The Cheap Detective (1978)


In the 1930s, a penny-pinching private detective, Lou Peckinpaugh (Peter Falk, TV’s Columbo), tries to solve the sudden and mysterious murder of his business partner while working on a strange case of stolen diamonds.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“I’m using rented bullets for my gun. We all got problems.”

After scoring a huge hit with the spoofy comedy Murder by Death (1976), writer Neil Simon returned to familiar territory with this kooky parody of Humphrey Bogart movies, specifically The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942) and To Have and Have not (1944). Second time around, the humor is less conspicuous, but the sharp script delivers a boatload of funny jokes, and the stellar cast is a pleasure to watch.

I first watched The Cheap Detective when I was still in my teens, and frankly, I didn’t think it was all that funny. I watched it at a time in my life when my knowledge of classic movies was practically nonexistent. Now that I’ve seen dozens of Bogart movies, I get it! Simon’s gags hit the bull’s-eye more often than not, whether he is lampooning specific Bogie movies or simply spoofing gumshoe tropes and clichés.

While there may be moments when I felt Simon was more interested in reenacting scenes from old movies than in telling jokes, I think The Cheap Detective is a delight from beginning to end. I was particularly impressed with Simon’s ability to create a story that works at two levels: he roasts iconic moments from many beloved classic movies, while at the same time showing lots of affection for Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Simon’s script has a fair amount of discipline and structure. The gags, the double meanings, etc., everything works like clockwork. However, if you’ve never seen The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca, you might as well skip the movie — there is no way you’ll get any of the jokes if you haven’t seen the aforementioned movies. As it stands, The Cheap Detective is a gift to fans of classic movies, and Bogie groupies.

Peter Falk anchors the movie with a brilliant performance as the Bogie-like anti-hero. The second-best performance in the movie is given by Madeline Kahn (Blazing Saddles), who does a terrific job making fun of Mary Astor’s role in The Maltese Falcon. And Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) is wonderful as Falk’s ex-flame — a surprisingly funny take on Ingrid Bergman’s role in Casablanca.

As a matter of fact, the film is a parade of awesome characterizations. John Houseman (Ghost Story) cleverly imitates Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon. Dom DeLuise (Fatso) is Pepe Damascus (a nod to actor Peter Lorre). Musician/actor Paul Williams is Boy (Elisha Cook Jr. in The Maltese Falcon). The cast also includes Marsha Mason (The Goodbye Girl), James Coco (Only When I Laugh), and many others.

I do have a complaint: the movie cries for a luscious B&W cinematography. Don’t get me wrong, I thought cameraman John A. Alonzo, whose screen credits include Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Farewell, My Lovely (1975), did a superb job — the movie looks great! However, I think the film would have played out much better in black and white — Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) proved my point.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Cheap Detective is a competently produced satire — I assure you that it’s worth seeing more than once if you’re a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Although I thought it wasn’t as good as Neil Simon’s Murder by Death, or Woody Allen’s wonderful homage to Casablanca, Play It Again, Sam (1972), the real treat here is the opportunity of seeing a bunch of fine actors at their peak. Color, 92 minutes, PG.

This is my contribution to The Great Muppet Guest Star Caper Blogathon, hosted by Taking Up Room and Realweedgiemidget Reviews.

Guest Stars: Madeline Kahn, Paul Williams, Dom DeLuise and James Coco


15 responses to “The Cheap Detective (1978)

  1. Thanks for this great double bill of movies Eric, have to agree with you about rewatching satires – felt that way after seeing Fedora and Sunset Boulevard, definitely better once you have some more insights into movies. Great having you on board as always.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: It’s the Return of the Muppet Show Guest Star Blogathon for One Night only – Realweegiemidget Reviews Films TV Books and more·

  3. I too had a chance to see this as a teen, at the theater during its original release, but I was outvoted something like 8-1…the two families I was with opted for ‘Grease’, and I was forced to tag along. 45 years later, I still haven’t seen it! But you’ve given me the push I needed (and now there’s nobody to tell me ‘no’)…I’ll try to track it down this week!

    Liked by 2 people

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