Monday, March 24, 2014

Murder by Death


I had some absolutely marvelous new publicity photographs taken yesterday by that vibrant new photographer, Sadie Mae Glutz. Dressed in a billowy black caftan and black turban, I am spied lounging against a giant telephone handset (a leftover prop from Land of the Giants ), holding a palm pilot in one hand, and a white silk scarf in the other. I believe it’s a statement about women's alienation from the contemporary telecommunications world. These absolutely amazing pictures, which must be seen to be believed, should counteract any negative publicity I might receive from the recent blazing finale to my Salina, Utah concert. Madame Rose is shopping the proofs around to US People and Infomercial Today , certain that at least one of these fine publications will want me for a cover story.

Troma Studio has sent me more pages from the script of Toxy Foxy , the musical sequel to The Little Foxes in which I would play Regina Giddens during her later years in Chicago. The story has changed again and now this new character, the Toxic Avenger, is my love interest. The studio wants Regina to be more sympathetic so the Slaughterhouse Ballet is out. Apparently the choreographer was uncomfortable working with five hundred head of beef cattle - he was having difficulty getting them to learn even the basics of a time step. It has been replaced with a pas de deux for the Toxic Avenger and me. We do a genteel little Fred and Ginger routine on the banks of the Chicago River to a marimba version of Cole Porter's Begin the Beguine . There is also a splendid new fight scene between my daughter, Alexandra, who is a romantic rival for the affections of the Toxic Avenger and me. We brawl on the dinner table at a high society party after she makes moves on my new love. Joseph has nearly convinced me to sign. I am trying to get at least a small cameo for Norman written in before I make a final commitment to the project.

Reading about high society dinner parties always makes me want to view one, so I thumbed through the video library until I found Murder by Death , Neil Simon's homage to and send up of detective stories, 'old dark house' murder mysteries, and 1930s movie conventions. The film, originally released in 1976, allows a number of old pros a chance to strut their stuff with Simon's patented one-liners and comic scenes. The centerpiece of the film is a large formal dinner party where the entire cast is allowed to run riot and engage in a game of who can upstage whom.

The film begins with reclusive millionaire Lionel Twain (har har - think under the Christmas tree) inviting the five greatest living detectives to dinner and a murder at his mysterious mansion in the hills outside of San Francisco. They show up with their various sidekicks in tow and then the fun begins. Each of the detectives is a spoof of a well known fictional character from the world of literary and cinema mystery. They include Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers as Charlie Chan) who arrives with number three adopted son (Richard Narita). He speaks in early American fortune cookie, wears a silly mandarin outfit and is another of Seller's brilliant comic creations (if a bit offensive to Asian Americans). Dick and Dora Charleston also show up, complete with dog (David Niven and Maggie Smith doing William Powell and Myrna Loy from the Thin Man films) and engage in much gin soaked repartee and some salacious double entendres delivered in that unflappable Maggie Smith style. Sam Diamond (Peter Falk doing Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon ) shows up with floozy secretary/girlfriend (Eileen Brennan). Falk was such a success in this role that Simon wrote him another film, The Cheap Detective with a similar character. Milo Perrier (James Coco as Hercule Poirot) shows up in a dither with chauffeur and boy-toy (a very young and blond James Cromwell) and last, but not least is Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester as Miss Marple) who shows up in full tweeds together with her nurse (Estelle Winwood) who has become so frail that she must be pushed around in an ancient bath chair. The house party is completed by Twain's servants, a lugubrious blind butler (Alec Guinness in a brilliant turn) and a deaf and dumb maid (Nancy Walker).

In the middle of dinner, the mysterious host Twain appears, and is played by Truman Capote as a living helium balloon in a fedora hat. The lights go out; there is a body and the detectives get down to work. Near fatal accidents abound and one by one the detectives try to solve whodunit to whom. All the while, rooms move, the butler loses his clothes, and then his body, and the maid appears to have come in a crate.

Simon is a gagmeister and not necessarily the strongest constructor of cohesive scripts. Here, he has assembled a fun array of archetypes, given them some great lines and pieces of shtick, but runs out of ideas as to what to do with them. The actors have great fun playing off each other, especially in the group scenes, but none of them has much luck in making sense out of their character or the plot. Eventually, there's a dénouement that plays like a 'we've got to end this somehow so let's just film something' scene. I don't mind my spoofs being silly, but if you're going to spoof something that's as precise as a mystery, you've got to be a little more careful in your writing or you'll lose your momentum and most of the fun.

The reason to view this film is to enjoy old pros having a good time. Many of the actors, known best for their dramatic work, rarely got a chance to cut up to the extent they do here. The expressions on the faces of David Niven and James Coco and Elsa Lanchester as they try to deal with a naked Alec Guinness are priceless. Falk reveals a previously unknown comic timing which reinvigorated his career outside of the Columbo TV series. His scenes with Eileen Brennan are small masterpieces of underplaying and mock seriousness that makes them all the funnier. James Cromwell shows that he can take a great pratfall and Maggie Smith, of course, can make even the simplest of lines into a laugh getter. Truman Capote is the only weak link in the cast. I assume he had something on one of the producers to get the part. Fortunately, his scenes are mercifully brief.

The design of the film uses every 'isolated mansion' cliché in the book from fog banks to rickety bridges, to gothic interiors, to convenient thunder and lightning. These conventions are all laid before the audience with a wink and a smile, and more than a few of the clichés are turned on their head. The director is Robert Moore who directed a few of Simon's projects in the late 70s but, like with all Neil Simon works, it's the author who is the auteur here.

Thirties cars. Falling statuary. Screaming doorbell. Empty tureen. Unstamped invitations. Gratuitous poop joke. Evening dress. Live mouse. Poison gas. More poisonous snake. Still more poisonous cocktail. Empty tuxedo. Rubber masks.

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