At the risk of being mugged, car-bombed, and sniped, Judge George Hatch bravely takes aim at Jules Feiffer's ultra-black comedy.
"Little Murders was conceived as an essay on what I perceived to be going on in America in the mid-1960s…'inspired,' if you will, by the assassination of JFK and the shooting of Oswald a week later. The post-assassination climate of urban violence made me realize this country was in the process of having an unstated and unacknowledged nervous breakdown. All forms of authority which had been previously honored and respected, on every level of society, were slowly losing their validity."—Jules Feiffer
Jules Feiffer's Little Murders failed both as a play that closed within a week, and a film that didn't last much longer in movie theaters. Black comedies make you cringe and laugh at the same time—then a few seconds later, they make you feel a little guilty for having laughed. Peter Berg's Very Bad Things is a perfect example. Little Murders, on the other hand, is an ultra-black comedy that makes you cringe and want to run for cover. The urban landscape has become dangerous ground—and only a sniper's bullet away from the one depicted in John Carpenter's Escape from New York. Explosions shatter buildings and rock nearby homes, vigilante squads patrol the streets, blackouts and power failures are commonplace, and there have been 345 unsolved murders in the last six months. Can two people fall in love—and survive—in this no man's land?
Facts of the Case
Alfred Chamberlain (Elliott Gould) is a disillusioned freelance photographer who's lost his motivation for more commercial assignments. He felt that magazines like Harpers and Esquire didn't recognize "talent and real art anymore and would accept any crap that was handed to them." So he decided to do just that: take pictures of crap…dog crap, to be specific. He roams the streets and parks looking for shapely and unique piles of feces, getting mugged for his camera, or just beat up for no reason at all. It's become so much a part of his routine that he wears a boxer's mouthpiece to protect his teeth, and has learned not to fight back because the muggers "will eventually get tired anyway…and when I hum it makes them depressed."
One morning, Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rodd) hears the sounds of a violent assault just outside her apartment. She races out and pummels the attackers with her purse, so they start punching her back—and Alfred calmly departs the scene. Fending of the attackers, Patsy chases him down and demands to know, "Why didn't you help me? Are you a pacifist or something?" Alfred prefers to think of himself as "an apathist, a nihilist, and an atheist, too." The ever-optimistic Patsy decides it's her duty to change his life and attitude. "I'm going to marry you and make you give me a house, entrap you into a half dozen children, and seduce you into a world that's remorselessly satisfying."
Patsy brings Alfred home to meet her parents (Vincent Gardenia and Elizabeth Wilson) and younger brother, Kenny (Jon Korkes). Now she wants to know more about Alfred's family and his childhood. She sends him to visit his estranged parents in Chicago with a detailed questionnaire. The super-sophisticated and intellectual Mr. and Mrs. Chamberlain (John Randolph and Doris Roberts), sadly, can't remember very much about their son's youth, and small details they do recall are smothered in psycho-babble. Alfred returns home to Patsy without a clue to his past. Meanwhile, Lt. Practice (Alan Arkin), who's been spearheading an exhaustive and emotionally draining police investigation, has determined that a "conspiracy of far-reaching proportions" is behind the 345 random and unsolved murders.
While the play took place entirely in the Newquist's apartment, Feiffer thought it best to provide some backstory for the couple so he had them "meet cute and fall in love in a traditional Hollywood style." He admits disliking this "prologue" and, for him, the film begins when Patsy and Alfred enter her apartment that had been savagely vandalized during their absence. "This is the first 'little murder' that takes place…the murder of our safety, our sense of security, and an assault on who and what we are as social beings." I thought this opening worked beautifully. As the sounds of Alfred's mugging get louder, the viewer becomes apprehensive. When Patsy rescues him and decides to mold his life to her expectations, we get a great deal of insight into their burgeoning relationship. The long idyllic sequence at the country club and their strolls through the park lull the viewer back into a false sense of security. The return to her devastated apartment delivers the shock effect Feiffer was aiming for, and portends more danger and violence. By the end of the film, everyone has become so callous and accustomed to living in a "war zone" that the 345 unsolved deaths are all simply "little murders."
The viewer is again blindsided by the near farcical behavior of Mr. and Mrs. Newquist, doting on Patsy in the extreme, and disparaging Alfred with derogatory barbs at every turn. Kenny comes off as an incestuous horny teen when he wrestles Patsy to the floor, and later smacks his lips over her make-up, clothes, and hairstyle. Alfred "hates visiting families" and just shrugs off their bizarre "familial-arity," answering questions in monotone with as few words as possible. When the lights keep dimming and blacking out during dinner, no one is concerned and the conversation continues—but Mrs. Newquist does chide everyone else for not having their candles at hand. This scene is both funny and chilling. Feiffer said he got this idea from the Big Blackout of 1965 that darkened most of the northeast coast. "Suppose blackouts were such an every day occurrence that no one really cared? So what. Life goes on."
I won't divulge any crucial plot points that drastically alter the lives of these characters, but that's Feiffer's basic premise for this film: Society's blasè acceptance of the perilous—and ultimately calamitous—changes that are happening all around us on a daily basis. Mrs. Newquist gets sniped on her way home from the supermarket. Luckily, a milk carton took the bullet, but all she cares about is getting the groceries inside and salvaging what's left of the milk. Alfred walks through a subway car drenched in blood, and nobody cares. No one offers help, and, surprisingly, no one even runs for cover to another car. It happens every day. So what?
Feiffer also skewers the growing distance between generations and their work ethic, religion, and the police in three lengthy monologues. Lou Jacobi (The Diary of Anne Frank) harangues Patsy and Alfred about lack of respect for "their elders, and their elders—the people who came over on a boat, lived in a cold water flat on the top floor of a five-story tenement, and worked their fingers to the bone to make a living." Feiffer resented such people and wanted to condense all the stories he'd been told into one parodical tirade. The speech is wonderfully written, but I found Jacobi's performance too thunderous and over-the-top. I would have walked out long before Alfred and Patsy did. Alan Arkin (who also directed the film) plays the paranoid Lt. Practice who's trying to solve the "conspiracy" of random murders. "Who has the most to gain? People in high places! Their names would astound you! People in low places, who conceal their activities beneath a cloak of poverty. Left-wing, Right-wing! We are readying for mass arrests!" Arkin punctuates his rant with too many drooling stutters and annoying facial ticks. Granted, Lt. Practice is losing control because "with all of the unsolved killings, somebody's got to be elected fall guy." But Arkin exaggerates these quirks beyond caricature relegating his character to cartoonland. Both he and Jacobi don't blend in with the rest of the cast whose characters are often outrageous, but always on the same plane.
Donald Sutherland (The Italian Job), however, is perfectly cast and hilarious as the progressive and unscrupulous Rev. Dupas. His smooth voice and casual, low-key delivery make it sound as if he'd ad-libbed his entire monologue. "Alfred, your father-in-law has offered me a lot of money to mention the Deity in the ceremony against your wishes. If it's all right with you I'd like to keep the money and not mention the Deity. First Existential could use the money. Ladies and gentlemen, I think you all should know that of the 200 marriages I've performed, only seven have lasted." When Rev. Dupas begins to nonchalantly insult and expose the personal secrets of members in the congregation, Sutherland's pompous insincerity provokes a riot. His cameo performance makes this one of the funniest scenes in the film.
Elliott Gould (The Long Goodbye) appropriately plays Alfred as sort of a zombified version of the hip characters that were his trademark in other films made around the same time like Getting Straight and M*A*S*H. Little Murders was stage actress Marcia Rodd's first film and she starred in Herbert Ross's T. R. Baskin the same year. She does a terrific job as Patsy, the zealous and indefatigable optimist. Vincent Gardenia (The Hustler), Elizabeth Wilson (Quiz Show), and John Korkes (Day of the Dolphin) turn the Newquist family into a "nuclear" nuthouse. John Randolph (Seconds) and Doris Roberts (The Honeymoon Killers) play Alfred's parents with deadpan snobbery and an undisguised resentment for their son.
Fox's crisp anamorphic transfer is an excellent upgrade from their old VHS, showcasing Gordon Willis's cinematography and proving his camera work in cramped quarters is just as evocative as the sprawling city street scenes he's most noted for. The Dolby Stereo is especially effective, enhancing the gunshots, ricochets, and explosions heard outside throughout the film. There are two TV spots, the original trailer and a spliced together full-length audio commentary by Jules Feiffer and Elliott Gould.
Feiffer's was scene specific, detailed and very informative, and I've quoted him several times in this review. Although he didn't really care for the "prologue," there is one scene he wrote that he regrets had to be scrapped for budgetary reasons. Alfred and Patsy's last walk in the park was originally to have taken place at the marina on Riverside Drive. Patsy lights a cigarette and tosses the match into the river, which then bursts into flame. That was Feiffer's comment on pollution and the world, in general, going to hell. It's an extravagant set-piece, to be sure; but it would have made a spectacular prelude to the personalized hell Alfred and Patsy enter when they open the door to her apartment. Gould, on the other hand, is so self-absorbed with his own career, that he barely provides a few footnotes for the film. He claims "Alfred is still my best performance," but drones on and on about the power he exercised as producer during the shoot—to the point of manipulating director Alan Arkin to take the Lt. Practice cameo "or else…" He drops just about every name in the Hollywood phone book—and a handful from abroad like Bergman and Godard. I wish Fox had provided a skip-ahead feature, or ran the commentaries on two separate tracks. I'd rather have sat through long silences waiting for Feiffer's incisive revelations than have them interrupted by Gould's ego-trip.
Warning: When you buy Little Murders—and I urge you to do so—do not read the chapter titles on the back of the insert, and do not browse the scene selections on screen. One of titles stupidly discloses a startling and dramatic plot twist that will ruin the film for you.
Jules Feiffer (Carnal Knowledge) was a political and social commentator who expressed his perceptive and unconventional views in syndicated cartoon strip that ran for 42 years, and earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1986. "Strip" might the wrong word, though, because his cartoons had no "panels"—just six or eight free-floating images with no boundaries, much like Feiffer's eccentric opinions. His foreboding observations of the urban wasteland in Little Murders may be 30 years old, but they are just as pertinent today—and as current as this morning's headlines.
Little Murders is an equally hilarious and disturbing film that never found an audience upon its initial release. Fox has taken good care of this lost classic, and their DVD should attract new viewers who will hopefully spread the word.
Not guilty! No potshots are to be taken at Little Murders.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Elliott Gould and Jules Feiffer
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