The Cheap Detective

Just once I’d like to see someone die regular on this case. 

A series of murders takes place at a San Francisco hotel, the main target is Floyd Merkle, the PI partner of Lou Peckingpaugh (Peter Falk).  Peckingpaugh has been having an affair with Georgia Merkle (Marsha Mason), so the cops suspect him of the murder (which Georgia keeps suggesting blatantly).  Carmen Montenegro (Madeline Kahn) says she’s looking for her sister.  Pepe Damascus (Dom DeLuise)—the Peter Lorre character—wants Peckingpaugh to find “an object.”  Jasper Blubber (John Houseman), “a dangerously insidious tub of lard” explains that they’re all after a dozen diamonds exactly the same size and shape of a Double-A New Jersey egg.  Then, over at Nix Place, Peckingpaugh meets Betty DeBoop (Eileen Brennan), the lounge singer who doesn’t know the words to La Vie de Rose.  There too is Paul (Fernando Lamas) and Marlene DuChard (Louise Fletcher) who need a set of documents because they “must open a two star restaurant in Oakland so all free Frenchman can listen to the war.”  Bess Duffy (Stockard Channing) is the loyal, wisecracking secretary.  There’s also Jezebel Dezire (Ann-Margret) and Ezra Dezire (Sid Caesar), but I couldn’t think of where to put them in the premise.

As the Chinese say, “Nevermind.”

Neil Simon writes this amalgam of The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), The Big Sleep (1946), Chinatown (1974), and almost certainly others.  It’s The Cheap Detective (1978).  Simon has a twin parody movie called Murder by Death (1976) which puts together classic detectives in one hilarious mystery.  These two are probably the best parody films of all time.  They put to shame movies like Scary Movie (2000) or Airplane! (1980) because of their intelligence.  After all, the parody is of great American classical films and stories, not disaster movies.  These are parody based on allusion, not non sequitor zaniness.  Well, allusion, saucy innuendo, classic joking.  The parody is especially good towards the end when he starts to refer to plans, deals, and underlying facts that never came up before—just like it is in many detective/film noir films.  As far as the writing is concerned, it’s clearly well informed of its precursors.

If you’re unfamiliar with Neil Simon, then you’re in desperate need of enlightenment.  Examples.  The Odd Couple (1968), Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986), and The Goodbye Girl (1977).

If you ever get lonely, just call me.  You know how to dial don’t ya?  Just put your finger in the little round hole. 

Robert Moore directs this in as eclectic a fashion as the films that inspire the story.  It’s a little difficult to tell sometimes because my DVD is in fullscreen, as opposed to widescreen.  How anybody anywhere allowed fullscreen to be the norm I’ll never understand.  We can’t have those bars on the top of the screen, we just can’t!  Give me a break.  You prefer 20% of the lines to come offscreen?  How annoying.  That very large caveat in place, I will say I’m a bit disappointed that it didn’t go all the way and be as creative with the parody as Simon was.  Example.  The phone rings and Lou, formerly asleep, picks up the phone (in an exact scenario of The Maltese Falcon) and points his gun at the receiver.  But the the scene looks nothing very little like the one from The Maltese Falcon.  It strikes me that some fun was lost there.  On the other hand, there are many scenes that are constructed in close parody.

If you’re not buys I get off at two, don’t you think two is a good time to get off on?

This is a terrific cast.  You’ll recognize a lot of the faces, if not their names.  Peter Falk and Eileen Brennan (along with supporting cast members James Coco and James Cromwell) are also in Murder by Death and excellent comic actors.  With dialogue like this, you need strong comic timing and line delivery.  They have it, though Falk is a touch too heavy when it comes to responding to silly misunderstandings, perhaps.  It’s not “That’s my mamma,” but it’s less subtle than he is the rest of the time.  He’s better giving the inane lines than receiving them—acting is reacting, they say.  Most of the time, though, they play it straight and their formality heightens the humor.

It’s just too funny.  A classic for $8.

About Prof. Ratigan

A semi-lawyer and amateur enthusiast.
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One Response to The Cheap Detective

  1. Pingback: Murder by Death | Prof. Ratigan

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