Jules Feiffer's play Little Murders had a notoriously brief run on Broadway in the 1960s, but unsurprisingly found a life off-Broadway, a more appropriate setting for such an unremittingly black comedy. The film adaptation followed in 1971, with Feiffer's script and direction by Alan Arkin, and it remains an apt time capsule for life in NYC in the days of Vietnam and the counter to the counterculture. The fallout from the 1960s. LITTLE MURDERS in fact may be the best depiction of early 70s urban paranoia I've seen. I imagine many viewers could not be blamed for "suburban flight" after seeing this picture.
And what better way to deal with the nightmarish atmosphere than with dark humor? Just like real New Yorkers did/do! Interior designer Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rodd) is an aggressive, single woman who deals with obscene phone calls, street noise, purple air on Lexington Avenue, and Lord knows what other urban horrors seemingly every waking hour. She smiles through her lonely existence with tennis games and ski trips. One day she comes to the rescue of a hapless man named Alfred (Elliott Gould) who is being mugged by a group of punks. But what a jerk! He doesn't even thank her! To add insult (and fuel to her already damaged opinion of the opposite sex), he explains that he doesn't even mind getting attacked, as the thugs will eventually get tired anyway. Why fight it? Alfred is a self described "apathist."
When asked what he likes to do, Alfred replies "Take pictures and sleep." "What about sex?" Patsy wonders. "I like sex, it helps me sleep." Alfred is in fact a photographer, quite good, though reduced to shooting pictures of dog excrement for a magazine. As with many introverts, his photos are of things, not people. When Patsy sees the gallery on his wall, she's impressed. Despite his passivity, she falls for him. Strangely, she's attracted to his virtual silence and withdrawal when she brings him home to meet her family. But she will be determined to mold him into the sort of fella who hits back. This includes encouraging him to visit the parents he hasn't seen in many years in an effort to understand why he is the way he is.
I could say more about the events in LITTLE MURDERS, how a truly unexpected moment during the second hour not only hammers Feiffer's points but also elicits a huge gasp. A moment that points the way toward the grimly funny climax, a devastating punchline. The ultimate statement on survival in the urban jungle. Boldly stated, but not overstated.
But throughout the film, beautifully shot by Gordon Willis, the plight of the 20th century urbanite is portrayed in a similarly trenchant vein, often riotously funny (as you cringe). The constant "brownouts", Alfred earning nary a second glance while riding the subway, despite being covered in blood, Patsy's manic, juvenile brother, Donald Sutherland's cameo as the atheist who marries our couple. His vows have become some sort of classic, as have the speeches of Lou Jacobi as a reluctant judge and Arkin himself as a stressed out detective. John Randolph and Doris Roberts are also effective as Alfred's cold parents, unable to answer his questions except with memorized passages from psychiatric journals.
LITTLE MURDERS is heavy stuff, not light viewing, but possibly the prototype for all the dark comedies to follow. Arkin maintains a perfect pace and ably shifts tone when necessary. It's a high wire act that doesn't always make it but any film that tries to juggle societal pressures, immigration, self defense, privacy, surveillance, gun control, law enforcement, and the primal alpha male within even the meekest is worth at least respect. And it is devastating funny.