Jamesir Bensonmum [Alec Guinness]: She murdered herself in her sleep, sir.
Dick Charleston [David Niven]: You mean suicide?
Jamesir Bensonmum: Oh no, it was murder, all right. Mrs. Twain HATED herself.
With this blog's previous entry being called "Alec Guinness' Basement," and Philip Seymour Hoffman continuing to gather raves for his performance in Capote, I found myself today thinking about that delightful old chestnut, Murder By Death. The movie, now almost thirty years old, was penned by Neil Simon, and it was a spoof of those drawing-room mysteries typical of the pre-WW2 period. The premise: five famous detectives are invited to a spooky old mansion for a meal and, they soon discover, an evening of murder and mayhem, hosted by the ever-eccentric Lionel Twain, played by a feyer-than-fey Truman Capote. As you might expect from a Simon script, the movie is less satire than pastiche, but it's also a movie whose fingerprints I keep seeing in most forms of contemporary comedy from Airplane! to Family Guy, fingerprints arguably more pronounced than those of, say, Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles. Bring your encyclopedic memory for cultural references in with you, but leave the rest of your brain at the door: that's the movie's injunction as it seats you and prepares you for the gaudiness to come. When James Coco, in his take on Hercule Poirot, insists-- half-indignant, half-victimized-- declares "I'm not a Frenchie, I'm a BELGIE!", you know exactly what you're in for. Noel Coward this isn't.
The strength of the movie, though, was and remains its cast: Peter Falk, Peter Sellers, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Elsa Lanchester, Nancy Walker, and at the centre of it all, Alec Guinness as the blind butler Bensonmum, the greeter of the various detectives and their escorts. Guinness is especially fun to watch, first in his drollery, then in his silly miscommunications with the deaf-and-dumb maid played by Walker; and eventually comes the real treat, a miniature tour-de-force of silliness that culminates with Guinness proving that he can outfey the already overly-fey Capote, and doing so seamlessly. It's a flight of minor genius made slightly more ironic by the fact that the film he followed this with was Star Wars, as if this was one last incarnation of his Ealing days before he was forever pigeonholed as Obi-Wan Kenobi. There are even a few seconds of accidental footage in which it seems Peter Sellers is caught admiring his onetime mentor's performance, savouring the simultaneous campiness and wryness of it all. It's a shame that IMDB's quotes page does not include Guinness' final scene in its entirety; but suffice it to say that there's nothing quite so weird as hearing Guinness utter the words "That's what you think, big boy."
The rest of the cast is good to adequate, some (Falk, Niven, Smith) coming off better than others (Sellers, stuck parodying Charlie Chan as Fu Manchu), but there's a distinct pleasure that comes from watching such a collection of fine actors working with one another. That pleasure, though, led me to the disquieting realization that all but five of the thirteen stars of the film are now dead, with only Richard Narita, Eileen Brennan, James ("That'll do, Pig") Cromwell, Peter Falk, and the impossibly-luminous Maggie Smith remaining. Try as films might now to compile impressive casts (c.f., just about any Robert Altman film, including Gosford Park, or Kenneth Branagh's overripe Hamlet), they just don't seem to engender the same sense of larkishly serendipitous coordination. More to the point, though, I think there's no longer any extent to which watching "great casts" seems to connect us with brighter days of cinema. Somehow, now, we're in Norma Desmond's world in which the pictures got small, as bloated and as over-budget as they may be. Murder By Death connected us with the 30s, with Elsa Lanchester especially recalling that golden age in which she was the Bride of Frankenstein. The best we can do these days? A CGI-enhanced Christopher Lee appearing for a few minutes in a Peter Jackson or a George Lucas film-tome. The connections seem weaker, the continuity less valid and less comforting. God love her, but Maggie Smith only seems to take us so far back, though I can't entirely explain why. As Sidney Wang (Sellers) says, "Answer simple, but question very hard."
I was lucky, in a way. I grew up in the eighties, when it was still common to see TV stations airing black-and-white films, if only as regular time-filler. I could see Warner Oland do Charlie Chan without having to hunt for the flicks, or pray they might get an odd airing on TVO. Since the 90s, though, you just don't see the old movies, and the old actors, unless they're attached to unique circumstances, like watching It's A Wonderful Life a hundred-billion-gazillion times come Christmas season. We lose the references, we lose the faces and the history, we lose the konwledge that allows us to observe ironies and play, just as most of the people commenting on Murder By Death on IMDB could only see Alec Guinness as a Jedi sage, and not, for example, as the man who once played eight different roles in the same movie (Kind Hearts and Coronets, 1948) at a time when this was a genuine tour-de-force.
We lose perspective as much as we do history, but we lose too much more. There is no actor these days of whom I can think that even vaguely reminds me of David Niven, that particular figure of class and ease; try as Ewan McGregor has, he could not do in three films what Alec Guinness did in half of one; and I cannot find it anything but ironic that only Peter Falk could ape Bogart without simply becoming an aper of him. Perhaps I look back with a discolouring sense of nostalgia, and perhaps I privilege the past, but strange, isn't it, how even reflecting just a little on a small little film, a small guffaw in time with no social purpose whatsoever, can make one haw on where we are going and where we have been. In the meantime, go find Murder By Death, if you can find it, and enjoy the silliness. Somehow, I'm sure it'll do you good.
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