The Cheap Detective

The Cheap DetectiveSynopsis: The Cheap Detective is a hilarious Humphrey Bogart send-up, blending the plots of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon with the comedic vision of Neil Simon. Peter Falk is Lou Peckingpaugh, the worldly, cynical gumshoe who takes on thugs, crooks, Nazis, femme fatales and the Golden Gate Bridge in this terrific tribute to Bogie and the Hammett/Chandler school of hard-boiled detectives. An incredible ensemble cast does take-offs of characters made famous by Mary Astor (Madeline Kahn), Sidney Greenstreet (John Houseman), Lauren Bacall (Ann-Margret), Peter Lorre (Dom DeLuise), Ingrid Bergman (Louis Fletcher), and Paul Henreid (Fernando Lamas). Want more? How about Eileen Brennan, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, Nicol Williamson, James Coco, and Scatman Crothers – just a few of the many cast members who add to the merriment. The Cheap Detective is the perfect entertainment for anyone who loves Bogart, films of the forties, or a good healthy laugh.

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The Cheap Detective 6.25

eyelights: the quality of the production. the ensemble cast.
eyesores: the lame zingers. the miscasting.

Lou Peckinpaugh: “No tip. There’s been a death in the family.”
Cabbie: “I wish it was you!”

I have absolutely no idea why I initially picked up ‘The Cheap Detective’. Was it because it was featured much of the same cast behind guilty pleasure ‘Murder by Death’? Was it strictly because of Neil Simon, whose name was tied to a few favourites? Was it because I got it for peanuts, brand new? Or was it a combination of these?

I have no idea…

But one thing is for sure, and it’s that my DVD copy has been spun countless times since. It’s not that it’s a great film, so much as it’s amusing enough, without being obnoxiously loud or dramatic, that it makes for great late-night viewing – particularly when I want to fall asleep, If anything, it feels like a play set across many soundstages.

‘The Cheap Detective’ is an ensemble comedy that revolves around the murder of a half-dozen people in a hotel , focusing on a private eye’s investigation of the crime and his interactions with various suspects. It spoofs cinema classics that are set in the mid-20th century, including (apparently) ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, ‘Casablanca’, ‘Chinatown’, ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘To Have and Have Not’.

I say “apparently” because I actually haven’t seen all of them; ‘I’ve seen ‘Casablanca’, ‘Chinatown’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon’ once each, but don’t remember them much. Because of this, I suspect that much of the humour is lost on me – and it’s quite likely that it would be better appreciated by someone who actually gets the references. At least, if in the right frame of mind.

For me, ‘The Cheap Detective’ is fun because of the quality production and the massive cast.

While it was all shot indoors on soundstages, ‘The Cheap Detective’ is anything but cheap-looking. Perhaps this was due to the success of Neil Simon and director Robert Moore’s ‘Murder by Death’, but Columbia clearly ponied up the cash to make this motion picture, something that not all comedies (and certainly not “sequels”) are privy to.

From the opening credits we know that this will be a nice-looking film: every credit is painted onto props, such as garbage can, windshield, blinds, sidewalks and the photography is quite nice. With the exception of one sequence, every single set in this film looks terrific. It is said that the filmmakers were even able to get some of the actual sets from ‘Casablanca’, a nice touch.

But, if anything, what works best for me is the fact that ‘The Cheap Detective’ is supported by a massive ensemble cast. I’m already a sucker for these large complements because it’s like being in a candy store that gives out free samples. When they’re all familiar to me it’s even better: many returned from ‘Murder by Death’, some were stars, and others have moved on to bigger things since, so I knew most of them.

Lou Peckinpaugh: “Being a private eye may not be much, but we do have a code of honor. It’s all right to fool around with your partner’s wife, but once he’s dead it makes it all so dirty. That’s the way it is, angel. You marry yourself a nice guy, have a couple of swell kids. Once you’re all set up and happy, maybe we can fool around again.”

  • Peter Falk play Peckinpaugh, the title’s lead. I’ve never been a great fan of Falk because of his frequently slack-jawed, slightly sluggish demeanour – which, combined with the accent he often took on, made for a memorable, iconic even, but oft-grating performance. Here, although totally typecast, he does a credible job of being a smart but classless womanizing dick. Why Lou is so popular with the ladies is beyond me, but he is played like a total chick magnet, attracting every woman he encounters.

Marlene DuChard: “Paul… are you sure we ought to be here? “
Paul DuChard: “There is nothing to worry about, my dear – we’re in England now! “
Marlene DuChard: “No, Paul. This is America.”

  • Louise Fletcher was fantastic as Nurse Ratched in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, and rightly won the Academy Award for it in 1976, but is sorely out of place as Lou’s main squeeze, who had been away for years and returns with her husband in tow. Even if one didn’t compare her to Ingrid Bergman, who was pitch-perfect in a similar part, one can barely believe how enamoured she is supposed to be with Lou. If anything, she comes off as cold, distant, and her delivery is sometimes awkward – especially with respect to the one-liners.

Mrs. Montenegro: “Mr. Peckinpaugh, you look startled.”
Lou Peckinpaugh: “Oh, no, it’s just that, uh, you look like… fourteen other dames that was here the other night.”
Mrs. Montenegro: “Yes, I know. They were my sister.”

  • Madeline Kahn is Peckinpaugh’s first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth clients of the picture. If you find that confusing, wait until you see how confused she is and how bewildered Lou gets trying to make sense of all her various personalities. Frankly, I love the part because it’s so completely absurd, but I was never entirely convinced by Kahn, whose delivery has always bothered me, despite her ability with comedy.

Lou Peckinpaugh: “Are you sure the police didn’t follow you here?”
Georgia Merkle: “I’m positive. They came with me.”
Lou Peckinpaugh: “This is definitely our last date, Georgia.”

  • Marsha Mason is one of Lou’s girlfriends, and his partner’s wife. A total dimwit, she is more of a bother at this juncture in Lou’s life than anything else; given that his partner has just been murdered, his links to her and her inability for discretion are causing him all sorts of headaches – especially when she lets the police listen in to their phone conversations or takes them along for the ride.

Bess: “You have a visitor in there, a Miss Sophie De Vega.”
Lou Peckinpaugh: “Pretty?”
Bess: “Prettier than me, but I’m easier.”

  • Stockard Channing plays Bess, Lou’s personal assistant. She’s extremely obliging and flirtatious – exactly what he needs. I’ve never been a fan of Channing, but she’s a reliable actress and is well-suited to the part.

Betty DeBoop: “Hello, Fred, I was hoping you’d drop by.”
Lou Peckinpaugh: “The name is Lou, and we’ve never met.”
Betty DeBoop: “Let’s not get in a sweat about details. Aren’t you going to light my fire?”

  • Eileen Brennan plays a lounge singer who falls for Lou (of course!). The character is quite amusing, but Brennan doesn’t fit the bill for me. It’s not at all a question of ability, because she’s quite the talented actress and comedienne, it’s just that she doesn’t look the part. To me. But she is great in the part anyway

Jezebel Dezire: “See anything you like? I’m Jezebel Dezire – accent on the “desire.””
Lou Peckinpaugh: “How do you do? I’m Peck Loukinpaugh.”
Jezebel Dezire (giggling):  “Don’t worry. I do that to everyone… even to myself.”

  • Ann-Margret is drop-dead sexy as one of the many suspects. But she’s always drop-dead sexy, though. Even at an advanced age, in ‘Grumpy Old Men’, she made me weak in the knees. Here she plays the comedy too broad for my taste, however I can’t help but forgive her because my brain fogs up when she’s on screen. I… just… can’t… help… it.

Marcel: “I’m sorry, I thought you were alone.”
Lou Peckinpaugh: “I tried it that way. It’s not as much fun alone.”

  • James Coco plays the manager of Nix’s Place, a central element of our story. Coco has a silly name, but he does an admirable job of being subdued enough that the humour comes from the material and the other actors.

Paul DuChard: “Anything wrong?”
Lou Peckinpaugh: “Oh, no, no. No, it’s, uh, my mistake here, uh. For a second here I thought that this young lady was a girl that I knew in France; I was wrong; the girl I know is dead.”
Paul DuChard: “Oh, a natural error, monsieur. My wife has been mistaken for dead girls by many men.”

  • Fernando Lamas does a credible job of playing a French resistor on the run from the Nazis, and the current spouse of Lou’s ex-girlfriend. He plays his character straight, even in his most clueless moments, which makes it all the more enjoyable; had  he hammed it up more, he would have hobbled the part.

Dom DeLuise and Paul Williams also have secondary roles in this picture, but I can’t stand either of them enough to warrant highlighting them. DeLuise always overdoes it and there’s never been a role of his that I could stand, whereas Williams can’t act himself out of a small box. There is, however, Scatman Crothers, who shows up long enough to offset the lesser actors; he doesn’t do much, but he shines as per usual.

‘The Cheap Detective’ is extremely corny and not entirely clever, but it never devolves into slapstick, which is its saving grace. It takes itself seriously enough, never going too over-the-top, that it feels dignified. Ultimately, it may not be the most hilarious comedy, but it has its entertaining bits, and although ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid‘ did it better, it could easily be enjoyed by fans of film noir and classic post-war Hollywood cinema.

In the end, it may only offer cheap laughs, but it’s also not the kind of film that’s a dime a dozen. It gets bonus bucks from me for that alone.

Date of viewing: July 15+16, 2013

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