Murder By Death

Murder By Death (1976)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Peter Sellers, Peter Falk, David Niven, Truman Capote, Alec Guinness
Extras: Interview, Trailers, Fimographies

One of the most amusing murder mystery comedies has so far been sorely missing from DVD. Fortunately Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment has taken heart and is now bringing "Murder By Death" to the digital video domain. Featuring an all-star cast that includes the likes of Peter Sellers, Peter Falk, David Niven, Truman Capote, Alec Guinness and many others, this movie the epitome of a whodunit-spoof while maintaining character, style and atmosphere in every frame of film.

The best detectives of the world have received a formal invitation to dinner at the mansion of a mysterious millionaire they don’t know. One by one the world’s most recognized sleuths arrive at the mansion during a rainy night only to find that their host is playing a game of murder with them. He challenges each of them to solve the murder that will be committed within the walls of his house that very night. The price for the detective work? $1 million. Not a problem with so many brilliant minds in the room, right? Wrong. Nothing that night turns out to be what it seems and the viewer is in for an exciting and hilarious thrill as the assemblage of gumshoes tries to solve the case to save their reputation and their lives!

The beauty of the film stems from a number of factors. The beautiful, almost gothic, atmosphere of the photography immediately captivates the viewer as one detective after another arrive at the mansion. Caught in great images, introducing each character with great lines, the viewer is soon mesmerized by what is to come. The menagerie of characters, of course, is the movie’s biggest pull. Featuring an all-star cast, the characters they depict in the film are just as illustrious. Serving up archetypes for literature’s most beloved sleuths, we get to meet a Hercule Poirot spin-off, as well as the Miss Marple type. There is your Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe/J.J. Gittes type of bombshell-escorted, down-on-his-luck detective, as well as Peter Sellers’ interpretation of Charlie Chan. Add to the mix a James Bond type – played by none other than ex-James Bond David Niven – and some others, and the movie immediately takes on Who’s Who caliber.

At first glimpse, "Murder By Death" feels a lot like "Clue" – a film that was produced six years later and that itself is a spoof on "Murder By Death" – but "Murder By Death" has a much darker note in certain ways. It is a hilarious comedy, don’t get me wrong, but the characters themselves are played much more straight, giving them a seriousness within themselves, which makes some of the funny moments pay off even more. The interplay between Alec Guiness as the blind butler and the deaf maid Yetta, played by Nancy Walker, is just marvelous and was no doubt part of the inspiration for the 1989 comedy "See no evil, hear no evil." But the general interaction between the characters, the clash of their personalities, their animosities and the onscreen chemistry is unparalleled.

"Murder By Death" is now making its DVD debut from Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment. The disc contains an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer of the film in its theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio, as well as an <$OpenMatte,open matte> <$PS,fullscreen> transfer on the disc’s flip side, which adds picture information at the top and bottom of the screen without cropping the image. The transfer itself is surprisingly clean, stable and mostly free of grain. Given the movie’s age, there are a few instances during which grain is evident, but it is always very slight and never distracting from the overall great-looking picture presented on this DVD. The color scheme of the film is slightly dated but is flawlessly reproduced here. A high bitrate has been used to transfer this film to DVD and it clearly shows in the level of detail revealed by the image. Whether it’s the fog shrouded rainy night shots of the arrival scene or the more naturally lit interior shots in the house, the image always maintains its fine definition. Flesh tones are accurately reproduced throughout. Blacks are solid but not quite as deep as they could have been, creating a bit of a garish look in selected shots. Overall however, this is a surprisingly splendid transfer for this movie and the lack of compression artifacts and edge-enhancement truly make it a pleasure to watch.

The DVD features the original monaural audio track of the film in English and Spanish. The audio is noticeably dated with its limited frequency response and dynamics, but I never found it distracting. The sound reproduction is serving its purpose well, adding to the atmosphere of nostalgia the movie creates, and since it is free of defects and offers a fairly good bass response, there is really nothing to complain about.

As an extra the disc offers a newly recorded interview with writer Neil Simon. Running for about 10 minutes, it is a nice piece in which Simon reminisces about the making of the movie, recalling some nice anecdotes and stories. The theatrical trailer for "Murder By Death" and its unofficial sequel in spirit "The Cheap Detective" are also part of the release as well as cast filmographies – curiously lacking biographies and what’s worse, members of the main cast, such as Elsa Lanchester and James Coco.

No matter how many times I watch "Murder By Death" I am always amused and never get tired of the film or its comedic moments. Not many comedies are able to do that, really, and it shows that "Murder By Death" is more than a simple spoof. Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment’s DVD version of this film is beautifully done, now giving DVD fans the opportunity to view this film in a level of quality and definition not witnessed before. You will love this disc!