New York City—center of the universe and concrete jungle that serves as the glorious backdrop to so many stories, one of which is the black comedy film Little Murders (1971).
A terrifying dark comedy, it was originally a debut play written by Jules Fieiffer that first-time director Alan Arkin adapted for the silver screen. Inspired by the post-JFK assassination climate of urban violence, the film shows the United States of America in the sixties going through a nervous breakdown.
Devout apathist Alfred meets optimistic Patsy as she saves him from being attacked by thugs and ends up attracted to him, despite his being emotionally vacant and barely able to feel pain or pleasure. She courts Alfred and lures him into a world of materialism where she seeks happiness by consuming fashionable possessions, places, and opinions. This, in turn, breaks through Alfred’s shell, and he falls in love with her, and they marry. In this sense, apathetic Alfred finds salvation from the consumer buying power, reflecting the zeitgeist of a time when terrorized living in this world has become the norm.
Patsy, determined to discover what makes Alfred tick, coaxes Alfred into seeing his parents. Because she is accustomed to molding men to do her bidding, Alfred finally becomes the man she has always wanted. The world then falls apart when at that instant, Patsy is killed by a sniper for no reason at all. Alfred then makes his way back to Patsy’s parent’s house in a zombie-like stupor and later obtains a gun and with Patsy’s brother and father, takes turns shooting people down the street.
Admittedly dark, it is a satire within very tight and self-consistent boundaries. It isn’t the kind of movie that gives the audience a chance to breathe but instead takes them on a ride that nobody could get off until after the film. Originally a failed play, Elliot Gould, one of the principal actors, bought the film rights to create a vehicle for himself, which, if we look at his almost half-a-decade-long career, paid off.
A remarkable movie that really hit a few strings, it has superior performances by Donald Sutherland as the progressive minister that performs the wedding ceremony, director Alan Arkin himself as a frazzled police lieutenant, and Lou Jacobi as a dour and angry judge.
Little Murders is a devastating social comment on love, involvement, family, and the world we live in. More than forty years later, it seems that many of the issues still ring true. But like the trailer goes, we should witness Little Murders; it’s better than being a victim.