Little Murders December 18, 2020
1 Hr., 48 Mins.
he meet-cute that introduces caustic comedy Little Murders (1971) isn’t very cute; it establishes the cockeyed tone of the movie to come. While 27-year-old interior designer Patsy (Marcia Rodd) is reading a book while sipping coffee in her second-story apartment (she lives in New York City) one morning, she notices and then can’t help getting distracted by what sounds like a fight going on out on the street. She
hangs her head out the window and commands the rabble-rousers to stop it or else she’s going to call the police. But they don't stop it, and it isn’t any use when Patsy tries to make good on her threat. The line’s busy. She marches downstairs, breaks the brawl up herself (she’s handy with a purse), then gets mad at the victim, a photographer named Alfred (Elliott Gould), because he both didn’t fight back while he was being pummeled and because he didn’t reciprocally help out Patsy during a brief moment when she was getting retaliatively attacked herself.
Patsy follows Alfred back to his apartment and practically demands to get to know him. The forcefulness apparently charms Alfred; soon they're a couple, although we never get a real feel for their passion for each other outside of Alfred telling Patsy emotionlessly that she’s a “great girl.” The script, written by Jules Feiffer (the film is an adaptation of a play he also wrote), makes clear that this relationship is based more than anything on convenience and Patsy’s own pushiness — a willingness, determination, even, to mold Alfred into the man she’d like him to be. We learn that she’s an aggressive optimist, and will do anything she can — even if that means deluding herself — to conserve that. Alfred, by contrast, is a steadfast self-described apathist. He seems to have been destroyed by being a small figure living in a big city and in general by the globe’s horrible intersecting realities. He's sapped because for so many years he couldn't ignore the noise of the world. Alfred used to be a successful commercial photographer — paw through archival folders and you'll see his snapshots in the pages of The New Yorker and Vogue, for instance — but he’s since retreated. When he visits his parents in the middle of the movie, he asks them at what age they started noticing that he seemed alienated. (He can’t remember very well anything that happened to him before his 19th birthday.)
When Feiffer conceived of Little Murders, he wanted it to be a high-concept reflection of how people can keep on well-adjustedly living despite knowing they’re going about their daily tasks in an unforgiving world. You could step out of your house or apartment and very well be the next victim spotlit in a sordid news story about how an average Joe was minding his business only to get shot at random by a maniac. Feiffer particularly had in mind public acts of violence and assassinations as he wrote (his idea initially was housed in a never-finished novel), and how the public internalizes its awareness of everyday horror. How does it shape them?
Patsy and Alfred don't feel like people — they're more living ideologies. Patsy is a person who to her detriment proverbially covers her ears when she hears about something bad happening in the world. (She is bombarded day and night with phone calls apparently from a local serial killer; when she walks into her apartment one evening and finds the place destroyed ostensibly by the caller, the first thing she does is calmly plan aloud where she’s going to buy her replacement furniture and how much it might cost her.) “I wake up every morning of my life... with a smile on my face — and for the rest of the day I come up against an unending series of challenges to wipe that smile off my face,” she says, making clear that she's not being unconsciously narrow. In what is apparently an act of sanity-preservation, Alfred pointedly doesn’t let anything get to him — not even life’s good stuff. When Patsy asks him at the beginning of the movie why he didn’t fight back when he was being beaten up, he tells her it wasn’t any use. It doesn’t hurt if you learn how to numb yourself.
The first half of Little Murders, replete with stylized dialogue and whimsical scene-setting that must have worked better on stage, covers the honeymoon phase of the strange courtship. The movie’s satirical oddness is solidified when Alfred meets Patsy’s family for the first time and her parents (Victor Gardenia, Elizabeth Wilson) and brother (Jon Korkes) appear to be doing imitations of the Nuclear-Family stereotypes as perfected in TV shows like Leave It to Beaver (1957-’63) and The Donna Reed Show (1958-’66) but with a vaudevillian (that is to say a little grotesque) enthusiasm. (This, too, seems a coping mechanism — a way to pretend everything is just fine after enduring the murder of Patsy’s older brother, a tragedy revealed midway through the dinner.) The whole sequence is uncomfortably funny; the franticness with which the family approaches their shared denial is darkly comical.
Little Murders' lopsidedness is really sealed in during Alfred and Patsy’s wedding, during which the progressive minister Alfred hires (a scene-stealing Donald Sutherland) forgoes the typical ministerial monologue and instead announces that the unconventional ceremony we're about to see will be “an abandonment of ritual in the search for truth.” One should expect any societal tradition brought up in the movie to be picked at. Little Murders isn’t very dramatically involving, but we appreciate how its pessimism and frustration merge with an original, fatalistic sense of humor, and how it probes middle-class responses to tragedy and tradition and the harmful things they could manifest.
The second half of the movie isn’t so lopsidedly appealing. It sees Patsy’s myopia literally destroy her, and the film transforms into what is essentially a mass shooter’s origin story. Whereas the first part of the movie is cynical without losing its comic force, the second has the uneasy shock of a provocation going too far. It’s more icky than invigoratingly daring. The taste Little Murders finally leaves in one’s mouth is pretty rancid, although I don’t think it poisons the slantedly inspired early stuff in the movie. It just makes us wish it concluded somewhere that stayed in the early stuff’s stride. It also makes us think that if we had seen the action play out on the stage rather than on a screen, it might have gelled better. Some plays can retain most of what makes them great when transferred to the silver screen. Others — and I think Little Murders is among them — suffer from “you had to be there”-itis. But you don't always have to be there to get the gist. B-