Little Murders (Alan Arkin, 1971)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Little Murders.

criterion logoAfter directing the successful off-Broadway revival of Jules Feiffer’s acclaimed play, Alan Arkin made his feature film directing debut translating the senseless, hysterical world of Little Murders to the screen. Apathetic photographer Alfred (Elliott Gould) and feisty optimist Patsy (Marcia Rodd) are a young mismatched couple in a frantic metropolis where sniper attacks, power outages, and obscene phone calls are commonplace. With riotous supporting performances by Vincent Gardenia, Elizabeth Wilson, Jon Korkes, Lou Jacobi, Donald Sutherland, and Arkin himself, Feiffer’s satirical screenplay takes absurdist aim at the meaningless violence and spreading disenchantment in American life and produces a blackly hilarious comedy classic.

Disc Features:

  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary from 2004 featuring actor Elliott Gould and writer Jules Feiffer
  • New interview program with director Alan Arkin, stars Elliott Gould and Marcia Rodd, and writer Jules Feiffer
  • Short films directed by Arkin – T.G.I.F. (1967), People Soup (1969), Samuel Beckett is Coming Soon (1993), and Blood (Thinner Than Water) (2004)
  • Gene Deitch’s Academy Award-winning short film Munro, written by Feiffer
  • Theatrical trailer and TV spots
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film scholar Jim Emerson and Roger Ebert’s original 1971 review

little-murders-posterAlan Arkin’s debut as a feature film director is certainly a strange creature – part social satire, part dystopian vision, all hare-brained nuttiness. The product of famed cartoonist Jules Feiffer, Little Murders is certainly a work of high caricature, depicting the strained romance of affirmed-apathist Alfred Chamberlain (Elliott Gould) and eternal-optimist Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rood) in a violent, threatening urban nightmare. Patsy, a collector of suitors/reclamation projects, struggles to mould Alfred into a feeling, ambitious husband, even sending him back to his parents (John Randolph and Doris Roberts) armed with a questionnaire designed to unpack his damage. At the same time, Alfred is exposed to Patsy’s fawning, eccentric family – high-strung family man and father Carol (Vincent Gardenia); neurotic homemaking mother and domestic vanguard Marge (Elizabeth Wilson); and bizarre young man, closeted homosexual, and vaguely incestuous brother Kenny (Jon Korkes). And just as Alfred’s languor gives way to devotion, tragedy strikes and Alfred and the Newquists are left to resolve their heartbreak through random violence.

Little Murders is additionally punctuated by three brilliant cameos. First is Judge Stern (Lou Jacobi) who rails against Alfred’s request that the marriage ceremony refrain from mentioning “the deity.” Stern boasts of his impoverished origins in judgment of the younger generation before him who don’t seem to appreciate how good they have it. Donald Sutherland’s new age Reverend Dupas performs Alfred and Patsy’s wedding ceremony with uncomfortable candour, undercutting the wedding vows and the institution of marriage through his mantra that “it’s all right.” Alan Arkin appears in his own film as the manic and paranoid Lieutenant Practice, whose efforts to solve 345 motiveless homicides leads him to conclude he is caught within a vast conspiracy to undermine the concept of law and order.

little-murders-quote-posterFor Roger Ebert, Little Murders was “a very New York kind of movie, paranoid, masochistic, and nervous,” being a film “about people driven to insanity and desperate acts of violence by the simple experience of living in a large American city.” Arkin’s film never locates its setting, although it’s difficult not to see it taking place in NYC. Juan José Cruz sees Feiffer’s Little Murders as more a statement of its era, of “the ‘malaise’ that the political developments in the mid-1960s had provoked within the American social fabric.” Cruz describes a culture exceptionally familiar to the one that just made Donald Trump its President-elect. Consider Cruz’s observation that the Newquists parody the conservative view of 1960s permissiveness:

… the law-and-order discourse had a growing bipartisan audience, alienated by the liberals’ politics of inclusion. By no means was the law-and-order dialectics altered by the fact that social malfunctions and structural poverty were collateral phenomena of late capitalism. But the factions of the right in the United States provided the discourse that blamed ‘limousine liberals’ and Eastern intellectuals for the ills of the nation.

For Cruz, the “ubiquitous violence” of Little Murders reflects the perceived failure of progressiveness and the social decay that followed, one that sees Alfred enter a twisted “Establishment that prefers violent men who can purchase guns in the open rather than self-righteous free-willed citizens.” Feiffer himself called Little Murders a “post-assassination play,” referring to the despondency felt in the shadow of endemic violence normalized by the killings of JFK (and later MLK and RFK) as well as incursions in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic and militarized social movements such as the Black Panthers (and later the Weather Underground).

little-murders-lobby-cardsIn the face of this heavy socio-political context for Little Murders, it remains bizarrely funny. If Little Murders holds a mirror up to the fraying of the American social fabric, it does so by a fun house mirror that comically distorts its grim reality. Consider Alfred and Patsy’s bizarre meet cute parodying the tragic death of Kitty Genovese in 1964. Patsy lounges in bed and enjoys a languid morning while Alfred is heard for an extended period getting beaten up outside her apartment window. She eventually intervenes only to have Alfred walk away from his attackers when they turn their attention on Patsy. Roger Ebert reports that Arkin was unwilling to see his film a second time with an audience as they “were laughing as individuals, almost uneasily” with “no pattern to the laughs.” For Ebert, the comedy of Little Murders was “a definitive reflection of America’s darker moods” that broke its “audiences down into isolated individuals, vulnerable and uncertain.” Little Murders may be the rare case of film that is funnier watched alone.

The alienation experienced in Little Murders, exhibited in its characters as an inability to meaningfully communicate interpersonally, reduces its characters to comic relationships with objects. Alfred is a photographer unable to capture living people on film and left to a thriving and celebrated career taking photos of excrement. Patsy is an interior designer whose immediate response to having her apartment robbed and vandalized is to happily map out her intended remodeling of the space. And when true soul-baring discussions are finally exchanged between Alfred and Patsy, the outside world of violence and estrangement intervene to prevent such connections once and for all. Watching Little Murders in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, one wonders if Feiffer sees a comparable alienation where our smart devices and the hyperreality of their fake news assumes the roles of photographed shit and pontificating, egocentric authority figures.

Feiffer’s play premiered on Broadway on April 25, 1967, starring Elliott Gould and Barbara Cook in the lead roles. It lasted only one week before closing. Three weeks later, Little Murders opened in London where it became the first American play selected to the repertory of the Royal Shakespeare Company and was voted Best Foreign Play by London theatre critics. In 1969, Alan Arkin directed a successful revival of Little Murders off-Broadway with Fred Willard and Linda Lavin in the starring roles and Gardenia, Wilson, and Korkes playing the Newquists. Presumably audiences needed current events to catch up to Feiffer’s vision in order recognize the insight of  Little Murders. Gould and his partner Jack Broadsky acquired the rights to Feiffer’s play and initially interested Jean-Luc Godard in the project. JLG never committed to the project and United Artists dropped out, opening the door to Twentieth Century-Fox who had Gould already under contract. After initially approaching Jane Fonda to play Patsy, Maria Rodd was brought on having performed the role in the off-Broadway revival. Arkin made his directorial feature film debut with Little Murders and generally received positive praise for his work despite the film being less well received and failing financially.

little-murders-libertyIt’s an odd coincidence that after a trio of campaign films, MMC! would feature a movie that so directly speaks to the social and political tensions facing America following its recent presidential election, but these things happen. If anything, Little Murders stands as reminder that the USA has been here before and has survived, even flourished. With its DVD out of print and commanding high prices on the secondary market, a Criterion Collection edition of the film would fill a hard media void suffered by a movie in need of greater appreciation, and it’s difficult to imagine a more opportune time to introduce this hysterical film to modern cineastes. Despite being the poster for the 1967 theatrical production and not the cinematic adaptation, that image of a smiling Statue of Liberty happily brandishing a revolver seems too perfect an image for a Criterion cover treatment to pass over.

Credits: We’ve ported over to this imagined edition the commentary featuring Gould and Feiffer and included on the out of print DVD. To that we’ve added imagined interviews with Arkin, Gould, Rodd, and Feiffer, as well as various short films directed by Arkin or written by Feiffer. Roger Ebert was an early supporter of Little Murders and so we’ve included his 1971 review. Jim Emerson was chosen to provide an essay in hopes that he might provide an elaboration on his “Opening Shots” post on the film. Juan José Cruz’s 2003 essay “‘One of Those Little Things You Learn to Live with’: On the Politics of Violence in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders and TCM’s “OVERVIEW” and “NOTES” on the film were invaluable in preparing this post.

Two last points. First, the above discussion didn’t lend itself to a prolonged discussion of Jules Feiffer but those unfamiliar with him should get to know him. Feiffer won the Pulitzer Prize for his work as an editorial cartoonist, was recognized by the Library of Congress, was inducted to the Comic Book Hall of Fame, won an Obie for Little Murders and an Outer Circle Critics Award for his play The White House Murder Case, wrote the Oscar-winning animated short Munro (Gene Deitch, 1960) and won the Oscar for his screenplay for Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols, 1971), was honoured as a Laureate-winner by the Creativity Foundation, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was given a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Writers Guild of America and the National Cartoonists Society. Can we interest you in Jules Feiffer?

Lastly, this post stands as MMC!‘s 300th post and I just wanted to take a moment to thank anyone who strays into this tiny corner of the interwebs. Cheers and happy Thanksgiving to our American cousins!

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3 thoughts on “Little Murders (Alan Arkin, 1971)

  1. jesgear November 25, 2016 / 7:10 pm

    Congrats on post #300!!!

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