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.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Five Easy Pieces: When Good Performances Aren't Enough

Jack Nicholson as Bobby Dupea.
The years have not been kind to Five Easy Pieces (1970), which earned four major Oscar nominations and was hailed by Roger Ebert as a "masterpiece of heartbreaking intensity." In retrospect, it's a meandering film that boasts two stellar performances and an iconic scene. That's not enough, though, to justify the bloated running time and the "so what" of it all.

Jack Nicholson plays Bobby Dupea, a disgruntled young man from an affluent family of classical musicians, who works in the California oil fields. Bobby lives with Rayette (Karen Black), a pretty but none-too-bright diner waitress who aspires to sing country music. He cheats on Rayette, berates her in front of friends, and is too embarrassed to introduce her to his family. He also gets her pregnant.

Susan Anspach as Catherine.
When visiting his sister Partita, Bobby learns that his father has suffered two strokes. Partita (Lois Smith) encourages Bobby to resolve his differences with his estranged father before it's too late. Bobby's reunion with his family bores him until he meets Catherine (Susan Anspach), who is studying music with his brother Carl. As Bobby pursues the reluctant Catherine, Rayette waits for him at a motel a few miles from the Dupea house.

As a character study, one can forgive the wandering plot of Five Easy Pieces. However, director Bob Rafelson allows his film to lose focus by indulging in extraneous scenes. There are lingering shots of Bobby working in the oil fields. A hitchhiker prattles endlessly about how the world is filled with filth. Bobby gets irate about a highway traffic jam (one of Ebert's favorite scenes).

Karen Black as Rayette.
The film perks up whenever there's a scene with Karen Black as Rayette. The actress keeps the character from being nothing more than Bobby's victim. Yes, Rayette can be irritating, but she sincerely loves Bobby, forgives him for everything, and finds joy in her simple life. In one of the best scenes, Rayette interrupts a ridiculous pseudo-intellectual discussion by asking: "Is there a TV in the house?"

Jack Nicholson is wonderfully convincing as the disillusioned Bobby--who isn't quite sure what he's disillusioned about other than his life in general. One doesn't have to like the character to admire Nicholson's performance or appreciate the tiny details that make Bobby seem real. There's the justifiably famous scene of Bobby trying to reason with a diner waitress who refuses to make any substitutions on his breakfast. However, Nicholson's best scene is saved for what functions as the film's climax--a "conversation" with Bobby's father that's essentially a monologue of self-reflection.

The film's screenplay, Rafelson, Nicholson, and Black all earned Oscar nominations in 1970. If Nicholson first garnered serious critical acclaim in Easy Rider (1969), then Five Easy Pieces was the movie that made him a star. He would make three of his best films over the next five years--The Last Detail, Chinatown, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest--receiving three more Oscar nominations and winning Best Actor for Cuckoo's Nest.

All of those films are better than Five Easy Pieces, a promising character study that gets lost in its own pompousness.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Burt Lancaster Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a film that starred Burt Lancaster and ask you to name the actual film. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it!


2. Precipitation.

3. The Bluegrass Man.

4. Flight from Behind Steel Bars. 

5. King of the Press.

6. Red Striped Pants. 

7. The Hotel Beauregard.

8. As the Waves Wash Over.

9. Reflections in the Pools.

10. Kitty and the Swede.

11. Boot Hill...So Cold, So Still.

12. When Lou Met Sally.

13. Get Patroni!

14. Painted Cargo.

15. The Legend of Dardo.

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Olivia de Havilland Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a film that starred Olivia de Havilland and ask you to name the actual film. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it!

1. Funerals with Footwear. 

2. No Room for a Quartet.

3. Vipers' Den.

4. Charlotte & Emily.

5. The Evil Sister.

6. Elevator!

7. What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?

8. The Mysterious Past of  Mark Sebastian.

9. Rejection.

10. Mother Without a Son.

11. Outlaw Town.

12. The Brothers Vickers.

13. Voice from the Grave.

14. A Wedding in Florence.

15. Trapped Underwater!

Monday, April 5, 2021

Hoosiers: A Tale of Inspiration and Second Chances

Gene Hackman as Coach Norman.
Second chances, the popularity of small town sports, and teamwork are the themes that underlie Hoosiers, a surprise 1986 boxoffice hit.

Gene Hackman stars as Dale Norman, a formerly disgraced college basketball coach hired at Hickory High School. The team has only seven players...and that includes the equipment manager who plays in practice only. Jimmy Chitwood, the town's best player, left the team following the death of the former coach, a father figure to the lad.

Coach Norman clashes with the townsfolk almost immediately, starting with a teacher (Barbara Hershey) who questions his education qualifications. The players' parents don't condone his pass-first basketball approach (four passes before a shot!) and his closed practices. It's not long with there's a petition to remove Norman from his job--although there are those who come to admire his emphasis on teamwork and discipline.

Barbara Hershey.
Hoosiers is a sports movie and a very good one. Set in the 1950s, it captures the importance of basketball in a small town devoid of other forms of entertainment. Heck, the school is too small to field a football or a baseball team, so basketball is everything. As Hershey's teacher says: "You know, a basketball hero around here is treated like a god...I've seen them, the real sad ones. They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were seventeen years old."

Dale Norman loves the game of basketball and recognizes a great player when he sees one. But for him, there are no individual heroes, only teams where the players work together to achieve the victory. I think this is what make Hoosiers a favorite among many real-life basketball players. When the 2002 Indiana University Hoosiers made an unlikely run to the NCAA championship game (ultimately losing to Maryland), the players watched Hoosiers before each tournament game.

Dennis Hopper as Shooter.
Yet, Hoosiers is also a movie about giving second chances and making the most of those opportunities. Coach Norman gets his chance to coach again because the high school principal, an old friend, believes in him. Norman pays it forward by taking on Shooter (Dennis Hopper), an alcoholic former high school star who happens to be the father of one of Norman's players. In one of the film's most amusing scenes, Norman gets intentionally thrown out of a game so that Shooter has to step up and coach the team. Hopper isn't in much of Hoosiers, but he brings out his character's love of the game and his desire to fight the demons that separated him from his family. It's a performance that earned Hopper a Best Supporting Actor nomination (though his best performance of 1986 was in David Lynch's riveting Blue Velvet).

During the filming of Hoosiers, Gene Hackman clashed almost daily with rookie director David Anspaugh and was convinced the film would flop. But after seeing the rough cut, Hackman knew that Hoosiers was special. The story is inspirational and the acting good, but it's the little touches that make it memorable: the autumn colors, the wind blowing through the fields, Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-nominated score.

The plot of Hoosiers was inspired by the 1954 Milan high school basketball team. Milan, Indiana, boasted a population of just over a 1,000 residents. And yet its high school basketball team played toe-to-toe with the biggest and best Indiana schools for two years. They almost won the state championship in 1953 and then accomplished the feat in 1954 in what has been dubbed The Milan Miracle.