From last Friday night, here's my wraparound for MURDER BY DEATH, written by me and Courtney O'Brien. Lots of names. I stumbled a few times while taping this bad boy. Join me on TCM next Friday night for three more Neil Simon films, including THE GOODBYE GIRL. And now... MURDER BY DEATH.
Hello and welcome to TCM. I’m Ken Levine – a TV writer and director, and here to once again shine our “Friday Night Ppotlight” on the work of Neil Simon. Tonight we’re going to bring you two Neil Simon double features.
In our first pairing, we have movies showcasing Simon’s tongue-in-cheek take on the mystery genre. For the second helping, it’s a double order of movies set in and around hotels.
Up first we bring you the 1976 murder mystery spoof “Murder by Death,” a film that is very much a sign of the times.
In the mid-1970s, parodies were incredibly popular. Writers and directors were spoofing many genres – Mel Brooks first parodied the western genre with the wildly funny “Blazing Saddles,” and then he took on monster movies with “Young Frankenstein.” the year before, Woody Allen gave his own spin to sci-fi flicks with “Sleeper.” so Neil Simon decided to take on the murder mystery genre, writing this film directly for the screen and drawing influence from Agatha Christie’s best seller, “And Then There Were None.”
In “Murder by Death,” Simon poses the question, “who is the greatest gumshoe of them all?” He not only channels Miss Christie and her two major detectives – Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot – but also Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, played most famously by Humphrey Bogart. Simon also includes his satirical versions of Nick and Nora Charles from the “Thin Man” film series, along with Charlie Chan.
All the names have been altered. Here you’ll meet Jessica Marbles, Milo Perrier, Sam Diamond, Dick and Dora Charleston, and Sidney Wang.
As you’ll see, Neil Simon and his producer Ray Stark rounded up an all-star cast: in alphabetical order, as they were billed: Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote -- yes, Truman Capote -- James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, and Nancy Walker.
Now. Warning: this is hardly a politically correct movie. Charlie Chan jokes alone are asking for it, but then to have Peter Sellers play the character – there are a few “yikes” moments in this film. From 1976, directed by Robert Moore, also with James Cromwell and Estelle Winwood, here’s Neil Simon’s “Murder by Death.”
Though some of the jokes and puns may not work, the major problem Neil Simon had with “Murder by Death,” and perhaps an issue for some of you as well, was the casting of Truman Capote as the eccentric millionaire, Lionel Twain. Ray Stark, the producer of the film, thought the sheer publicity of casting Capote would draw an audience – and he was right. “Murder by Death” was a big box office hit.
But Simon thought Capote was completely wrong for the role – especially since he had no acting experience – and it showed.
Simon’s first choice for the role was Orson Welles, who wanted to do it but unfortunately had another commitment.
Coming up next, another mystery spoof from Neil Simon -- this one starring Peter Falk, and a film that blends “Casablanca,” “the Maltese Falcon,” “To Have and Have Not,” and many other classic Hollywood mysteries.