“Serpentine! Serpentine!” The Impeccable Madness of The In-Laws

On Film / Essays — Jul 5, 2016

Let’s face it: people in comedy can be a tough crowd for other people’s comedy. It’s not that they’re bitter and self-centered (okay, it’s not just that they’re bitter and self-centered). But when you spend your days and nights assembling words and ideas into little mechanisms to create laughter, it’s almost impossible not to see the machinery behind the comedy of others. Still, funny people like to laugh too, and there are always artists and works so brilliant that comedy writers and performers bow before them. When I started to write comedy for television in the eighties, the work that almost everyone I knew in the field seemed to agree on included SCTV, anything by Albert Brooks, and the always wonderful Bob and Ray. And then there were the one-offs: a film or a show that was particularly inspired. One of these was a little movie that seemed to come out of nowhere to become a comedy classic: The In-Laws (1979).

It’s easy to understand why the greatness of The In-Laws was not a given when it opened. The film’s screenwriter, Andrew Bergman, had written two deft mystery novels set in forties Hollywood, and was known in certain circles for an original film treatment called Tex X that, with the aid of Bergman’s fellow writers Norman Steinberg, Richard Pryor, Alan Uger, and Mel Brooks—the latter of whom also directed—would become the 1974 classic Blazing Saddles. But that film’s success was generally attributed to Brooks alone. The In-Laws would be Bergman’s first solo screenwriting credit. Director Arthur Hiller had come out of television to direct many fine films, including The Americanization of Emily (1964), The Hospital (1971), and the hugely popular Love Story (1970). But he was hardly a critics’ darling, and prior to The In-Laws he had had two sizable flops: W. C. Fields and Me (1976) and Nightwing (1979).

Alan Arkin had made a spectacular arrival in films in the sixties with three wildly diverse portrayals: he was hilarious as the Russian submarine lieutenant who accidentally invades America in The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966), terrifying as the villain menacing blind Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967), and deeply moving as the deaf-mute in the adaptation of Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968). But not all the films he made in the decade that followed were worthy of his talents, and by 1979 he had not been the lead in a major hit for some time. Peter Falk already had, by this time, a long, successful career in film, on television, and onstage, with parts ranging from the broad comedy of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) to the dark, disturbing John Cassavetes films Husbands (1970) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974). But by 1979, he was best (and possibly only) known to the general public as television’s rumpled detective Columbo.

These four artists—indeed, everyone involved with The In-Laws—appear to have worked together in perfect synchronization to make this film the gem it is.

Like most great comedies, it started with the script, and Bergman’s takes the form of farce. A typical farce builds comedy from character and construction rather than a series of gags and one-liners. One way that farce differs from pure gag comedy (and I’m not saying that one is better than the other) is that, since the jokes in farce build out of the totality of the work, they rarely have impact out of context. For example, if you take Woody Allen’s exchange “Sex without love is an empty experience.” “Yes, but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best!” and forget whether it’s from Sleeper or Love and Death, it doesn’t make the joke less funny (if you’re playing along at home, it’s from Love and Death). On the other hand, if you haven’t seen The In-Laws, then the title to this piece will just baffle you. If you have seen the film, then you’ll recognize the line yelled by Falk’s character to Arkin’s in a hilarious scene that works because it plays off of every minute you’ve spent watching these characters as they run toward this moment. And there’s a good chance that just reading the words “Serpentine! Serpentine!” will put a big, silly grin on your face.

Farces often begin with a realistic, even mundane, situation. In this film, it is the first meeting of dentist Sheldon Kornpett (Arkin) with the father of his daughter’s fiancé, Vince Ricardo (Falk). Vince spins outlandish tales that suggest that he is a spy for the CIA. Sheldon is not sure whether he really is what he claims to be or is insane. The next day, Vince goes to Sheldon’s office and asks him for a small favor. That favor unlocks the rest of the farce. Vince drags Sheldon into a world of spies and hit men, car chases and shoot-outs. You won’t remember the plot mechanisms that keep the characters in motion, but they do track. The script gives solid underpinnings to the craziness, but Bergman’s greatest farcical concept is this: to introduce an apparent madman into the world of a sane character and, scene by scene, bring that ordinary man into a world fully as insane as its avatar.

One of Arkin’s great gifts is the ability to convincingly play an average person. As Sheldon, he is not just a dentist; he is quite likely your dentist. The comedy comes from his increasing terror as Vince drags him into greater and greater danger. Quite simply, nobody alive does these kinds of scenes like Arkin. As his character gets ever closer to the edge, there is a stillness to his face and body that is belied by the increasing mania in his voice. He is a usually rational man attempting to present himself as under complete control while hysteria leaks out of every pore.

And it’s not just the desperate situations he gets into that trigger Sheldon’s mania. It’s the preternatural calm of Falk’s performance. Nothing fazes Vince—even in front of a firing squad, he is the picture of contentment. And he retains an affability and warmth toward Sheldon through the entire story. In fact, he would be the perfect in-law if it weren’t for that whole pesky people-trying-to-kill-you business. We share the question in Sheldon’s mind: What would be more frightening—if everything Vince said were a delusion, or if everything he said were true?

Bergman has described Hiller as a “writer’s director.” In a world dominated by auteurs and their admirers, it’s easy for a director like Hiller to be underappreciated. But it takes enormous skill to find the best way to translate the work of strong-willed writers to the screen. Even before The In-Laws, Hiller had demonstrated this ability, working more than once with both Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon. In his handling of Bergman’s script, he never puts a foot wrong. He recognizes that the wilder the farce, the more it needs to be grounded in reality. The audience must believe that the characters believe that what is happening to them is actually happening. The moment anyone on-screen appears to play funny, they no longer will be funny. And then there’s the part of a director’s role in comedy that is invisible. Even a great gag can be ruined by the wrong camera angle or a mistimed edit. We are accustomed to comedies, even the best ones, being inconsistent: some jokes work, some jokes don’t. It comes with the territory. But every intended laugh in The In-Laws lands. Every single one! (If you think that’s easy, try it sometime.) And much of that credit has to go to Hiller.

So with all this in mind, let’s take a look at that “serpentine” scene. (And if you have yet to watch the film, please, please skip to the next paragraph.) As Vince and Sheldon exit the small plane they’ve flown on to “Tijara” and walk across the runway to the man they are to meet, gunshots ring out, and the man is killed. Vince and Sheldon drop to the ground. As shots continue to hit the dirt, Vince tells Sheldon that they will have to make a run for the man’s car and that they should do it “serpentine.” Hiller cuts to an overhead shot that makes the pair’s different visions of what “serpentine” means look like a comic ballet. When they get into the car, they find there are no keys. Vince says they must be in the dead man’s pocket and is about to go get them when Sheldon volunteers to go instead, because he can’t face the thought of Vince getting killed and leaving him alone. The next bit is primarily in one shot, taken from behind the corpse and looking toward the car, keeping the setup and the payoff integral. Sheldon runs “serpentine” to the body to get the keys (“You’re dead, right?” he asks the corpse first). Getting the keys, he runs straight back to the car. But as he reaches the car safely, he hears Vince shout, “Serpentine, Shel!” So he runs back through the gunfire to the corpse, in order to run to the car in the Vince-approved manner! Sheldon is now, officially, over the rainbow. He has completely inter­nalized Vince’s worldview. Even Sheldon should not be surprised now to meet the country’s dictator and find a man who spends much of his time talking to a Señor Wences–style puppet drawn on his hand (played by the sublimely funny Richard Libertini, whom we lost in January of 2016). You can see everything working together in the “serpentine” scene: the inspired comic craftsmanship of Bergman, the brilliant verbal and physical performances of Falk and Arkin, and the skilled choices of Hiller. And like the film it comes from, it will never not be funny. (Trust me: I watched this scene five times just to write this paragraph. I’m still smiling.)

For all the dangers that menace our leads, The In-Laws is anything but a black comedy. Bergman and Hiller know that a movie about in-laws must end with a wedding. And they craft one as magical as a fairy tale, in which Vince and Sheldon, not only alive but bonded together as family and (why not?) rich as well, parachute in to the party from the heavens above in matching top hats and tails.

In the years that followed, Bergman would go on to write and direct a number of fine films in the spirit of The In-Laws, including the brilliant The Freshman (1990), in which Marlon Brando (himself an In-Laws fan) gives the best performance of his later years. Hiller, ninety-two at this writing, continued to direct films until 2006. Falk made many more films, and many more Columbo episodes, before passing away in 2011. Arkin remains a national treasure.

Every great film, like every great work of art, is something of a miracle. Some miracles burst through the front door, loudly pro­claiming their magnificence. Others sneak in at the back, then slowly move to the front of the room, where they stay forever. The In-Laws is the latter type of miracle. And we all know how The In-Laws made its way through the room, don’t we? All together now . . . !