powered by AFI
After the popular reception given Murder by Death (1976), his original screenplay spoofing the seminal figures of popular detective fiction, comic playwright Neil Simon opted to create another genre parody for Hollywood. Drawing upon the lifelong affection that he held for Humphrey Bogart, Simon stitched together plot elements from Bogey's signature vehicles into the engaging crazy-quilt homage The Cheap Detective (1978).
Essentially picking up where he left off with his Sam Spade send-up of Murder by Death, Peter Falk steps into the gumshoes of Lou Peckinpaugh, a private eye plying his trade in the "fictional" city of San Francisco in the days when WWII was just a-looming. Peckinpaugh doesn't merely come cheap - he stiffs every cabbie, doorman or bartender he encounters with a dogged determination. (Falk, for his part, has an apparent ball with the role; beyond the vocal characterization, the accuracy with which he replicates Bogart's body language is consistently amusing.)
The story initially tracks the plot of The Maltese Falcon (1941), as Lou's partner turns up dead, and the suspicious local cops take note of Peckinpaugh's ongoing affair with the widow (Marsha Mason). After placating the constabulary with Mason's questionable assistance ("Don't call me darling in front of the police with a dead husband!"), Lou's attentions are drawn to a mysterious new client (Madeline Kahn) who answers to Denise Manderley, or at the given moment, Gilda Dabney, Chloe Lamar, or Norma Shearer. Kahn places him on retainer to obtain a coveted object.
From there, Lou's inquiries take him to a watering hole called Nix Place, and the narrative careens into that of Casablanca (1942). (Charles R. Pierce's set is actually replete with props used in the Bogart/Bergman romance.) Once there, he encounters some incongruously-placed German army officers, a torch singer (Eileen Brennan) who leads the crowd in a mumbled sing-along, and the woman he once loved (Louise Fletcher), now married to a French resistance fighter (Fernando Lamas). The embittered Lou warns the bar's piano player (Scatman Crothers) not to play their song -and has no choice but to slam the cover on Crothers' fingers once he launches into Jeepers Creepers.
The next stop on the itinerary is The Big Sleep (1946), as Lou's search for the mastermind behind all the convoluted goings-on lead him to the decrepit industrialist Ezra C.V. Mildew Dezire Jr., nee Vladimir Tserijemiwtz (Sid Caesar) and his desirable trophy bride Jezebel (Ann-Margret). Lou is faced with the daunting tasks of tying up all the plot threads and choosing which of the several femme fatales that he'll walk off into the sunset with.
A few years before the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team got to establish their precept that genre spoofs work better with players that aren't typed to comic roles, The Cheap Detective offers similar evidence through the surprisingly funny contributions of Lamas and his befuddled take on Paul Henreid. The same can be said for John Houseman, who amusingly stepped into a role vacated by George Kirby (not to mention a fatsuit) to portray the Sydney Greenstreet-inspired Jasper Blubber ("We should leave separately. Makes more sense if I go first...Then I don't get stuck with the check.")
There's a slew of additional comic contributions from the large and diverse supporting cast, including Stockard Channing, James Coco, Nicol Williamson, Paul Williams, Abe Vigoda, David Ogden Stiers and James Cromwell. Simon's forte is character comedy, and the barrage of verbal and visual gags offered up by The Cheap Detective is not without its misses. Still, the filmmakers' love for the source material is abundantly evident, and any viewer harboring similar sentiments will have their reasons to smile.
Producer: Margaret Booth, Raymond Stark
Director: Robert Moore
Screenplay: Neil Simon
Art Direction: Phillip Bennett, Charles R. Pierce
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
Editing: Sid Levin, Michael A. Stevenson
Music: Patrick Williams
Cast: Peter Falk (Lou Peckinpaugh), Ann-Margret (Jezebel Dezire), Eileen Brennan (Betty DeBoop), Sid Caesar (Ezra Dezire), Stockard Channing (Bess), James Coco (Marcel), Dom DeLuise (Pepe Damascus).
C-93m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jay Steinberg