Release Date(s)1976 (December 18, 2018)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Shout! Factory/Shout Select)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C+
Often overlooked by its more popular counterpart Clue, 1976's Murder by Death is one of Neil Simon's more unorthodox comedies, skewering detective stories and managing to do modest business upon its initial theatrical release. Lampooning and picking apart a genre that, as a child, Neil Simon felt unsatisfied with when it came to each story's conclusion, the film manages to simultaneously satirize it, but also makes for an entertaining whodunit in its own right.
Parodying a group of some of the genre's greatest sleuths, the film is led by a stellar cast that includes David Niven and Maggie Smith (Dick and Dora Charleston), Peter Sellers (Sidney Wang), Peter Falk (Sam Diamond), Elsa Lanchester (Miss Marbles), and James Coco (Milo Perrier). Also in the cast is Alec Guinness as the blind butler Jamessir Bensonmum, Nancy Walker as the deaf mute cook Yetta, and Truman Capote as Lionel Twain, the latter of which has assembled this group of detectives for a dinner party and given them a truly impossible-to-figure-out murder mystery scenario to solve.
The cast is fairly spot-on, including Maggie Smith, David Niven, and Peter Falk, the latter of whom is also sending up his most famous role as Columbo, almost by accident. Sellers wearing yellow face and throwing out Chinese proverbs like “Conversation like television set on honeymoon: unnecessary” is meant to poke fun at racist caricatures of a bygone era. Meanwhile, Falk is going out of his way to be rude to the other guests, while Niven and Smith are adorably stuffy (if only an Asta stand-in could have been found). Capote stands out as the weirdest member of the cast, complete with a colorful and memorable entrance.
Murder by Death isn't necessarily concerned about anything deep or important like many of Neil Simon's previous efforts. Instead, it's full-throttled spoofery, complete with one-liners and sight gags. With an opening title sequence featuring a cartoon line-up of all of the characters, drawn by none other than the great Charles Addams, it's charming, old-school buffoonery, the likes of which were made fairly regularly throughout the late 1970s and on through to the early 1990s.
Shout Select rescues this gem and brings it to Blu-ray for the first time with what appears to be an older HD master. Despite its age, it's still a fairly organic presentation with sometimes uneven grain levels, but excellent detail, particularly in the dining room where we spend a great deal of time. The color palette is satisfactory with plenty of variety and good skin tones. Black levels suffer a bit, not always allowing much for shadow detail to peek through. Overall contrast and brightness is appealing, and everything is stable and clean with only minor speckling leftover.
The audio is presented in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English SDH. It too offers value without being totally perfect. It's clear throughout with good dialogue reproduction, well-prioritized sound effects, and plenty of breathing room for Dave Grusin's memorable score. Nothing ever sounds distorted and no instances of hiss, crackle, or dropouts are detectable.
The extras are brief, but there are some good ones. There's a great new audio commentary by film historian Lee Gambin, who goes into detail about the film's director Robert Moore and each of the cast members while also contextualizing the film and its various facets; Murder by Death: A Conversation with Neil Simon, a vintage 11-minute interview with the writer about the film, his inspirations for it, and how it was made; the film's theatrical trailer; a TV spot; and an animated photo gallery containing 92 images of on-set photos, lobby cards, and marketing materials.
Along with The Cheap Detective (also in need of Blu-ray release), Neil Simon was able to play a little bit more with broader comedy in Murder by Death, giving old-fashioned murder mysteries some much-needed levity. As a fan of the genre, it's fun to see it dissected so well, but what makes it work are the performances and the set pieces. Simply put, it's a fun movie, and Shout Select's Blu-ray release of it is more than welcome. Highly recommended.
– Tim Salmons