As someone who loves a good mystery, I jumped at the chance to take part in the “Mystery Mania Blogathon” being hosted by Robin and her site, Pop Culture Reverie. For this event, the topics could include movies, novels, video games, and TV shows. While there are plenty of books and TV shows that I would have loved to write about, two movies immediately came to mind and I have chosen to write about them. You can read what other bloggers have chosen for this event here:
The Old Dark House Genre
Both of the films I am writing about would fall into what movie critics would call “The Old Dark House” genre. This would be a sub-genre of the suspense/thriller/mystery film. The genre tends to lean toward comedy, farce, parody, or whodunit mysteries. I wouldn’t call them “Haunted House” movies, as those tend to involve ghosts or the supernatural. Some common themes you may find in an Old Dark House movie include: (1) a group of people or strangers having to spend the night in some sort of castle, house, or mansion, (2) a murderer, creature, or some sort of madman on the loose, (3) usually the setting is a dark, foggy, or stormy night, (4) the house has hidden rooms or some sort of secret passageway (5) a butler, maid, or servants (6) a mysterious host, (7) pictures with removable eyes for spying on guests, and (8) possibly, a murder.
These movies are referred to as “Old Dark House” movies because they are similar to the plot of the 1932 film “Old Dark House” which starred Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, and Gloria Stuart. Other famous films of this genre include 1945’s And Then There Were None and The House of Fear, 1948’s Who Killed Doc Robbin?, 1941’s Murder By Invitation, 1975’s The Spiral Staircase, 1978’s The Cat and the Canary, 1985’s Clue, and 1980’s Private Eyes, which will be the second film I am writing about. Oh, and of course, the first film I am writing about ….
Murder By Death (1976)
There are a few reasons I chose to write about this film. First, it is a very funny film written by Neil Simon. The film is a comedy/parody that is loaded with quick and funny lines. Second, it is a send up of some of the greatest literary sleuths and detectives. The film parodies Charlie Chan, Nick and Nora Charles, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and Sam Spade. Finally, it has a simply wonderful and amazing cast. Peter Sellers is Sidney Wang (Charlie Chan), David Niven and Maggie Smith are Dick and Dora Charleston (Nick and Nora Charles), Elsa Lanchester is Jessica Marbles (Miss Marple), James Coco is Milo Perrier (Hercule Poirot), and Peter Falk is Sam Diamond (Sam Spade). Other greats in the cast include Eileen Brennan, Nancy Walker, Truman Capote, James Cromwell, Estelle Winwood, and Alec Guinness.
A keen observer will notice that the opening credits are drawn by Charles Addams, who created the comic strip The Addams Family. We see a body with 11 knives lodged in the back, followed by the 11 “suspects”.
Whether it is deliberate or not, the plot to the film is fairly ridiculous. Millionaire Lionel Twain (Capote) invites five of the world’s greatest detectives to his home to solve a murder that hadn’t been committed yet (it will happen at midnight that evening). He offers a million dollar prize to the one who can solve the murder. The cast avoid numerous attempts on their own lives, while stumbling on more than one apparent murder throughout the film.
One of the true joys of this film is the performance of Alec Guinness as the blind butler, Jamesir Bensonmumm. The dialogue between Guinness, David Niven and Maggie Smith regarding his name plays out like an Abbott and Costello bit. He has some very funny lines and he delivers them perfectly. When asked about Mrs. Twain, Bensonmum says, “She murdered herself in her sleep, sir.” When asked if it was suicide, he replies, “Oh no. It was murder alright. Mrs. Twain hated herself!” Sidney Wang asks about loud growling and barking from a cage. He is told by the butler that it is the cat. When he is questioned again in disbelief, Bensonmum replies, “I’m afraid he is a very angry cat. Mr. Twain had him fixed … and he didn’t want to be.”
It was while filming Murder By Death, that Guinness received his copy of a script for Star Wars. He read the script between takes while in his dressing room. Guinness was not one to spend a lot of time in Hollywood, but he liked the script so much that he made the trip to play the part of Bensonmum. He is also on record as saying, “The script made me laugh, and not many things in recent times have done that.”
Peter Sellers plays Mr. Wang as stereotypical as Charlie Chan was. One of my favorite lines from him is: “Conversation like television set on honeymoon: unnecessary.” James Coco plays his role very self centered and prissy. He has some funny scenes with James Cromwell and some good lines. He finds a bill in the butler’s pocket and notes “Everything here has been rented for tonight. The butler, the cook, the food, the dining room chairs, everything!” When Jessica Marbles begins to question, “You mean …”, he interrupts and states, “Yes. This entire murder has been… catered.” After he drinks wine and begins to choke, the guests gasp and react, but he puts them at ease by saying, “No, no, it’s all right. My wine is not poisoned. It was just a bad year.”
Not to take away from fine performances by Peter Sellers, David Niven, or James Coco (they are all wonderful!), but a highlight for me is Peter Falk’s performance as Sam Diamond. He plays it almost in a Humphrey Bogart sort of way. Throughout the film, the detectives are often scurrying and unorganized. Falk does such a great job with this. He has some very funny lines in the film. One of my favorites follows a bit of a monologue from Sam: “Now, if one of you gentlemen would be so kind as to give my lady friend here a glass of cheap white wine, I’m going down the hall to find the can. I talk so much sometimes, I forget to go.” When the issue of trust comes up, he proclaims, “The last time that I trusted a dame was in Paris in 1940. She said she was going out to get a bottle of wine. Two hours later, the Germans marched into France.”
As hard as it is, I won’t spoil the ending. I will tell you that the climax of the film has many revelations that are just ludacris, more theories and unmaskings than every episode of Perry Mason, Scooby Doo, and Agatha Christie novel put together! By the time it is over, you wonder what happened, in a good way. Wang has a great line as he and his adopted son are leaving the Twain mansion in the morning. His son says, “I don’t get something, Pop. WAS there a murder, or WASN’T there?” His reply: “Yes: Killed good weekend.”
Despite the wonderful script and all-star cast, there were some who had their doubts about the film. David Niven’s son worked for a company that invested in the film and thought that it would be a flop and expected it to be a tax loss. Peter Sellers wasn’t happy with his performance and the film in general, so he sold back his percentage of the film for a little over a million dollars. To everyone’s surprise, the film was the eight biggest money maker of 1976. The film is included among the American Film Institute’s 2000 list of the 500 movies nominated for the Top 100 Funniest American Movies.
The Private Eyes (1980)
The next film I chose to write about stars two comedy legends who are just as funny separately as they are when paired together – Tim Conway and Don Knotts. Tim is best remembered for his work on McHale’s Navy and the Carol Burnett show and Don is remembered for his work on the Andy Griffith Show and Three’s Company. The Private Eyes is not the first film where they starred together, but it is their last. They were in Disney’s The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) and the sequel The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, (1979) and The Prize Fighter (1979). They did do a brief cameo together in Cannonball Run II in 1984, a film that was pretty much a flop.
The Private Eyes is, again, an Old Dark House film. Don Knott’s character Inspector Winship is an obvious parody of Sherlock Holmes and Tim Conway’s character, Dr. Tart, is a parody of Dr. Watson. The film opens with Lady and Lord Morley being murdered in their car by a cloaked shadowy figure. Winship and Tart are two American detectives who are transferred to Scotland Yard. They travel to the Morley Mansion with a letter from Lord Morley, asking them to investigate his own murder.
When they arrive at the Morley Mansion, they meet the Morley’s adopted daughter (and heiress), Phyllis. They also meet the odd array of staff members who work for the Morley’s. They include a samurai, a busty blonde maid, a hunchback, a gypsy, an insane butler, and a Nazi Nanny.
As Winship and Tart begin their investigation of the Morley murders, the members of the staff begin to show up apparently murdered one by one. A message is left with each body (more on that in a second) and each time they bring Phyllis back to where they body had previously been, it has disappeared.
The first of two running gags in the film is Dr. Tart’s pigeons. He insists on sending messages back to “the Yard” via homing pigeons. They never seem to make it, however, as each time he tries to send the message the pigeon usually ends up dying. The other is the messages that are left on the dead bodies.
Outside of Tim Conway’s performance, the reason to watch this film is for the messages. The messages are written as poems. They follow a similar pattern each time and rhyme consistently right up until the last line, where all of a sudden, they don’t! Each time the last line is read, you can see Tim Conway’s Tart, trying to make sense of it. He knows there is another word that would rhyme – and actually make more sense – but the author doesn’t use it. Once it happens in the first poem, you know it’s coming with each future poem, and it is a consistently funny gag throughout the film.
A few worth mentioning:
In this house it’s hard to survive
Some will be dead who are now alive
Mr. Uwatsum is gona cuz he knew too much
Bye for now but rest assured, we will keep in constant contact with each other (Instead of keep in touch)
If Jock could talk, he’d give you a clue
But now that he’s dead, what can you do?
He deserved what he got, I don’t regret it a bit
By the way, you’re standing in bull caca (instead of Bullsh*t)
And my favorite:
I said when I died that I’d come back
If you believe in ghosts then you’re on the right track
I’m out of the grove and roaming the moors
If you wanna be safe you’d better lock all the windows and screens (instead of doors)
What is disappointing about the movie is there is so much potential for it to be a very good film, but it winds up being just mediocre. We are introduced to these crazy house servants in the beginning and yet nothing really comes from any of it. If the movie had been handled as more of an ensemble comedy (as with Murder By Death and Clue), it would have been a much better film.
Tim Conway does not disappoint, but Don Knotts seems slow and tired. I recently read where he had contracted mononucleosis during filming, so I am guessing his performance is lackluster because of this. Outside of our stars, I should note that the relationship between Nanny & Justin (seen above) are fun to watch. Justin has a very funny line when introducing Winship and Tart to Nanny. Upon learning that they are from Scotland Yard, he says, “This is Inspector Winship and Dr. Tart. They were in the yard.” To which Winship corrects him, “That’s FROM the Yard!” Sadly, again, there is so much that the film makers could have done with their characters. They are very funny together, but their time on screen is limited.
I should also mention that Trisha Noble does a wonderful job as the very stunning daughter, Phyllis. If she looks familiar, its because she went on to appear in the TV Series Strike Force as Sergeant Rosie Johnson, various TV series, and in Star Wars Episode III as Jobal Naberrie. In 1967, she changed her stage name from Patsy Ann Noble to Trisha Noble in order to distance herself from her years as a teenage popular singer.
The film is more of a “who is left to have done it”, rather than a “whodunit” because of how fast the members of the staff are being bumped off. There is a bit of a twist at the end, and I won’t spoil it for you – after all, this blog is all about mystery. While there are some funny moments, it is one of those movies you want to sit around on a weekend and watch with the kids, they will probably find it funnier than you.
Thanks to Robin for allowing me to participate in the Mystery Mania Blogathon. I hope you enjoyed reading this and I encourage you to read the other entries at the link provided earlier in this blog.