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.