9:56 AM EDT, August 8, 2013
It was one of the top 10 grossing films of 1976, but "Murder By Death" has the feel of something Neil Simon and his brother Danny might have cooked up for Sid Caesar during their days writing for "Your Show of Shows" in the '50s: Assemble a group of well-known literary sleuths (winking versions of everyone from Sam Spade to Hercule Poirot to Nick and Nora Charles), throw them in a rambling gothic mansion for the weekend and let the whodunit spoofing commence.
That's an idea rooted in sketch comedy, though one perhaps less suited to feature-length shenanigans (at least in Neil Simon's script-writing hands). The jokes are hammy. The plot convoluted. The pacing logey. The film is pretty much a mess. But it has its hardcore fans and, crucially, it co-stars the gimlet-eyed Eileen Brennan, a sly, vaguely terrifying performer who could wring more out of a punch line than you'd think possible. Few comic actresses today straddle that line between amused and world-weary, and Brennan (much like Madeline Kahn) did it with such a smart, unexpected twist on her sex appeal.
This summer at Facets, the cinema reached out local standup comedians and asked them to screen their favorite movies and analyze their appeal. "Murder By Death" (which plays midnight Saturday) comes courtesy of Bill Cruz.
"The first time I saw it, my father got it for me back when he would go rent VHS tapes from the corner store," said Cruz. "It's Neil Simon, so the jokes are just coming from a mile away. That's what drew me in immediately — just how silly it was. Looking at it now, I realize how crazy this movie is."
He's referring to the cast, an embarrassment of riches that includes Maggie Smith and David Niven. Alec Guinness. Nancy Walker (Mrs. Morgenstern!). Peter Falk. Truman Capote, of all people. James Coco (a Simon regular). Brennan, who died last month. James Cromwell, in his first movie role. And Peter Sellers as a pseudo-Charlie Chan in one of the weirder examples of cinematic yellow face since Mickey Rooney went faux Asian in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." (Not that Sellers had second thoughts about this sort of thing: say hello to 1980's "The Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu.")
Cruz: "You put all of that together, and how does it come out so mediocre? That's what draws me to it. I'll laugh at all the dumb jokes — and they are bad jokes — but you'll never see anything like it, all these actors together in one moment, being silly together."
Take this exchange, which occurs inside a "vast, gloomy old house," as the critic Vincent Canby put it, "where one shouldn't trust the wine, the chandeliers, the thunder outside or the oil portraits, whose eyes tend to follow the action below." Seated at the head of the table, Capote's megalomaniac holds court:
Capote: "I'm the greatest, I'm number one!"
Falk: "To me, you look like number two, know what I mean?"
Smith: "What does he mean?"
Brennan: (rolling her eyes) "I'll tell you later. It's disgusting."
Campy, schticky and stuffed with all that acting talent (save Capote, who is strangely entertaining all the same), the movie doesn't even go to the trouble of solving the mystery at hand — so, you know, take that, you crazy demanding audience. (The film is also scheduled to air on TCM 9:30 p.m. Oct. 9.)
The script is a rare effort from Simon that wasn't adapted from one of his plays, but written specifically as a movie. "They were changing lines left and right, trying to play with it," said Cruz. "It's this high-concept film, parodying all these literary detectives, and you sense them saying 'Now what?' To this day, I'm always disappointed that there's no ending, but I think Simon painted himself into a corner. Who wins? Who loses? And who do you get to punch up a Neil Simon script?"
If the trivia listed on IMDb is to be believed, Guinness paged through an early version of the "Star Wars" script between takes. And while Brennan is perhaps best known for her role in "Private Benjamin," there is a lovely comedic whimsy to the fact that she went on to co-star in 1985's "Clue," a film that shares all kinds of DNA with "Murder By Death," not to mention an equally inconclusive ending.
"Murder By Death" screens midnight Saturday at Facets with a discussion led by stand-up comedian Bill Cruz. Go to facets.org.
Food on film
Here's actor Dick Gregory in the documentary "Soul Food": "Should call it 'death food' — 'cause it will kill you." Filmmaker Byron Hurt explores the role of soul food as a deeply integral part of black culture that also comes loaded with health risks. It screens Friday along with the documentary "Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie," about Edna Lewis, a chef often referred to as the Julia Child of Southern cooking (Lewis died in 2006 just a few months short of her 90th birthday). Both films come to town courtesy of the Sundown in K-Town Film Festival at the Better Boys Foundation Center, 1512 S. Pulaski Rd. Go to facets.org/sundown.
The Master of Suspense made several silent films early in his career, nine of which survive and will screen at the Music Box Theatre this week, beginning with the 1929 thriller "Blackmail," about an alluring young woman, her copper boyfriend and her fling on the side who meets an untimely death. (During production, the film was converted into a talkie — one of Britain's first — but a silent version still exists.) A five-piece ensemble will provide live accompaniment. Other Hitchcock silents on the schedule include "Easy Virtue," "Champagne" and "The Lodger." Go to musicboxtheatre.com/collections/the-hitchcock-9.
Arty adolescent angst
Gray skies. Wind. An empty landscape of brown leaves, abandoned buildings disaffected teenage hormones. Chicago-based director Madsen Minax brings "The Year I Broke My Voice," his experimental coming-of-ager (told from a uniquely trans point-of-view) to Chicago Filmmakers Saturday, followed by a post-show discussion. Go to chicagofilmmakers.org.
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