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Alan Arkin's "Little Murders" is a very New York kind of movie, paranoid, masochistic and nervous. It left me with a cold knot in my stomach, a vague fear that something was gaining on me. It's a movie about people driven to insanity and desperate acts of violence by the simple experience of living in a large American city.
It falls somewhere within the category of satire, but Arkin has been careful to keep the satire within very tight and self-consistent boundaries. This isn't the kind of satire that lets up occasionally, that opens a window to the merely ridiculous (as "Dr. Strangelove" did), so that we can laugh and relax and brace ourselves for the next stretch of painfulness. No, "Little Murders" is entirely self-contained, and once you get inside it, you've got to stay.
Arkin said, shortly after the film was released, that he'd only seen his movie once in a theater, and he was afraid to go again. When he saw it with an audience, he said, he thought it was a flop because there was no pattern to the laughs. People were laughing as individuals, almost uneasily, as specific things in the movie touched or clobbered them.
That's my feeling about "Little Murders." One of the reasons it works, and is indeed a definitive reflection of America's darker moods, is that it breaks audiences down into isolated individuals, vulnerable and uncertain. Most movies create a temporary sort of democracy, a community of strangers there in the darkened theater. Not this one. The movie seems to be saying that New York City has a similar effect on its citizens, and that it will get you if you don't watch out.
Elliott Gould's performance as Alfred sets the movie's acting tone, which is uptight, barely controlled (but somehow low key) hysteria. An illustration would be Donald Sutherland's brilliant cameo as a progressive minister who uses the concept of love as a bludgeon. Arkin makes "Little Murders" so much of a piece, so consistent on its own terms, that while you're watching it, it doesn't even feel like satire: just real life, a little farther down the road.— Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com
Wed October 18, 7:30 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium
United States of America, 1971, in English, 108 min
Director: Alan Arkin, Screenplay: Jules Feiffer, Theatre Play: Jules Feiffer, Cast: Elliott Gould, Marcia Rodd, Vincent Gardenia, Elizabeth Wilson, Jon Korkes