It was until after The Cheap Detective was over I realized there’s never anything about Peter Falk’s fee. It’s not clear whether he’s cheap or not. It’s never addressed. It’s one of the many things Neil Simon’s screenplay never gets around to addressing, like if the third act is all a scheme or if it’s all coincidental. It doesn’t much matter–by the third act, The Cheap Detective is so overflowing with characters (there are twenty-three actors listed in the opening titles), and the movie’s less than ninety minutes, it’d be impossible to fit in a good scheme reveal. Not to say the ending is satisfactory. It’s still lazy. It’s just easy to understand why Simon didn’t try for anything ambitious. The movie’s just too crowded.
The Cheap Detective is a mix of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, set in San Francisco, but still with Nazis after French resistance fighters. The difference is the Nazis are from the Cincinnati chapter and the French resistance fighters just want to open a bistro in Oakland. Cheap Detective has a lot of cheap, deadpan jokes, which only go over thanks to the cast.
Because even though the film’s too small–it’s mostly interiors and the same ones, over and over (budget, presumably)–and Simon doesn’t do much with the script besides the amalgamation of Bogart movies played for laughs, the cast is almost always exceptional. And, when they aren’t, it’s usually because the jokes bad.
Falk is the Bogart caricature. More on Falk in a bit, I need to get through the supporting cast. First, the characters cribbed from Falcon and Casablanca. Falcon: Madeline Kahn is Mary Astor, Marsha Mason is Gladys George (partner’s widow), Dom DeLuise is Peter Lorre, John Houseman is Sydney Greenstreet, Paul Williams is Elisha Cook Jr., and Stockard Channing is de facto Lee Patrick (the secretary). Casablanca: Louise Fletcher is Ingrid Bergman, Fernando Lamas is Paul Henreid, Scatman Crothers is Dooley Wilson, Nicol Williamson is the Nazi commander. Ann-Margret and Sid Caesar are kind of riffs on Big Sleep characters but barely. Then James Coco is around–in the Casablanca stuff–as the club owner, since Falk is the detective not Rick. And Eileen Brennan, in the film’s fourth biggest part, is a sultry night club performer who falls for Falk. Or does she.
Simon’s script adapts scenes from both Falcon and Casablanca, somewhat successfully merging the two. It’s silly, smile-provoking, but effective. Kahn is fantastic, DeLuise is fantastic, Mason is fantastic. Brennan’s good with a thin part folded in on itself, Lamas is good, Ann-Margret is fun, John Houseman does a fine impression (it’s interesting to contrast him with DeLuise or Williams, who aren’t aping the source performances as much). Channing is good. She’s got almost nothing to do. Ditto Williamson. Crothers is basically a cameo. In some ways, so is Coco. Fletcher is the least successful, partially because of the part, partially because she still functions like Ilsa in Casablanca only without any chemistry with Falk.
And now it’s time for some Falk discussion, which–sadly–doesn’t rhyme with frank as much as I’d like.
Falk moves through Cheap Detective amiably, humorously, but always as support for his more outlandish costars. He’s not the straight man; he’s a little befuddled (or is he) and he’s always subdued. He’s a great costar. He’s not a great lead. Anyone putting in any effort dominates their scenes with him (so, basically, not Houseman and not Fletcher, though for different reasons).
Even though Falk’s The Cheap Detective, he’s barely the lead and definitely not the protagonist, not with Simon’s third act shenanigans. Those shenanigans are particularly disappointing because the film’s never better than at the end of the second act, when it seems like it might add up to something.
I suppose it does add up to something, but not anything ambitious or even enthusiastic.
Nice music from Patrick Williams. Decent photography from John A. Alonzo, though there’s only so much he can do given the obviously limited shooting locations. Sidney Levin and Michael A. Stevenson’s editing is a mess. They can’t cut to or from close-ups; some of the problem appears to be Robert Moore’s composition. Cheap Detective is Panavision and almost charming for it, but Moore runs out of shots fast and keeps using the same three-shot over and over again. The shots become predictable. And if you’re familiar with the source material, the scenes become predictable. Cheap Detective gets by thanks to the cast and their enthusiasm more than anything the filmmakers contribute.
The film seems like a better idea than it turns out to be in execution, but there’s still some excellent material throughout. And Kahn, Mason, DeLuise, and Brennan are all great.
Directed by Robert Moore; written by Neil Simon; director of photography, John A. Alonzo; edited by Sidney Levin and Michael A. Stevenson; music by Patrick Williams; production designer, Robert Luthardt; produced by Ray Stark; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring Peter Falk (Lou Peckinpaugh), Madeline Kahn (Mrs. Montenegro), Marsha Mason (Georgia Merkle), Eileen Brennan (Betty DeBoop), Louise Fletcher (Marlene DuChard), Fernando Lamas (Paul DuChard), Ann-Margret (Jezebel Dezire), Stockard Channing (Bess), Dom DeLuise (Pepe Damascus), James Coco (Marcel), Nicol Williamson (Colonel Schlissel), Scatman Crothers (Tinker), Paul Williams (Boy), John Houseman (Jasper Blubber), Vic Tayback (Lt. DiMaggio), and Sid Caesar (Ezra Dezire).