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Little Murders 1971 *****

There’s a perfect little throwaway scene in Alan Arkin’s Little Murders in which Elliot Gould finds himself soaked with blood and riding the New York subway. His shocking appearance leads to a few looks and whispers, but as he heads up towards the city-streets, he passes another man, soaked with blood, whose appearance is more remarkable than his own. It’s a tiny moment, but one that lays out a firm route for Jules Feiffer’s script. This is a dog eat dog world, and what’s happening to you, however bad it may seem, is already happening to someone else.

That downbeat feel inhabits every frame of Little Murders, adapted by Feiffer from his own Broadway play. Rolling power blackouts cut the lights mid-scene, with characters barely acknowledging being thrust into darkness. Gangs roam the street, picking on the innocent and vulnerable. Into this beleaguered world, Patsy Newquist (Marcia Rodd) attempts to win the heart of disillusioned advertising man and photographer Alfred Chamberlain (Elliot Gould), but Alfred is already locked into a negative cycle of self-abasement. When Patsy meets Alfred, he’s allowing himself to be beaten up by a gang; the nihilism of Fight Club has roots in this kind of counter-cultural shrug. Patsy takes Alfred to meet her parents (Vincent Gardenia and Elizabeth Wilson), but it takes a senseless, violent act to snap him out of his alienated dwam…

With many of the cast reprising their stage-roles, there’s more than a touch of the theatrical here, but Feiffer’s play is still spry and admirably anti-authority in outlook. Arkin has a wild cameo as a detective who has completely lost the plot, and he also calls in a big name cameo from Donald Sutherland as a wacky minister. Reuniting Sutherland and Gould the year after Robert Altman’s MASH is something of a coup, and both men excel here, delivering crazy, true monologues that reflect Feiffer’s vision of a world gone mad.

Feiffer once drew a cartoon of a huge crowd surrounding a tiny podium, with the caption to the effect; ‘how will we tell them that the microphone isn’t working?’ How to use a mass-medium to deliver his messages was an issue that seemed to preoccupy Feiffer, and yet Little Murders, something of an obscure film, absolutely nails the author’s social commentary. With the leads all alive at the time of writing this assessement, Little Murders would be well-worth a feature-length documentary to explore the themes caught here; it’s something of a neglected classic, and would be a great subject for a streaming revival.

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