Second Glance: Bill Murray’s Other New York Comedy Masterpiece, ‘Quick Change’

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Welcome to “Second Glance,” a new bi-weekly column that spotlights an older film of note (thanks to an anniversary, a connection to a new release, or new disc or streaming availability) that was not as commercially or critically successful as it should’ve been. This week, a look back at Bill Murray’s sole directorial effort, the 1990 escape-from-New-York comedy Quick Change.

As we ramp up to the Friday release of the weirdly controversial Ghostbusters reboot, at least all sides can agree on one thing: the original 1984 version was pretty great. Yet the nostalgia and affection for that picture also reminds this writer of the other, lesser loved, yet uniquely wonderful Bill Murray New York movie: Quick Change, a clever mash-up of Dog Day Afternoon and After Hours which opened and closed quickly in the summer of 1990, and has never quite gotten its due among either the Murray filmography or the rich history of sweaty, rotting Big Apple movies.

Based on the Jay Cronley novel of the same title (previously adapted as a French-Canadian production titled Hold-Up, with Jean-Paul Belmondo in the leading role), Quick Change begins as a fairly standard comic bank robbery flick, but with an irresistible central premise: Murray robs a downtown Manhattan bank in full-on clown gear, complete with white make-up, red nose, floppy shoes, and balloons. Most of the easy laughs in the first act are borne out of that high concept – the bank’s guard (the wonderful Bob Elliot of Bob & Ray) fuming, “What the hell kinda clown are you,” and Murray deadpannig back, “The crying-on-the-inside-kind, I guess,” that kinda thing.

Plenty of ‘80s comedies would’ve just ridden this premise for 90 minutes. Plenty of thrillers would’ve been more than satisfied settling with the tropes the picture trots out – the tellers and customers held hostage in the vault, the tense negotiations with the cops, the inevitable scrum of New York looky-loos outside – meandering their way towards Grimm’s (and author Cronley’s) brilliant escape plan. To wit: Grimm loses the clown get-up and comes out in a different disguise as a hostage. His two similarly made-up accomplices, Phyllis and Loomis (Geena Davis and Randy Quaid), do the same; all three smuggle out the cash, ditch their disguises, and make for the airport while the cops are still surrounding the bank. (Seriously, I hope Cronley bought himself a nice steak dinner after he thought this up.)

Instead, Quick Change tosses off that great turn twenty minutes in, discovering that the real achievement is not knocking off a bank, but getting the hell out of New York. Faced with a parade of obstructions and weirdos – missing freeway signs, moron constructions workers, a bizarre street jousting match (“Just a couple of guys sortin’ out some things,” Grimm shrugs), a white collar mugger, a taxi driver whose spoken language is anyone’s guess, murderous gangsters, and a woman shaving a guy’s head on the bus – Grimm and his gang watch their escape route stretching further out of reach, while the police (led by a wonderful Jason Robards) close in.

The first-rate script by Howard Franklin hands plenty of dry zingers to Murray – and to Davis, whose reactions to their delays grow increasingly and hilariously frantic (when she realizes they’re being mugged, she interrupts a moment of quiet contemplation to announce, “OH THIS IS A FUCKING NIGHTMARE”; as Murray and Quaid attempt to explain their airport destination to the clueless cabbie, she chimes in, “Yeah, why don’tcha just take us straight to SING-SING”). He wisely resists the urge to make Robards a dumb foil, knowing that putting a good, smart cop on their trail amps up the tension. And he fills the margins with colorful supporting roles, pushed to the hilt by a cast that includes then-unknowns like Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, and Jamey Sheridan, sterling character actors like Victor Argo, Philip Bosco, and Kurtwood Smith, and nice little turn by the late Phil Hartman (with some great dialogue about New York real estate trends).

The story goes that Jonathan Demme was originally slated to direct before taking on following year’s Silence of the Lambs (much more of a departure for him than Quick Change would’ve been, following the dark comedies Something Wild and Married to the Mob). Franklin and Murray sought out another filmmaker before deciding they couldn’t imagine handing it off to anyone else, and thus they shared directorial duties; it would mark Murray’s only directorial effort to date, though Franklin went on to helm the decidedly lesser Murray vehicles Larger than Life and The Man Who Knew Too Little. However it shook out, they make a good team; the picture moves at a brisk clip, the performances are aces, and Murray clearly knows exactly what he does well. And though they’re making a studio comedy, they get more than enough authentic New York grit into the frame – thanks in no small part to the contributions of cinematographer Michael Chapman, who lensed that iconic portrait of NYC-as-hellscape, Taxi Driver.

And it helps to bear that connection in mind when considering Quick Change, and the time and place from which it originated. Each inconvenience and interference between Grimm’s gang and their sweet getaway underscores the chorus of the movie, first stated by the bank-robbing clown as he spies the gathering, jeering horde outside the bank: “God, I hate this city.” In their excellent commentary on the recent Taking of Pelham 123 Blu-ray, Pat and Jim Healy pinpoint Quick Change as the end of a cycle of cinema tied to NYC’s “Fun City” era, snickeringly named after Mayor John Lindsey’s proclamation, in the midst of widespread crime, strikes, and poverty, that New York was still a “fun and exciting city.” That “fun” and “excitement” was represented in grim dramas like Taxi Driver, Panic in Needle Park, and Midnight Cowboy and hard-edged thrillers like Pelham, The French Connection, and Dog Day Afternoon; it was sent up in such comedies as Little Murders, Where’s Poppa, Bananas, and The Landlord, which built richly comic situations out of their protagonists’ daily battles with muggers, cops, and random nutjobs.

Quick Change indeed falls within that tradition – all the while catching a whiff of the era that would follow, after the Ed Koch tenure, during the years of transition under Dinkins, and finally through the gentrification, clean-up, and corporatization of “Giuliani time.” Early in the film, Robards’s weary cop catches sight of a nearby building slated for demolition and mutters, “Oh my God, now this one’s going. They tear ‘em down, no matter how great they were.” In the very next scene, to underscore their unexpected commonalities, Murray’s Grimm sees another old favorite destined for the wrecking ball, and is similarly disappointed: “Look at this. Why do they have to do this?” One wonders what they’d have made of what the city is now. Maybe it was fun back then, after all; if nothing else, it gave us some great movies.

Quick Change is available on DVD and for rental or purchase via Amazon, YouTube, and other VOD outlets.