Essays · Movies

The Goofball’s Guide to Surviving a Whodunit

5 farcical ensemble whodunits that take the piss out of Murder On the Orient Express.
By  · Published on November 6th, 2017

The humorous side of homicide: 5 farcical ensemble whodunits that take the piss out of Murder On the Orient Express.

Murder On the Orient Express comes out this week, the latest directorial effort from Kenneth Branagh, King of the Thespians. By now everyone and their alibi has seen the trailer which appears to be taking itself very seriously thank you very much. There’s a big name cast of fidgety, morose eccentrics, intrigue, and lots of wistful accusatory glowering. Everyone’s a suspect and Hercule Poirot and his sumptuous Belgian mustache are going to get to the bottom of it.

And why shouldn’t Orient Express take itself seriously? It’s not just any old claustrophobic single-setting whodunnit, but the fifth English-language adaptation of one of the great claustrophobic, single-setting whodunnits. Murder on the Orient Express, whose title does double duty as plot summary, is one of Agatha Christie’s most ingenious and well-known contributions to the literary landscape. Surely such a classic deserves a degree of gravity. Right?

Well here’s the thing, yes. But also—maybe not. On paper, an ensemble piece whodunnit (or if you’re a stickler for grammar like Alfred Hitchcock’s Sam Marlowe, “who did it”) is a solemn affair: a murder has happened, and is in want of solving. Throw in a colorful, motive-soaked guest list and a corpse and bam: Gosford Park. But, as with all deliciously serious things, the manor house murder mystery popularized by Christie is ripe for parody. The more serious something is (e.g. the implication that most people are arguably murderers if not actually murderers) the more amusing it is to take the piss out of. Push Poirot’s eccentricities, ego, and mustache far enough and he topples over into Jaques Clouseau. Basic maths.

Now perhaps I’m flashing my hand a little here but I find November to be a particularly depressing month that definitely feels like being trapped on a murder train. If any time of year desperately needed inundating with comedies, this is it. And what better way than to undermine something as dour and grim as Branagh’s Orient. For your reading pleasure, I’ve assembled five of my favorite whodunnit comedies. May their zaniness and irreverence for the severity of homicide shepherd you through this dumpster fire of a month.

1. Clue (1985)

Features: Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Madeline Khan, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren.

Six guests are invited to a strange mansion, given pseudonyms, and informed that their common connection is that they are all being blackmailed. When the man blackmailing them shows up and is promptly killed when the lights go out, the guests must cooperate with the staff to determine “who killed him, and where, and with what!”

Written by John Landis and Jonathan Lynn, Clue is living proof that movies based on games can be more than the sum of their parts. Clue transforms the basic mechanics of the Hasbro board game into one of cinema’s most tightly constructed, hilarious, and endlessly quotable whodunnit farces. With a bafflingly talented cast that thrives in individual and collective moments of insanity, Clue is essential viewing for any fan of the genre. 

2. A Shot in the Dark (1964)

Features: Peter Sellers, Elke Sommer, George Sanders, Herbert Lom, and Tracy Reed.

Loveable investigation-bungling egomaniac Inspector Clouseau is summoned to the country estate of a millionaire whose chauffeur has been murdered—and all signs point to Maria, the superfluously attractive maid. Convinced of her innocence (see: she is superfluously attractive), Clouseau continues to defend Maria, even as the bodies of the estate’s staff continue piling up.

Directed by Blake Edwards (The Party) and penned by William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist), A Shot in the Dark is the only Clouseau film centered around a murder mystery, which can be chalked up to its origins as a by-the-book adaptation of Marcel Achard’s play “L’Idiote.” I like what critic Bosley Crowther wrote in his 1964 review for the New York Times: “The mystery doesn’t matter. It is how Inspector Clouseau tackles it.” Which is to say, clumsily, blundering all over the place.

3. Murder by Invitation (1941)

Features: Wallace Ford, Marian Marsh, Sarah Padden, Gavin Gordon, and George Guhl.

Garson Denham was told “hand in the petition declaring your wealthy aunt Cassie mentally incompetent” but heard “invite a newspaper reporter and his girlfriend to Cassie’s mountain estate for the allotment of her will.” Classic mix-up. Sure enough, with a mansion teaming with money-hungry relatives, foul play occurs, and Grason’s thoroughly stabbed body is discovered in the library. As the body count climbs, we’re left to deduce if the jealous relatives are to blame, or if aunt Cassie is as unhinged as Grason claimed.

Directed by Phil Rosen of Charlie Chan infamy, Murder by Invitation brought a light-hearted comedic tinge to many of the severe whodunnit tropes made famous by films like The Ninth Guest (1934) and The Unguarded Hour (1936): ominous invitations to a mansion honeycombed with secret passages and corridors, financial incentive, and inter-familial greed. The difference, of course, is that Murder by Invitation takes itself about as seriously as the line: “Hooray! A murder!”

4. Murder By Death (1976)

Features: Truman Capote, Alec Guinness, Maggie Smith, Peter Sellers, Peter Falk, James Cromwell, James Coco, Eileen Brennan, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, and Nancy Walker.

A group of distinguished detectives is invited to a creepy mansion by an eccentric who offers them one million dollars to solve his own murder. The party is comprised of five famous literary detective character types and their requisite sidekicks: more specifically Dashiell Hammet’s Nick Charles and Sam Spade; Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple; and Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan.

Written by famed American playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon, Murder By Death features Turman Capote’s only on-screen role where he doesn’t play himself. It also contains a flabbergastingly charming performance by Peter Falk as the hard-boiled Californian PI Sam Diamond. Falk went on to reprise his role in the seedy genre-implosion The Cheap Detective which I cannot reccomend enough. 

5. …And Suddenly It’s Murder! (1964)

Features: Alberto Sordi, Vittorio Gassman, Nino Manfredi, Georges Rivière, Silvana Mangano, Bernard Blier, Franca Valeri, and Dorian Gray. 

Three couples from Rome meet on a train bound for Monte Carlo. Each have their own quirks: Remo and Marina have dreams of opening their very own hair salon; Alberto has a gambling addiction and a habit of neglecting his wife Eleonora, and the impoverished Quirino and Giovanna are returning a valuable dachshund to an old woman for the reward money. But when Quirino discovers the old woman’s corpse, he sets off a chain of events that implicate all of the other couples in her murder, much to the chagrin of the local chief of police.

Directed by proto-neorealist Mario Camerini, best known for his romantic comedies, …And Suddenly It’s Murder features a veritable who’s who of mid-century Italian comedy (Sordi and Manfredi are particularly hilarious). The film has spawned several pale imitations, most notably in 1992 as Once Upon a Crime with John Candy and Cybil Shepherd. But for my dachshund reward money, the original contorted crime comedy’s where it’s at.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).