Written by celebrated cartoonist/satirist Jules Feiffer, and based on his successful off-Broadway play of the same name, Little Murders is one of the most oppressively cynical Hollywood movies from a period during which audiences briefly embraced downbeat subject matter because of a dour national mood. So, even though the picture is way too weird for most viewers, Little Murders is significant as an illustration of just how bummed-out some Americans were in an era characterized by political assassinations, social unrest, and the Vietnam War. Chronological context is necessary for discussing the picture, because otherwise, the storyline would seem pointlessly absurd and sadistic.
Elliot Gould stars as Alfred, a New York City photographer so numbed by societal decay that he endures daily beatings from local thugs without complaint, and makes his living taking photographs of excrement. Alfred meets Patsy, an overbearing New Yorker who decides to pull Alfred from his stupor, and he halfheartedly commits to a relationship. Patsy drags Alfred to meet her loony family, which includes a motor-mouthed father (Vincent Gardenia) who’s perpetually on the verge of a heart attack, a somnambulistic mother (Elizabeth Wilson) who pretends everything happening around her is hunky-dory, and a perverted little brother (Jon Korkes) who giggles inappropriately and hangs out in closets.
This leads to an outrageous wedding scene officiated by a sardonic hippie, the Rev. Henry Dupas (Donald Sutherland), during which Alfred and Patsy exchange vows to tolerate each other until they don’t feel like tolerating each other, and to screw around if they feel like doing so. (The wedding scene ends with Patsy’s father tackling the reverend.) Then, after a bleak plot twist, a weird police detective named Lt. Practice (Alan Arkin) arrives to add a layer of officially sanctioned insanity to Feiffer’s satirical universe.
Making his directorial debut after achieving fame as a comic actor, Arkin plays this outlandish material straight, even though some of the performances (notably his own) are so broad they seem better suited to other movies. Additionally, cinematographer Gordon Willis shoots Little Murders in the same shadowy style he later brought to the Godfather pictures, making an already gloomy narrative feel even more oppressive. This sober approach makes it difficult to find humor in the film’s barrage of random violence and senseless tragedy. Even more problematically, Feiffer’s characterizations are so odd that his underlying literary intention is unclear: Are these characters meant to be people or metaphors?
Not knowing whether to invest emotionally in the characters, or simply observe them like animals in a zoo, is the biggest challenge in watching Little Murders. There’s no question that the picture is made well, particularly in the area of cinematography, and the acting is formidable: Gardenia expends Herculean effort riffing through dense dialogue, Gould finds pathos in his sad-sack characterization, and Sutherland is very funny in his single scene. But does it all add up to anything more than, “Life’s a bitch and then you die?” Maybe.
Little Murders: FREAKY