If you’re a fan of Agatha Christie parodies, and who isn’t, then you’ve likely seen 1985’s Clue. The cast of cult classic supporting actors and actresses was the top of the list for its time. But before the likes of Christopher Lloyd, Tim Curry, and Madeline Kahn were the kings of quirk there were Peter Sellers, Truman Capote, and Peter Falk. These three also attended a fateful dinner party in a secluded mansion with Eileen Brennan, who oddly enough stars in both films. Perhaps more odd is the fact that in 1976 Brennan played the blonde bombshell in Murder by Death and less than 10 years later she was the bumbling Miss Peacock. The plot in both films is unremarkable similar for a Christie parody but I shall do you the displeasure of remarking. In both films a series of people who each have a sordid connection to a decidedly odd and very likely rich man who lives alone in a mansion are invited to dinner. They are all immediately trapped in the home and their blackmailer is murdered resulting in a series of humorously convoluted attempts to discern the identity of the murderer. The difference lies in the identity of the characters. While Clue is a collection of the characters from everyone’s favorite murder mystery board game of the same name, or Cluedo for our imperial readers, Death by Murder is a collection of the world’s greatest detectives.
As a result, each actor was chosen based on their past roles as detectives. Peter Falk was of course TV’s Columbo, though he shed his polite and courteous demeanor for a blunt and irreverent approach as San Francisco private eye Sam Diamond. Peter Sellers starred in one of my all time favorites, Dr. Strangelove, but he is also well-known for his portrayal of Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films. In Truman Capote we have the writer behind Breakfast at Tiffany’s we have the start of a new genre with his nonfiction novel and film, In Cold Blood. We even have an Agatha Christie-esque character in Jessica Marbles. But I have over looked the most startling bit of casting of all. Alec Guinness as the bumbling blind butler a scant 11 months before he would return the screen to become a legend among nerds for generations as Obi-Wan Kenobi. The characters themselves certainly do not blend as well as those in Clue, though to be fair the Clue characters had more than 40 years to work on their group dynamic.
This clash is due largely to Peter Sellers’ character. Sellers is one of the most versatile actors I have ever found on the big screen, he has been a bumbling Frenchman, a well spoken Indian (the colonial variety, not the native), a deranged German Nazi sympathizer, James Bond, and even Queen Victoria herself. But as a Chinaman, and I use a derogatory term to describe a derogatory character, he is offensive to the point of distraction. Calling the sheriff a nigger in Blazing Saddles is one thing, but an Englishman portraying a Chinese guy complete with buck teeth, slanted eyes, and poor grammar for an hour and a half is a bit too much.
The murder mystery itself makes liberal use of dues ex machina to glaze over contrived plot holes. There is so much poorly explained back and forth sleight of hand that if you watch the movie in the right position you will in all likelihood need a doctor to fix your plumbing. These writer’s oversights come crashing down around an abrupt and wholly unsatisfying ending. Clue’s ending, which originally varied from theater to theater in homage to the variable outcomes of the game, is by far the more chaotic, comedic, and down right entertaining of the two.
Peter Falk and Christopher Lloyd are equal contenders for the Sherlock Holmes award, but Eileen Brennan loses twice to Madeline Kahn in the clever seductress category. In life Truman Capote is the greater oddball, but in these murder mysteries it is Tim Curry who gets the most laughs for his creep factor. James Cromwell, of Green Mile and Babe fame, was fascinating as a Frenchman, but sleazy Michael McKean‘s Mr. Green far outshines him as a much more well-rounded character. In the end the choice is clear, Clue is the all around better movie. But if you must watch them both, watch Murder by Death first so you can gain some pleasure from it without making constant comparisons.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going home to sleep with my wife!