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Little Murders (1971) starring Elliott Gould Blu Ray (Indicator)

When they met, it was murder

This adaptation of Jules Feiffer’s stage play, set in a surreally apocalyptic caricature of 1970s New York, begins as interior designer Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rodd) wakes up to the sound of a mugging outside her tenement. They are beating up Alfred Chamberlain (Elliott Gould), a photographer who specialises in shooting shit on the pavement (yes, really!). After she fends them off by hitting them with her handbag, she is furious to discover that Alfred has just coolly shrugged the attack off. After she calms down, she starts a relationship with the man who, in his own words, “can’t feel” - be it pain, love, or anything else.

The film focuses on their relationship as it progresses through the irritations and dangers of urban living (power cuts, random acts of violence, heavy breathing phone calls) as well as attempting to bridge the wide chasm between their respective personalities.

Watch a trailer:

A darkly comic snapshot

Little Murders is one of those movies which, when watched nowadays, should at least partially be considered in context of the time in which it was set. New York City had major issues with violent crime in those pre-Giuliani cleanup days. There was a huge electricity blackout in the city and across the East Coast in 1965. Playwright Jules Feiffer was reportedly inspired by the sense of insecurity which swept the United States in the wake of the JFK assassination, hence the constant references to random shootings. There is also a commentary on the concept of an atheist wedding - a notion which was far more radical in those days than it is now. That said, the film still manages to be a highly entertaining, if slightly overlong, dark comedy.

Although produced by a major Hollywood studio (20th Century Fox), Little Murders has the feel of a North American indie movie. There’s an emphasis on actors taking their roles for the love of a strong, memorable performance rather than simply paying the bills. The characters are quirky. The humour is anarchic. Director Alan Arkin’s style is low-key and studied, calmly taking in all of the absurdity without resorting to flashiness or manipulation.

The film’s highlights come from the hilarious turns by actors Vincent Gardenia, Lou Jacobi, Donald Sutherland and Alan Arkin himself. Gardenia plays the kind of loudly conservative patriarch who can’t stand to be called by his real name (Carol, as in “King Carol of Romania” as his daughter points it) for fears that it undermines his masculinity. Jacobi is memorable as a judge who goes off on an absurdly lengthy monologue railing against those who would deny the existence of God in their lives. Arkin drops in as a police detective who has clearly gone off the deep end. Sutherland plays Reverend Dupas, a hippy-dippy alternative preacher who unashamedly cuts through all of the bullshit of marital bliss:

“Why does one decide to marry? Social pressure? Boredom? Loneliness? Sexual appeasement? Love? I won't put any of these reasons down. Each in its own way is adequate, each is all right. Last year, I married a musician who wanted to get married in order to stop masturbating. Please, don't be startled, I'm not putting him down. That marriage did not work. But the man tried. He is now separated, still masturbating, but he is at peace with himself because he tried society's way.”

Jabs at the absurdities of American society

The fortifications of what constitutes society here are torn down one-by-one. Patsy’s family are a bunch of noisy near-lunatics. Alfred’s parents are so pretentious that they always go off on vague literary tangents when asked basic direct questions. The church where the couple get married is a graffiti-blighted wreck which erupts into violent scuffles. Their marriage isn’t based on true love; Patsy wants to “mould” Alfred into the man of her dreams, while the latter can’t even feel love anyway. The city isn’t safe from random muggings, shootings, sex pests, burglaries and sudden blackouts which could take their smiles away from them in a flash. Despite everything, the characters here still attempt to cling on to something approaching normalcy.

Elliott Gould in Little Murders

Little Murders was devised as an attempt to skewer the insecurities and insanities of modern existence from a late 1960s/early 1970s standpoint. However, while much has changed over the years, society still doesn’t make any more sense now than it did back then. Now, as then, people still try to “keep calm and carry on”. As a result, the blackly comic mania still hits the funny bone more often than not.

Runtime: 110 mins

Dir: Alan Arkin

Script: Jules Feiffer, adapted from his own stage play

Starring: Elliott Gould, Marcia Rodd, Donald Sutherland, Lou Jacobi, Alan Arkin, Vincent Gardenia, Elizabeth Wilson, Jon Korkes, John Randolph, Doris Roberts

Blu Ray Audio Visual

The film was shot in the 1970s on a low budget with minimal visual exuberance - so you shouldn’t expect anything jaw-dropping. Colour and detail are largely fine but some visual artefacts (white/black specks) are visible at times.

Extras

Enclosed Booklet

There are quite a few random bits and bobs in this particular booklet:

End of the Road by Jim O’Rourke is the obligatory critical essay. It takes a look at the film’s core theme of disassociation from an increasingly insane reality.

Alan Arkin takes a quick look at the life and career of the actor-director who made Little Murders, along with a few snippets from his autobiography An Improvised Life: A Memoir. Arkin on Willis features another snippet from his autobiography where he discusses working with the film’s cinematographer Gordon Willis. Arkin & Renoir presents a letter which French director Jean Renoir wrote to Arkin after attending a screening of the film.

Godard, Nearly reveals that iconic French arthouse director Jean-Luc Godard was Feiffer and Gould’s first choice to helm the film adaptation. Apparently, the latter envisioned a kind of meta-film about a French director who wants to make Little Murders but, for whatever reason, finds himself unable to!

Little Murders Promotional Material features some sleeve notes from a 30-minute discussion of the film which was circulated to college radio stations as an LP.

Jules Feiffer examines the career of the play and film’s writer, who started off as a cartoonist before moving onto satirical drama.

Discussion Guide was originally prepared by 20th Century Fox to accompany the film’s release. It was created by Robert Geller, the then Director of Education at New York’s Center for Understanding Media, Inc. It features both his own viewpoint on the film and a series of discussion bullet-points.

Marcia Rodd features excerpts from Guy Flatley’s Marcia: “Nobody Sees Marcia as Fragile”. The actress’s own take on the film revolves around the central theme of the effect that cities have on the human psyche; where large crowds of people live closely together, they become less concerned with one another.

The last section of the booklet features Indicator’s usual look at the film’s contemporary critical response.

Audio Commentaries

There are two available on the disc: one by Elliott Gould and Jules Feiffer, the other by Samm Deighan. I opted for the former. Gould and Feiffer’s comments are somewhat intermittent but still enlightening.

Feiffer reveals that he initially didn’t want to adapt the play to film. However, he was so nonplussed by the early draft of the first screenwriter (whom he tactfully decides to remain nameless) that he changed his mind. All of the scenes not featuring the Newquist family weren’t in the original play and were added to make the film more cinematic. The line where Alfred first said the word “shit” caused people to laugh for around 30 seconds when the original play was presented on Broadway - largely because it was hitherto unheard of for people to swear in American theatre. By the time the film came out, however, this practice had become more normalised, hence it didn’t make the same impact.

Gould mentions two scenes that weren’t in the final film. The first involved Patsy tossing a lit match into the Hudson River, causing it to catch fire due to the amount of pollution in its waters. It was never shot due to budgetary reasons. The second was a late scene where Alfred gets mugged in the park and decides to fight back. While it was shot, it was removed in the editing room as it was felt that it detracted from the impact of the story’s climax. Gould (who co-produced but let his partner Jack Brodsky take all of the credit) was allocated $100,000 for his salary but decided to defer it in order to ensure that the production was delivered under budget. He also wore his own jacket as part of his onscreen outfit.

Beginner’s Luck

An interview with director Alan Arkin, who discusses making the film. While he had previously directed the stage play off-Broadway, this was the first feature-length film he had helmed. He was so inexperienced that he didn’t shoot more material than he actually needed to use to complete it - an unusual practice in filmmaking. He also reveals that Jon Korkes (who played Patsy’s younger brother Kenny in both the film and play) was a student who had never done any professional acting before he cast him in the original stage production.

A Certain Amount of Black

This interview with actor and producer Elliott Gould covers a lot of the same ground as the commentary. Worth watching strictly if you’re short on time for going through the film again with the gab track turned on.

Acts of Random Violence

An interview with Jules Feiffer. It’s lengthy (around half an hour) but well worth the effort. Unlike Gould, he covers a lot of ground which was missed in the commentary as he focusses on the story’s original conception and stage production as well as the film. He reveals that he had originally wanted to do Little Murders as a novel but suddenly decided that it would be better as a stage play after drinking a bottle of scotch and waking up the next day! He had a serious point in mind about the direction that America was heading at that time but decided to make it humorous as it was the easiest way to cause audiences to drop their guard against uncomfortable truths.

He also mentions that he once met Richard Wishnetsky, a man who shot a rabbi in a synagogue just around the same time as Feiffer was getting his play together. He recalls taking him to a Bogart film in a nearby cinema just to get him to shut up! Towards the end, he also touches on the recent Florida school shooting and the insane irony that many people in America would prefer the right to bear firearms over that right to be safe in a school environment.

Speaking of Films: Little Murders

This roundtable audio interview is presented by Susan Rice and accompanied by various clips from the film. It features Feiffer along with Leonard Maltin and Robert Geller. The most interesting sections come when Feiffer discusses some unused scenes. The aforementioned park fight scene was conceived so that audiences would initially get the satisfaction of Alfred finally fighting back but would ultimately feel revulsion due to the excessive force that he uses. He also mentions another scene which was dropped: a parody of a slow-motion “love walk” scene involving Alfred and Patsy where they run hand-in-hand through a cloud of tear gas.

The extras also include some 20th Century Fox promotional interviews with Gould, Arkin and Sutherland along with the usual trailers and image gallery.

Overall:

Little Murders is another fascinating exhumation from cinema’s vaults courtesy of Indicator. The collection of extras is generally interesting and features some surprisingly extensive participation from the three key personalities involved with the project - Elliott Gould, Alan Arkin and Jules Feiffer.

Movie: ☆☆☆1/2

Video: ☆☆☆1/2

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆

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