Bad Girls We Love: Jezebel Dezire in The Cheap Detective

This one’s a slam dunk. What do you get when you hire one of cinema’s most famous sex symbols to play a voluptuous trophy wife, pour her into a shimmering gold dress with a plunging neckline, and then let her loose to vamp all over the room? You get Ann-Margret having a ball in the Neil Simon-scripted satirical murder mystery The Cheap Detective (1978).

Ann-Margret in the 1970s was a category unto herself. She was en fuego.

From energetically gyrating with Elvis to rolling around in baked beans, champagne bubbles, and chocolate. Ann-Margret has never been afraid of going big onscreen. The woman commands the screen no matter what she’s doing, so she might as well go big and fling Roger Daltrey through a mirror, right? In case you can’t tell yet, I love Ann-Margret, I love her Elvis movies, and I love her going completely off the deep end in Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975)—a fiercely committed performance that earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

Her role in The Cheap Detective, while less heralded, is no less entertaining. It’s a big ensemble cast (including Peter Falk, Madeline Kahn,, Marsha Mason, Dom DeLuise, Louise Fletcher, Stockard Channing, and Eileen Brennan, among others) so her screen time is small (she doesn’t show up until about an hour into the movie), but that only means her awesomeness-per-minute-of-screen-time ratio is off the charts. Ann-Margret plays the appropriately named femme fatale Jezebel Dezire, the oversexed wife to an elderly millionaire played by a ludicrously wigged Sid Caesar. She looks to die for, with cascading red locks, an eye-popping amount of cleavage, and exquisite dancer’s legs on full display (this is Ann-Margret, after all).

Because the film is one big sendup, or spoof of classic Humphrey Bogart noirs, Ann-Margret channels Martha Vickers from The Big Sleep, dialing up her seductive charms to eleven with Falk’s bumbling private eye Lou Peckinpaugh. Hilarious exchanges like this are the result:

Jezebel Dezire: Won’t you join me in a little drinky? What’s your pleasure?

Lou Peckinpaugh: Uh, what you got there looks good.

Jezebel Dezire: I know… but I thought you’d like a little drink first.

Neil Simon must’ve had fun writing the witty banter in this film, and Ann-Margret delivers Jezebel’s innuendo-laced dialogue with aplomb. Lines like, “See anything you like? I’m Jezebel Dezire—accent on the ‘desire,” positively catch fire coming out of Ann-Margret’s mouth. Watching Lou (Falk) grow visibly flustered by Jezebel’s cat-in-heat routine is a delight. Everyone in the cast has a grand time with all this silliness, and watching them verbally spar with one another is the film’s real draw—well, that and just soaking in every drop of Ann-Margret’s glamour and talent.

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