Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Little Murders (1971)

          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


Will Errickson said...

A few years back I was on a big Gould kick and this is one that I just couldn't grasp. Another interesting film he did that's little-known is SILENT PARTNER, from '78.

Craig Gustafson said...

Great post, but Gould's character is named Alfred, not Albert.

Joseph Kearny said...

There's a lot to recommend this film. It is funny and offbeat and though some of it feels like a series of skits it very well acted and funny and pointed. Good direction and locations.

Grant said...

As good as it is, i admit that the story in general is too dark for me, but the wedding scene is a whole other matter. Even though it's his only scene, the reverends deserves to be considered one of Donald Sutherland's greatest characters.

squeak said...

The film is slightly funny, but in a dark way, and only people who like dark comedies from the '70s would really appreciate it. Arkin's turn as a jittery-as-hell detective also stands out.