Peter Falk Double Bill: Murder By Death (1976) & The Cheap Detective (1978)…


“The last time that I trusted a dame was in Paris in 1940.  She said she was going out to get a bottle of wine.  Two hours later, the Germans marched into France…”

Peter Falk’s film career spanned five decades, and was universally loved for his most famous role, the shabby, nicotine-stained detective Columbo.  In the Seventies, he starred in two comedies by prolific playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon, spoofing Hammett’s Sam Spade, and Humphrey Bogart.

Murder By Death sends up the traditional Cluedo style whodunnit, as mysterious millionaire Lionel Twain (Truman Capote) invites five of the world’s greatest criminologists to his manor for dinner and a murder.

The five guests, accompanied by a relative, partner or sidekick, are parodies of famous fictional detectives.  There is Dick Charles (David Niven), a suave gentleman detective and his upper crust wife Dora (Maggie Smith), based on Nick and Nora Charleston from Hammett’s The Thin Man.

Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) is a broad caricature of Charlie Chan, accompanied by his adopted Japanese son.  Milo Perrier (James Coco) is an excitable, pompous, irritable version of Hercule Poirot, followed around by his dim-witted chaffeur Marcel (James Cromwell).

Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) rolls up with her ancient nurse Miss Withers (Estelle Windwood).  Miss Marbles is a cheerful, redoubtable character parodying Miss Marple.

Peter Falk stars as Sam Diamond, a San Francisco based sleuth who makes fifty dollars a day plus expenses.  For all his tough talk, Diamond is a closeted homosexual, accompanied by his devoted, long-suffering secretary Tess (Eileen Brennan).  Sam Diamond parodies mainly Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon, making it 2-2 between Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie for the source of characters.

After the blind butler, Jamesir Bensonmum (Alec Guiness) shows the guests to their rooms, Twain makes a startling appearance at dinner to announce one person at the table would be murdered at midnight.

Twain aims to prove that he is the world’s greatest detective, and offers $1 million to whoever solves the crime.

 The murder mystery is absolute nonsense, involving disappearing and reappearing corpses, traps, bombs and deadly creatures.  Neil Simon’s screenplay is packed with jokes, most of them pretty bad.  The sheer number of groaners and lame one-liners has a cumulative effect, and Murder by Death is endearingly silly.

The film is hamstrung by Robert Moore’s sluggish, leaden direction.  Moore made his name with stage productions, and betrays his theatrical roots with Murder by Death.  Although written for the screen, it feels far more stagey than it should.  The static camera is basically plonked in front of the actors, and let them get on with it.

The real joy of Murder by Death is watching its brilliant cast make the most of this bad situation.  They tackle the ridiculous plot and rubbish jokes with considerable gusto.  Of the characters, comic genius Peter Sellers comes of worst, in a one-note, borderline offensive performance.

Best is Diamond’s relationship with Nick Charles.  Falk and Niven are such a terrific contrast in appearance and acting styles, and they play off each other beautifully.  It helps that they are ably assisted by the incomparable Brennan and the formidable Maggie Smith, who displays surprising comic ability.

Two years later, Moore and Simon teamed up again with The Cheap Detective, focusing on the hardboiled private eye character.  Sam Spade is still the main focus, with plenty of Humphrey Bogart thrown in, and Falk again occupies the role.

The Cheap Detective merges the plot of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, and again attracts an excellent cast – this time, Falk heads a cast including Brennan, Coco, and Cromwell from the earlier movie, plus Madeline Kahn, Louise Fletcher, Phil Silvers, John Houseman and many others.

It must have sounded funnier on paper, and The Cheap Detective is too affectionate toward its targets.  Whole scenes play out as homage rather than send up, and the jokes are spread pretty thinly.  From this evidence, Moore couldn’t tell a knock-knock joke.

The film starts so well, with a few moments of inspired silliness that could come straight from the files of Police Squad, as flat-footed detectives investigate a quadruple murder in a hotel.

Falk does his best, playing it straight as the cynical sleuth, this time called Lou Peckinpaugh.  Lou is so wary he trains his gun on the phone before picking it up, and keeps ready poured shots of liquor in his drawer.

Most of the other performances are bizarre instead of funny, particularly Dom DeLuise as a creepy Peter Lorre-style character, who wears cheap perfume to keep people away and snorts like a pig when he laughs.  As Lou accurately asks: “How do you stand being around yourself?”

Others are horribly mis-cast, especially Louise Fletcher in the Ingrid Bergman role.

The Cheap Detective is an embarrassing misfire.  For this kind of thing, Carl Reiner & Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is uneven, but at least they remembered to write some jokes.  For Casablanca and Humphrey Bogart fans, the funniest film is still Woody Allen’s Play it Again, Sam.


About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and two children.

Posted on 30/06/2012, in C, Comedy, Detective, Entertainment, Film, M, Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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