Little Murders

Beginning on September 1, the Criterion Channel will be streaming Little Murders, Alan Arkin’s 1971 debut film from Jules Feiffer’s adaptation of his own play, as part of “New York Stories,” its 63-film series centered on New York City. The film has been exceedingly hard to come by both on DVD and on streaming channels, so this is a good opportunity to catch up on one of my favorite films from the 1970s. Roger Ebert liked it too upon its release in 1971:

One of the reasons it works, and is indeed a definitive reflection of America’s darker moods, is that it breaks audiences down into isolated individuals, vulnerable and uncertain. Most movies create a temporary sort of democracy, a community of strangers there in the darkened theater. Not this one. The movie seems to be saying that New York City has a similar effect on its citizens, and that it will get you if you don’t watch out. … Arkin makes Little Murders so much of a piece, so consistent on its own terms, that while you’re watching it, it doesn’t even feel like satire: just real life, a little farther down the road.

I wrote about Little Murders here about five years ago; lightly edited, that essay is below.


Rumor has it that when Elliott Gould secured the film rights to Jules Feiffer’s 1967 Broadway satire Little Murders (according to the Internet Broadway Database, it ran for all of 23 performances, including previews; Gould appeared in the play on Broadway), he tried to interest Jean-Luc Godard in directing the film; eventually Godard withdrew and the film was completed and released in 1971 in a version directed by Alan Arkin. (A 1969 theatrical revival at Circle in the Square, also directed by Arkin, had enjoyed a more successful 400 performance run and won Feiffer an Obie for the play.) The idea of Godard directing Gould in Feiffer is daunting, to say the least. But the film that resulted in the end is one of those products of Hollywood that makes you wonder how it was ever made in the first place, let alone released — and it’s very certain that it would have been neither produced nor released had it been proposed today. Little Murders is an extraordinary work that retains a profound significance for 21st century America, a family-centered meditation on the violence and social conflicts in New York City, American culture, and, perhaps, elsewhere.

The play’s lead character, Alfred Chamberlain, the son of Chicago-area intellectuals, describes himself as an “apathist.” He is frequently mugged and beaten by strangers for no discernible reason, but he never fights back; if he puts up no resistance, he observes, the muggers get bored and eventually leave him alone. One day he crosses paths with a woman named Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rodd), who becomes determined to introduce him to happiness and compassion, as well as the necessity of fighting back against whatever forces conspire to rob him of his dignity. It is an uphill battle. Late one night, Alfred reveals the source of his quietism to Patsy:

Having made this confession of his own paranoid cruelty, Alfred finally realizes the importance of fighting for what he believes in, of hope, of trust, and of love — and, in the next moment, all of these are cruelly shattered by a tragic act of random violence.

Feiffer was writing about the American culture of the late 1960s, but the violence, the surveillance state, the rapid crumbling of traditional values remain central dynamics of the 2020s. In Little Murders, he proved himself a far more observant and caustic satirist of the American scene than his status as West Village Liberal might have suggested. “It’s dangerous to challenge a system unless you’re completely at peace with the thought that you’re not going to miss it when it collapses,” Alfred says at one point — and he turns out, with terrible consequences, to be right.

Among Feiffer’s many targets in Little Murders are the upwardly-mobile middle class; the justice system; religion both old and new (the parson who marries Alfred and Patsy in a disastrous ceremony is the head of the “First Existential” church); homophobia; both apathy and idealism (obviously); the art market and photography; and, as I mentioned earlier, intellectuals. Beyond all this, though, it’s a surprisingly emotional and compassionate work. Patsy’s Upper West Side family seems oblivious and hypocritical, but it’s revealed early on that their promising first son was killed in a random, unsolved act of violence on a New York City streetcorner; the revelation undermines an easy dismissal of their defensively bourgeois perspective. In many ways, the rhythm of the plot is cruel, not only to Alfred and Patsy but to the audience as well; and though the conclusion of the play appears facile at first glance, there is a poetic rightness to it that gives the play a cohesive shape.

“And of course it’s funny” is often a phrase used to encourage audiences to see a play that presumably has a darker core — and it’s usually wrong. But in this case it’s right. Little Murders is extremely funny, with gorgeous setpieces like the first meeting of Alfred with Patsy’s parents and the wedding ceremony itself. Somewhere about three-quarters into the film, though, Little Murders splits apart explosively and powerfully. The director of photography, Gordon Willis, captures New York of the 1970s perfectly — not surprisingly; he later shot The Godfather, Annie Hall, and Manhattan.

Director Alan Arkin has a brilliant four-minute cameo towards the end of the film as an insane police detective; his performance is below.

Remembering the Great Man

Redeemed by the love of a daughter: Mary Brian as Hope and W.C. Fields as her father Ambrose in “Man on the Flying Trapeze.”

In 2016, Metrograph, my local repertory theater, offered two of W.C. Fields’ best films on their big screen — It’s a Gift and Man on the Flying Trapeze. In part, this was a celebration of the 70th anniversary of Fields’ death. As part of my own little efforts to keep Fields in the public eye, I republish the below, which originally appeared here in December 2016.

For more about Fields, I recommend James Curtis’ biography, which is likely to be the standard for some time to come; William Everson’s study of his films is still worth a read; and Fields’ grandson Ronald Fields also put together W.C. Fields by Himself and W.C. Fields: A Life on Film. Universal Pictures released this five DVD set containing 18 of Fields’ feature films (including most of the films mentioned below) in 2015. Three of his silent features are available — two of which had been presumed lost for decades — from Kino Lorber.

Christmas Day 2016 marks the 70th anniversary of W.C. Fields’ death, and to mark the occasion Metrograph will present a screening of one of his best films, the 1935 Man on the Flying Trapeze, on Thursday, December 29, at 7.00pm (with special guests to be announced). Trapeze, according to Metrograph, is “a pure poem of domestic desperation,” as are two other films that Fields made around the same period, You’re Telling Me and It’s a Gift. The latter has come to be regarded as one of Fields’ greatest films, but all three together form an informal trilogy of satires about small-town American life that must be considered Fields’ greatest achievement.

It’s hard to imagine Albert Brooks, Fawlty Towers, or Curb Your Enthusiasm without Fields. He seems to have single-handedly established the Comedy of Discomfort: a combination of muttered complaints and insults, general misanthropy, and embarrassing physical situations turned often enough against the comedian himself as well as the world. In contrast to those others, though, there’s a vein of melancholy that also runs through Fields’ work. The domestic comedies present Fields’ characters as trapped in small-town mediocrity, with unhappy personal and professional lives; every attempt that Sam Bisbee, Ambrose Wolfinger, or Harold Bissonette makes to break free of this mediocrity, even (as in Trapeze) just to play hooky from work to attend the fights one afternoon or (as in It’s a Gift) to catch just a little extra sleep before the day begins, ends in comic chaos.

There’s also a touch of tragedy associated with each of these characters, and Fields was a much better actor than he’s been given credit for, as director George Cukor realized when he cast Fields as Micawber in the 1935 David Copperfield for MGM (Fields himself, who was very well-read, was something of a Charles Dickens scholar). In the aftermath of a professional disaster, You’re Telling Me‘s Bisbee seriously considers suicide; Trapeze‘s Wolfinger is on his second marriage, his first having ended with his wife’s early death, leaving him with a daughter to raise on his own; and, in the penultimate scene of It’s a Gift, Bissonette is left in a landscape of astonishing devastation, abandoned by his entire family except for his dog, bereft of comfort or even a future, his dreams destroyed. After the raucous comedy of the previous 60 minutes, the scene is still something of a shock. These being comedies, there’s always a deus ex machina (in the form of a princess, a real estate speculator, or a job offer) to save the character at the end, and more often then not Fields’ failed father figures are redeemed by the love of a daughter. But in real life, deus ex machinas are all too rare, a realization that occurs only a few minutes after the credits roll.

Fields came to the movies rather late in his career, appearing in his first major film, D.W. Griffith’s Sally of the Sawdust, in 1925 at the age of 45; it wasn’t until his mid-50s, with the three films I mentioned above, that he hit his cinematic stride. Before that he had risen from vaudeville’s backwaters as a comic juggler to some considerable fame on Broadway, reaching the top of his profession as a stage comedian in 1923’s Poppy, which ran for over a year at the Apollo Theatre and provided the basis for Griffith’s film. After that, the movies came calling, and Fields appeared in a variety of silent features before his sound debut in the short The Golf Specialist, an adaptation of a sketch Fields created for the stage Follies, which was released in 1930. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fields’ films can be grouped into three different categories: the middle-class domestic comedies; the period pieces (like Poppy, remade in 1936, often set in late 19th-century or turn-of-the-century) such as The Old Fashioned Way — the best of these, in which Fields plays the leader of a theatre troupe travelling through the small towns of middle America, performing the melodrama The Drunkard; and here and there a few absurdist essays, from 1932’s Million Dollar Legs and 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. It was in the first two groups, though, that Fields really shone. While the absurdist films have their moments (and nearly all of Fields’ films have an absurdist moment or two), his comic studies of Americana may retain the most interest for us now.

After 1936, Fields began to suffer from a variety of physical ailments, some of which were exacerbated by his heavy drinking, and though he returned to the Paramount studio in 1938 he was never the same. While 1940’s The Bank Dick, made for Universal, is often cited as the quintessential Fields movie, I find his performance and the comedy there somewhat forced; compared to his appearance in Trapeze, Fields looks physically bloated and slow, and the deft grace of his movements in those earlier films has deteriorated.

I’m not sure whether the work of the great comedians like Fields, Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy still appeals. While it may be thought that we live in a more cynical age, seeing Man on the Flying Trapeze may prove to you that, on the contrary, our age might not be cynical enough. You’ll have the chance to find out for yourself at Metrograph on December 29. (The film — along with most of Fields’ other work — is also available on this DVD set from Universal.)