must share a room with the lowly Marcel, although the two are later seen sharing not only a room but a bed, quibbling like a married couple. Perrier is repeatedly annoyed by being mistaken for a Frenchman as he is Belgian, saying "I am not a 'Frenchie'...I am a 'Belgie.'
  • Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) parodies another Dashiell Hammett character, The Maltese Falcon's hardboiled Sam Spade. He is accompanied by his long-suffering, hard-boiled, sexy but needy secretary Tess Skeffington (Eileen Brennan), whom he continually denigrates and mistreats. Tess Skeffington's name is a riff on Spade's secretary Effie Perine.
  • Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) parodies Christie's Miss Marple. In the film, Marbles appears as hearty, robust and tweed-clad, wheeling a frail, ancient-looking, seemingly senile companion—her ancient "nurse" Miss Withers (Estelle Winwood), for whom she is now caring—but who everyone initially assumes is Miss Marbles.


The film was shot entirely at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California, then named "The Burbank Studios".

Charles Addams, creator of The Addams Family, drew the art and caricatures displayed at the beginning, during the end credits, and on the poster.[6]

Deleted scenes

An additional scene, not in the theatrical version but shown in some television versions, shows Sherlock Holmes (Keith McConnell) and Doctor Watson (Richard Peel) arriving as the other guests are leaving.[7] 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, as the lead actors felt they were being "upstaged."[8]


Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that the film had one of Simon's "nicest, breeziest screenplays," with James Coco "very, very funny as the somewhat prissy take-off on Hercule Poirot" and David Niven and Maggie Smith "marvelous as Dick and Dora Johnson, though they haven't enough to do."[9] Arthur D. Murphy of Variety called it "a very good silly-funny Neil Simon satirical comedy, with a super all-star cast," adding, "It's the sort of film one could see more than once and pick up on comedy bits unnoticed at first. Dave Grusin's music is another highlight."[10] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times found the film "amusing" but added, "Why it is only amusing, and not hilarious, madcap, riotous, rip-roaring, or richly romping, I don't entirely know. It's a short movie (94 minutes) but a slow one, surprisingly so when you'd have said knockabout speed was called for."[11] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film three stars out of four and wrote that "after getting off to a shaky start, the picture quickly hits a speedball comedy pace it doesn't lose until the unsatisfactory unravelling of the mystery."[12] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post stated that "this burlesque whodunit is probably too static and thinly contrived to generate a lasting sense of pleasure, but it's the kind of skillfully obvious, mock-innocent spoof that seems good fun while it lasts, and the fun is enhanced by the most adept and attractive comedy cast in recent memory."[13] John Simon wrote 'Murder by Death is not a movie to write or read about, but to be seen and modestly enjoyed'.[14]

Award nominations

Year Award Category Subject Result
1977 Golden Globe Awards Best Acting Debut in a Motion Picture – Male Truman Capote Nominated
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen Neil Simon Nominated

See also


  1. "MURDER BY DEATH (A)". Columbia-Warner. British Board of Film Classification. June 14, 1976. Retrieved March 15, 2014.
  2. "Murder by Death, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved January 23, 2012.
  3. Hal Erickson. "Murder by Death". AllMovie.
  4. Canby, Vincent (June 24, 1976). "Murder By Death (1976) Simon's Breezy 'Murder by Death'". The New York Times.
  5. "Mystery Film Baffles Master Sleuths". The Indianapolis Star (film review). June 25, 1976. p. 38. Retrieved October 24, 2016.
  6. Angel Tagudin (January 22, 2013). "Murder by Death (1976)". Art of the Title. Retrieved January 29, 2016.
  7. De Waal, Ronald B. "The Universal Sherlock Holmes". University of Minnesota. Archived from the original on January 22, 2016. Retrieved January 22, 2016.
  8. Haydock, Ron. Deerstalker! Holmes and Watson on Screen. Scarecrow Press, 1978. ISBN 0-8108-1061-1
  9. Canby, Vincent (June 24, 1976). "Simon's Breezy 'Murder by Death'". The New York Times. 26.
  10. Murphy, Arthur D. (June 23, 1976). "Film Reviews: Murder By Death". Variety. 16.
  11. Champlin, Charles (June 23, 1976). "A Potshot at Mystery Genre". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 1, 14.
  12. Siskel, Gene (June 25, 1976). "'Murder' is a comedy—and why it works is no mystery". Chicago Tribune. Section 3, p. 1.
  13. Arnold, Gary (June 23, 1976). "'Murder by Death' or, the Case of the Super-sleuth Spoof". The Washington Post. B1.
  14. Simon, John (1982). Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Film. Crown Publishers Inc. p. 257.
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