I watched the new Blu-Ray of Little Murders (1971). By the way, the images in this post will look terrible because I haven’t figured out a good way of taking stills from Blu-Rays, but that’s just too bad and you’ll have to deal with it I guess. Sorry, just had a bit of an Elliott Gould moment there.
The film starts with Patsy Newquist being woken up in her New York apartment by phone calls, including her regular heavy-breathing pest.
She can also hear sounds of violence in the street below. Going downstairs, she intervenes to rescue Alfred Chamberlain from the gang of bullies… and then he nonchalantly wanders away, leaving her to take his place as the gang’s victim.
The screenplay is available on-line, which means I can get the dialogue excerpts more accurate than usual, though the names are missing.
PATSY: Who do you think you are? What kind of a man are you? [Huffing] L… I should have let them break your neck. Now, look at me. Look at me. Listen. What do you think… Are you a man or… That was absolutely the most spineless… A-Are you a man? I don’t know what you are. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
ALFRED: You shouldn’t have done that. They were getting tired. You got them mad.
We get to the point quite early:
PATSY: You should be ashamed of yourself. Listen. Are you really so down on people, or are you just being fashionable?
Alfred works as a photographer and his oeuvre focuses on “collages”. That’s what this film essentially is, a collage of extended comic monologues and routines in which society and its remaining gatekeepers and guardians are set-up to mock or expose themselves. The figures that do this are not pretended to be rounded characters, they are simply “The Judge”, “The Minister”, “The Detective”. In the foreground we have our semi-romantic couple: listless, diffident Alfred, and Patsy, keen to settle down. She brings him to meet her family, with her goofy brother and parents. Soon they get out the family album to talk about the dead older child and his heroic service in Korea and Vietnam.
The Newquists present as business-like respectable normality. When we meet Alfred’s parents in Chicago they are a pair of intellectuals in a book-crowded flat, incapable of responding personally and constantly referring to the authorities of psychoanalysis or modern American literature.
Alfred insists the wedding service should have no reference to a Deity. They go to have it at the “First Existential Church” where a riot appears to be in progress as they arrive. The music is provided by a group of hippies with sitars. Mr Newquist tries to bribe The Minister to mention God anyway, and then he brags about this to everyone.
MR NEWQUIST: There are no atheists in foxholes these days, huh, Reverend? They’ve all gone into the ministry, eh? [Chuckles]
I haven’t fully researched this, but I think Donald Sutherland’s performance as The Minister delivering his superbly non-orthodox sermon on marriage may be the greatest thing he ever did.
THE MINISTER: Well, if it’s all right with you… I’d like to take the money and not mention the Deity. First Existential can use the money.
Alfred used to be quite angry and a bit of an activist when he was in college, and there is a lovely monologue in which he describes communicating with the guy who had to read his mail for the FBI.
The story does take a darker turn, although the shadows were present from the start. Extreme violence stuns Alfred into shock rather than brooding detachment.
And we see the forces of law enforcement, played by Alan Arkin.
THE DETECTIVE: We are involved here in a far-reaching c-c-conspiracy… to undermine our most basic beliefs and sacred institutions. Who’s behind this conspiracy? Once again, ask the question, who has the most to gain? People in high places. Their names would astound you. People in low places. Concealing their activities… beneath the cloak of poverty. People in all walks of life… left wing and right wing… black and white, students and scholars. A conspiracy of such ominous proportion… that we will never, never know the whole story… and we’ll never be able to reveal all the facts.
It’s easy to see that this originated as a play, as all the dialogue is very stagey and speechy. At least the camera gets to rove around the interiors, the few exteriors in parks and countryside don’t seem to fit as this ought to be a world of cardboard sets that have a 4th wall missing.
When we meet Alfred’s dad he mentions that “I was in the middle of a Vonnegut. Young people adore Vonnegut.” That’s where this film is, and the audience it is reaching for. Vonnegut himself wrote a later novel in which some guy fires a rifle out of a window randomly; it also involves that guy trying to put on an idealistic, philosophical play off-Broadway, and getting hassled by a cast who point out its message doesn’t make sense. Maybe some parts of Deadeye Dick were in homage to Little Murders.
Frank Zappa was freakin’ out a bit earlier, but he knew what was going on.