Monday Movie: The Cheap Detective, by David Bax
While it’s not at all unusual for teenage weirdoes to become obsessive fans of things, it probably was a bit odd for a Midwestern teen in the late 90s to be a Neil Simon completist. Yet, by the time I finished high school, I had read every play Simon ever wrote, most of them twice. (Have you read the script for I Oughta Be in Pictures? I have!) Somehow, though, it had never occurred to me that the man ever wrote anything that wasn’t intended for the stage. Of course, I’d seen film adaptations of his plays, like Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, but it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college, when I shared an apartment with Battleship Pretension cofounder Tyler Smith and his massive, idiosyncratic VHS collection, that I found out about Simon’s career as a screenwriter. I started with 1976’s murder mystery spoof Murder by Death and, like Simon himself, followed it up with the subject of this week’s Monday Movie, 1978’s The Cheap Detective, a parody of gumshoe noir movies.
Murder by Death is the more famous of the two and, laugh for laugh, is probably the funnier movie, though, in both cases, Simon was on set every day to keep adding jokes even as the cameras were rolling. With a similarly huge cast, many of whom had also appeared in the previous film—such as Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan and James Cromwell—The Cheap Detective threatens to feel like a retread, mining a spent bit of land for whatever gold might remain. But where Murder’s locked-room setting allowed the action to unfold in a manner not unlike Simon’s stagebound work, The Cheap Detective stands out as something more inherently filmic, allowing it to be a parody in style as much as in content. The handsome and rich cinematography by the great John A. Alonzo (who shot Chinatown, one of the films parodied herein), lends warmth and texture that makes the film feel more like cinema.
Unfortunately, director Robert Moore doesn’t show any more flair here than he did in Murder. Despite Alonzo and the roster of heavy hitters in the cast, The Cheap Detective is flat in terms of pacing and energy. It’s more suited to an afternoon at home alone type of viewing than anything else. Still, fans of the genre, the type who will laugh uproariously at Madeline Kahn’s Mary Astor-spoofing character constantly giving different fake names, won’t be disappointed.