Dead Pigeons Make Easy Targets: THE CHEAP DETECTIVE (Columbia 1978)

THE CHEAP DETECTIVE could easily be subtitled “Neil Simon Meets MAD Magazine”. The playwright and director Robert Moore had scored a hit with 1976’s MURDER BY DEATH, spoofing screen PI’s Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, and Nick & Nora Charles, and now went full throttle in sending up Humphrey Bogart movies. Subtle it ain’t, but film buffs will get a kick out of the all-star cast parodying THE MALTESE FALCON, CASABLANCA , TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, and THE BIG SLEEP .

Peter Falk  does his best Bogie imitation as Lou Peckinpaugh, as he did in the previous film. When Lou’s partner Floyd Merkle is killed, Lou finds himself in a FALCON-esque plot involving some rare Albanian Eggs worth a fortune. Madeline Kahn , John Houseman, Dom De Luise , and Paul Williams stand in for Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook Jr, respectively, and they milk it for every laugh they can get, especially Kahn as the mystery woman who continuously changes her name and personality!

There’s a CASABLANCA subplot with Louise Fletcher as Lou’s former flame, now married to French resistance fighter Fernando Lamas, getting an opportunity to show off his comic skills. Nicol Williamson plays Colonel Schissel, leader of “the Cincinnati Gestapo”, with young James Cromwell as his aide Schnell. James Coco and David Ogden Stiers are café waiters, and since you can’t have CASABLANCA without Sam, we get Scatman Crothers as the piano player who’s told not to play that song again… “Jeepers Creepers”!

Eileen Brennen mimics Lauren Bacall as a sultry saloon singer who calls Lou “Fred” (he in turn dubs her “Slinky”). Ann-Margret channels THE BIG SLEEP’s Martha Vickers as the oversexed wife of ancient, decrepit Sid Caesar , Simon’s old YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS boss. Marsha Mason, Simon’s wife at the time, plays Merkle’s cheating widow Georgia, who accidentally flushes the dead dick’s ashes down the toilet! Stockard Channing’s on hand as Lou’s handy, virginal secretary Bess, and Vic Tayback, Abe Vigoda, and Carmine Caridi are the overbearing cops on Lou’s case ( at one point, Tayback tells Vigoda to “stop leaning” on Lou… literally!). Funnyman Phil Silvers , who Simon also worked with on the SGT. BILKO sitcom, has a cameo as a cab driver.

DP John Alonso, who shot the neo-noir CHINATOWN (and there’s a CHINATOWN gag in this, too), gives us a fog-shrouded, sepia-toned San Francisco setting. Simon goes back to his SHOW OF SHOWS roots with all the puns, word play (“Hello, Georgia. I just had you on my mind”), and wacky sight gags. It’s obvious Simon has an affection for these films as he lampoons all the Bogart movie tropes, and the cast seems to be having a ball. There are plenty of guffaws to be had viewing THE CHEAP DETECTIVE, a Bogie devotee’s delight, and fans of film parodies like AIRPLANE! and THE NAKED GUN are sure to get a kick out of this one.

 

Something Wilder: THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER (20th Century-Fox 1975)

The late Gene Wilder was well loved by filmgoers for his work with Mel Brooks, his movies alongside Richard Pryor, and his iconic role as Willie Wonka. Wilder had co-written the screenplay for Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and now branched out on his own as writer/director/star of 1975’s THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER.

The zany tale, set in 1891, finds Sherlock’s jealous brother Sigerson (Wilder, who derisively calls his more famous sibling “Sheer-Luck”) assigned to the case of music hall singer Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn) who’s being blackmailed by opera singer Eduardo Gambetti (the enormously funny Dom DeLuise ). Assisting Sigerson is his own Watson, the pop-eyed Sgt. Orville Stacker (Marty Feldman), blessed with “a photographic sense of hearing” that he can only access by whacking himself upside the head. The plot thickens as Sigerson learns Jenny’s a practiced liar (who only trusts men when she’s sexually aroused), she’s actually the daughter of British Foreign Secretary Redcliff… which is another lie; she’s Redcliff’s fiancé, and has handed over an important document to Gambetti, who’s about to sell it to none other than the infamous Professor Moriarty (Leo McKern)!

Wilder displays a keen eye for film in his directorial debut. Like his friend Brooks, he’s obviously a student of the medium, and the film is a visual delight. There’s plenty of laughs to be had, like the scene where Sigerson and Sacker are trapped by Moriarty and Gambetti in a tiny room menaced by a buzzsaw, and escape by the seats of their pants… literally! The comic highlight is “A Masked Ball”, an opera parody starring Gambetti and Jenny invaded by Sigerson, Sacker, and Moriarty’s henchman (Roy Kinnear) where the document is passed around, all with expert comedy timing. Following this is a swashbuckling sequence with Wilder taking on the dastardly McKern.

Wilder, Feldman, and Kahn are all reunited from YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, while McKern and Kinnear were previously paired in The Beatles film HELP! Douglas Wilmer, who starred as Sherlock in the 60’s BBC TV series, donned the deerstalker cap once again; his Watson is Thorley Walters, who essayed the part in three Holmes films. And yes, that’s the voice of Mel Brooks behind the door in a parody of “The Lady or The Tiger?’.

There are plenty of musical sequences in the movie, including the bizarre “Kangaroo Hop”. THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER is a madcap romp, but just a notch below Wilder’s films with Brooks. He’d go on to write and direct three more films; THE WOMAN IN RED was his most popular, though I prefer his silent era spoof THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER (let’s not talk about HAUNTED HONEYMOON). Still, it’s a solid first effort for Wilder in the director’ seat, with a sterling cast of comic pros, and if you like Mel Brooks’ brand of buffoonery, you’ll definitely enjoy this film, too.

 

Egging The McGufffin: HIGH ANXIETY (20th Century Fox 1977)

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Mel Brooks loves films as much as the rest of us do. After skewering Westerns in BLAZING SADDLES and horror movies in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Mel set his satirical sights on Alfred Hitchcock in HIGH ANXIETY. The result is a film buff’s dream, with the gags coming fast and furious as Mel and his band of merry pranksters pay a loving but hysterical homage to the films of the Master of Suspense.

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Mel takes the lead here as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, the new head of the Psycho Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. Thorndyke’s aide, the inept Brophy, thinks the former director was “a victim of foul play”. At the Institute, he meets oily Dr. Montague and starched Nurse Diesel, whose S&M/B&D relationship isn’t their only secret. Thorndyke has an ally in his mentor, Prof. Lilloman (say it slowly). The professor works as a consultant, and tries to help Thorndyke conquer his own phobia, “high anxiety” (fear of heights to you laymen).

Thorndyke discovers some very rich patients are being held there, but Montague assures him they’re very sick people, such as Zachary Cartwright, who sees werewolves, and Arthur Brisbane, who thinks he’s a Cocker Spaniel. After the mysterious death (“murder… I mean accident, accident”, sputters Montague, Thorndyke is encouraged to attend the psychiatric convention in San Francisco. A “Mr. McGuffin” called and moved his room to the 17th floor! Once he makes it up there, a typical Hitchcock blonde bursts in, saying “They’re after me!” Turns out she’s Victoria Brisbane, daughter of Arthur. Thorndyke shows her a picture and she tells him the Cocker Spaniel-wanna-be is not her father at all!

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After completing his lecture on penis envy (which he has to alter when a colleague show up with his two young daughters!), Thorndyke and Victoria meet up in the piano bar, where we get to hear Mel croon his self-penned “High Anxiety” in his Sinatra-via-the-Catskills style. Monatgue and Diesel have hired a killer named “Braces” to disguise himself as Thorndyke and commit murder. Now Richard Thorndyke must clear his name and find out the truth about what’s really going on at the Psycho Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous!

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Brooks loaded the cast with comedy pals like Harvey Korman as Montague, and Cloris Leachman as Nurse Diesel, who’s a cross between REBECCA’s Mrs. Danvers and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST’s Nurse Ratched. Madeline Kahn (Victoria), draped in a blonde wig, spoofs Hitchcock leading ladies like Grace Kelly and Tippy Hedren. Ron Carey, Charlie Callas, and Jack Riley add to the fun, and Oscar-winning Special Effects genius Albert Whitlock (who worked on nine Hitchcock films) plays the real Brisbane. Even Mel’s co-writers get into the act, including future director Barry Levinson (DINER, RAIN MAN) as a deranged bellboy.

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Fans of the Master will get most of the jokes right off the bat. Besides the obvious shower scene from PSYCHO and Mel being chased by THE BIRDS (pigeons who shit all over him… hey, nobody ever said Mel Brooks was subtle!), there are references to THE 39 STEPS, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, SABOTEUR, SPELLBOUND, REAR WINDOW, DIAL M FOR MURDER, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and of course VERTIGO. Even Hitchcock supposedly liked HIGH ANXIETY, sending Mel a case of expensive wine after watching it with a note reading, “A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this”(1). Movie fans will have a ball picking out the Hitchcock allusions in HIGH ANXIETY…. once they stop laughing!

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(1) quote from “It’s Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks” by James Robert Parrish (2008, Wiley & Sons, ISBN 9780470225264)

Way Out West: BLAZING SADDLES (Warner Brothers 1974)

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So last night I tried watching Seth MacFarlane’s A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST. At about the twenty minute mark, I came to the conclusion the film totally sucked, and deleted it from the DVR. I was still in the mood for some Western comedy though, and fortunately I had Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES in the queue and ready to roll. BLAZING SADDLES never fails to make me laugh out loud no matter how many times I watch it. Nobody does fart jokes like Mel Brooks:

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The story revolves around Cleavon Little as Bart, a black man appointed sheriff of Rock Ridge by Governor LePetomane (Google it!). This doesn’t go over well with the God-fearin’ town citizens, since Bart is black, and they’re a bunch of redneck racists. It’s all a scheme by the Gov’s crooked Attorney General Hedy Lamarr…oops, that’s HEDLEY!  You see, Hedy (err, Hedley) knows the railroad is going to go through Rock Ridge and wants to drive the townsfolk out so he can buy up all the land. No one stands by Bart’s side except The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), formerly the fastest gun in the West, now a broken down drunkard.

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Hedy (ahem, Hedley!) sends Mongo, the meanest man in the West, to terrorize Rock Ridge and get rid of Bart. Unfortunately, Mongo has a brain the size of a pea, and is easily outwitted by Bart. So the devious Hedy (THAT’S HEDLEY!) sends his ace in the hole, German chanteuse Lily Von Schtupp to seduce him. The tables are turned when Lily finds out just how “gifted” Bart is! Finally, the most dastardly villains of the West are assembled, “an army of…rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters…muggers, buggerers, horse thieves, bull dykes”  to raid Rock Ridge and kill everyone in sight! The grand finale breaks the fourth wall as a wild and wooly slapstick melee ends up going through the Warner Brothers lot!

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Little is a riot as Bart, his cartoonish antics making him a black Bugs Bunny come to life. Wilder gives a sly performance as The Waco Kid, and Harvey Korman is hysterical as the fiendish Hedley Lamarr (whom everyone calls Hedy in a running joke). Western vet Slim Pickens is funny too, as Hedley’s lunkheaded henchman Taggart. Madeline Kahn does her best Marlene Dietrich impression as Lily Von Schtupp, with the pronunciation of Elmer Fudd. Her song, “I’m Tired”, is one of many highlights. Football legend Alex Karras plays the hulking Mongo as an overgrown kid, while John Hillerman, David Huddleston, George Furth, and Dom DeLuise also add to the fun.

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Mel Brooks directed and had a hand in the screenplay, as well as playing three roles (The Gov, a Yiddish speaking Indian, and one of Lily’s Prussian back-up dancers). Like any Mel Brooks comedy, there’s enough here to offend everybody:  racist humor, politically incorrect gags, sexual innuendo, slapstick tomfoolery, plus lots of Hollywood in-jokes to savor in this no-holds-barred comedy classic. When it comes to spoofing the Western genre, sorry Seth, but Make Mine Mel! I’ll give the last word to that prairie philosopher, Mongo:

 

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