Color, 1971, 108 mins. 6 secs.
Directed by Alan Arkin
Starring Elliott Gould, Marcia Rodd, Vincent Gardenia, Elizabeth Wilson, Jon Korkes, John Randolph, Doris Roberts, Lou Jacobi, Donald Sutherland, Alan Arkin
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Fox (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

A nerve-rattling New York Little MurdersCity nightmare Little Murdersclassified as a comedy, this adaptation by Pulitzer-winning cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer of his own late '60s stage play is as potent as any horror film and one of the great undiscovered would-be cult films. Released the same year as Feiffer's much more famous Carnal Knowledge, this film seemed like a bizarre and uncomfortable sit for mainstream viewers despite the presence of star Elliott Gould, a hot ticket at the time following his massive success in M*A*S*H; however, the passage of time has proven it to be not only prescient but even more chilling today with a final conclusion that still packs a wallop.

When she witnesses photographer Alfred (Gould) being beaten up in the park, optimistic activist Patsy Newquist (Rodd) comes to his aid only to find him less than grateful for her help. So passive he refuses to get angry or resist when he's regularly bullied or mugged, he can find no other way of dealing with the urban mania around him as he goes around snapping photos of some very unusual still lifes. At first Patsy is outraged at his passive attitude and his failure to stand up for her against the thugs, but soon she comes to take him on as kind of a pet project to see if she can motivate him into action. That includes a visit with her odd family including her parents (Gardenia and Wilson) and her dysfunctional, closeted gay brother, Kenny (Korkes), all of whom still seem maladjusted following the death of the family's oldest son in Vietnam. Against their better judgment, Alfred and Patsy end up deciding to get married but, after jumping through hoops including a blow-hard judge (Jacobi), it's clear that modern society may not be the best place to look for true happiness. Little MurdersLittle Murders

Already tapping into the darker aspects of city living like random violence, obscene phone calls, blackouts, and crackpot behavior, Little Murders was inspired by the recent up-tick in irrational criminal behavior with Feiffer citing the JFK assassination as a primary influence; however, murders like the 1964 public stabbing of Kitty Genovese seem a lot more relevant here. The violence here is either indicated off screen or shown in its aftermath, but the tone is extremely unsettling even when you're laughing out loud at its absurdity. The humor here feels akin to the social outrage comedy of the era, most pointedly films like the same year's The Hospital and especially 1970s' Where's Poppa? which depicts an equally insane New York and would make a good double bill here. This would be the first of only two feature films directed by future Oscar-winning actor Alan Arkin (followed by Fire Sale), who was being pigeonholed at the time as a goofball comedy actor despite solid dramatic turns in such films as Wait Until Dark and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. His own penchant for dark humor had already been revealed a year earlier in the great Catch-22, so it makes sense that he would dedicate himself to bringing this play -- which he had directed on stage in its Obie-winning incarnation with a cast including Gardenia -- to the screen in some form or another. The play's single apartment setting is opened up substantially and to great effect with NYC locations used to good effect, and while the origins are still obvious by the nature of the dialogue, the final effect here is most definitely cinematic enough to make one wish Arkin had a more prolific career behind the camera. Among the many memorable highlights in the film, Gould's M*A*S*H co-star Donald Sutherland gets a terrific single-scene bit as a very Little Murderslaissez-faire reverend whose blanket philosophy of "It's all right" at all costs is a spot-on predictor of the pervasive '70s attitude that the actor would later revisit with more overtly horrific results in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The rest of the cast is sprinkled with great New York-based Little Murdersactors (almost all from Brooklyn in some way or another), including newly written parts filled by John Randolph and Doris Roberts. The end result is really something special and, as mentioned above, a little too timely for comfort; the resolution in particular will send a chill down the spine of many American viewers now far more than it did at the time given the nature of current headlines.

Fox released this film on DVD back in 2004, but it went out of circulation after only a couple of years and started commanding some very high prices among third-party sellers. It's been a long time in the wilderness since then but Little Murders finally came back into circulation courtesy of Indicator's Region B UK release, a worldwide Blu-ray premiere. In keeping with the label's standards the presentation is top notch and accurate to the early '70s source with its dark, gritty texture left intact and lots of detail in evidence. The LPCM English mono track with optional SDH subtitles is also satisfying even if there isn't anything too demanding that will test your sound system. The film can also be played with optional intros by Arkin (30s) and Feiffer (45s). An audio commentary with actor Elliott Gould and writer Jules Feiffer was recorded separately but edits them together more or less seamlessly; they both talk about the source play (including Gould's one-week run during the film's first attempted production), with other factors including a offer to direct to Jean-Luc Godard, the process of opening up the action for the film (including restoring the Lou Jacobi scene cut from the play), the "national nervous breakdown" that informed the whole concept, and the difficulty of playing Alfred's "terrible pain in the ass" character without turning off an audience entirely. A second commentary with Diabolique's Samm Deighan lives up to her stellar track record (including a classic previous Indicator track with frequent commentary cohort and fellow podcaster Kat Ellinger for The Gorgon) with a thorough breakdown of the film's importance as an early '70s intersection of several vital talents, with connections drawn to several other key works including Carnal Knowledge (which, she interestingly argues, is bleaker). Little Murders

Little MurdersAn excellent new Arkin interview, "Beginner's Luck" (18m23s), features good-natured reminiscences about taking a largely improvisational approach to his directing and the very harmonious working relationship he shared with Feiffer and the key lessons he learned from this film's legendary cinematographer, Gordon Willis. Gould turns up next for "A Certain Amount of Black (17m34s), whose title comes from an observation he heard from Ingmar Bergman; he's very sharp and articulate as he goes through the theatrical history again and touches on some of his own production experiences (including one from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) that informed his approach to this role (and his unofficial producer capacity). Feiffer offers his own take on camera in "Acts of Random Violence" (31m31s), which reiterates a fair amount of his commentary info but arranges it into an easy to digest half-hour summary including a discussion of how the story evolved from an aborted novel project and sprang from his response to the public's cockeyed treatment of recurring violence. The archival "Speaking of Films: Little Murders" (30m11s), whose title is given as "Talking About Films" on the actual audio, features an academic breakdown of the film with Feiffer and critics Susan Rice, Robert Geller, Leonard Maltin and Sean Driscoll, taking a distinctly Vietnam-era take on the material. A batch of radio interviews (31m37s) compiled for broadcast promotion (sent out on vinyl) with Gould, Sutherland, and Arkin, and not surprisingly, the Sutherland segment will the freshest and most unique here since we haven't heard from him before on the disc. Also included are the original trailer, a Trailers from Hell edition presented by Larry Karaszewski (with one highlight including this film's link to What's Up, Doc?), a handful of TV spots (1m51s) touting this as "a terrifying comedy" (talk about truth in advertising!), a collection of radio spots (2m34s), and a gallery of stills, production photos, and promotional material. As usual the limited first edition (3,000 units) features an exclusive insert booklet, this time containing a very impassioned Jim O’Rourke essay called "End of the Road," bios of Arkin, Feiffer and Rodd, a promotional print packet with trivia and interview snippets (as well as a study guide!), a brief Arkin note about Willis, coverage of director Jean Renoir's admiration for the film and a fan letter he sent to Arkin, and a few snippets of critical responses from the film's theatrical release. Definitely one of the finest Indicator releases to date and hopefully one that will end up on several of the year's top ten lists.

Reviewed on April 29, 2018.