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31 Things We Learned from The In-Laws Commentary

“If you ask me on my death bed what this plot was about I can’t tell you.”
By  · Published on August 17th, 2016

“If you ask me on my death bed what this plot was about I can’t tell you.”

There are funny films, and then there are films that remain funny across decades and multiple viewings. Andrew Bergman has written at least two such films ‐ three if you count Fletch ‐ but while Blazing Saddles will always be remembered as a work of mad, comedic genius his 1979 collaboration with director Arthur Hiller is just as deserving of praise.

The In-Laws is every bit as brilliant, and that’s due as much ‐ if not more ‐ to its two lead actors, Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. These guys are at the top of their game, and the result is pure magic. All four reunited in 2003 to record a commentary for the film, and it’s a damn delight.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for The In-Laws.

The In-Laws (1979)

Commentators: Arthur Hiller (director), Andrew Bergman (writer), Alan Arkin & Peter Falk (actors)

1. Bergman was hoping to make a particular picture with Warner Bros., but they called him with “bad news and good news.” They were no longer making the film with him, but on the bright side they wanted him to write the sequel to Freebie and the Bean. “I said ‘that’s the good news?’” he says, but when he discovered it simply had to be a project for Arkin and Falk he quickly came on board. “All we knew was that we had to do something where they’re stuck together.”

2. Early thoughts for the script including making the film a comedic detective story with Alan as a private eye and Falk as the client.

3. Bergman acknowledges the script was “absolutely a shaggy dog story” in that he never knew from one day to the next where the story was heading.

4. Falk confirms the Freebie and the Bean sequel talk, but Arkin ‐ the one who actually starred in the original film ‐ says this is the first he’s hearing about a proposed sequel being the instigation for The In-Laws. “Alan, your memory is deficient,” says Falk.

5. Falk hints that he might have been in contention for Freebie and the Bean but says after reading the script he felt it was too violent and therefore had no interest in a sequel either. “I didn’t even want to make the first one,” adds Arkin.

6. Arkin says he spent much of the film with bruised legs “from me beating myself up to keep from laughing.”

7. The infamous “Serpentine! Serpentine!” line came from Bergman’s time at college playing touch football with friends. One of his friends used to say it as they left the huddle.

8. Falk was no fan of the line, and shortly before filming the scene he asked his co-star “Alan, you think this is funny?” Arkin confirmed that he did and asked if Falk felt differently. Falk told him he thought it was too silly, to which Arkin responded “Peter, you’re the dumbest actor in America.” Falk began the scene still thinking it was a bad idea, but seeing Arkin’s face as he ran back and forth smiling won him over.

9. It’s fifteen minutes before the speakers comment directly on what’s happening on screen.

10. Marlon Brando was a huge fan of the film and told Arkin at dinner once that he’d seen it over twenty times. “And then he started doing imitations of me.” Bergman adds that this is the reason why Brando agreed to do The Freshman with him.

11. This was David Paymer’s first feature.

12. Arkin had worked with Richard Libertini a dozen or so times prior so they were already good friends. Libertini tried to break Arkin repeatedly during their scenes together to get him to laugh, and it led to more self-inflicted pain on Arkin’s part to avoid doing so.

13. Carmine Caridi would remind anyone who would listen that he was supposed to play Sonny in The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola wanted him in the role, but producer Robert Evans vetoed him and cast James Caan instead.

14. Hiller had heard John Morris’ score for Blazing Saddles (also written by Bergman) and thought he’d be ideal for capturing the tone of this film.

15. The film was called Don’t Shoot the Dentist in France.

16. Hiller had worked out various angles and shots for the scene where Angie (Caridi) chases Sheldon (Arkin) around the cab, but his cinematographer suggested he do it wide. He resisted at first but was immediately thrilled with the results.

17. The bank teller is played by Arkin’s wife, Barbara.

18. Arkin is a graduate of the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. His skills came in handy for the scene where he had to speed away from the house after discovering the authorities there.

19. Hiller thinks car chases are “the hardest thing to make interesting in the world.”

20. Bergman found himself running out of gas with the script at a certain point, and it’s there where he decided to introduce the “Oriental pilots, Billie and Bing.”

21. The scene where Bing (James Hong) delivers the safety check speech on the plane to Sheldon was one of the few times where Arkin simply couldn’t keep it together. When it was time to do the scene with the camera on himself Arkin asked Hong to leave the area because he couldn’t look at him without laughing.

22. Bergman’s script is 145 pages long, but the film only runs 100.

23. Falk was the only one who didn’t get sick during their shoot in Mexico.

24. The hotel lobby in Mexico actually belonged to a bicycle shop, but Hiller loved the locale and intersection so much he asked to convert it for the film.

25. The shot where Sheldon notices the bad guys in the car behind Vince (Falk) required 25–30 takes, but Arkin still doesn’t know why.

26. They start discussing Arkin’s stunt man who does a leap onto a car roof in the next scene when out of the blue you can hear Falk yelling “Alan? Alan?” Arking replies “What?” and Falk is jokingly perturbed that he never got 25 takes on any of his scenes.

27. The car chase sequence involves a section where Vince is driving backwards, and they accomplished it with a reworked car and a hidden stunt driver hiding in the trunk looking through two small holes.

28. Hiller had a camera from an earlier film that was thrown from a moving train and survived, so he used it here as well. It finally bit the dust in the shot of the car slamming into the bananas and then into the camera.

29. General Garcia’s (Libertini) introduction features an odd zoom edit. They don’t mention it, but I presume it’s to cut Arkin’s smile out of the frame.

30. Hiller had difficulty finding enough American-looking performers to play the dozens of CIA agents who come to the rescue in Mexico. He ran across some American medical students in town and cast them as the extras. Over half of the agents are those students.

31. Falk was worried because he was supposed to laugh as he and Arkin drove away from Agent Lutz (Ed Begley Jr.), and he knew he couldn’t. Arkin saved him though by tickling Falk’s knee making him bellow with laughter.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“This is very relaxing.”

“It was the first time in all the films I’ve done where I was actually having a good time.”

“People really like seeing a dentist get shot at.”

The In-Laws (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Final Thoughts

This is a fantastic and fun commentary for an equally fantastic and fun movie. Each man has something to add, from memories to anecdotes, and while Falk’s advancing age is evident his appreciation for the film remains intact. They all point out that making this film was one of the absolute highlights of their professional lives, and that joy is as evident here as it is in the film itself. If you don’t have the film on DVD already (which also has this track), then the new Criterion Blu-ray is the way to go.

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.