Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Cheap Detective (1978)

With the somewhat surprise success of Simon’s Murder By Death, the folks at Columbia were suddenly interested in the playwright’s spoofing abilities, so a “sequel” of sorts was green lit: a satire of Humphrey Bogart’s film noir classics, specifically Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. Using the exact same producer, director and (obviously) writer, it was released in the early summer of 1978, and named The Cheap Detective. 

In style, structure and tone it’s nearly identical to Murder By Death. What’s not he same is the number of laughs. While Murder kept its madcap storyline afloat for the duration of 90 minutes, peppering it with twists, turns and hijinks along he way, Detective just isn’t all that engaging. It stars Peter Falk in the title role and a bevy of my favorite character actresses of the 70s in supporting roles, but, aside from a minor chortle here and there, I was mostly stone-faced, and it sure was a long hour-and-a-half.

A plot synopsis seems kind of silly, as it’s basically a pastiche of plots from the movies it satirizes (albeit exaggerated). Falk is Lou Peckinpaugh, a combo of Bogart’s characters Sam Spade and Rick Blaine
(perfect casting; it always seemed like Falk was doing a Bogart impersonation on Columbo anyway). Madeleine Khan shows up at his office, revealing the skeletons in her closet, leading to a murder of which Lou must prove himself innocent. And all the while he gets involved in a hunt by assorted seamy types to find a treasure. Louise Fletcher, as “Ilsa” from Casablanca, needs Lou’s help to get papers for her husband so he can start a restaurant in Oakland (oh yeah – this all takes place in San Francisco). Lou solves the crimes, sees that justice is served, and gets all the dames in the end

Yet the question remains: why isn’t this funnier? Clearly, I’m not the only one, given the film’s tepid box office performance. In the DVD’s bonus interview, Simon may have indirectly offered his own explanation – he said the key to the film’s “success” is that it’s not completely based on its source material, and that one can find it funny without having seen Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon. 

But I disagree – I think the humor is entirely based on prerequisite. E.g. – the Ilsa characters goes on and on and on with platitudes about nobly supporting the French cause, an exaggeration of Ingrid Begman’s staunch words of support in Casablanca. And these are films made in the 40s, long before the cinematic purview of most 70s moviegoers. Now, yes, I know Mel Brooks had a massive hit lampooning the Universal monster movies of the 30s in Young Frankenstein, but the humor was broad and farcical enough to be enjoyed solely on its own terms. And it was Brooks himself who started the sea change of comic parody in the mid-seventies, which came to a head with the joke-a-second, sillier-is-better Airplane!, made in 1980 by the Zucker Brothers. By 1978 (the year of Cheap Detective), they had already released the scatological parody Kentucky Fried Movie, and that same year John Landis broke all the rules of movie comedy in general with his raunchy Animal House. Simon’s work was just too darn – pleasant – dare I say quaint? – for young audiences’ of the time. It’s no surprise he went right back to adapting his Broadway works again the following year.

But Detective is certainly well-directed. The comedy timing is fine and the costumes and photography do a good job of replicating the look of those classic films. Maybe ten years earlier…. who knows?

Mariginalia: Louise Fletcher, glammed up now, sure looks a lot better than she did as the icy Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And she actually does a pretty good job delivering those lines with a completely straight face. Too bad she was never better utilized. 

Rating: ***

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