Okay, let’s start with a quick recap of the “rules”, shall we? The basic idea here is to take a movie that is out in theaters now, and pair it up with another movie from the 1980s or before. Sometimes the connection will be obvious, and sometimes it’ll be a little less so, but that’s part of the fun.
Ever since I saw his first feature, Brick, I have been a fan of Rian Johnson. For those who may not be familiar with that flick, it’s a pretty great neo-noir set in a high school, that not only hets the trappings of the genre right, but also the atmosphere of desperation and inevitability that, for me, is a hallmark of a good noir.
That’s why I’m truly looking forward to seeing what he does this week when he returns to his mystery roots with Knives Out. All you have to do is look back at some of my previous posts to see how much of a fan I am of the “old dark house” style mystery – you know the kind I mean, where all the suspects are stuck for one reason or another in one setting and it’s up to the detective (sometimes a professional, sometimes an amateur, often just one of the guests) to put all the pieces together and solve the crime before it’s too late and everyone else (or they themself) winds up dead.
As always, there are a few ways to go when looking for a pairing for this double feature. We could go back to the beginning, and the movie which gave the genre it’s name:
We could go the Agatha Christie route:
Or, we could always go with the most popular comedy version
If it fit within the “rules”, I probably would have gone with this one
But instead, I decided to go with an earlier comedy version. 1976’s Murder by Death, written by Neil Simon and directed by Robert Moore is a parody not only of the old dark house style, but also of the various detective tropes that had sprung up over the years.
The movie features Truman Capote in the host role as Lionel Twain, who has invited five of the world’s greatest detectives and their relatives/assistants to his mansion for an evening of “dinner and a murder”. The detectives include Peter Falk as Sam Diamond, a take-off of the hard-boiled detective (the name is just a bit too point-on, but hey… honestly, this ain;t what you’d call a…. ummm… subtle film), Elsa Lanchester as Jessica Marbles, (the Agatha Christie Miss Marples stand-in), James Coco as Christie;s Hercule Poirot… I mean as Milo Perrier, David Niven and Maggie Smith as Dick and Dora Charleston, the Nick and Nora Charles (from the Thin Man series) knockoffs, and…
Yeah, here’s where we get to the problematic part. The fifth detective is Sidney Wang, who is based on Earl Del Biggers’ Charlie Chan. As you’ll see in the trailer, Wang is portrayed by Peter Sellers in full yellow-face and of course full pigeon English, and there’s just no getting around it. It is a terrific send-up of the character type, (one would expect nothing less from an actor as talented as Sellers), but at the same time, it’s definitely a product of its time, and I certainly understand that it will be a deal-breaker for some.
If it’s not, however, then I do highly recommend Murder by Death. It’s not the best of its kind, (look above to see the two that I think are), and some of the laughs may not land if you’re not familiar with the characters being parodied, but it is entertaining, and at just over 90 minutes, doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Here’s your trailer: