Monday, April 26, 2021

Peter Falk Channels Bogie in Neil Simon's The Cheap Detective

A befuddled Lou Peckinpah.
Following the success of his romantic comedy The Goodbye Girl (1977), Neil Simon returned to the zany spoof formula of Murder By Death (1976). Indeed, The Cheap Detective could have been a sequel to Murder By Death with Peter Falk reprising his role of Sam Diamond--a knock-off of Bogart's Sam Spade. Instead, Falk plays Lou Peckinpah, a 1930s hardboiled detective--who is still a knock-off of Bogart's Sam Spade.

Set in San Francisco, the movie kicks off with the discovery of six corpses in a seedy hotel. One of the victims is Floyd Merkle, the partner of private eye Lou Peckinpah. The police target Lou as their primary suspect since he had been having a nine-year affair with Floyd's wife. That prompts Lou to tackle the case and prove his innocence. 

Madeline Kahn.
He receives a visit from a mysterious woman (Madeline Kahn) who claims to have knowledge of Floyd's death. However, she will help Lou only if he can recover twelve stolen diamonds, each valued at over $250,000. Meanwhile, Lou encounters his former flame, Marlene DuChard (Louise Fletcher), whose war hero husband wants to establish a French restaurant in Oakland against the Nazis' wishes.

Yes, The Cheap Detective is essentially a spoof of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Its plot is serviceable, but Simon clearly didn't put much effort into it. Instead, he chose to focus on "the funny"--packing his comedy with one-liners, wacky situations, and relying on an engaging cast. An example is the scene in which Floyd's widow (Marsha Mason) comes to see Lou after her husband's murder. Lou asks her: "Are you sure the police didn't follow you here?" She replies: "I'm positive. They came with me." Three police detectives then emerge from two doors behind her. It's the kind of silly--but funny--gag that would be employed two years later in Airplane! (1980).

DeLuise channeling Lorre.
The cast has grand fun playing parodies of famous movie characters from The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. John Houseman channels Sydney Greenstreet's Kasper Gutman as Jasper Blubber and Fernando Lamas does a fine Paul Henreid impersonation as Marlene's husband. However, the standout performances belong to Madeline Kahn as a Mary Astor-like femme fatale and Dom DeLuise imitating Peter Lorre. Peter Falk serves as the film's straight man, typically setting up the funny scenes for his co-stars.

As with the later Airplane! and Naked Gun movies, the gags are plentiful with more hits than misses. For this reason, I found The Cheap Detective to be funnier than the slower-paced Murder By Death. I suspect I'm in the minority, though, as Murder By Death seems to be fondly remembered by movie fans whereas The Cheap Detective has been sadly neglected. If you've never seen it--or if it's just been awhile--Neil Simon's 1978 comedy is definitely worth a look.


Paul Dionne said...

that picture is Eileen Brennan as Betty DeBoop, not Madeline Kahn -


I saw EILEEN BRENNAN in both the movie and show PRIVATE BENJAMIN. She also did some episodes of the drama series 7th HEAVEN as the neighbor MRS. BINK. Eileen was a good actress.

Bill O said...

This was one of a few movies where Sid Caesar is sitting down/in a wheelchair.And mute. Neil Simon wrote for his show, and the book for his musical Little Me.

Rick29 said...

Yikes! Thanks, Paul. Clicked on the wrong photo, but have now corrected it.

Silver Screenings said...

I'm lukewarm towards Neil Simon, but I am looking forward to this one. I can't resist Peter Falk.