American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Neil Simon's “The Cheap Detective” begins with an interesting, if hardly original, premise: Have Peter Falk do his Humphrey Bogart imitation, and plug him into a simultaneous satire of “Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon.” Populate the cast with as many stars as you can sign up for three days' work, give the whole thing terrific production values, and the Simon wit will carry you through.
Does the movie work? Let me put it this way. If you loved “The Maltese Falcon” and can recite all the best lines from “Casablanca” by heart, you'll hate “The Cheap Detective,” which is basically just the year's classiest and most expensive rip-off.
But if you've never seen “Casablanca” and never heard of “The Maltese Falcon,” you'll really hate “The Cheap Detective” because you won't get the in-jokes. To someone who does not know who Peter Lorre was, for example, there must be few things in this life less amusing than a Peter Lorre imitation.
When I call “The Cheap Detective” a rip-off, what exactly do I mean? I mean that in scene after scene they really have ripped off the original Bogart classics, right down to the costumes and lighting. Louise Fletcher may not previously have been your idea of an Ingrid Bergman look-alike, but catch her here in her floppy hat, the silk kerchief around her neck and the key lights on her eyes, and you'll be amazed.