Murder by Death

Murder by Death is a 1976 movie about five great detectives who are called to an isolated mansion, but rather than dealing with a grisly murder case, they encounter a wacky murder case.

The detectives are based on Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Charlie Chan, Nick & Nora Charles, and Sam Spade. These influences will be instantly recognizable to anybody familiar with the original characters, but none of the jokes rely on knowledge of the original materials, so you can fully enjoy the movie even if you've never touched a detective novel. The unbelievably wealthy Lionel Twain invites the world's five greatest detectives (and their assistants) to his mansion to engage in a battle of wits: he challenges them to solve a murder that will occur. The detectives are forced to deal with Lionel, his strange mansion, the hi-jinks of his blind butler, and, most of all, each other.

The movie is pretty funny, especially if you're a fan of detective fiction. If you've ever grown tired of the lead detective being essentially infallible and wanted to see Kudo Shin'ichi, Hercule Poirot, or Gideon Fell get taken down a peg just once, this film will be right up your alley. Rather than relying on a few massive, gut-busting jokes, the comedy is based on a continuous stream of witty lines and gags.

While Murder by Death adopts the plot and setting of a traditional murder mystery, it is purely a comedy. Unlike shows such as Trick, which balances jokes with legitimate mysteries, Murder by Death features nothing even close to any sort of fair-play mystery, and by Clarke's laws the solution may as well be magic. This isn't a point against the movie, as there's nothing wrong with making a pure comedy, but I just wanted to clarify the point.

This movie was made over four decades ago, and I think that on the surface there are a few elements that may offend our superior modern sensibilities, but on deeper analysis it isn't so bad.

The first problem is racism, encapsulated entirely within the character of Sidney Wang (based on Charlie Chan). He is a clear stereotype, wearing oriental clothes, speaking in broken English, and constantly spouting inscrutable adages. However, rather than being a "sincere" use of the stereotypes, I think Wang is supposed to satirize how Charlie Chan was a stereotype. There are two reasons I think this. First, Wang's son Willie is probably the most normal and Americanized character in the film. If the film-makers "believed" in the stereotypes that Wang represented, it'd be bizarre for Willie to then be so ordinary. Second, there are lines that explicitly point out how ridiculous some of Wang's stereotypical attributes are. Of course, you can still hold the opinion that such stereotypes are hurtful and shouldn't be used even as satire, and that's fair, but it's not how I feel. (There was one line, about Asians smelling different than Caucasians, which I thought was slightly over the line even for parody, but it's used factually in a deduction rather than insultingly and passes quickly, so I'm not going to condemn the entire movie for one faux pas.)

The second problem is sexism, as the male characters treat the female characters pretty badly. But thinking back, I don't think there actually was sexism. While the men do treat the women poorly, in this movie, everyone treats everyone badly. Plus, the way the women are mistreated isn't "gendered" or more severe than the other characters. Watching the scenes where the women were mistreated felt a bit awkward, at least to me personally... but then thinking about it in the context of everybody in the movie being a massive jerk, and how often the men were made fools of (both by the women and the other men), it felt fine.

Murder by Death is a funny movie that's readily available online, so it's perfect for the mystery-lover looking for a lighter change of pace.

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