Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Little Cigars (1973)

          Featuring a genuinely offbeat take on the romantic-outlaw genre, Little Cigars concerns a criminal gang comprising five little people—at least until a normal-sized woman with grandiose dreams raises the stakes of their larcenous exploits. Blonde knockout Angel Tompkins, working an appealing groove of seen-it-all cynicism, stars as Cleo, a gang moll who rips off a gangster and then flees the big city, hoping to live quietly under an assumed identity in a small town far from the scene of the crime. Alas, the gangster sends goons to chase her down, so Cleo realizes she’ll never be far from danger.
          One day at the restaurant where she’s working as a waitress, Cleo meets a pair of smart-aleck little people who invite her to see their traveling sideshow. She does. During the show, while three members of the little-people troupe distract onlookers with a stage performance, the remaining little people sneak out to the parking lot and pilfer belongings from cars. Among the stolen items is the pistol Cleo keeps in her car for protection. After discovering the theft and figuring out the little people’s scam, Cleo confronts Slick Bender (Billy Curtis), the leader of the gang, to demand the return of her gun. Quickly realizing that Cleo must be on the lam, Slick Bender calls her bluff—thus beginning an unlikely flirtation. Although unmatched in size, Cleo and Slick Bender are simpatico in terms of chutzpah. Happy to leave the small town behind and return to the excitement of criminal enterprise, Cleo joins the gang and becomes Slick Bender’s lover. As his desire to impress Cleo grows, so too does the ambition of the jobs the gang attempts—which drives a wedge between Slick Bender and his buddies, who prefer sticking to petty larceny that doesn’t attract much attention.
          While Little Cigars feels a bit fleshy because the filmmakers forgot to develop a central villain, the movie is consistently entertaining and novel. The gang’s heists are predicated on the crooks’ size—for instance, they sneak into a laundry facility by hiding inside laundry bags—and Cleo’s Lady Macbeth-style machinations credibly suggest an opportunist run amok. Curtis, a Hollywood veteran with credits ranging back to the late ’30s, makes the most of his role, one of the few fully dimensional characterizations he got to play in movies; he’s edgy and funny and sympathetic. Similarly, the actors playing his pals contribute unexpected colors, clearly savoring the chance to move beyond demeaning “midget” clichés. Tompkins sells the whole outlandish story by playing her scenes straight, treating Curtis as a scene partner with equal footing; she also comes off looking like a goddess whenever she parades around in underwear surrounded by admirers who are barely as high as her rib cage. And if Little Cigars is ultimately little more than a routine crime flick with an unusual angle, the movie gets points for a highly satisfying ending and a thoroughly ingrained sense of humor.

Little Cigars: FUNKY

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