Weekend **Double Feature** Film Recommendation: Murder by Death and The Cheap Detective

There is an above average Jimmy Stewart movie called “No Time for Comedy“, in which he is cast as Gaylord Esterbrook. Gaylord writes hilariously funny plays yet feels he should write dramatic productions of greater weight in order to be a “serious writer”…but his effort to do so is disastrous. The movie always makes me think of Neil Simon. When he tries to be dramatic he is often manipulative, soppy, boring or pretentious. Films like “California Suite” make me ape Homer Simpson’s reaction to watching Garrison Keillor (Homer beats the idiot box yelling “Stupid TV! BE MORE FUNNY!”).

But when Simon gets over himself and just tries to be funny, he can be absolutely, rib-ticklingly, delightfully enjoyable. This week’s double feature recommendation highlights Simon at his gutbusting best in two loosely linked comedies directed by Robert Moore: Murder by Death (1976) and The Cheap Detective (1978).

Both films are affectionate parodies of fictional detectives from the movies. Nick and Nora Charles, Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are sent up in Murder by Death. The Cheap Detective focuses only on Sam Spade (renamed Lou Peckinpaugh) as he works his way through the plots of many Humphrey Bogart classics, including the Maltese Falcon, the Big Sleep and Casablanca. There is murder and intrigue in both films and a plot as well, but who cares?: The purpose is laughter and laugh you will if you have a funny bone in your body.

The cast is gold, a simply stunning array of talent (some of whom appear in both movies): Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan, James Coco, David Niven, Maggie Smith, Alec Guiness, Peter Sellers, Marsha Mason, James Cromwell, Nancy Walker, Elsa Lanchester, Sid Caesar and many more. Everyone knows what they are doing and gets every conceivable laugh out of Simon’s scripts.

My favorite bits are hard to choose from such an embarrassment of comedy riches, but I will try. In Murder by Death: The best ever update of “Who’s on First”, featuring a butler named JamesSir Bensonmum and his father Howodd Bensonmum. In the Cheap Detective: Betty DeBoop’s stage number and first encounter with Lou Peckinpaugh (“You made me swallow my gum”).

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “Weekend **Double Feature** Film Recommendation: Murder by Death and The Cheap Detective”

  1. 1) What is Sam Spade doing in north Africa (and remember that in the Big Sleep, Bogart was Marlowe, not Spade!)

    2) Why not throw in “To Have and To Have Not”, while you’re at it and find someone to play the young Lauren Bacall?

  2. “…and many more.”

    Including Truman Capote, whose acting in Murder by Death is so execrable as to render stretches of the film unwatchable.

  3. I tried to watch “Murder by Death” a few weeks ago. Though I remember liking the movie when it came out, this time I was shocked by the racist humor centering around Peter Sellers’ character.

    1. Self-righteous and humorless, I can tell this is a left-wing website (except for you Mr. Humphries — you are right, funny as hell movies). Untwist your panties, The Bobs! The original Chan films were racist, Simon makes the racists (e.g., Diamond) the butt of the joke in Murder by Death.

      1. The left hardly has a monopoly when it comes to the self-righteous. One need look only at the slate of Republicans running for president to see I am correct. And when a conservative Stewart or Colbert emerges feel free to let us know.

        KH, I am really looking forward to these films; thanks for the growing list of recommendations.

        1. There will never be a conservative Stewart or Colbert. Conservatives simply don’t get satire. Faux News (Real Noise) has tried to do a “conservative” The Daily Show in 2007. The Half-Hour News Hour was so stale it lasted for about 15 whole episodes.

          Media scholars have examined conservative student responses to The Colbert Show, and found that the majority of (conservative) students don’t get it. They seem to believe that Colbert is playing some kind of double-agent: although he appears to be poking fun at conservative beliefs, he really holds and agrees with them.

          Conservatives don’t get satire, and apparently especially don’t get it when it’s aimed at them.

    2. Well…the role of Wang and Sellers perfomance of it is more of a parody/critique of the classic Charlie Chan character and its racist stereotypes.

  4. @marcel: Yes, Simon mixes the plots from Bogart’s films freely, including putting a Bogart detective character in North Africa, Nazis in Cincinatti, and requiring a visa to travel from San Francisco to Oakland…but so what? It’s funny.
    @QB: I hated Capote’s performance the first time through, but repeated viewings put it in the “so bad it’s good” category for me. “IS THE! IS THE! What IS THE meaning of this!? That drives me crazy!”
    @Arthur at Large: While I am glad you got the joke that eluded Bob, the “leftists have no sense of humor” jab is a snarky canard.

  5. Murder By Death was good fun, for the most part. I agree with you about the all too frequent tedium of Neil Simon’s plays/movies. In that category, I would certainly put Chapter Two, which I did not find to be funny at all, James Caan’s best efforts notwithstanding.

    On the other hand, there is The Sunshine Boys – now that’s really funny!!

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