***Spoiler Alert*** Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and throw the spoiler tag up here because I’d be willing to bet that very few of you have ever seen this movie, or have even heard of it, and – not to give too much away here – you really should. And even though I’m only going so far in discussing the plot of the movie, stopping well before the ending, there are enough twists early in the film that you may not want to know about if you’re completely spoiler averse that I do feel I should let you know before you start . ***End Warning***
Are you really so down on people, or are you just being fashionable?
Little Murders is an extremely dark movie, and I don’t just mean the scenes which take place during a blackout or are lit only by candlelight. I mean that as far as black comedies go, this one is pure ebony.
It’s also the kind of movie for which the phrase “funny as hell” could easily ave been invented, because although there are parts of it that I found to be truly laugh out loud hilarious, that seems to be exactly where many of the characters in it are living.
In other words, it perfectly encapsulates New York City in the late 1960s and early 70s.
The movie version of Little Murders was adapted by Jules Feiffer from his original play which first ran on Broadway for seven performances in 1967. After that the play had a successful run in London before returning to New York for a 400 performance run which was directed by Alan Arkin. Elliot Gould, who stars in the film as Alfred Chamberlain, then bought the movie rights to the play, and asked Feiffer to expand the story for the screen and Arkin to direct.
Gould’s Alfred is a photographer who we learn has had his ups and downs. At one time he had an extremely successful career as a fashion photographer, but when he became disenchanted with that, he moved on to shooting “things”, mostly for catalogs, which he seems to consider the nadir of his working life. Now, he makes a successful living as more of an art photographer, shooting pictures of, as he puts it quite literally, “shit”.
Hey, art is art, right?
We also learn that Alfred is completely disconnected not only from the things going on around him in the city, but from his own life and feelings. The only things he can really relate to are the things that he sees through the lens of his camera. As a matter of fact, when we first see him, he is being beaten up by some thugs for no apparent reason, something he simply allows to happen to him, and because he simply ignores the pain he seems actually not to feel it.
We first see Alfred through the eyes of Patsy Newquist (played by Marcia Rodd) who first notices him when she hears the beating noted above from the apartment window and she rushes downstairs to his defense. After beating off and chastising his attackers, she then turns her attention to him, trying to understand his outlook and how how can simply be satisfied simply withstanding the attack rather than fighting back.
Those guys in the park, they said ‘Hey, fatface! What are you staring at?’ If I told them I wasn’t staring at them, they would’ve beat me up for being a liar. And if I told them I was staring at them because I wanted to take their picture, then they’d beat me up for being a cop. So I told them I was staring at them because they looked familiar, and they beat me up for being a fag. There’s no way of talking someone out of beating you up if that’s what he wants to do.
Subsequently, she takes him on as a recovery project, trying to make him feel something, more specifically happiness. This eventually leads to her taking him to a dinner with her extremely dysfunctional family over his objections. In some ways it is hard to tell who is the more messed-up, Alfred or Patsy’s various family members.
At the end of the evening, however, just after they have left, Alfred agrees to marry Patsy, though even he seems unsure why. He only puts one restriction on the wedding; that during the ceremony there be no mention of God. This demand leads to two incredible set pieces, one performed by Lou Jacobi as a Judge who delivers an increasingly hysterical rent about why he will not marry the couple all the while backed by the American flag, and the other being the marriage itself which winds up being administered by the Rev. Henry Dupas played by Donald Sutherland at his long-haired, bearded hippie best, who agrees to take money from Patsy’s father in exchange for including “the deity” in the ceremony while assuring Alfred that he won’t because “First Existential can use the money.” In the end the ceremony breaks down into total chaos, but Patsy and Alfred do wind up getting married.
Why does one decide to marry? Social pressure? Boredom? Loneliness? Sexual appeasement? Love? I won’t put any of these reasons down. Each in its own way is adequate, each is all right. Last year, I married a musician who wanted to get married in order to stop masturbating. Please, don’t be startled, I’m not putting him down. That marriage did not work. But the man tried. He is now separated, still masturbating, but he is at peace with himself because he tried society’s way
– Rev. Dupas
It’s after this that things really start to go downhill, beginning with a truly shocking murder, but I don;t think I want to go any further into the plot of the movie because there are still a number of twists that should remain unrevealed until one watches it.
There are a number of standout performances in Little Murders that I really should note. I’ve already mentioned Lou Jacobi and Donald Sutherland as The Judge and Reverend Dupas respectively, but there are other supporting players who deserve special note.
First of all, I really haven’t spent enough time talking about Marcia Rodd who plays Patsy with an earnestness that borders on mania.
Honey, I don’t want to hurt you. I want to change you.
I want to be married to a big, strong, vital, virile, self-assured man… that I can protect and take care of.
When they first meet, Patsy seems astounded that any man could have the kind of passive temperament that Alfred shows toward nearly everything in his life. Not long after, she takes him on as a project: she is going to make him feel – more specifically, she is going to make him feel happiness -whether he wants to or not. The thing is, though, that because of the charm and exuberance that Rodd brings to this character, she manages to take a character that could be completely annoying and instead give her an endearing quality that serves the character well.
Also of note is Vincent Gardenia, who plays Patsy’s father. Although at first he may come off as a completely abrasive Archie Bunker type, by the end of the film we’re left wondering just how much influence he has had on the way the family has turned out. Is he the main cause of the family’s dysfunction, or is he in many ways simply reacting to the situation he finds himself in, both in relationship to a sense of helplessness of being able to cope with what the world has given him not only in his family, but in relationship to the world at large as well?
Finally, there’s Alan Arkin, who, along with directing the film, plays police Lt. Practice. Practice has become so overwhelmed with the number of violent crimes and murders in the city that he is pretty much on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Though he doesn’t get a lot of screen time, what he does get is quite memorable.
We are involved here in a far reaching conspiracy to undermine our most basic beliefs and sacred institutions. Whose behind this conspiracy? Once again ask yourself who has the most to gain. People in high places, their names would astound you! People in low places, concealing their activities beneath a cloak of poverty! People of all walks of life, left wing and right wing. Black and white. Students and scholars. A conspiracy of such ominous proportion that we will never, never know the whole story and we’ll never be able to reveal all the facts! We are readying mass arrests. I am going to see that you people get every possible break. If there is any information you would like to contribute at this time, it will be held in the strictest confidence….
I mentioned earlier that the movie was a real reflection of New York at the time, and I hold that to be true. As a matter of fact, I’d go so far as to call the city an uncredited character in the movie. This was a time when New York seemed to many to be a city beyond repair, when the streets were filled with trash and there was, in many parts of the city an overwhelming feeling of despair and ennui, not unlike that reflected in Alfred’s attitude toward his own life. Perhaps nowhere is this better reflected than in a scene where a bloodied and battered Alfred walks onto a subway train, sits down, and isn’t even given a second look by his fellow passengers as though this is a sight they see every day, and they are in no way surprised by this new arrival.
Unfortunately, Little Murders is one of those movies which, with the passage of time, seems to have fallen through the cracks, and is currently unavailable, as far as I can tell on DVD or Blu-ray, and it’s probably going to stay that way for quite awhile unless there’s a sudden surge if interest in the oeuvre of either Alan Arkin or Elliot Gould which seems highly unlikely. However, I will say that if you get a chance to see this mostly forgotten gem from the 70s I highly recommend you take the opportunity to do so. Not only does it serve as a great time capsule from an era that was unique in both American history and American film, but it also does ask – though never really answers – the question in the header at the top:
Are there really ever any “little” murders?