The mysterious Lionel Twain (Truman Capote) sends out invitations to five famous sleuths to meet with him at his isolated mansion in the country. It is a foggy night, and the guests are slow to arrive, among them being Dick and Dora Charleston (David Niven and Maggie Smith) who have to stop their car when they become lost. Fortunately Dick finds a telephone, but when he calls the mansion, the line is suddenly cut as if the wires had been snipped; to top it all, the Charlestons' terrier then goes missing. Meanwhile, detective Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) is being driven to the house by his Number Three Son Willie (Richard Narita), and who should they encounter when they stop to get their bearings but Dick?
The genre of the detective who arrives at the scene of the crime and makes swift work of uncovering the culprit, the motive and the method, and then goes on to apprehend the villain with a flourish, is just begging to be sent up, and that was the idea behind Murder By Death. But that idea is all it has in its favour, because once the crimefighters are assembled, which takes a whole half hour of screen time, it's clear that the once in a lifetime cast don't have many opportunites thanks to Neil Simon's only fitfully amusing script. The cast is the film's strongest feature, and assist tremendously in not making the enterprise a waste of time.
It's not only Nick and Nora Charles and Charlie Chan (naturally played by an Occidental actor in makeup) who get the spoof treatment. Soon we see Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) and his secretary (Eileen Brennan) driving up, a parody of Sam Spade - but not a parody of Columbo as you might be expecting from Falk, the only actor who plays a master detective regularly elsewhere. They are joined by a Poirot takeoff, Belgian Milo Perrier (James Coco) and his assistant/driver (James Cromwell), and a pseudo-Miss Marple, Miss Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) arriving with her nurse (Estelle Winwood) who is older and more infirm than she is.
The stars don't stop there, as Alec Guinness is in the role of the butler, Bensonmum, here a blind man leading to an abundance of jokes centering around the fact that he can't see. Then the maid (Nancy Walker) shows up to cook dinner, who has the not-particularly-hilarious-either disability of deafness, just to make thing even more difficult. The level of wit depends on wordplay - "Have you seen a little white - Wang!" "A white wang?!" - which isn't too bad, but not along the generally more sophisticated lines of what it's spoofing. And the plot doesn't hold up to much criticism as it's obviously a way of getting from one joke to another.
Eventually everyone has arrived and are seated around the dining table, and cunningly noticing that someone has been laying deadly traps for each one of them. Then Twain makes his entrance, and Capote is the only actor who seems miscast, probably due to him not really being an actor, looking as if he has trouble reaching the end of each of his lines. He's not in the film enough to harm it, however, and he does relate the important information that an unlucky person in the house will be killed at the stroke of midnight. What saves Murder By Death are the talented players, managing to wring the humour out of the most groaning lines, and as such make the film worth seeing. But you get a feeling of frustration on the part of Simon with the writers of the material he lampoons, as if he couldn't think up a plot worthy of his characters - it just doesn't make any sense. Tex Avery did it better in five minutes. Music by Dave Grusin.