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.

 

The Game’s Afoot: THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION (Universal 1976)

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Sherlock Holmes has long been a favorite literary character of mine. As a youth, I devoured the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, marveling at the sleuth’s powers of observation and deduction. I reveled in the classic Universal film series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson, and still enjoy them today. I read Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” as a teen, where a coked-out Holmes is lured by Watson to Vienna to have the famed Sigmund Freud cure the detective of his addiction, getting enmeshed in mystery along the way. I’d never viewed the film version until recently, and while Meyer’s screenplay isn’t completely faithful to his book, THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION is one of those rare instances where the movie is better than the novel.

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This is due in large part to a pitch-perfect cast, led by Nicol Williamson’s superb performance as Sherlock. We see Holmes at his worst, shooting coke like a maniac, jittery and on edge, babbling with wild-eyed intensity about “my nemesis, my evil genius”, the criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty. He’s paranoid and delusional, and Williamson brilliantly captures a man in the throes of cocaine-induced mania (trust me on this). Slowly but surely, with the help of the equally brilliant Freud, Holmes regains his sanity, and his deductive reasoning returns strong as ever. Williamson’s Holmes recalls the great Rathbone’s interpretation of the sleuth; indeed, the film as a whole will remind you of those 40’s films, albeit with a much, much larger budget.

Robert Duvall (Dr. John H. Watson) wants to dedfend the honor of Alan Arkin (Dr. Sigmund Freud).

Robert Duvall  gives a different take on Dr. John Watson than jolly old Nigel Bruce, far less of a bumbler and more athletic here despite the cane and limp. Alan Arkin makes a fine Sigmund Freud, and though the thought of the father of modern psychology as action hero may sound ludicrous, Arkin’s cerebral acting makes it work. Laurence Olivier is on hand briefly as Professor Moriarty, persecuted by the cocaine-demented Holmes. Vanessa Redgrave makes a lovely damsel in distress, playing the operatic diva Lola Devereaux. Charles Gray plays Holmes’ brother Mycroft, as he would later in the long-running British TV series starring Jeremy Brett. Jeremy Kemp exudes continental evil as the villainous Baron Leisdorf. All-star Familiar Faces Joel Grey, Samantha Eggar, Anna Quayle, Jill Townsend, and famed French discotheque’ matron Regine add to the fun.

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Besides the acting, this film is visually beautiful, with a lavish production design by Ken Adam, art direction by Robert Lamont, and Oscar nominated costuming by Alan Barrett, all stunningly filmed by cinematographer Oswald Morris, whose credits include MOBY DICK, HEAVEN KNOWS MR. ALLISON, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, LOLITA, and OLIVER!. Producer/director Herbert Ross’s background as a former choreographer comes in handy, gracefully guiding the players through their paces. Ross never really got the acclaim other directors of his era did, despite a solid track record of hit comedies (THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, THE SUNSHINE BOYS, THE GOODBYE GIRL), musicals (FUNNY LADY, FOOTLOOSE), and dramas (THE TURNING POINT, STEEL MAGNOLIAS).

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There are references to the Doyle stories peppered throughout the film for Sherlockphiles, and the climactic train chase, complete with a fencing duel atop a speeding locomotive, is loads of fun. Anyone who enjoys the current BBC version starring Benedict Cumberbatch or the CBS adaptation ELEMENTARY will have a grand old time viewing THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION.