Today! Because I’m using rented bullets for my gun. We’ve all got problems –
The Cheap Detective (1978)
Directed by Robert Moore
Starring Peter Falk, Madeline Kahn, John Houseman, Stockard Channing, James Coco (x2), Eileen Brennan, Dom DeLuise (x3), Louise Fletcher, Marsha Mason, Abe Vigoda, Vic Tayback, David Ogden Stiers, Scatman Crothers (x2), Nicol Williamson, Paul Williams, Phil Silvers, Fernando Lamas, Sid Caesar, Ann-Margret, James Cromwell, Jonathan Banks (x2)
A spiritual sequel to the zany Neil Simon comedy Murder By Death, The Cheap Detective is a more direct parody than its predecessor, taking Peter Falk’s twisted Bogart impression and slamming Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and The Big Sleep together into one silly 1940’s San Francisco mystery, replete with Nazis, secret identities, Romanians, stolen treasure, and an acronymed pseudo-villain named Vladimir Tserijemiwtz, which works out to Ezra C.V. Mildew Dezire Jr.!
Many members of the large cast appeared in Murder By Death as well, including Coco, Brennan, and Cromwell, but Falk’s is the only character transplanted over more or less intact, even with a different name (Lou Peckinpaugh here, Sam Diamond in Murder). These movies are in the rare group of Neil Simon screenplays that weren’t adapted from his stage plays, which includes The Out-of-Towners, The Goodbye Girl, and Seems Like Old Times. They do, however, have that indefinable Neil Simon-ness about their jokes, which mostly land, even if they can verge into mild racism here and there. Ah, the 1970s!
My run of amateur theatricals included appearing in a bunch of Simon shows, such as The Good Doctor and Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and one of the reasons I knew I wasn’t all that good was I couldn’t deliver Neil Simon-y jokes without adding a little pause or shrug or something, as if to say “Oh, Neil Simon, am I right?” I wasn’t great selling dialogue that didn’t feel natural to me, and this included plays I wrote, many of which had the most unnatural dialogue of all. They got better over time! But I stopped acting by then.
As great as Falk is, along with Houseman, DeLuise, and Williams as the various Sidney Greenstreet/Peter Lorre types, it’s the femme fatales that steal this movie. From Madeline Kahn’s endlessly pseudonymed Mary Jones to Stockard Channing’s hard luck dame assistant Bess to Marsha Mason’s widowed Mrs. Merkle to Louise Fletcher’s Ingrid Bergman-esque Marlene, they present a number of different styles and problems opposite Lou’s hard bitten detective, managing to pull the various sources together into one albeit unwieldy story. But the film is funny enough to get you past most of the nonsense in the plot – it’s a pretty straightforward parody that way, and if you’re familiar with Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, it’s not like you’d be all that confused.
Zero awards for The Cheap Detective! I’m not sure how popular these movies ever were, honestly, they were just staples of my childhood, but they have so many big names I assume they are still significant-ish, to the type of folks watching 40+ year old comedies, right? You would agree then, I assume, if nothing else Cheap Detective should take home a Best Anti-Aging Casting award, for having all-time great songwriter and underrated actor Paul Williams playing the Elisha Cook Jr. Maltese Falcon role, here named Boy, all while being a solid 38-year-old man. Well done!
Another trio join the Two-Timers club today, putting membership up to an astounding 214 here – James Coco, following his very brief role in #282 Johnny Dangerously, Scatman Crothers, star of my favorite section of #331 Twilight Zone: The Movie, and future Mike Ehrmantraut Jonathan Banks, cameoing again after his quick role in #281’s Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. But we do have one new Three-Timer, too – comic legend and cooking guru Dom DeLuise, following his quick Pope work in Johnny Dangerously, and random gangster Don Giovanni in #395 Robin Hood: Men in Tights.