Last week was MURDER.

Best double-feature in years:
Murder on the Orient Express and Murder by Death

When I was a pre-teen, I decided that a good present for my brother, who liked Louis L’Amour Western novels, would be to collect every title he had published on paperback.* I didn’t really realize the scope of my plan; between 1953 and 1983 L’Amour had published an average of three titles a year (and would continue to write for four more years).

* I reiterate: Best present giver ever. Even as a youngster.

I already was a regular at a used bookstore that would buy titles for 25% of their original price. Our across-the-street neighbor read romance novels voraciously and gave them to me when she was done; I would trade them in for store credit,** and the clerks kept a list of the titles I still needed to buy.

** I did keep one of the Johanna Lindsey titles for a while, because the sex scenes were shockingly graphic. Thanks to her, I am familiar with the phrase swollen member.)

I eventually was able to present my brother with (what was then) the entire library, and then it was time to turn my attention to something more important — books for me. Looking back now, I’m pretty sure I was the only sixth-grader at Washington Elementary who collected Agatha Christie mysteries. My favorite sleuth was Miss Marple — so easy to underestimate, but keenly observant and cunning. Hercule Poirot’s fussy affectations bothered me, plus I couldn’t translate throwaway phrases like “n’est ce pas?” which left me afraid that I had missed an important clue.

My Christie kick had begun thanks to a collection of “Two-Minute Mysteries” by Donald J. Sobol — the same guy who wrote the Encyclopedia Brown series. (Can you figure out this mystery? I’m pleased to say that I did, even back then: highlight the text that follows this sentence for the answer. The husband is the strangler; he claims he was watering his flowerbeds for a half-hour, but the driver had parked his truck so the front wheels were on the hose, which meant no water would have come out.)  I had thrown myself into a world where a man would hang himself in the middle of a room while standing on a block of ice; after it melted, there’d be no trace of how he had managed to hoist himself up in the first place … except for one inconvenient puddle. (Dun-dun-DUN!)

I still revisit the Agatha Christie library on occasion; I downloaded Nemesis, the last book she wrote, to my Kindle just a few months ago so I could read it on one of my trips to New York. (Which I did, literally — it’s a five-hour flight, and I read quickly.) So when I saw that Murder on the Orient Express was going to be on TCM, I immediately set my DVR to record the 1974 movie. (Click on the title card at right to watch the original trailer on the Rotten Tomatoes site,  where the movie has a rare “100% Fresh” rating.) The stars — or suspects, should I say — include Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman (she won an Oscar!), Sir John Gielgud … there are literally a dozen of them. (PS: That could be an important plot point.) I knew the ending, of course, but that made it even more enjoyable, allowing me to watch the film and enjoy all the nuances and moments without trying to puzzle out the mystery.

How incredible is this illustration by Bob Doucette of Lauren Bacall and Albert Finney as characters from “Murder on the Orient Express”?
Click on the thumbnail to go to his site.

The resolution of the whodunit is particularly ludicrous as mysteries go, so I was particularly delighted that as luck would have it, that week I had also recorded one of my favorite movies — Murder by Death. The Neil Simon comedy satirizes all the tropes of mystery novels, starting with a group of people trapped in a remote house where a cunning murderer is on the loose. But these aren’t just any people but (caricatures of) the world’s greatest detectives — Milo Perrier (Hercule Poirot), Jessica Marbles (Miss Jane Marple), Sam Diamond (Sam Spade and Richard Diamond), Dick and Dora Charleston (Nick and Nora Charles) and Sidney Wang (Charlie Chan), along with their various sidekicks.

“He IS blind. Those were my funniest faces.” — Milo Perrier, after testing the blindness of the butler by silently making crazy faces in front of him and getting no response

This cast is stellar, too — David Niven, Maggie Smith, Peter Falk, Peter Sellers, Eileen Brennan, Sir Alec Guinness (as a blind butler), Nancy Walker, James Coco, Elsa Lanchester, even James Cromwell in his first movie role (working a French accent as Marcel, the chauffeur, at right).

“Oh, that’s probably the cook. Come in!”
Dora Charleston
“Darling, the poor woman is stone deaf.”
Dick Charleston
“I’m sorry, I forgot. [Shouts] COME IN!!!

Writer Truman Capote makes his one and only film appearance, too, as the detectives’ mysterious host, who at one point excoriates the characters (and, by extension, their author creators):

“You’ve tricked and fooled your readers for years. You’ve tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You’ve introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You’ve withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it.”

“He was very good to me. He would take me to the circus and give me candy. We stopped going when I was about 26.” — Tess Skeffington, talking about her now-dead uncle

So its timing after Murder on the Orient Express was particularly canny, which made it an ideal double feature for me. The only trouble was “watching” it with my roommates who were technically in another room, who would bust in with conversations like, “Is that the woman from Harry Potter?” [Response: “Yes.”] “I didn’t know Eileen Brennan was in Harry Potter.” [Response: “Eileen Brennan wasn’t in Harry Potter.”] “But you just said she was.” [Response: “Please don’t tell me that you can’t tell Maggie Smith and Eileen Brennan apart.’] “I loved her in Private Benjamin.” [Response: Sigh heavily, hit rewind to spot where conversation overtook movie.]

“I can’t help it. I’m old.” — Miss Withers, after Jessica Marbles announces that she smells gas in their room. When Miss Marbles replies, “No, I’m talking about the gas that kills,” Miss Withers says, “Sometimes my gas …”

Murder by Death has a little too much Peter Sellers and Peter Falk for my liking — spread around the love, producers! — so it comes up short when stacked next to Clue, my all-time favorite satire. (Eileen Brennan stars in that movie, too, of course, as Mrs. Peacock.) But it’s still a fun little romp, so I’ve archived the recording so I can return to it when I need a laugh. Watching Obi-Wan Kenobi as blind butler Jamessir Bensonmum, or seeing Downton Abbey‘s acerbic countess as a soignée sophisticate always makes me grin. And it’s always fun to watch a blind butler communicate with a deaf and mute housemaid who doesn’t read English (or work Thursdays)…

WHAT SAM WORE: 11-4-12
The shirt: Waffle-weave 3/4-sleeve T-shirt, from Uniqlo, New York.
The shorts: Corduroy shorts, on clearance at Lucky, Chandler Fashion Center.
The shoes: Sneakers by Puma, a Christmas gift from Big Booty Judy.

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