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“Little Murders” comically skewers American cultural sickness

Alan Arkin’s New Hollywood satire as envisioned by writer Jules Feiffer screens in a new DCP restoration at UW Cinematheque on September 10.
A blood-soaked Alfred Chamberlain (Elliott Gould) stands in the middle of a New York subway car while the other passengers pay no attention to him.
A blood-soaked Alfred Chamberlain (Elliott Gould) stands in the middle of a New York subway car while the other passengers pay no attention to him.

Alan Arkin’s New Hollywood satire as envisioned by writer Jules Feiffer screens in a new DCP restoration at UW Cinematheque on September 10.

After a customary heavy-breathing wake-up call, Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rodd) hears a mugging in progress on the New York City street below her apartment window. She rushes downstairs to save the victim, Alfred Chamberlain (Elliott Gould), who promptly begins walking away when he’s no longer the target. The Type-A Patsy chases him down and berates him for being ungrateful. He explains that her efforts to thwart the mugging were wasted, because, in his experience, muggers eventually get tired and discouraged. It was on the verge of happening before she intervened, anyway. A self-described “Apathist,” Alfred doesn’t really care about what happens to him as long as he’s able to find time for photography.

The clash of can-do attitude and political-realist inaction provide the narrative spark for Little Murders (1971), screening  at 7 p.m. on Saturday, September 10, at UW Cinematheque (4070 Vilas Hall). 

Patsy’s frustration with Alfred quickly turns to fascination, and she mistakes Alfred’s blankness for a canvas. Soon, she’s dragging him off to meet her family and scheduling their marriage. During the introductory dinner, Alfred meets Patsy’s mother Marge (Elizabeth Wilson), who seems to only speak in anecdotes and catchphrases; her father Carol (Vincent Gardenia), who is friendly to the point of contempt; and her younger brother Kenny (Jon Korkes), a closeted man who literally hides in a closet when he’s stressed. Missing is their older brother, a victim of a seemingly motiveless murder, one of 345 similar cases in the past six months that give the movie its title.  

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Little Murders has its origins in a play written by Jules Feiffer, who started his career as a cartoonist for The Village Voice in the mid-1950s, but later branched out into plays and screenplays. His other screenwriting credits include Carnal Knowledge (also 1971), which also screens at the UW Cinematheque on September 30, Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980), and well-known comics aficionado Alain Resnais’ I Want To Go Home (1989). But Feiffer might be best known to younger audiences as the illustrator of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.

As to Feiffer’s motivations for writing Little Murders, he cited an annoyance with formulaic Broadway hits flourishing while the shows he enjoyed usually closed in a week. In response, he wrote something that played on a typical “meet the parents” scenario, exaggerating everything about  typical “family values” entertainment to create something darkly comedic, thumbing his nose at the entrenched ’50s values that young ’60s radicals were regularly challenging in many arenas. (Despite being born in 1929, and therefore entering the workforce right when those ’50s values were being established, all the better to understand why to defy them.) The original 1966 theatrical production of Little Murders, also starring Gould as Alfred, closed in a week, of course.

A few years later, Gould’s star was on the rise after the success of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), M*A*S*H (1970), and Getting Straight (1970), and so he was eager to return to a role that utilized his inherent smugness to great effect. At first, Gould wanted to direct himself, then pursued Jean-Luc Godard, but drastically overestimated the French director’s interest by asking him to “fight for his vision” with American producers (while in the midst of his Dziga Vertov Group phase, no less). Directorial duties eventually fell to fellow actor Alan Arkin, who happened to be directing a theatrical revival off-Broadway at the time. Feiffer thought Arkin’s production exaggerated the comedic elements in thrilling ways he hadn’t necessarily considered, so Arkin ended up bringing most of the principal cast with him to the movie version. 

Feiffer then got to work on the script, embellishing the story to veer outside the original confines of the play, which never left the Newquists’ apartment. These excursions include: skewering the courts via a judge (Lou Jacobi) who delivers the most extreme “uphill both ways” speech you’ve ever heard, the church via priest Henry Dupas (Donald Sutherland) at “First Existential” who takes hippie acceptance to new heights, and the police via Lt. John Practice (Arkin himself), a Popeye Doyle-like detective who becomes a nervous wreck due to the aforementioned unsolved murders.

Feiffer’s comedic sensibility draws on his comic-strip instincts. The scenes are somewhat self-contained and punchline-heavy, hewing close to the jovial mean-spiritedness of something like James Thurber or Charles Addams but with a more political bent. Despite the film being released over 50 years ago, Feiffer’s jokes are often still pertinent to a modern audience; though, sometimes the exaggerated versions he presents have long since been overtaken by contemporary reality.

Jean Renoir, another great admirer of Little Murders at the time, called it “a record of a stage of the destruction of our world” in a letter to Arkin.  (The French would be attracted to a piece that explores how America is hopelessly fucked up.) But Feffier’s manic bleakness also has a spiritual successor in later comedy (in a more commercialized version) in National Lampoon’s Vacation series, or in more modern comedy through Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming, particularly the pilot for Smiling Friends.

This particular record of societal collapse responds to the time when it was made, but the problems it skewers still persist in 2022. Even if many of us weren’t around when this collapse started, there’s nothing stopping us from laughing at it.

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