Revisiting Murder by Death: 1976 film showed how not to play race, sexuality for laughs
In Murder By Death, the homophobia is served up by the character Sam Diamond, a parody of the fictional detective Sam Spade.
Written by Neil Simon and released in 1976, Murder by Death is essentially a silly movie that does not try to be anything other than a silly movie.
The film parodies a number of characters and themes found in some of the more famous whodunits.
It features well-known actors, a ridiculous murder mystery and is funny and problematic at the same time.
'Allegedly Problematic' is a monthly column by Kuzhali Manickavel, which takes a cheeky look at literary/cultural offerings from the past that would now be considered, well, problematic — and asks, 'But are they really?'.
Read more from the series here.
Today we are going to further investigate all the problematic issues in the movie Murder By Death. We dealt with the racism first, because it’s the shiny ‘it’-ism of today. We are now going to look at another issue which is almost as glamorous as racism — homophobia!
In Murder By Death, the homophobia is served up by the character Sam Diamond, a parody of the fictional detective Sam Spade. On the outside, Diamond appears to be what they call hard-boiled. On the inside, he appears to be what they call gay as a rainbow. Apart from keeping naked muscle men magazines in his office, he was also picked up by the movie’s main character in a gay bar and was being blackmailed, thanks to some Polaroids of him in drag. Does this mean he’s gay? Meh. Does it mean he’s straight? Again, meh. Does all this matter in the grand scheme of things? Absolutely meh.
Diamond’s character plays off a rather tired homophobic trope of being the tough guy who is secretly gay, which apparently is just the most hilarious thing ever. Why? I don’t know! Diamond states very clearly that he “hates them queeries” but then he also says “I never did nothing to a man that I wouldn't do to a woman.” He seems about as manly as they come, which I guess is what is supposed to render the gay angle even more laughable.
When I saw this movie as a youth who didn’t really know what homosexuality was, it just seemed like such an outlandish, funny thing — a guy looking at naked muscle men. It was funny in the same way a man in a dress was supposed to be funny. The character of Milo Perrier, a parody of Hercule Poirot, is rendered in a similar vein. Unlike Diamond, he is in every respect, right down to his pet poodle, the stereotype of what a flamboyant gay man is supposed to be like. It is this flamboyance that brings most of his laughs. In contrast, the character of Dick Charleston, a parody of Nick Charles, is classy as opposed to being a ‘pansy’, as Sam Diamond puts it.
Murder by Death is a silly movie and lambasting it for not taking issues of racism and homophobia seriously is like, well, accusing Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom of cultural insensitivity. And as we have stated earlier, one can still find Murder By Death hilarious and feel good about watching it, provided one tut-tuts at the right places. If you don’t tut-tut, people will think you’re actually okay with the racism and homophobia. Which you kind of are, since you’re enjoying the movie, but you are tut-tutting. And I think that’s supposed to mean something.
Strange as it may sound though, race and queerness can be funny without being offensive. I know it doesn’t seem that way, because these are two issues people always seem to be complaining about. And I think that makes it seem like we’re not allowed to laugh at them. But we can. Really. It is totally possible to be funny about these things without being a jerk. The thing is that it takes some thinking and work to make that happen. And that is something people aren’t always willing to do. If that had happened with Murder By Death, it would have been a truly amazing, tut-tut free movie.
In our next column, we will take a listen to some problematic songs! English songs of course. Because we are only concerned with how problematic English things are.
Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of the short story collections 'Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings' and 'Things We Found During the Autopsy', both available from Blaft Publications
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