Hollywood Flashback: 'Murder by Death' Was a 1976 All-Star Mystery Spoof

Columbia Pictures/Getty Images
From left: Richard Narita, Eileen Brennan, James Cromwell, James Coco, Elsa Lanchester, Estelle Winwood, Peter Falk, David Niven and Maggie Smith.

Drawing comparisons to modern comic murder whodunit 'Knives Out,' the Columbia pic featured Truman Capote as well as James Cromwell in his first-ever film role.

In 1976, The Hollywood Reporter said Columbia's Murder by Death was part of a film genre offering "a stellar cast of familiar faces; a light, whimsical script and competent, unelaborated direction, all backed up by thoroughly professional production craftsmanship."

THR went on to note that in the 1930s this would have been considered "routine," and it was a sign of Hollywood's decay that anything so run-of-the-mill as Murder by Death would be considered one of the year's best films. When Knives Out opens Nov. 27, critics might be saying the same about the Lionsgate/MRC release. 

Both are comic murder whodunits with an odd crew of suspects — played by a roster of big-name movie stars — who have been drawn to a mansion where the host is found murdered and the killer must be uncovered.

But Death is more a parody of the genre; its premise is that famous detectives compete with one another to solve the crime. Written by Neil Simon and directed by Robert Moore, it features Peter Sellers playing a version of Charlie Chan on a level of political incorrectness never to be achieved again; Peter Falk as a Sam Spade type; David Niven and Maggie Smith mimicking Nick and Nora Charles types; James Coco portraying a sort of Hercule Poirot; and Elsa Lanchester emulating Miss Marple.

The corpse at the center of it all belongs to the gathering's host, played by Truman Capote. James Cromwell, who at 36 had his first film role in Murder by Death as a chauffeur, says the famed author of In Cold Blood was in an awkward position on set.

"Truman had once written something about actors being like trained seals," says Cromwell. "And we were basically all in the same room for 11 weeks."

One critic said Capote came off "looking like an actor doing an imitation of Truman Capote," but he did receive a Golden Globe nomination for best male acting debut. As for Death, it did well enough (it grossed $32.5 million, or $150 million today) that a follow-up, The Cheap Detective, with Falk, Simon and Moore returning, was made in 1978. 

As for Capote's acting career, he followed with Annie Hall in 1977. It's a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance in which Woody Allen's Alvy Singer remarks of a man strolling in Central Park,

"There's the winner of the Truman Capote look-alike contest." It was, of course, the real Capote. He died in 1984 of liver disease at age 59.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.