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‘Little Murders’ Is a Bleakly Cynical Gem with Big Laughs

Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned.
By  · Published on July 10th, 2017

Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned.

I’ll be shining a light in two directions — I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.

This week’s entry is one you’d expect to be far better known as it’s an early 70s comedy starring the likes of Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, and Alan Arkin. You only need watch the film once though to realize exactly why Little Murders never stood a chance at finding a wide audience.

Alfred (Elliott Gould) is an “apathist” — he survives life in New York City by refusing to see things through either a positive or negative lens — but his indifferent approach to the world around him gets a wake up call in the form of Patsy (Marcia Rodd). She’s an eternal optimist who keeps smiling despite the heavy-breathing caller, the daily sexual harassment, and the discovery that her apartment has been burgled and ransacked. She lends a hand in his defense when she sees him being beaten up in the street, but she immediately regrets it when the thugs turn their attention towards her… and he simply walks away. Shocked by his apathy in a world filled with both beauty and terror she takes him on as an improvement project.

It begins by introducing him to her family including her overbearing father (a fantastic Vincent Gardenia), June Cleaver-ish mother (Elizabeth Wilson), and somewhat deranged younger brother (Jon Korkes). Marriage is next, but when she realizes that none of it has encouraged him to feel something she concedes defeat and joins him in apathy instead. “I married you because I wanted to mold you into the man I wanted to love,” she says, adding that “kissing you is like kissing white bread.” It’s enough to finally bring Alfred around into realizing that he has something wonderful here in Patsy, something worth caring about and fighting for, but that bliss is short-lived.

Little Murders was Arkin’s directorial debut and is as bleakly comic a film as you’re likely to see. Jules Feiffer‘s (Carnal Knowledge, Popeye) script, adapted from his own play, envisions the American dream in the process of collapsing. The city has become a place of numerous aggressions, and while some are literal murders — anonymous snipers are racking up quite the kill count — the film is also documenting the death of less tangible things too. Our peace of mind, our feeling of security, our faith in the institutions of law and order, and our trust in the very fabric of society are being chipped away and destroyed on a regular basis, and this new normal means we’re no longer allowed to act strictly as spectators. We’re either victims, or we get our hands dirty along with everyone else.

It’s a terrifically cynical view, and while it was perhaps outlandish in 1971 it appears somewhat prescient today. That’s not to imply the film would be any better received now though as its blend of dark insight and even darker laughs remains an unappealing recipe for most film-goers.

The performances captivate throughout with both Gould and Rodd crafting a couple of opposites who come to swap places on the attitude spectrum, but there are three standouts in a trio of monologues by cameo performers. Lou Jacobi brings the hell-fire as a judge reacting loudly to the suggestion that the couple have no interest in God, and he bellows from his judge’s chambers on to the courtroom about life’s hardships and God’s will. Donald Sutherland appears next as a reverend who agrees to marry the pair without mention of a deity before ranting calmly about the low odds of their marriage succeeding. Lastly, Arkin himself shows up as a harried police detective whose inability to solve the hundreds of open murder cases in the city has driven him over the edge. All three bring laughs, but Arkin delivers the film’s most broadly comic performance and works to ratchet up the absurdity ever further.

Little Murders‘ main theme is the realization that it’s dangerous to challenge the system unless you’re comfortable with the possibility of its collapse. Patsy’s dad is a man who believes in authority and implicitly trusts those in power — until he sees their ineffectual reality and shifts instead into a man who’d be right at home in today’s America. He wants a wall built around the city, and “anyone who wants to leave the block has to get a pass, and a haircut, and can’t talk with a filthy mouth.” He can’t have the order he craves, so he descends into chaos instead. The beauty of life exists in the structured but still unpredictable middle ground, but these characters have decided to aim lower. And then they pull the trigger.

Check out some past Missed Connections.

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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.