Tag Archives: Paul Williams

The Cheap Detective (1978, Robert Moore)

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.

2/4★★

CREDITS

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).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE NEIL SIMON BLOGATHON HOSTED BY PADDY LEE OF CAFTAN WOMAN and RICH OF WIDE SCREEN WORLD.


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Phantom of the Paradise (1974, Brian De Palma)

Phantom of the Paradise has all the trappings of a failed passion project, only not a lot of passion for the project. Director De Palma, with a couple notable exceptions, doesn’t have much interest in directing a musical. When I say couple, I mean two–there are two scenes where he seems to care about directing the musical scenes. One of them is amusing, the other is breathtaking. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have much else to offer.

Except the soundtrack, I suppose. Paul Williams’s songs are fantastic.

Williams also stars in the film. He’s the “sold his soul to the Devil” music producer. William Finley is the guy who ends up selling his soul to Williams. Jessica Harper is the ingenue. De Palma’s script is an unfortunate mix of Phantom of the Opera, Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oh, and the Whale Frankenstein. It’s all over the place.

It’s very much a comedy, but very much a desperately unfunny one. Finley gets run through a slapstick wringer and takes actual damage from it. Williams’s character is one note. There’s occasionally some humor from it being Williams, but De Palma and cinematographer Larry Pizer aren’t satisfied just having an absurd script, they want absurd camera lens and movements and so on. At the beginning of the film, it seems like it’s all editor Paul Hirsch’s fault for not putting it together right, but no, there’s just no way to make it fit.

Harper’s pretty good though. Her singing audition is the one scene De Palma nails. He does a phenomenal job with it. He doesn’t do a phenomenal job once she gets the part and sings for an audience because De Palma directs those scenes poorly.

Also amusing is Gerrit Graham. He at least tries to be funny. The other comedic actors (Finley, George Memmoli as Williams’s sidekick)… well, if they’re trying to be funny, they’re failing. Hopefully they weren’t trying too hard.

At ninety minutes, Phantom overstays its welcome. Once it’s clear De Palma isn’t going to deliver on the musical numbers or the metaphor (and those failures are obvious when Harper ceases to have a character to play, just places to walk in front of the camera), it gets even more tiring.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Brian De Palma; director of photography, Larry Pizer; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Paul Williams; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Edward R. Pressman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring William Finley (Winslow Leach), Paul Williams (Swan), Jessica Harper (Phoenix), Gerrit Graham (Beef) and George Memmoli (Arnold Philbin).


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Paul Williams Still Alive (2011, Stephen Kessler)

The title, Paul Williams Still Alive, might be considered a spoiler if anyone except writer-director Kessler was sure Paul Williams wasn’t alive.

The film chronicles Kessler’s rediscovery of Paul Williams–more as a seventies entertainer than Paul Williams the songwriter or singer. There’s a lot about Kessler in the picture, including a lengthy section where he’s scared of terrorists in the Philippines before he picks up on Williams’s more zen-like attitudes about life.

But Still Alive isn’t about the filmmaker learning lasting life lessons from Williams. It’s also not about Williams, who isn’t the most documentary accommodating subject. Fairly early on, it’s clear Paul Williams always knew he was alive and didn’t think that discovery merited a documentary.

At the start, Kessler might have enough for a twenty minute short. Introduce Williams’s seventies celebrity, go through all his famous songs, catch up with him. And Kessler does these things… in the first twenty minutes of Alive. The rest is mostly just Kessler inserting himself into Williams’s professional life as a member of a non-existent entourage. Williams is a pleasant guy to spend eighty minutes around, even if Kessler’s constantly bugging him.

But Kessler? He’s not worth spending eighty minutes with… especially not when he’s appropriating his subject’s spotlight.

Still Alive succeeds because of its subject–and Williams is a very interesting fellow and Kessler does get some deep moments… but there’s a lot of padding.

Kessler should’ve gone for short and good instead of comprehensive and listless.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Stephen Kessler; director of photography, Vern Nobles; edited by David Zieff; production designer, Perry Andelin Blake; produced by Jim Czarnecki, Kessler, Mike Wilkins and Zieff; released by Abramorama.

Starring Paul Williams.


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The Muppet Movie (1979, James Frawley)

The Muppet Movie takes it upon itself to be all things… well, two things. It has to be appealing to kids and adults. The film is split roughly in half between the audiences, with the adults having more to appreciate in the star cameos–some cute, some hilarious (Steve Martin in short shorts)–and terrible puns and the kids have the songs.

To keep the kids amused during the more “adult” parts, there are the Muppets. The level of puppetry on display here is staggering, particularly once one realizes only a couple of the Muppets have moving eyes. The others just give the impression of moving, lifelike eyes through head tilts and reaction motion. Jim Henson and the Muppet performers show a masterful understanding of how the slightest motion implies real animation.

But the adults also have to be kept amused during the song sequences, which is a little harder, even though the Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher songs are great. There’s occasional humor, but there’s also amazing filmmaking. Director Frawley does a great job, as does Isidore Mankofsky’s photography and Christopher Greenbury’s editing. The Muppet Movie‘s beautifully made… and they know it.

The script frequently breaks the fourth wall, including references to how great some of the previous shots came out. The only bad shot is during Dom DeLuise’s cameo, like his close-ups had to be reshot.

The film’s idealistic and infectious. If you can believe the Muppets are real… you can believe in the film’s positive, inspiring message.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Frawley; written by Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl; director of photography, Isidore Mankofsky; edited by Christopher Greenbury; music by Paul Williams; production designer, Joel Schiller; produced by Jim Henson; released by Associated Film Distribution.

Starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt and Dave Goelz as the Muppets and Caroll Spinney (Big Bird).

Starring Charles Durning (Doc Hopper), Austin Pendleton (Max), Dom DeLuise (Bernie the Agent), Mel Brooks (Professor Max Krassman), Orson Welles (Lew Lord), Carol Kane (Myth) and Steve Martin (an insolent waiter).


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