Indicator: Little Murders (1971) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox

1971 was a Hell of a year for film with near boundless creative freedom granted to filmmakers often featuring provocative or otherwise daring content designed to push viewership out of their comfort zones or simply further into their seats.  With films like A Clockwork Orange, The Devils, Straw Dogs and The French Connection, mainstream cinema had never been more menacing or socially conscious as it was for that very brief period.  One which seemed to skirt by under the radar busily inundated with the aforementioned four films was Alan Arkin’s directorial debut adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, author and playwright Jules Feiffer’s scathing, hilarious and disturbing dark comedy Little Murders.
Originally written in 1967 as a nebulous social reaction to the JFK assassination and national disillusionment which followed, the distinctly New York set Off-Broadway production also directed for the stage by Alan Arkin featuring Elliott Gould, the apartment-based setting told of a young female interior designer named Patsy Newquist who meets an emotionally distant still photographer named Alfred Chamberlain and forms a relationship with him.  Bringing him home to her dysfunctional family consisting of her eccentric mother Marjorie, self-conscious blowhard father Carol and weird little brother Kenny, he reluctantly agrees to marry her but post-marriage still feels disillusioned.  All of this absurd mania and hysterics abruptly leads towards a volcanic eruption that, once uncorked, doesn’t know when or where to let up.

In Alan Arkin’s film version, a perfectly poised ticking time bomb peppered with wild asides spoken of the same breath as films like The Loved One which cranked up the lunacy to untold heights, Elliott Gould reprises his stage role as Alan with Marcia Rodd cast in the role of Patsy Newquist and actors Vincent Gardenia (in rare form by the way) and Elizabeth Wilson reprise their stage roles as the awkward and peculiar Newquists.  Whereas the play remained in Patsy’s apartment, the film branches out through much of New York City and as such becomes something of a proto-Taxi Driver or post-Joe endeavor.  Featuring stunning cinematography by the legendary Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen director or photography Gordon Willis, razor sharp editing by Howard Kuperman and an understated moody score by Fred Kaz, the elements form just the right sized arena for what turns out to be a sly study of violence, paranoia and anxieties endemic to a post-Kennedy assassination New York way of life.

Primarily, as with the stage version, this is an actor’s show for a wide variety of emotions of subtly nuanced and understated to mad hysterical borderline camp creating several situations where you’re not sure whether to laugh nervously or drop your jaw aghast in horror.  Take for instance an early scene with the late Donald Sutherland as the existential hippie Reverend Henry Dupas whose sermon presiding over the soon-to-be newlyweds starts out with discomfort before eventually erupting into a physical altercation.  From his monologue to his eccentric delivery paving the way for Peter O’Toole’s nutty bearded nobleman climbing the walls in Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class.  Not only a memorably ridiculous aside but a harbinger of darker, perhaps Old Testament things to come. 

Elliott Gould naturally is splendid in the lead role of the apathetic street still photographer whose parents present unexpected cameos from John Randolph and Doris Roberts as two detached intellectuals with little to no memory or love for their son.  Vincent Gardenia who is incredibly self-conscious about his name Carol gives his most fully fledged and madcap performance yet with an energy not even visible in either Little Shop of Horrors or Moonstruck.  And of course somewhere in this increasingly insane saga is a murder being investigated by Lt. Miles Practice (Alan Arkin in perhaps the most hysterical performance in the whole movie) in a scene that has to be seen in its entirety to be believed.  All of the performers form a solid ensemble whose steadily manic energies start to bounce off the walls madly like a pinball machine.

Produced by Elliott Gould’s company Brodsky-Gould Productions and released through 20th Century Fox, the film given a limited theatrical release although a box office flop and a personal disappointment for playwright Jules Feiffer was one of the highest rated films of 1971.  In an already difficult and controversial year for film including but not limited to the recent works of renowned auteurs like Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, Ken Russell and William Friedkin, Alan Arkin’s first time in the film director’s chair is easily one of the best pictures directed by an actor of the 1970s.  Still unparalleled in its ability to surprise, tickle the ribs and deliver brutal shocks in equal measure with wild performances that conjure up a wicked jet-black comic energy in the same ways devil worshippers summon demons, Little Murders is one of the greatest lean-mean indies of maybe the most important year for cinema of the decade.

--Andrew Kotwicki