Little Murders, Arkin's directorial debut, is adapted from Jules Feiffer's darkly comic play about random violence and urban paranoia. I wouldn't say Arkin has opened up the production so much as he brings the city to the stage. Muggings, burglaries, black-outs and stray bullets occur at frequent intervals and bring together a mismatched NYC couple. Alfred (Elliot Gould) responds by closing in on his own shell, while Patsy (Marcia Rodd) stays relentlessly upbeat and determined to change things -- especially Alfred himself. "I love the man I want to mold you into" is one of her funnier lines, and like the best of Feiffer's dialogue it contains more than a few grains of truth.
I can't say I loved Little Murders as much as Ed Howard did. Like most actors who venture behind the camera, Arkin fares better with the performances than staging, though the latter isn't bad. (He had just starred in Catch-22, and this movie seems heavily influenced by Mike Nichols's flair for surrealism.) Rarely have I seen a leading man say and do as little as Gould says and does here: he's an immobile object. Yet it's an amusing performance, not a lazy one; and he has one moment of genuine pathos, when he responds to another character's death by crawling into a corner. Donald Sutherland, Gould's co-star from M*A*S*H, has a hilarious cameo as the hippie-minister who performs Alfred and Patsy's wedding ceremony that takes a few unconventional turns. While a few of the actors shout their lines, Sutherland puts a wry spin on his. Watching him here made me re-appreciate what a unique and subtle actor he is, a master of the change-up pitch while everyone else is trying to throw heat.
Surprisingly Arkin himself, one of our greatest comic actors, gives a poorly calibrated performance as a high-strung detective. But the trio playing Patsy's deliriously chipper, unhinged family -- Vincent Gardenia, Elizabeth Wilson, and Jon Korkes -- are the highlight of the film, a forerunner to the lunatic Schlichtings in David O. Russell's Flirting with Disaster. Gardenia is as grand a ham as always. But special mention goes to Wilson, who was Benjamin Braddock's mother in The Graduate and here gets a showcase for her mastery of repressed hysteria. She's remarkable.
I didn't participate in Tony Dayoub's De Palma-thon for a fundamental reason: I'm not a fan. While I like a handful of De Palma films (Blow Out, Carlito's Way, Mission: Impossible, the entertainingly sleazy Femme Fatale), the bulk of his work either leaves me cold or has me ducking for cover. The excellence of the entries on Dayoub's site prompted me to give some of De Palma's earlier films another look, and while there are elements to admire I'm not convinced he's the master satirist his admirers make him out to be. For a supposed control freak, there's often something out of whack with the tone of his movies, as if he's unaware of his own effects.
Case in point, Phantom of the Paradise, De Palma's update of The Phantom of the Opera by way of Faust, is all over the place between those two poles. Its hero, the songwriter Winston (William Finley), has his musical compositions stolen by evil record producer Swan (Paul Williams) and is horribly disfigured, but returns to haunt the "Paradise," Swan's lavish musical palace set to open. Winston dons a cape and what appears to be some kind of bedpan, which understandably repels the woman he falls in love with (Jessica Harper), a singer who becomes the main attraction at the Paradise.
Phantom of the Paradise has the high energy of a well-made shoestring production. (It will be interesting to see if De Palma can repeat it if his planned bigger-budget remake comes to fruition.) There is a sense of mischief as well as an indication of mass quantities of drugs consumed behind the scenes. What I don't detect is a deeper statement or even a real purpose for the movie's existence, which is perfectly fine. Phantom of the Paradise didn't leave me cold. It just made me say, as it reached its over-the-top end, "Well, then!"