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You know what they say about good intentions, and it was probably with the best that the powers-that-be at Columbia greenlit a reunion of the creative principals that made The In-Laws (1979) a critical and commercial comedy hit. Big Trouble (1986) wound up being rather aptly titled; the production wound up with its fair share of turmoil, and its theatrical run became one of the era's more notorious dogs. Given time and distance, though, this lovingly twisted homage to Double Indemnity (1944) isn't quite the multi-car pileup that has been reputed, and actually offers quite a few laughs from an accomplished cast of farceurs.
Hard-plugging suburban insurance salesman Leonard Hoffman (Alan Arkin) is experiencing a not uncommon middle-age crisis, which is magnified; his musically gifted triplet sons have all been accepted to Yale. There's no way he'll be able to cover even the initial tuition payment, and his entreaties to his aloof alumni boss (Robert Stack) for a good word to the scholarship committee go unheeded. It's then he makes a follow-up sales call to the mansion of Blanche Rickey (Beverly D'Angelo), an attractive blonde who greets him half-dressed and half in the bag. The obviously unstable Blanche begins to confide in Leonard about the precarious state of her depressed husband's health, and how she'd like to put him out of his misery.
As the discomfited salesman makes his way out the door, he gets to meet the fragile hubby; Steve Rickey (Peter Falk), a complete oddball whose shadowy entrepreneurial interests involve the smuggling of Chinese laborers into the country. With his kids' future at stake, Leonard succumbs to Blanche's continued pressures and offers of a kickback, and the plot proceeds according to James M. Cain. Leonard agrees to con Steve into blind-signing a multi-million dollar life policy, becomes an accessory to his murder at Blanche's hands, and helps bring off a convoluted scheme to make Steve's death look like a railroad-related accident.
It may all sound familiar, but when the grieving widow shows up at the insurer's offices for a grilling by Stack and claims chief Charles Durning, the similarities to Double Indemnity go by the boards. Suffice to say that Leonard's involvement in the Rickeys' toils are far from over, and the twist and turns continue unabated until the film's conclusion.
Big Trouble was supposed to have reunited Arkin and Falk under the direction of their In-Laws screenwriter, Andrew Bergman. A few weeks into filming, Bergman left and he was successful in getting his name removed from the screenplay, which is credited to the W.C. Fieldsesque "Warren Bogle." On Falk's recommendation, John Cassavetes was brought in to bring the film to completion. On balance, it's a shame that the final directing credit for one of postwar America's most individualistic filmmakers would be a job for hire. While there's no reconciling Big Trouble with the rest of Cassavetes' body of work, he managed to draw amusing performances from his worthwhile ensemble, which also included Valerie Curtin as Leonard's wife, Richard Libertini as a quack doctor, and Paul Dooley as the train passenger who almost blows the scheme.
Director: John Cassavetes
Screenplay: Warren Bogle
Cinematography: Bill Butler
Art Direction: Peter Landsdown Smith
Music: Bill Conti
Film Editing: Donn Cambern, Ralph E. Winters
Cast: Peter Falk (Steve Rickey), Alan Arkin (Leonard Hoffman), Beverly D'Angelo (Blanche Rickey), Charles Durning (O'Mara), Robert Stack (Winslow), Paul Dooley (Noozel), Valerie Curtin (Arlene Hoffman), Richard Libertini (Dr. Lopez), Steve Alterman (Peter Hoffman), Jerry Pavlon (Michael Hoffman), Paul La Greca (Joshua Hoffman), John Finnegan (Det. Murphy), Karl Lukas (Police captain).
by John S. Steinberg