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A Small Killing (1981) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

margaret elderly bag day

Principal social themes: aging, homelessness/poverty

Motown Productions. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Jean Simmons, Ed Asner, Sylvia Sidney, Matthew Faison, Kent Williams, Andrew Prine, Mary Jackson, John Steadman, Anne Ramsey, Nicholas Guest, Doug Johnson, Noel Conlin, Barbara Edelman, J. Pat O’Mally. Written by Burt Prelutsky based on the novel The Rag Bag Clan by Richard Barth. Cinematography by Howard Schwartz. Edited by Richard E. Rabjohn. Music by Fred Werner. Produced by Peter Nelson and Arnold Orgolini. Directed by Stephen Hilliard Stern. Color. 96 minutes.

Overview

A Small Killing was a modest telefilm that combined a murder mystery with a sympathetic portrayal of the elderly poor. Largely shot on location in the Skid Row district of Los Angeles, the picture gathered considerable buzz, particularly after Jean Simmons was cast in the leading role. CBS broadcast the film on November 24, 1981, to critical acclaim and decent ratings. The network briefly considered transforming the film into a series, but dropped the idea when the stars indicated that they would not be interested.

Synopsis

Margaret Lawrence (Jean Simmons) is a sociology professor preparing a report on aging for a congressional committee. She interviews Sadie (Sylvia Sidney), an observant and streetwise bag lady. When Sadie is found murdered, the Los Angeles police contact Margaret since Sadie had her business card. At the police station, she meets Simon Shrabner (Ed Asner), an officer who works undercover in the Skid Row district. Margaret believes that the police will give solving Sadie’s death low priority since they believe that the elderly woman was killed because she worked as a courier for a drug dealer. She volunteers to pose as a bag lady, both to understand the lifestyle and to see if she can learn who killed Sadie. When he learns that Margaret is adamant about the idea, Si agrees to work with her on the streets.

After a few days, Margaret makes friends with other aged men and women who pick through garbage to survive. Margaret spends her nights at a cheap hotel. A stranger approaches her and asks if she wants to make some extra dollars. She agrees and he pays for a telephone to be installed in her room. She is then given a series of test runs, picking up a package in a garbage can one day and delivering it on the following day. Si keeps her under observation and they develop a relationship. Eventually, the police start picking up the couriers who leave the packages, which contain drugs. Margaret and Si enlist other elderly street people to help in their efforts. One of the packages left for Margaret contains a bomb. A belligerent bag lady confronts Margaret, delaying her pick up and the bomb explodes before she reaches it. Margaret goes into hiding at Si’s apartment, knowing the drug dealers have marked her for death. A ragpicker recruited by her locates a suspicious package that helps lead the police to the drug lord. Sadie’s killer spots Margaret, and pursues her, but Si arrives in time and rescues her. As the film concludes, Margaret and Si have fallen in love and decide to marry.

Critique

Unlike a number of other films, A Small Killing deftly merges the criminal plot with both character development and social issues. Jean Simmons makes a passionate plea of concern for the aged even before the opening credits, as her character states that senior citizens face more discrimination in housing, employment, and day-to-day living than any other minority group. Ed Asner, however, approaches his role in a less serious vein, making the tone of his performance rather mocking and humorous. In his pan-handler disguise, Simon is simply not believable. His opening scene features him wiping car windshields while looking for a handout. Sylvia Sidney, much as Lucille Ball in Stone Pillow , plays her role straight and makes an effective case as she describes garbage-picking as a viable option for the elderly poor since Americans often throw away items of value. The brief bond forged between Sadie and Margaret is remarkably well handled. When Margaret assumes the role of a bag lady, her first day is rather uncertain, but she soon becomes convincing and credible in her masquerade. These scenes are quite good, with a serious shading to some of the surface humor. Most of the scenes with the other members of the elderly poor are also laudable, with the exception of J. Pat O’Mally, who comes across as too corny. Viewers should observe that most of these people are not actually homeless, living in modest rooms or apartments rather than on the street full time. A Small Killing manages to portray the lowliness of their lifestyle and how helping Margaret and Si made them feel needed, even important.

The plot also demonstrates how most people, going along on their daily business, either ignore or simply never notice the elderly poor, making them practically invisible. When Margaret is asked the purpose of her street interviews, she says she wants to pass more laws to help the elderly. She is told in response that the laws never seem to touch them. At first, Margaret is silent, but finally replies that more useful laws are needed. In this exchange, the professor has actually learned something meaningful. This is only one of many exceptional moments in A Small Killing that make it special. The final scene of the film, unfortunately, is the weakest, since it is played entirely for laughs. Margaret and Si’s new friends attend their wedding dressed in formal attire, but O’Mally returns to his hobo ways as he takes out a bag to swipe the shoes that were tied to Si’s automobile.

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