Sunday, August 14, 2011

Underrated Movie #128: Little Murders


Title: Little Murders
Year: 1971
Director: Alan Arkin
Writers: Jules Feiffer, based on his play
Stars: Elliott Gould, Marcia Rodd, Vincent Gardenia, Elizabeth Wilson, Jon Korkes, John Randolph, Doris Roberts, Alan Arkin, Donald Sutherland


The Story: The blackest black comedy ever made? In the midst of a nightmarishly caricatured version of New York City, an upbeat young woman falls in love with an apathetic photographer and brings him home to meet her uptight family, but his negative view of the world proves to be all too prescient.

How it Came to be Underrated: This movie was just as big a flop onscreen as it was on Broadway (too dark, too satirical, too even-handed in its mockery) and it’s had very limited availability ever since. (Footnote: after a short failed Broadway run with Gould, the play had a more successful run off-Broadway with a young Fred Willard in the lead. Willard usually plays optimists, so I cannot imagine him in the role, but I wish dearly that I could see that.)

Why It’s Great:
  1. This is a story about institutions: the danger of having them and the danger of losing them. Though Feiffer is humorously sympathetic to all sides, this is ultimately a cautionary tale from an old leftist (in spirit, at least) who is terribly afraid that the new left might be breaking down the old ways too quickly for anything new to take hold.
  2. Cockeyed contributor Elliott Kalan showed this movie recently here in NYC and brought Feiffer out to talk about it. Feiffer explained that while he was writing the play, he had a creepy young outcast groupie hanging around him, asking for movie recommendations. He ditched the kid and went to a retreat to finish the play. When he came back, he found out that the kid had gone on a shooting rampage. The play had come true while he was writing it.
  3. The Onion AVClub has identified and valiantly campaigned against an insidious disease of moviedom: the manic pixie dream girl movie, in which a mopey guy suddenly has a quirky-but-upbeat girl foist herself upon him and forcibly cheer him up. Of course, that could describe this movie, but if such movies are a disease, then this is the cure. With incisive honesty, Feiffer is equally skeptical of both optimism and pessimism, ultimately painting each as both valuable and dangerous.
  4. This movie has three endings. Normally that’s a bad sign, but here it’s done to make a point with devastating success. There’s a very unhappy ending at 80 minutes that feels very final, but somehow the movie keeps going, then there’s a happy ending at 100 minutes and you desperately hopes the movie stops there, but it doesn’t, and so there’s an even more horrific ending 10 minutes later. Feiffer and Arkin know exactly what they’re doing: mocking our desire for justice and inability to accept injustice. When it’s all over, we realize that there’s no other way it could have ended.
  5. Anyone familiar with Feiffer’s clever cartoons will not be surprised to find that the movie is filled with satirical but deeply authentic monologues. Each is a masterpiece of limited perspective: everyone is convincing, but no one is right. We judge them, but we’re still moved, because the details they observe are so beautifully specific.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Feiffer only had a short screenwriting career but his follow-up screenplay, for Mike Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge, is also well worth watching. Gould got sucked into the mire of the big bad city again in an underrated thriller called The Bank Teller.

How Available Is It?: It finally has a beautiful DVD (showing off Gordon Willis’s superb cinematography) with in-depth, intercut recent commentaries from Feiffer and Gould.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: “Stand Back! I’ve Got a Gun!”

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