Fan theory: playwright Neil Simon and director Robert Moore received a copy of my review for Murder by Death when it fell through a wormhole and ended up in 1977. They recognized the evident brilliance of a Bogart film starring Peter Falk and Madeline Kahn, and made The Cheap Detective in 1978. I am sure that’s what happened. What other possible explanation could there be? Besides the fact that this was obviously a good idea. I guess it didn’t seem like that great of an idea to anyone else. Roger Ebert hated this movie, calling it a “rip-off” of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. It also didn’t do gangbusters at the box office.
Peter Falk plays Lou Peckinpaugh, a hard-boiled detective firmly in the Humphrey Bogart style. Lou is suspected by police of the murder of his partner, which he needs to solve to clear his name. At about the same time, he is also retained by Mrs. Montenegro (Madeline Kahn) to find her husband. Or her father. Who, precisely, keeps changing. As does Montenegro’s name. She gives Lou at least eight in her introductory scene. Later she shows up pretending to be an entirely different person --- Miss De Vega. “You look like fourteen other dames that was here the other night,” says Lou. “They were my sister,” she says. Yes, it’s that kind of a movie.
What The Cheap Detective has that Murder By Death lacked, besides Madeline Kahn, is focus.Murder by Death was a bit of a mess because it had so many famous detectives in it. Here, Lou can be the narrative stable center while the jokes go all over the place. Like all good comedies, The Cheap Detective has multiple layers of jokes.
You’ve got referential humor --- the movie does lean heavily into spoofing Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, going so far as to recreate several of the scenes. But you don’t need to know these movies particularly well, or even at all. You’ve probably soaked up enough just by consuming modern media to catch at least some of these.
If not, however, you can appreciate the bizarre Airplane! humor. The dialogue is borderline surreal. Everyone is insane. No one seams to notice. Lou questions the shady character Pepe Damascus (Dom DeLuise): “I hope my disgustingly cheap perfume does not offend you. I purposely stink to keep my enemies from getting too close.” “How do you stand yourself?” asks Lou. “It isn’t easy,” says Pepe. “No hotel will take me for the entire night.” Later, Pepe tells Lou when he’ll be at each hotel.
If you have trouble connecting with that kind of humor there are plenty of sight gags. Lou is continually pulling mixed drinks out of nowhere. “Would you like a drink?” he asks Montenegro. A martini, she says. “With an olive,” he asks, opening a desk drawer. No, she says, one with a little onion. He closes the drawer and opens the one beneath it.
Some of the bits are downright sitcomey. There’s a quick-fire bit as Lou balances multiple women in his apartment. His current fling is in the kitchen, his ex is in the living room, and his partner’s widow, with whom he was having an affair, is hiding in the bathroom. He manages to get all of them out of the apartment sequentially, filing past his love-lorn secretary, Bess, standing at the door. Then Mrs. Montenegro pushes her way in. “I’d knew there one more,” says Bess.
This is precisely my kind of comedy, and I can never seem to find enough of it. I’m not sure why Roger Ebert couldn’t recognize the film for the affectionate parody it really is. The narrative does seem to lose the thread somewhere about two-thirds of the way in, and it starts to feel like a lot of Saturday Night Live bits loosely strung together by a common theme, but that’s OK. It’s a shame there are only two of these; I spent the entire movie laughing out loud. Maybe this review can fall into a wormhole, too, and a couple dozen more will magically appear one day.