Alfred Chamberlain – Elliot Gould
Patsy Newquist - Marcia Rodd
Little Murders is an expansion of Jules Feiffers 1967 play. What is original to the play and what is new to this adaptation I don’t know.
The film is a nightmarishly comic view of a contemporary paranoid New York City that is disintegrating into an inferno of violence and corresponding anomy. The film is punctuated by random violence to which the bypassers have become inured. The corresponding sexual element is exemplified by a fear of homosexuality which pervades the film. Seriously - cries of “fag” and insinuations of homosexuality recur throughout the film. Whatever laughs the film wins are at the expense of modern fears and hysteria. Homosexuality is prominent as a disturbing modern element – and the writers and director are quite conscious of their intent.
The film opens with Patsy being phoned by one of her former lovers to be informed he is getting married. (Later in the film we discover that every single one of her boyfriends to date has been “swish”.) Patsy’s morning is then disturbed by the cries of “faggot” from a group of thugs outside her building who are beating up a man. Patsy eventually sets out and rescues their victim, Alfred. Elliott Gould’s character, a photographer who takes pictures of shit, is the exemplification of affectlessness and anomie, a man who feels nothing, and unresistingly allows people to beat him up for lack of any alternative:
“Those guys in the park, they said 'Hey, fatface! What are you staring at?' If I told them I wasn't staring at them, they would've beat me up for being a liar. And if I told them I was staring at them because I wanted to take their picture, then they'd beat me up for being a cop. So I told them I was staring at them because they looked familiar, and they beat me up for being a fag. There's no way of talking someone out of beating you up if that's what he wants to do.”
Having saved him physically, Patsy sets out to rescue him emotionally and they become girlfriend and boyfriend. She takes him home to her comically Jewish family. The first scene with her mother and father is a litany of her former gay boyfriends.
Father: Bet he’s a fag!
He’ll be a fine boy. I know it in my bones
Father: What was the name of that interior decorator she went to Europe with?
Mother: Howard. He was delicate.
Father: Swish. And that actor... the one she went camping up in Maine with.
Roger. He was very muscular.
Father: Swish. And the musician and the stockbroker and the Jewish novelist.
Mother: Oh, they're not like that.
Father: Swish, swish, swish, swish. I can spot them a mile away. She draws them like flies. She's got too much stuff. Too much stuff. You wait. You'll see. This new one, what's his name?
Mother: A swish name if I ever heard one.
We also meet her brother, in his early twenties, who still lives at home. Besides being an oddball, he is given to constantly abusing people and things he disapproves of as “fags”.
1: 48 – 2.08
Eventually Patsy and Alfred get married. At the wedding several of Patsy’s gay boyfriends make brief cameos. The second one in particular is camp. We then get a long, and marvellous monologue, from the opportunistic countercultural reverend, played by Donald Sutherland. Contemptuous of society’s hypocrisies and yet equally and arrogantly hypocritical himself, his speech comes to its conclusion when he addresses himself to each of the members of the family:
“And to Patsy's brother, Kenneth Newquist, with whom I had the pleasure of a private chat, I beg you feel no shame, homosexuality is all right, really it is.. it is perfectly all right.”
Kenneth Newquist: (screaming) Sonovabitch!! Aarrggghh!! (Kenneth assaults the minister and the marriage ceremony descends into a brawl, while Kenneth screams almost unintelligibly.) I’m not a faggot! I’m not a faggot!
There’s nothing obviously camp, fey, or gay at all in the brother’s performance. The revelation of his homosexuality is only another further facet of his oddness. If you want, you can see his constant aggressive cries of “fag” as a kind of projection. A little later though there is a scene where the brother is hiding in a closet, and talks about his attraction to his mother’s clothes.
Eventually the surviving characters find satisfaction and happiness by coming together to take sniper shots at passersby.
Apparently in the original play there’s some comment about Kenneth the brother also wearing his sister’s shoes, and the line in the minister’s monologue is different:
“And Patsy's brother, Kenneth Newquist, in whose bedroom I spent a few moments earlier this afternoon and whose mother proudly told me the decoration was by your hand entirely: I beg of you to feel no shame; homosexuality is all right”
so that in the play there are more transvestite / interior decorator allusions to Kenneth’s nature than in the film. Of course the play was from 1967 when assumptions about gay nature were even more restrictive than the early 70s.