Jules Feiffer’s impact on American comic strips is comparable to Lenny Bruce’s impact on stand-up comedy or Philip Roth’s impact on the American novel. Feiffer used the form to communicate the anger, resentment, and assimilationist experience of first- and second-generation American Jews, exploring these subjects with acidic wit and a brilliant sense of detail. He’s no less a satirist than Bruce or Roth—his commentary on American life and politics is as stinging as his observations of Jewish family life. Started in 1956, Feiffer’s weekly comic strip for the Village Voice (which at one point ran under the name Sick, Sick, Sick) brought a new, distinctive voice to cartoon dialogue—a mix of deliberate exaggeration and emotional candor that helped to create characters who were at once satirical archetypes and relatable individuals.
Feiffer has scripted four feature films over the course of his career: Little Murders and Carnal Knowledge (both 1971), Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980) and Alain Resnais’s I Want to Go Home (1989). All are worth seeing, but it’s the first of these that comes closest to conveying the voice and sensibility of Feiffer’s comic strips.
On Wednesday night the Chicago Film Society will present a rare revival of Little Murders on 35-millimeter, and it’s easily the best movie playing in Chicago this week. Funny and frightening, Little Murders strikes a tone that few films attain. It certainly doesn’t look like many movie comedies; Gordon Willis’s cinematography (done a year before he shot The Godfather) is dark and ominous, yet it doesn’t detract from Feiffer’s hilarious dialogue. Little Murders is a satire about random violence in American life—a response, Feiffer said, to what he considered the country’s prolonged nervous breakdown following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Given our current culture of random violence, Little Murders feels eerily topical.
Based on Feiffer’s first stage play, Little Murders follows the romance of two neurotic New Yorkers, Alfred (Elliott Gould, who originated the part on Broadway in 1967) and Patsy (Marcia Rodd, who starred in a successful off-Broadway production a few years later). Alfred, a photographer, calls himself an apathist. Unable to experience pleasure and generally numb to life, he expresses his disdain for modern living by taking pictures of excrement. Patsy, an optimistic consumerist, first encounters Alfred when he’s getting beaten up (it happens to him regularly, he says); when she tries to intervene, the gang attacking Alfred turn their violence to her. He walks away, leading Patsy to confront him angrily for being so nonplussed. This is the film’s version of a meet-cute.
After a few scenes depicting the couple’s courtship, Patsy takes Alfred to meet her family. The ensuing dinner scene demonstrates some of Feiffer’s best writing, as Patsy’s parents prattle on like the most memorable of the cartoonist’s vapid authority figures. The dialogue here is pointed, as the parents’ banal statements barely hide their passive-aggressive efforts to control their daughter. Vincent Gardenia, who plays the father, gives a hyperactive performance that recalls the Theater of the Absurd, while Elizabeth Wilson, who plays the mother, provides a more realistic foil to his work. Alan Arkin, who directed the film after staging the play off-Broadway, employs long takes that gives certain scenes the quality of a stage performance. This strategy also grants the different performance styles the required room to interact with each other and make the tone more complex.
The interpersonal comedy of Little Murders is frequently interrupted by violence and cruelty, both offscreen and on. Patsy receives phone calls from an anonymous heavy breather wherever she goes (she gets obscene calls more often than Alfred gets beaten up). Patsy and Alfred return from a date to find that her apartment has been vandalized. Explosions can be heard on the street during the indoor action. Patsy’s older brother was murdered by a random gunman some years before the story takes place; Patsy’s parents inform Alfred that the murder has never been solved. When a police detective (played by Arkin) appears late in the film, he speaks of having to investigate 344 other unsolved murders in New York. His monologue spins out into a nervous breakdown.
Gould, who produced the movie along with Jack Brodsky, at first approached Jean-Luc Godard to direct. A fan of Feiffer’s comics (he even referenced one in Two or Three Things I Know About Her), Godard at first expressed interest in the material, but ended up turning down the project. Even though he wasn’t involved with Little Murders, the film often suggests a kindred spirit with Godard’s late-1960s work. The offscreen explosions recall the offscreen gunshots in Masculine Feminine (1966), while the apocalyptic tone recalls that of Week-end (1967). The mix of broad comedy and cynical social commentary also evokes Godard. Yet the stinging dialogue (the movie’s strongest element) belongs to no one but Feiffer.
The standout moments of Little Murders are three lengthy monologues that play like extended Feiffer comic strips. Each one is delivered by a different authority figure—a judge (Lou Jacobi), a preacher (Donald Sutherland), and a policeman—and each seems more ineffectual than the last. Jacobi’s monologue is almost poignant, as he expresses nostalgia for the persecution his poor immigrant parents suffered when they first came to the United States. Persecution, the judge argues, nurtured his parents’ faith in God and provided him with the motivation to better his life. His extended guilt-trip represents the cream of Feiffer’s writing, exhibiting a sympathy for the victim of brutality even while pointing out that victim’s pettiness and self-importance. I haven’t encountered anything like it in any movie released this year.