Wednesday, February 16, 2011

“LITTLE MURDERS”- 1971 Dir: Alan Arkin

What I remember

Ahhh, 1971. What a year! Along with a personal milestone of an intimate nature (TMI? My apologies.), I can remember so much of that period in my life. It was my coming of age in so many different ways, but in particular I grew into the fanatical film freak that still revels in his freakitude. The year of great classics like “The French Connection”, “A Clockwork Orange”, “Harold and Maude” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” probably helped this happen.

Naturally a small black comedy like “Little Murders” would get swallowed up in this torrent of brilliance. New Hollywood was at warp speed, the sexual revolution was giving us steamy fare like “Carnal Knowledge” and “Maid in Sweden”, the Black power movement was represented by “Shaft” and “Sweet Sweetback”. Who even noticed this gem of modern satire? Well, I did, for one. The great cartoonist Jules Feiffer was responsible for the original play and the screen adaptation. He also wrote the play upon which “Carnal Knowledge” was based. “Little Murders” was not really about sex, or all of the great themes of the era like the women’s movement, civil rights or anti-war. It was about random cruelty, violence, anti-social behavior, passivity, aggression, love, and the general degradation of modern society. It was also about the funniest movie I had ever seen. Director Arkin’s turn as the beleaguered detective and Vincent Gardenia’s New York tough guy Dad stood out in an ensemble of amazing performances. This is a movie that could NEVER be made now, not even by an independent. Today’s Indie films are much like the mainstream of that era, pushing the mainstream of our time into the infantile. “French Connection” won Best Picture? Have you seen THAT lately? The hero is a shoe fetishist? There’s not a note of score during the historic, unbelievably tense car chase scene? Wait…the bad guy gets AWAY? 2011 Indie houses wouldn’t even touch that.

“Little Murders” was so outside the realm of normal filmmaking, as to make it a genre unto itself. A psychological-crime-love-family- absurd-black-comedy. I absoloutely loved this movie, and have seen it about 3 times, but not in many, many years.


“I want to be married to a big, strong, vital, virile, self-assured man…..that I can protect and take care of!” -Patsy Newquist


It’s dystopian New York in the 70’s, aka “Fun City”, where muggings and murders are a daily event, brown-outs are hourly occurrences and the police are outwitted and outnumbered. Hyper-aggressive Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rodd) tries to save Alfred Chamberlain (Elliott Gould, at the height of his popularity) from being mugged by a small group of teens, as she fights them off, he walks away, moving on immediately. She confronts him, and quickly realizes his passivity is monumental. Opposites attract in the strangest way, and the two get engaged. Alfred meets Patsy’s highly eccentric family, and she tries to change Alfred into the man she wants him to be. His nihilism is hard to shake, but eventually she gets through to him. I will leave the plot there, for those who have never seen the film.

Q- Was my memory accurate?


Oh, this film is edgy all right. Feiffer’s satire of modern life in the ‘70’s still feels very current. Disaffection, cynicism, frustration with social services, random violence—what’s not 21st Century America about THAT? La plus ça change….

Elliott Gould was the driving force behind making the film, and he originally wanted Jean-Luc Godard to direct (!). One can only imagine how a Parisian would have handled these very New York characters and themes. Getting native New Yorker Alan Arkin to direct makes a hell of a lot more sense. Gould was coming off some spectacular successes with “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice”, and “M*A*S*H”, a couple of films that were so huge that they had societal repercussions. He was able to produce the film for about a million dollars, and kept some of the actors who had done the short run on Broadway with him to be in the film, if not in the same roles. I can’t overstate how funny the comedy is in the film; the family scenes in particular are side-splitting, and Arkin’s turn as the psychotic detective Lt. Practice, is a gem of over-the-top insanity. The film has 4 classic monologues: 1) Lew Jacobi doing Judge Stern’s hilarious son of an immigrant rant,

2) Lt. Practice’s paranoid freak-out, 3) Alfred Chamberlain’s tale of how he dismantled a government wog who was reading his mail, and 4) Donald Sutherland as the minister doing the worst ceremony in wedding history. One of my favorite moments happens when the happy couple and Patsy’s family begin to climb the “First Existentialist Church” steps and the church doors open with a huge donnybrook spilling out into the street. At this point you kind of figure things will not be going well for Alfred and Patsy’s nuptials.

Watching “Little Murders”, you can see how the Beatnik ethos transformed into the Hippie ethos. Feiffer was a standard bearer of the former, Gould of the latter. The combination of the two provided searing commentary on the hypocrisy of America in the ‘60’s and the nascent ‘70’s. For my generation, “Little Murders” hit the spot so expertly that it would take 3 decades until at last the Coen Brothers came along to rival that execution.


With the exception of “Little Murders”, Alan Arkin has never really directed a great film. His comic and acting chops are superb, of course. His Oscar turn in “Little Miss Sunshine”, his first big role in “The Russians Are Coming” and his amazing job as Freud in “The Seven Percent Solution” are all personal favorites. Arkin’s comic touch is just right for “Little Murders”; everything is over-the-top enough to be uncomfortable but hilarious, yet it never strays into outright slapstick. The great Gordon Willis did cinematography, and the visuals and sets are perfect ‘60’s kitsch.

There are a few moments of weirdness, like the much too lengthy walk in the park by Alfred near the end of the film, where he decides to change his photo subjects from dog poop to people. It has a place in the film symbolically, for sure, but it is way too slow, and there are some very strange encounters with random people, folks whom you have to wonder if they were owed a favor by Arkin, Gould or Feiffer. The scene is mollified by a lovely musical bed, provided by the Modern Jazz Quartet. Some of the scenes during the courtship at the Catskills, wherein Patsy tries to get Alfred to admit he’s having fun, are a little dated stylistically. I guess that’s bound to happen. After all, it’s hard to believe, but the film is 40 years old!


The leads are fine, and Marcia Rodd, who was a complete unknown at the time, does a great job at capturing the stridently positive Patsy. Gould is also quite good, and his monologue stands out as one of the highlights of his career.

These actors are completely overshadowed by the supporting cast, especially the absolutely brilliant job by Elizabeth Wilson as Patsy’s mother, Marge. We all remember Ms. Wilson as Benjamin Braddock’s mother in “The Graduate”, but that only gave a hint of her comic genius in playing the waspy, clueless mom. In “Little Murders” she steals the film with a portrayal that is one for the ages. Not quite as amazing, but still tremendous and hysterical are the rest of the Newquist clan; Vincent Gardenia as the father and Jon Korkes as the brother keep the laughs coming. Korkes physical humor is strong, and Gardenia’s delivery of his mantras, “Sonofabitch refuses to open” and “What’s your pleasure, young man” are so memorable that they became my mantras after seeing this movie the first time.

Veteran character actors John Randolph and Doris Roberts appear as Alfred’s parents, hopelessly intellectual and without a shred of humanity. Randolph played Patsy's father in the play version, but I can’t imagine the casting could be any better that it is in the film. I’ve already discussed how much fun Sutherland, Jacobi and Arkin are in their bits; they round out a supporting cast that is second to none.


It’s a classic, I tell you. If you have never seen this film, see it. If you hate it, I understand, but I am really sorry for you. Not only does it hold up after 40 years, but it gets better with age. The older I get, the more it speaks to my sense of the absurd, the hypocritical, the lunatic, but most of all to my sense of humor. If this writing exercise does nothing else for me, at least I can be happy in knowing that it got me to re-watch this movie.

1st Look- ★★★★ 2nd Look-★★★★

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