Knives Out (2019)

2020 #55
Rian Johnson | 130 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Knives Out

After creating the widely beloved and totally uncontroversial Star Wars instalment The Last Jedi, writer-director used his newfound filmmaking cachet to quickly launch a passion project that he’d been working on since after his debut feature, Brick: a whodunnit murder mystery in the Agatha Christie mould, a genre of which Johnson is a lifelong fan.

The story revolves around crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) and his family of hangers-on, played by an all-star cast (including the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, and Don Johnson). When Harlan dies, seemingly by suicide, freelance detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) has reason to suspect foul play, and teams up with Harlan’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), to find out which of the family members dunnit.

Knives Out is clearly built like a Christie story, though perhaps with a touch more satire and humour. That’s not to say it’s an outright comedy (though I’ve tagged it as one, because it’s often amusing), but this is a heightened world we’re in; it’s the real world, but filtered through the lens of a genre. And rather than follow the familiar formula of a Poirot- or Marple-type case, the film is like one of Christie’s other novels; one of the ones where the broad shape is the same, but there’s some twist or variant in how it’s told. Here, it’s that the detective isn’t actually our POV character, and at times we know a lot more than him (or, at least, different stuff to him). That leads to some effective twists that I won’t spoil, but which certainly keep you thinking and on your toes. I made a prediction as to the true solution before the halfway mark, and it turned out to be wrong, so that was fun (I don’t mean to boast, but plenty of murder mysteries are thoroughly guessable).

The name's Blanc, Benoit Blanc

That said, I wasn’t a million miles off with my guess, but that also doesn’t matter. As I noted in my summation of the film for my 2020 top ten, it’s not so important who actually dunnit when it’s so much fun spending time with the outrageous suspects and Craig’s implausibly-accented detective. That means it achieves something many mystery-based films miss: it’s highly rewatchable, because knowing the outcome isn’t the be-all and end-all. And yet, to achieve that, it doesn’t sell out the mystery entirely — I say “it barely matters who dunnit”, but it’s still an engaging riddle on first viewing.

Knives Out was a notable success, eventually leading Netflix to pay a frankly ludicrous sum for two sequels. I’m glad there’ll be followups, because more mysteries in this vein promises more fun, but it’s a shame that what could’ve been a non-superhero non-action-based big-screen franchise has been nipped in the bud by the streamer. I expect that was literally their goal (and why they paid so very, very much money), but that’s a whole other debate.

5 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of Knives Out is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm. It placed 13th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2020.

Netflix’s currently-untitled sequel is due for release later this year.

Archive 5, Vol.2

I have a backlog of 442 unreviewed feature films from my 2018 to 2021 viewing. This is where I give those films their day, five at a time, selected by a random number generator.

Today: musical comedies from ’41 and ’51; murder mysteries from ’33 and ’73; and an animated film that changed the Oscars.

This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • Royal Wedding (1951)
  • A Study in Scarlet (1933)
  • Chicken Run (2000)
  • The Last of Sheila (1973)
  • Road to Zanzibar (1941)


    Royal Wedding

    (1951)

    aka Wedding Bells

    Stanley Donen | 93 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Royal Wedding

    Cynically, I assumed this US production was designed as a cash-in to a news event, most likely the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (i.e. the Queen) and Philip. Although those are indeed the eponymous nuptials, they actually took place several years earlier, in 1947; and in the UK, for its initial release the film was retitled Wedding Bells so audiences wouldn’t think it was a documentary about the real event. So much for my modern cynicism.

    The actual plot is semi-biographical, inspired by the real-life dance partnership of the film’s star, Fred Astaire, and his sister Adele, and who she went on to marry. Here the sister is played by Jane Powell (almost 30 years Astaire’s younger) as the duo take their successful Broadway show across the ocean to London in time for the royal wedding. Such window dressing aside, the plot that unfurls is run-of-the-mill, with both siblings finding themselves in romantic entanglements, and the songs are unmemorable too. The object of Astaire’s affection is played by Sarah Churchill, daughter of Winston Churchill, which adds a bit of fun trivia, at least.

    There is one noteworthy highlight: a set piece in which Astaire dances up the walls and across the ceiling of his hotel room, an effect that’s achieved seamlessly — there’s no wobble or what have you to give away the trickery, and Astaire’s choreography helps hide the behind-the-scenes technique too. There are one or two other neat bits if you’re a fan of dance-y musicals, but, on the whole, this is a thoroughly middle-of-the-road Astaire musical — not bad, just no more than adequate.

    3 out of 5

    Royal Wedding was #180 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    A Study in Scarlet

    (1933)

    Edwin L. Marin | 72 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

    A Study in Scarlet

    For some reason, cinema has a long history of taking the titles of original Sherlock Holmes stories but then producing an entirely new plot underneath. A Study in Scarlet — the very first of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes works — seems to be a particularly afflicted tale. It features the first meeting of Holmes and his roommate / sidekick / chronicler, Dr Watson, but I think there are two adaptations that actually show this — and, ironically, neither of them are actually called A Study in Scarlet (one is the debut episode of Sherlock, A Study in Pink, and the other is the first episode of the Russian series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, which is called Acquaintance). According to IMDb, “the Conan Doyle estate quoted the producers a price for the rights to the title and a considerably higher price to use the original story” — perhaps they did that all the time, hence my observed phenomena.

    Obviously, this ‘poverty row’ effort is one such example of title/story mismatch: this so-called adaptation stars Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson… and that’s where similarities to the novel end. The pair don’t even live at 221b Baker Street — for no apparent reason, it’s been changed to 221a. Did the filmmakers just misremember one of the most famous addresses in literature? Having only paid for the rights to the title, the producers hired director Robert Florey (the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts; Murders in the Rue Morgue) to write a new story, and actor Reginald Owen — who stars as Holmes — wrote the dialogue. Owen hoped this would be the first in a series of Holmes films starring himself. It wasn’t.

    Physically, Owen isn’t anyone’s ideal image of Holmes, but his actual performance is adequate. Much the same can be said of the whole film: it’s an entertaining-enough 70-minute crime romp, with enough incident to create a brisk pace, and a use of the rhyme Ten Little Indians that makes you wonder if Agatha Christie saw this movie before she published And Then There Were None six years later (or is it just a coincidence? The audio commentators spend a good deal of time chewing it over). Given second billing behind Owen is bona fide Chinese-American movie star Anna May Wong, even though she has relatively little screen time. She makes her mark, though, with a role that doesn’t simply conform to racial stereotypes (possibly an unintended side effect of her late casting rather than genuine progressivism by the filmmakers, but sometimes you gotta take what you can get).

    This particular Study in Scarlet is a long way from being a definitive Sherlock Holmes movie, but for fans of ’30s detective flicks, it’s nonetheless a likeable little adventure.

    3 out of 5

    A Study in Scarlet was #206 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Chicken Run

    (2000)

    Peter Lord & Nick Park | 84 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK, USA & France / English | U / G

    Chicken Run

    I’ve always enjoyed Aardman’s work. I grew up watching the Wallace & Gromit shorts on TV, and have seen all of their feature output — except their first. I’m not sure why it’s taken me 20 years to get round to Chicken Run. I guess when it was originally released I had grown out of “kid’s movies” but not yet grown back into them; but since then, to be honest, something about it never particularly appealed to me. It certainly has its fans: it’s still the highest grossing stop motion film ever; there was a push to get it an Oscar Best Picture nomination, the failure of which led to the creation of a category it could’ve won, Best Animated Feature (trust the Academy to shut the door after the horse had bolted); and when Netflix recently announced a sequel, there was much pleasure on social media.

    So, finally getting round to it, would I discover what I’d been missing all along? Unfortunately, no. I thought it was fine. In no way did I dislike it, but nor did it charm me in the way of my favourite Aardman productions. It’s rather dark for U-rated film — it doesn’t mince its words or imagery about the fact the chickens are being killed — and that contributes to some particularly effective sequences, like when our heroes end up inside the pie machine, or a suitably exciting climactic action sequence. There are some reliably decent gags along the way, too.

    I’m sure I’ll watch the sequel. Maybe I’ll like it more. But, I confess, the fact they’ve now announced a new Wallace & Gromit movie for the year after does have me even more excited.

    3 out of 5

    Chicken Run was #148 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    The Last of Sheila

    (1973)

    Herbert Ross | 120 mins | digital (SD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15* / PG

    The Last of Sheila

    I’d never even heard of this before Rian Johnson mentioned it as an inspiration for Knives Out 2. Co-written by Anthony Perkins (yes, Norman Bates from Psycho) and Stephen Sondheim (yes, the famous musical composer), The Last of Sheila is a murder mystery firmly in the Agatha Christie mould — despite the writers’ pedigree, there are no significant horror elements (even the deaths are, at worst, on the PG/12 borderline) and certainly no song-and-dance numbers (excepting a magnificently inappropriate song over the end credits, sung by Bette Midler). Apparently Perkins and Sondheim used to host elaborate scavenger hunts for their friends in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and they adapted them into a screenplay at the suggestion of a guest, Herbert Ross, who produced and directed the film (seems only fair).

    Further inspiration came from their professional lives and acquaintances, because the potential victims and suspects are all actresses, agents, and the like, gathered for a Mediterranean cruise aboard a producer’s yacht. He proposes they play a game about secrets and gossip — but clearly one of the secrets in play is too big, because someone winds up murdered. A well-constructed mystery is unfurled throughout the film, although its execution is a little variable: a fun, very Christie-esque first half gives way to long talky scenes in the second, as characters stand around and explain the plot to each other. But when that plot is as good as this — with some nice surprises, plus motives dark enough to give it a little edge — it feels churlish to object too strongly.

    4 out of 5

    The Last of Sheila was #186 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.

    * IMDb says it was given a 15 on video, but the BBFC say it hasn’t been rated since 1973, when it got an AA. The BBFC site is crap nowadays; IMDb will accept any old junk users submit. You decide. ^


    Road to Zanzibar

    (1941)

    Victor Schertzinger | 87 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

    Road to Zanzibar

    The second in what became the Road To… series — though it was never intended as such. What ended up becoming Road to Zanzibar was initially an original feature, first offered to Fred MacMurray (this before his roles in the likes of Double Indemnity and The Apartment) and George Burns (an actor I’m not particularly familiar with). After they rejected it, apparently someone at Paramount remembered Road to Singapore had done relatively well, and that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby seemed like a good pairing, and so they were offered it.

    As I wrote in my last review of a Road To film (which was over 11 years ago?! Jesus…), if you’ve seen one Road To film then you’ve a fair idea what to expect from any other — essentially, a suitably daft bit of fluff and fun. This one’s a bit thin — on plot, on gags, on everything — but it skates by on the charm of Bob and Bing, joined, as ever, by Dorothy Lamour. The only serious problem is the same as Singapore: dated depictions of African stereotypes. It kind of gets away with it by being a spoof of “African adventure”-type movies, but maybe that’s me being kind with hindsight. Either way, the bit where the tribe’s African dialogue is subtitled with contemporary American vernacular is one of the film’s more amusing gags.

    3 out of 5

    Road to Zanzibar was #110 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2019.


  • The Puny Monthly Review of June 2019

    All good things must come to an end, and so a half-decade-long streak has concluded… well, we now know said streak ended last month, but it was this month that actually put a stop to it.


    #95 Deadwood (2019)
    #96 Murder Mystery (2019)
    #97 Untouchable (2011), aka Intouchables
    #98 Shaft (2019)

    (That poster was so pathetically small, I almost felt I shouldn’t bother… but then I wrote this note, meaning I could embiggen the image to go alongside here too, at which point it became much more satisfactory. Yay formatting!)

    Deadwood: The Movie
    .


    • So, I only watched 4 new feature films in June.
    • On the downside, that ends a five-year streak of watching at least 10 films every month. (A streak that lasted exactly five years, by-the-way — I forgot to mention that last month.)
    • On the bright side, it means there’s some slightly different stuff to talk about in these stats. Like, for example, that June 2019 is the lowest-totalling month since June 2013, which was six whole years ago.
    • It’s the 150th month of 100 Films, by-the-by, but also the 15th with 4 or fewer films. That means it’s in the bottom 10% of all months, which is its own kind of achievement.
    • It takes the average for June down from 10.5 to 10.0, meaning it just keeps its head above the waterline for something I’ve been working on for a while now, i.e. getting every month’s average above 10. (The only remaining outlier is July, which is on 9.9, so that’ll be fun next month…)
    • It also takes the average for 2019 so far down from 18.8 to 16.3, and the rolling average of the last 12 months down from 19.3 to 17.8.
    • This month’s WDYMYHS film: true-story French comedy-drama Untouchable, aka Intouchables in its original language, aka The Intouchables in the US. It’s amusing and heartwarming, but its elevated position on lists like the IMDb Top 250 oversells it somewhat.
    • There’s no Blindspot film this month. If I hadn’t upped my goal to 12 films on both lists that’d be fine, but now I’ve got one to catch up.
    • I also watched nothing from last month’s “failures”, so I guess that makes them a double failure. Oh dear.



    The 49th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    Not much to choose from this month, obviously, so the belated TV movie revival/finale of Deadwood walks away with this one easily.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    It’s come in for a pasting from critics and box office figures alike, but I thought the new Shaft was passably entertaining, but as it’s fuelled by outdated gags and a buddy-movie tone that sits awkwardly with the franchise, it’s certainly the weakest of this meagre selection.

    Ranking All the Shaft Films I’ve Seen
    1) Shaft
    2) Shaft
    3) Shaft

    Look, I’m Struggling To Think of Categories For This Because I Only Watched 4 Films This Month, Okay?
    Er, I think that ‘award’ title just about covers it…

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    Adam Sandler’s latest film generated Netflix’s biggest ever ‘opening weekend’ viewership this month, being watched by almost 31 million accounts over its first three days. So it’s no surprise to see Murder Mystery easily top this month’s list of my most-visited new posts — it had almost 15 times as many views as the post in second place.



    Considering I couldn’t even keep up with my main list goals, it should come as no surprise that my Rewatchathon suffered — and suffered worse, too, as I didn’t rewatch a single film this month. Oh well.


    In a month where I watched so little, it should come as no surprise that I failed to watch plenty of stuff in particular. On the big screen, I missed the finale for this iteration of the X-Men, Dark Phoenix, as well as attempted franchise revival Men in Black: International (based on the poor reviews, I expect said revival will be short-lived), and the seemingly-unnecessary but now acclaimed Toy Story 4. That last one looks like it’ll be playing for a while, so maybe I’ll catch it yet.

    At home, a couple of things I missed at the cinema in February have now made it to disc, where I failed to watch them again — namely, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (which I bought) and The Kid Who Would Be King (which I didn’t, mainly because I couldn’t tell if its UK 4K release was actually happening or not (I suspect it’s not)). Other recent purchases fall into the Rewatchathon bracket: Glass, Annihilation, Schindler’s List, and the Mummy trilogy… although I never got round to seeing the third one, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, so, er, that’s not a rewatch.

    Actually, between sales and limited edition new releases, I also added a bunch of older films to my unseen pile, including The Blood on Satan’s Claw; The Holy Mountain; John Woo’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry and Hand of Death; and Arrow box sets presenting trios of early Brian De Palma works (The Wedding Party, Greetings, and Hi, Mom!) and Jia Zhangke films (24 City, A Touch of Sin, and Mountains May Depart). I really ought to get on with watching some of them…


    I’m away on holiday for half of next month, so, along with everything else going on, there’s a very real chance July will continue this fewer-than-10-films streak — though hopefully it won’t be as disastrous as July 2009

    Murder Mystery (2019)

    2019 #96
    Kyle Newacheck | 97 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Murder Mystery

    Murder Mystery is a murder mystery in which there is a murder under mysterious circumstances, and it falls to vacationing NY cop Nick Spitz (Adam Sandler) and his murder-mystery-loving wife Audrey (Jennifer Aniston) to solve these mysterious murders.

    I’m no great fan of Sandler, and he’s probably the least funny person in this film, but I also didn’t find him outright objectionable. His character — an underachieving middle-aged beat cop who pretends to be a detective to his long-suffering wife — seems like the kind of guy who’d think he’s funnier than he is, so Sandler’s attempts at humour mostly come off as in-character. Put another way, it works in spite of itself. Of the two leads, Aniston is definitely the one doing the most work for the film, both in terms of actually being amusing and giving it some kind of emotional character arc.

    Detectives or suspects?

    The actual mystery plot is no great shakes — there are two glaring clues early on that give most of the game away, especially if you’re well-versed in watching murder mysteries and spotting such hints. That’s somewhat beside the point, though, because there’s enough fun to be had along the way to make up for it, and there are still some reasonable red herrings. The fact the cast is staffed by an array of experienced mostly-British thesps, many of whom have no doubt appeared in their share of ‘real’ murder mysteries — the likes of Luke Evans, Gemma Arterton, Adeel Akhtar, David Walliams, and Terence Stamp — definitely helps keep proceedings afloat.

    There are a few of action-y scenes — a shoot-out, some hijinks on a hotel ledge, a decent car chase for the finale — that keep the momentum up too. Plus it mostly looks suitably luxuriant and exotic (the odd bout of iffy green screen aside), matching its high-class backdrop and French Riviera setting. Altogether, it makes for a suitably easy-watching 90-minutes in front of Netflix.

    3 out of 5

    Murder Mystery is available on Netflix everywhere now.

    The Snowman (2017)

    2018 #84
    Tomas Alfredson | 119 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA & Sweden / English | 15 / R

    The Snowman

    I read a comment somewhere that said Tommy Wiseau’s notorious film The Room is like a movie made by someone who’s never seen one but has had the concept thoroughly explained. The Snowman is like that but with crime thrillers.

    Michael Fassbender stars as Norwegian detective Harry Hole — I presume there’s been some kind of fault of culture or translation there because, in English, that’s pretty much the worst name for a detective ever conceived without deliberately trying to be awful. He’s kind of washed up, with a terrible private life, but he’s also an unassailably brilliant detective — oh yeah, the originality keeps on coming. Anyway, after a woman disappears, an ominous snowman built near the crime sets Hole and a younger cop (Rebecca Ferguson) on the trail of a serial killer who’s been active for decades.

    All of which should make for at least a solid crime thriller, but it just doesn’t quite work. It’s like the whole thing has been almost-correctly-but-not-quite translated from another language. I’m not just talking about the dialogue (though that’s sometimes that way too), but the very essence of the movie — the character arcs, the storylines, even the construction of individual scenes. Like many a Google Translate offering, you can kinda tell what it’s meant to be, but it doesn’t actually make sense in itself. According to the director, around 15% of the screenplay was never even filmed due to a rushed production schedule, which perhaps explains some of these problems.

    Mr and Ms Police

    Said director is Tomas Alfredson, the man who gave us Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so you’d expect a lot better of him. Even the technical elements are mixed: there’s some stunning photography and scenery, contrasted with occasional bad green screen; and all of Val Kilmer’s lines had to be dubbed (due to his tongue being swollen from cancer, apparently), but it sounds like it. His performance on the whole is weird, just one more part of the film that doesn’t sit right. It all builds to a massively stupid, unremittingly nonsensical finale. It’s during the final act where things finally goes overboard from “not very good” to “irredeemably bad”.

    Indeed, some of the The Snowman is so shockingly awful that I considered if it merited my rare one-star rating. It’s close, but a lot of the film is fine — it actually toddles along at a reasonable three-star level most of the time, before falling apart entirely towards the end. “It could be worse” may be the faintest of praise, but it certainly doesn’t deserve any more.

    2 out of 5

    The Snowman is available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight.

    Lady of Burlesque (1943)

    2016 #5
    William A. Wellman | 89 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    Based on the novel The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee (as in Gypsy), Lady of Burlesque stars Barbara Stanwyck as Gypsy surrogate Dixie Daisy, a performer in a burlesque show in New York where the backstage arguments turn murderous.

    The story unfurls in the traditional Christie-esque shape of a murder mystery: we find out all the different reasons why everyone hates a particular character, then that person dies and they all have motive. For set dressing, instead of the English country houses and other upper-middle-class establishments of Christie, we have the slightly seedy, slightly risqué world of ’40s burlesque… tempered by the strictures of the production code, of course. Stanwyck may get out on stage and wiggle around, but she’s largely shot from the waist up; and it may’ve been released as Striptease Lady in the UK (allegedly), but the clothes remain on (I can’t imagine anyone expected anything else, then or now).

    Nonetheless, the world of the story adds some sparkle to proceedings. The investigations are largely confined to a couple of lengthy scenes when the cops turn up, led by Charles Dingle’s meticulous Inspector Harrigan (“This is my first experience with burlesque. It’s a surprising profession.”), and question everyone in one room. These bits have their moments, but feel a little heavy-handed. Around them, the world of burlesque, and the relationships between its performers, rolls on.

    Stanwyck carries the film, both on stage and off. Her “will they/won’t they (of course they will)” romance with Michael O’Shea’s comic is kept aloft by her biting ripostes to his advances, and when a comedy sketch is interrupted by backstage noises she saves the day by breaking into song, doing the splits, a cartwheel, and the Cossack dance in quick succession. Not bad for a 36-year-old!

    Ostensibly a murder mystery, in practice Lady of Burlesque plays as all-round entertainment with a bit of everything: comedy, romance, songs, shoot-outs, and, yes, both mystery and murders. It’s not the kind of film that will linger long in the memory (apart from Stanwyck’s gymnastics, that is), but it’s entertaining while it lasts.

    3 out of 5

    This review is part of the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

    Horns (2013)

    2015 #173
    Alexandre Aja | 120 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English | 15* / R

    Did Daniel Radcliffe murder his girlfriend? Sprouting devilish horns doesn’t help his case…

    Ostensibly a fantasy-horror murder-mystery, in execution Horns is mostly black comedy: the horns force people to tell the truth, to amusing effect. The mystery is so-so: it’s glaringly obvious whodunnit… though, ironically, one reason it’s obvious is ultimately inaccurate. Oops.

    It goes wrong in the overblown climax. It’s like someone didn’t know how to conclude the story so went all-out Fantasy. It would’ve been stronger to stay grounded, stick with the characters’ emotions, rather than getting sidetracked into a profusion of effects.

    Still, fun while it lasts.

    4 out of 5

    This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

    * Horns was cut to get that 15 — details here. It’s available uncut, rated 18, on Blu-ray (but not DVD). Unusually, it’s the edited version that’s on Netflix UK. ^

    Murder by Death (1976)

    2015 #120
    Robert Moore | 91 mins | download | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    A gaggle of famed detectives are summoned to a remote mansion to solve a murder in this detective spoof by playwright Neil Simon. The twist is, all the characters are spoofs of famous literary/film/TV ‘tecs. Also, that the murder hasn’t happened yet. And also, that the person inviting them is Truman Capote. Not “someone playing Truman Capote”, but “Truman Capote playing someone”.

    A comedy where a bunch of people are invited to a remote mansion to solve a murder? Yes, it does sound an awful lot like Clue. Indeed, based on my reading, almost all modern assessments of the film seem to boil down to two straightforward alternatives: “it’s not as good as Clue” or “it’s better than Clue”. As it pre-dates Clue by almost a decade, maybe that shouldn’t be our only point of reference? Still, I guess the ’80s-ness and name-y cast of the later film has helped it gain more traction — it certainly seems to be on TV regularly, whereas I only learnt of Murder by Death as a footnote when reading up on the Thin Man series.

    For what it’s worth, I think its quality is about level with Clue. Such appreciation may partly depend on one’s familiarity with the characters being spoofed, however: it’s a funny story in and of itself, but a fair dollop of the humour revolves around riffs on the personalities, quirks, and storytelling tropes of Nick & Nora Charles, Poirot, Miss Marple, Sam Spade, and Charlie Chan, whereas Clue requires, at most, that you know the icons from Cluedo.

    I said Clue has a namier cast, but Murder by Death is no slouch, including Maggie Smith, David Niven, Peter Falk, and Alec Guinness as a blind butler, an affliction that’s mined for all its comedic value (and then some). They all give great comic performances, as does James Coco as the film’s version of Poirot. There are some neat send-ups of the genre — the literally-impossible mysteries and all that — as well as some good old-fashioned wordplay and silliness. The only downside is it loses its way a bit by the end. I suppose it doesn’t strictly need a satisfactory conclusion to the mystery, because it’s only a spoof ‘n’ all, but I feel like it would’ve benefitted from a stronger finale nonetheless.

    However, it’s a consistently amusing film, and everyone involved seems to be having a whale of a time. It’s definitely worth seeking out for fans of detective fiction who don’t mind the genre being gently ribbed.

    4 out of 5