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“You get to the point where you’re, like, ‘I want someone to be sad, and I want to know that I’m responsible!’”–on living in New York City
DIRECTED BY: Alan Arkin
FEATURING: Elliott Gould, Marcia Rodd, Vincent Gardenia, Elizabeth Wilson, Jon Korkes, John Randolph, Doris Roberts, Lou Jacobi, , Alan Arkin
PLOT: A photographer beaten down by the cruelty and indifference of modern life meets the optimistic Patsy, who has a history of “molding” her romantic partners.
COMMENTS: If the movies are to be believed, New York City in the late 60s and well into the 70s was a nightmarish hellscape, a place where morality was absent, cruelty was commonplace, and the fundamental rules of life could gain no purchase. It was a labyrinthine trap for visitors (see Neil Simon’s original The Out-Of-Towners), a hotbed of insanity amongst the residents (witness ’s crude Where’s Poppa?), and just an ungovernable mess on the whole (Death Wish, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Dog Day Afternoon, among others). How much the city has improved since then is in the eye of the beholder, but this period does seem to have been New York’s nadir.
So it goes in the New York of Little Murders. Muggings occur in broad daylight. Calls to the police are placed on hold. Lewd phone calls find you, wherever you may be. Electricity gives out at random times. No one on the subway bats an eye at a man covered in blood. The psychic trauma of just trying to get through the day is overwhelming; who cares about Vietnam, when a war hero can come home to be gunned down on the Upper West Side? These Manhattanites just suck it up and soldier on, but a lot of people are beginning to crack under the pressure.
Our central couple presents two very different ways to deal with this world. Patsy is the kind of person who dusts herself off after every setback. She’s not an optimist, exactly, but she is persistent. She has a history of “fixing” men who are probably homosexual, and then ditching them when they become too pliant. (She tells Alfred of her dream mate: “I want to be married to a big, strong, vital, virile, self-assured man… that I can protect and take care of.”) When her apartment is looted and ransacked, Patsy automatically begins a mental checklist of all the things she’ll need to do to restore her home. The one thing she absolutely cannot do is give up. “If you don’t fight, you don’t feel,” she insists, “and if you don’t feel, you don’t love.”
Alfred, meanwhile, has chosen to disassociate from everything. When confronted by muggers, he lets them have their way and slips into pleasant daydreams. The market for his photographs shifts from beautiful things to actual pictures of excrement, so he readily goes along. He insists upon omitting God from his wedding vows, but when his prospective father-in-law tries to buy off the officiant, he’s indifferent. Not feeling anything is his only protection, so when Patsy cajoles him into letting down his guard, it’s about the cruelest thing that can happen to him.
There’s no model for how to behave under these circumstances, as demonstrated by the three authority figures who share their wisdom. Lou Jacobi’s judge is a disgusted back-in-my-day type who insists that his immigrant ancestors’ persecution was integral to his success. (Amusingly, his harangue against the young couple continues well into a court case over which he is presiding.) Gould’s M*A*S*H cohort Donald Sutherland appears as a man of the cloth with no convictions whatsoever. The lasting marriages over which he has presided are happy accidents, while the failures are just the cost of doing business, and he shares this fact in the course of his own homily. Finally, director Alan Arkin shows up as a police lieutenant who has slipped into madness. By turns quivering with undirected rage and cackling maniacally, he sees conspiracy everywhere, and is as suspicious and demanding of victims as he is of suspects. What none of these authority figures are is helpful. It’s everyone for themselves.
There’s undoubtedly a version of this tale that plays out like a witty New York comedy of the Neil Simon/Woody Allen variety, but events keep conspiring to kill the comic buzz. The little indignities of big-city life are compounded by crime and cruelty, culminating in the most appalling tragedy of all, which ultimately tells you which of the two leads the movie thinks is right. In the face of this disaster, Little Murders ultimately proposes another way to cope: hurting others. The only thing that brings joy to Alfred and his newfound family is the opportunity to direct all of the sadness and anxiety and rage at another human being, and the laughter that ensues is emblematic of writer Jules Feiffer’s pessimism. People will ultimately make hostile choices, but they’re just trying to get through the day. Would you deny them this little pleasure?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Funny and frightening, Little Murders strikes a tone that few films attain. It certainly doesn’t look like many movie comedies… Godard at first expressed interest in the material, but ended up turning down the project. Even though he wasn’t involved with Little Murders, the film often suggests a kindred spirit with Godard’s late-1960s work.” – Ben Sachs, Chicago Reader (2017 revival)
(This movie was nominated for review by Matthew D. Garmager. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)