Title: LITTLE MURDERS
Year of Release—Film: 1971
LITTLE MURDERS is a little-known gem of a black comedy. Written by Jules Feiffer as a Broadway play, it’s directed by Alan Arkin (who also has a small role as a detective). It stars Elliot Gould as an emotionally vacant “apathist,” Marcia Rodd as his overly aggressive, positive girlfriend, Vincent Gardenia as her often-hysterical father, Elizabeth Wilson as her platitude-spouting mother, Jon Krokes as her idiot brother and “introducing Donald Sutherland as the Minister.”
Albert (Gould), a once successful photographer who now specializes in taking photos of excrement, is being beaten by a gang of thugs outside the New York apartment building of Patsy (Rodd). She tries to break it up and is rewarded by being beaten herself as Albert calmly strolls away. Patsy escapes and runs after Albert, who explains that this happens to him all the time and he didn’t need help because soon the thugs would tire and go away. It seems that Albert is so passive and non-aggressive that he cannot react to life. Patsy sees this as a challenge and decides to show Albert how to be more positive. In addition, she sees him as a man she can mold into the perfect husband. Against his wishes, she courts him and he goes along because he finds her “comfortable.”
Despite his protestations that he hates all thing “family,” Patsy takes him to meet her folks. In one of the movies best moments, Albert is quizzed by Patsy’s motor-mouth father (Gardenia) as Mom (Wilson) feeds the family and spouts endless platitudes such as “it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness” during the all-too-frequent power-outages. Mom shows Albert a photo album of her oldest son, a war hero, who was shot outside of a bodega. The murder remains unsolved. The younger brother is used more as comic relief as he giggles like a child and hides in closets. Patsy decides to marry Albert. He goes along with it with one exception ... there must be no mention of the deity at the ceremony.
After a long and fruitless search for a minister who will marry them under Albert’s directive (and an inspired scene where the couple are harangued by a justice of the peace, played by Lou Jacobi), they settle on Sutherland, a hippy Jesus-look-alike who marries them in a ceremony filled with pop-culture ideologies (and blatantly “outs” Patsy’s closeted gay brother). The scene ends with almost the entire wedding party beating Albert and Sutherland. Patsy, fed up with Albert’s non-reactions, goes home with her parents. Albert, thinking the marriage is over before it even began, packs to leave. Patsy storms back to their apartment and demands that Albert visit his parents in Chicago to find out why he can’t fight back.
Albert’s father (John Randolph) and mother (Doris Roberts) are a strange, emotionless, book loving and seemingly friendless couple who apparently never noticed Albert’s leaving home at age 17. As he reads them the questionnaire prepared by Patsy, at first they spout theories from various books, then become bored and visibly uncomfortable and answer the remaining questions with a deadpan “I don’t remember.” Albert returns to Patsy and promises to try to be the kind of man she wants. They hug. A stray bullet comes through the window, instantly killing Patsy!
Albert moves in with Patsy’s family and becomes comatose to the extent that the father has to hand-feed him, dress him and shave him. The family has iron shutters placed on all the windows as non-stop gunfire sounds outside. Arkin, a paranoid nervous wreck, is perfect in the small role as the detective in charge of investigating the murders of Patsy and Patsy’s older brother. Arkin shouts to the family that the problems of the world are it’s passive citizens who are unwilling to deal with the reality of violence. This rouses Albert from his stupor and he goes out and buys a rifle and brings it back to the family. They all take turns shooting innocent pedestrians from the front room window as the Mom sighs happily and says, “It’s so nice to have the family back together again.”
The boy-meets-girl story is as simple as it is dark and morbid. It’s the era of a violent New York City...a time of brown water, frequent power outages and the Vietnam War. Despair and paranoia filled the air. Therefore, it only made sense that Jules Feiffer, noted cartoonist and writer would gather those feelings into one play. However, Feiffer’s characters are so odd that his underlying intentions are unclear. Alan Arkin brought those characters to life but seemingly left them to their own intentions and the results are often uneven and too broad. According to a 1 January 1971 review, Roger Ebert claims Arkin said shortly after the film opened that he had only seen the movie once in a theater and was afraid to go again because he thought the movie was a flop because there was no pattern to the audience’s laughter. People were laughing as individuals, almost uneasily, as specific things in the movie either touched them or clobbered them. And that is the feeling most get while watching this. One is left with a sense of isolation, with the humor feeling akin to laughing in a funeral home. It feels wrong but it’s the only relief one gets from the uniquely offbeat but melancholy mood.
Fox released a DVD of LITTLE MURDERS in 2004 but finding a copy may be difficult and expensive. It is available on Netflix. So, if you are into pitch-black comedy that is well written, passably well directed and brilliantly acted, drop it in your queue.