The Cheap Detective

The Cheap Detective. Columbia Pictures 1978.

Before watching the movie:

It’s amazing how for a while after the debut of Columbo, pretty much every noir detective character type seems to have gravitationally attracted Peter Falk. Not that there were all that many such roles to go around. It turns out this is parodying Humphrey Bogart specifically, but basically all Bogart films, compared to Murder By Death, which is specifically a Sam Spade parody.

It’s probably not a good sign that this movie is so jam-packed with big name actors and I’ve only heard of it by cruising the back catalogs of streaming platforms, but on the other hand, anything from before 1998 that isn’t an 80s or 90s cult classic is getting hard to find online. Which is a shame because there are a lot of great movies over 40 years old.

After watching the movie:

Detective Lou Peckinpaugh’s longtime partner Floyd Merkel is murdered, and as Lou had been having an affair with Floyd’s wife Georgia for years, he’s the prime suspect. But nevermind that, a mysterious woman who’s incapable of giving the same name twice comes to Lou telling him she had hired Floyd to find a man (for likewise shifting reasons) and she thinks the investigation had something to do with his murder, and now she wants Lou to continue the investigation. But nevermind that, as a detestable man calls Lou and tells him to meet at an expensive, Moroccan-style night club to discuss a more lucrative job involving a missing treasure. But nevermind that, because when Lou arrives at the club, so does his old flame Marlene, now the wife of French resistance leader Paul DuChard, who needs exit papers to get on the ferry out of Los Angeles and escape from Nazi officers who are, again, in Los Angeles for some reason.

I’m quite fond of parodies, and I can enjoy a pastiche. But the plotting of this movie was so tedious because it seemed to refuse to engage with its original setup in favor of rehashing Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, especially the former even though it’s emphatically set in Los Angeles and the opening exposition crawl jokes about the looming war’s effect on the situation in Morocco being completely irrelevant. When Lou arrives at the club and it’s a clear spoof of Rick’s, I was moderately amused and expected them to do a Casablanca riff and move on, but then the sequence kept going and going and it became apparent that another movie had taken over the movie, because it really just wants to be “Casablanca but we blow it up” with a side of Macguffin hunt.

Spoof is allowed to have a thin plot that’s there to justify moving from one parody sequence to the next, and Neil Simon is usually really good at comedy, but this movie was a series of “remember this thing? what if it had a bunch of jokes about fatness and sex and a small spritz of clever dialog?” Until late in the third act when Lou of course puts all the pieces together and strings something that passes as a cohesive explanation for everything, Lou pretty much just falls from one situation to the next, and all he wants to do is prove his innocence and hop into bed with the next woman. Eventually, the biggest throughline for the movie becomes that every plot seems to have at least two women that are madly in love with Lou no matter how hard he tries to get rid of them so he can make time with the next. The main woman he’s actually interested in romantically is Marlene, who’s mostly using him to get her husband’s travel papers.

There are a lot of movies I’ve seen that I didn’t enjoy because they were bland, or because they were full of disappointing decisions that have aged poorly, but I have rarely seen a movie that made me angry to watch it simply because it kept ignoring its supposed premise in favor of rehashing better movies with incompatible plots. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid demonstrates that multiple Noir movies can be spoofed effectively, and it does it by weaving and recontextualizing them rather than playing 52 Pickup with them.

One thought on “The Cheap Detective

  1. Valerie June 23, 2022 / 5:25 pm

    Maybe it’s more enjoyable if you aren’t familiar with the antecedent films. i seem to recall that we enjoyed this one first time around, though i remember little if anything about it.

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