Little Murders (1971)

Little Murders (1971)

“I married you because I wanted to mold you!”

A nihilistic apathist (Elliott Gould) in New York is courted by a headstrong optimist (Marcia Rodd) who hopes to change his outlook on life, but their marriage is weirdly interrupted by a series of random murders.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Alan Arkin Films
  • Black Comedy
  • Donald Sutherland Films
  • Elliott Gould Films
  • New York City
  • Play Adaptation

Alan Arkin directed and Elliott Gould co-produced this adaptation of writer-cartoonist Jules Feiffer‘s semi-autobiographical play, which isn’t for all tastes. As Roger Ebert noted in his original review, it’s “a very New York kind of movie, paranoid, masochistic and nervous”, leaving you to wonder what type of trouble might be lurking around the next corner. To a certain extent, I can appreciate where Feiffer is coming from with his passively nihilistic perspective, in which emotions are a liability given the unpredictability of life — but the overall effect of the random-violence-ridden story is one of numbness and discomfiture, and for a satire, it offers relatively few outright laughs. The performances by all the actors involved (see stills below) are the main reason to check out this unusual but alienating film; they’re remarkably game players.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Elliott Gould as Alfred
  • Marcia Rodd as Patricia
  • Elizabeth Wilson as Mrs. Newquist
  • Vincent Gardenia as Mr. Newquist
  • Donald Sutherland as “The Minister”
  • Alfred trying in vain to interview his detached parents (Doris Roberts and John Randolph) about his childhood

Must See?
No, but it’s worth a look simply for the performances.


One thought on “Little Murders (1971)

  1. A somewhat-overlooked must. While sadly the only real major piece directed by Alan Arkin, ‘Little Murders’ is among the quirkiest films ever. It is true that a main reason for seeing it is the “game” cast (tho I don’t really get what Jon Korkes is doing as brother Kenny), but its uniqueness as a film makes it something ffs won’t ultimately want to miss.

    In writer Feiffer’s nightmare view, NYC is little more than a hellhole. (A more traditionally comedic take on this attitude was written by Neil Simon for 1970’s ‘The Out-of-Towners’.) There’s certainly a large truth in this, but only NYers will know the extent of the exaggeration: not all showers run brown water; not all phone connections are wildly psycho; I myself have never heard church bells sound somehow ‘off’. And the average group of muggers would certainly not attack for the length of film credits.

    A major New York truth, however, comes from Elliott Gould’s mouth: “I really nearly trust you.” probably remains the closest NYC equivalent to ‘I love you.’ – and that’s just one of too many quotable quotes that reflect the nervous New York spirit. Among these, another fave (early on) is a throwaway line given to Rodd as she runs off after a practically galloping Gould: “Are you really down on people or are you just being fashionable?” But one of the best bits is given to a phone masher, who has been calling up through the entire film; he replies with his only lines after hearing of a major character’s demise: “I don’t know what to say. I’m terribly sorry. But what can we do? The world’s gone crazy.”

    Living in NYC (as I did for many years), one certainly tries to hold a certain amount of angst at bay. Here it seems to have all poured out into Feiffer’s dreamlife. (How else to explain the film’s bizarre conclusion?) Is there an overriding point to all of this? I don’t know that there is; but it’s a wide canvas Feiffer has spread to paint-by-number his many thoughts re: various NY types. And such types are given hilarious monologues – the standout, for me, probably going to the very gifted Lou Jacobi as The Judge. Has any genuine tale of woe ever been this blisteringly funny?

    Gould gives one of his finest and most nuanced performances. This is also a rare chance to see the intriguing, Madeline Kahn-esque Marcia Rodd doing solid work in a major film (from this she pretty much went to tv).

    Significant addition: The parents of ‘Alfred’ are not in the original play; the Randolph/Roberts can-only-speak-in-writer’s-quotes scene is priceless.

    A major element of the film’s success is the early work of DP Gordon Willis, here already perfecting his signature ‘shadow’ style.

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