San Francisco in 1939, and a mass murder has taken place at a hotel there, with the victims caught by such surprise that they have remained standing upright with bullet holes in the middle of their foreheads, in spite of being very dead. The cops survey the scene, and work out the real target was a man sitting in an upstairs room, who was caught out while reading the newspaper, and set about tracing those who knew him, with a view to pinning down exactly who would have wanted him dead. The person they settle on is a private detective, the dead man's business partner in fact, one Lou Peckinpaugh (Peter Falk) who was having an affair with his wife Georgia (Marsha Mason)...
Murder by Death being the hit it was, and genuinely funny in places as a detective spoof with an all-star cast in a faux-Agatha Christie premise, a follow-up was quickly ordered and the writer Neil Simon produced this screenplay which instead of presenting an array of famed sleuths ripe for parody, concentrated on just the one. More or less this was sending up Humphrey Bogart movies, mostly The Maltese Falcon, which was a mystery yarn, and Casablanca, which wasn't, along with various other references the film buffs in the audience were expected to lap up. However, while the previous work had been greeted fairly warmly, this item was given far shorter shrift.
The problem appeared to be that The Cheap Detective - so-called because Simon observed Bogart's private eye characters never seemed to get paid - owed much to the writer's roots in sketch show spoofery, having begun his career penning gags for Sid Caesar in groundbreaking fifties television. Indeed, to cement that debt Simon saw to it that Caesar was cast in one of the many celebrity roles, this time as a General Sternwood mickey take, and though his screen time amounted to little more than an extended cameo those steeped in classic comedy would see where they production was coming from. Now, that was not a problem in itself, or at least it wouldn't have been if the jokes were inspired.
Yet for every laugh they raised, there were far too many more which fell flat, relying too much on recognising the source of the humour and not really doing much more with them than that. If you were a fan of the strain of "I recognise the reference, therefore this is automatically hilarious" comedy then you could well find much to entertain, but in spite of a cast brimming with ability there was little they could do but try to echo the classic stars they were decked out as. Every so often there would be a line or a skit which would break free of the moribund and leaden quips, such as the nightclub scene were Eileen Brennan is introduced as a chanteuse and proceeds to wing her way through "Ma Vie en Rose" by la-la-ing the words, which was very funny, but it wasn't quite enough.
As for the leading man, Falk was already a famous detective thanks to his hit Columbo television series, so it was a little jarring to see him as a Sam Spade substitute, even if his Bogart impersonation wasn't bad. That said, you had seen the best of it in Murder by Death, so this was simply more of the same, but for star spotters a very impressive collection of actors was assembled, with Madeline Kahn as a woman of no fixed name, Stockard Channing as Falk's mousy secretary, Louise Fletcher as a suffering nobly Ingrid Bergman type, Ann-Margret as a sexed-up Lauren Bacall, and that was just the women. Simon was observing that perhaps it was time Bogart had gotten the girl in his movies, even though that's more or less what happened in many of them, hence the ending which seemed like overcompensating, but before that the plot was so derivative the only thing you were invested in were the oneliners and lampoonery, middling at best. Funnily enough, Simon's old pal Carl Reiner made a better job of this a few years later in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. Music by Patrick Williams.