Little Murders

Dir: Alan Arkin, 1971. Starring: Elliott Gould, Marcia Rodd, Vincent Gardenia. Comedy/Cult.
Little Murders

Violence! Hilarity! Violence, again! Breathers on the phone! What the hell is going on here? That’s right: it’s “America during the war.” Vietnam War. But let’s face it; America has been enamored with violence since our cursory inception. This here tale just happens to take place in the late 60s/early 70s.

Alfred is a self-ascribed "apathist." He doesn’t care either way about, well, everything. As long as he can take his photographs, there are no problems. Constantly tormented and accosted by Manhattan street thugs for apparently no reason, he idly complies and daydreams his way through the relentless beatings until his assailants wear themselves out. Along comes Patsy. Witnessing one of Al’s beatings from her apartment window, she heads down the elevator to help him out. Alfred slyly walks away amongst the compounding brouhaha as if nothing has happened and continues snapping his pics with self-satisfying glee. Patsy is appalled. Shocked. “What kind of a man are you?!” she indignantly exclaims. Well one thing leads to another and they’re off dating. Imbibing in the standard bourgeois dating procedures of the time - golf, tennis, ‘a day at the lake’ - Alfred remains apathetic, content with verbal gestures such as “I really think I could trust you.” Violence? Hang on...

Elliot Gould’s stone-faced delivery is spot on as he drifts through each situation expecting nothing. He just does not want to fight for anything. A man who knows his own shortcomings and revels in them, all within a society that prides itself in being based on the notion of honor. Alfred is a shining example of the antithesis to the obsession America has with violence and the massive increase in that interest during the Vietnam era.

Little Murders sits in its own little cave on the hairy precipice of odd reality. Never have I seen a movie attack middle-class American ennui in this way. Alfred’s dinner with Patsy, during which he meets her family, is one of the greatest moments of discomfort in cinema I’ve seen yet. Exploding light bulbs, an inappropriate Elektra complex, the typically smashed and sarcastic kid brother, the clueless mother. The ultimate caricature of a bent American family. All of them are so stuck in their own social patterns that it's suffocating to the viewer. And the violence? Just keep watching!

It’s even more impressive considering it’s Arkin’s full-length debut as a director. Based on Jules Feiffer’s post-cultural-revolution play of the same name, it easily translates well onto celluloid. Not always an easy feat to make monologues interesting in a film. Having understated actors always helps too. But let me tell you, there is not much understated about this movie. It sucks you in, takes you to ideas completely unexpected, and dumps you out at the end of the orifice that it mocks.

...and now the violence...

Around the halfway mark, unbridled madness takes hold of the whole operation. A string of homicides (345 in 6 months to be exact) begin taking place and each character starts slipping from their paradigms one by one. Alfred gets it the worst and becomes a near-catatonic due to a traumatizing event. Alan Arkin turns in a deliriously twisted part as the cracking-at-the-hinges investigator on the cases. Donald Sutherland also makes a brief appearance as the Angel-cum-Hippie pastor who weds the lovely couple.

In true satire fashion the subject matter is extremely austere and its handling is gleefully anarchic. I really loved this movie. It's up there with Putney Swope. Please go see this film and Jules Feiffer speak at the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax on June 21, 2009.

Posted by:
Adam Payne
Jun 11, 2009 3:02pm
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