Most all-star comedy spoofs from the 1970s, especially the ones which feature a lot of big names in ‘funny disguises’, are dreadful – but this Neil Simon-scripted pastiche of an array of much-loved detective characters is surprisingly charming, with more good, smart lines to the page than any of the competition and a top-flight cast.
Truman Capote, in his only major acting role, is thoroughly strange, but everyone else is perfect – with Alec Guinness dryly presiding as a supposedly blind butler who remains unflappable while the house is swarming with deadly scorpions or death traps and convincingly mouths absolutely idiotic statements like ‘she murdered herself in her sleep, sir’. David Niven and Maggie Smith are Dick and Dora Charleston, take-offs on Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man; Peter Sellers is the Charlie Chan-like Inspector Sidney Wang, who is criticised for being unable to use proper grammar in his aphorisms; Peter Falk is priceless as the hardboiled Bogart-like Sam Diamond, partnered by a game gal Friday (Eileen Brennan); James Coco is prissy as the Hercule Poirot knock-off Milo Perrier, a gourmet whose lanky slapstick butler is played by a young James Cromwell; and Elsa Lanchester pokes fun at Miss Marple as Jessie Marbles, whose nursemaid (Estelle Winwood) is more enfeebled than she is.
The plot is deliberately absurd, with a last-reel set of revelations that never make sense, and more unmaskings and improbably theories than any five Agatha Christies thrown together. It was successful enough to merit a sort-of sequel, also scripted by Simon, with Falk in a trenchcoat again as The Cheap Detective.