Peter Falk accomplished it all, but he will always be remembered for one specific role, that of rumpled, seemingly frazzled detective Colombo. Lost amidst the great scripts and guest stars is Falk's impeccable comedic timing, usually lost because he played it so freaking straight. The man was an actor but he could have been a comedian. Colombo fans, Falk fans, I highly recommend 1978's The Cheap Detective.
It's 1939 and the world is about to tear itself apart, but working as a longtime private detective in San Francisco, Lou Peckinpaugh (Falk) is just looking to get out alive. He receives a phone call late one night informing him that his partner at the P.I. firm has been murdered and several other people were killed around him. Making it worse? Lou has been having an affair with his partner's wife, Georgia (Marsha Mason), and the cops think Lou might be the killer! They don't have the evidence though to convict him -- yet -- so Lou must figure out who the actual killer is. Later that night he meets a mysterious woman (Madeline Kahn) in his office who needs help finding her missing sister. This woman isn't telling Lou everything he needs to know though, plunging Lou deeper into a world of backstabbing and betrayals, Nazis and smugglers, and everything in between. Hopefully and maybe (just maybe), Lou can make it out innocent and alive.
As I've beaten to death in countless reviews as I continue to serve as a broken record, I like spoofs...when they're handled the right way. Basically in not too heavy-handed, obvious fashion. Mel Brooks was a master of such smart-minded yet incredibly stupid spoofs while others like the seemingly never-ending Scary Movie series just...keep...going. From director Robert Moore and a script from Neil Simon, 'Cheap' is more in the Brooks vein. It is equal parts smart, wicked humor mixed in with stupid, dumb laughs with everything from a subtle line delivery to a perfect site gag. At just 92 minutes, it crackles along at a ridiculously quick pace, scenes coming across as episodic more than joined in any sort of linear fashion. It's one bit and onto the next. No time to sit and catch a breath here!
To spoof, you need something to spoof and 'Cheap' jumps headfirst into film noir mysteries with private detectives, using that as a jumping off point with The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca as story points. So yes, we get entire scenes -- classic, iconic scenes -- absolutely torn to pieces, most of them working in almost effortless fashion. We've got a cheating private detective, a small harem of women who want nothing more than to jump into bed with him, international intrigue, murdering Nazis, shady underworld types, lost love, new love and confusion around every corner. To say there's a story is inaccurate. It instead is those episodic set pieces, deliver the joke and move on, and more less, it's all somewhat kinda sorta related. You don't notice though. There's too much going on -- most of it pretty funny -- to complain.
Peter Falk is the man. I love the guy. He's one of my favorite actors ever, a character actor who never disappointed when given a chance at the spotlight. Here as private detective Lou Peckinpaugh, Falk is clearly having a ball. The entire performance is based off being Humphrey Bogart. Not acting like him, Being him, and Falk hits it out of the home run. The best kind of spoof is a loving one, and Falk loves his source material, nailing his spot-on impression of one of the all-time Hollywood greats. The dialogue, the physical look, the mannerisms, he never hams it up or tries for the laughs. He just gets them with ease. His Lou has ready-made drinks in desk drawers everywhere. When he answers the phone, not sure who's on the other end, he pulls a gun on the phone (Ya know...just in case) and holds it there. Through all the craziness that develops, Falk's steady hand keeps things going.
That's not to say this is a one-man show. Falk often plays straight man to the avalanche of laughs around him, but there's so much talent on display it's ridiculous. Kahn is hysterical (similarly deadpanning all her lines), but she's just the first of the love interests. There's crazy with love Mason, sexed-up Ann-Margret, lounge singer Eileen Brennan (doing a great Lauren Bacall), lost love Louise Fletcher (Ingrid Bergman of Casablanca) and Stockard Chaning as Lou's secretary who just wants to be "thanked" properly. I loved Dom DeLuise as a smelly smuggler (doing Peter Lorre), a perfect John Houseman doing his best Sidney Greenstreet impression, wearing an enormous oversized suit to sell it, So many names here, including Sid Caesar, James Coco, Nicol Williamson, Fernando Lamas, Phil Silvers, Abe Vigoda, Paul Williams, Vic Tayback, David Ogen Steirs, and Scatman Crothers, all getting their chances at their fair share of laughs.
If there's anything flawed here, it was the commitment to the spoof. If that makes any sense I guess. There are a ton of laughs (genuine, out-loud laughs), but the story gets so goofy, feels so disjointed at times, that it loses some of its edge. By the time the end does come along, it comes with one twist after another, bing bang boom in rapid fire. It's still an excellent comedy, but not a true classic. Still recommending it though, especially as a companion piece of sorts with the same director and much of the cast working together in Murder By Death. Not quite on par with that one but still damn funny.
The Cheap Detective (1978): ***/****