Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Cinematic Dregs: Crimes of Passion

(1984) Directed by Ken Russell; Written by Barry Sandler; Starring: Kathleen Turner, John Laughlin, Anthony Perkins, Bruce Davison and Annie Potts;
Available on DVD.

Rating: ** ½

My decision to cover Crimes of Passion for The LAMBs in the Director’s Chair spurred some internal debate.  Was it an appropriate choice for this blog?  Did I really want to write about this sort of movie?  Yes, and yes.  While I’ve included the occasional big budget hit from time to time, my blog was founded on the principle of discussing the smaller movies that slipped through the cracks for various reasons.  This film certainly fell into the latter category, and has become a cult favorite in certain circles.  Was this reputation truly deserved? 

 Crimes of Passion was the product of the late director Ken Russell (who passed away in 2011), a filmmaker not known for his subtlety or stark realism. For the most part, it was savaged by critics upon its initial release.  Roger Ebert described it as “one of the silliest movies in a long time,” which seemed to echo the general sentiment of other mainstream critics.  Over the years, it’s gained a devoted following, despite this shaky start.  So, is it a misguided erotic thriller or a brilliant satire on American society and sexual mores?   Although I can’t quite bring myself to agree with the second stance, I can see how a valid argument could be made for either point of view.   

In the DVD commentary*, Russell explained that he intended to depict middle-class American suburbia and the masks that we wear to conceal our vulnerabilities. Barry Sandler (who wrote the heavy-handed screenplay) also contributed to the commentary, stating that he wanted to depict the inherent hypocrisies in society.  The film contrasts domestic complacency with lurid sexual fantasies, jumping back and forth between a seedy red light district and a sterile suburban neighborhood.

* In a strange (and unfortunate) turn of events, Russell disappeared about halfway through the DVD commentary.  According to co-commenter Barry Sandler, he had to catch a plane.

Kathleen Turner plays Joanna Crane, a “talented” fashion designer by day (despite the fact that we never see examples of her work) and call girl China Blue by night.  Her character reinforces the concept that people aren’t who they seem.  While Joanna is repressed and stilted in her interactions with men, her sublimated desires emerge when she’s China Blue.  When her alter ego emerges, she’s all about becoming whatever her clients desire.  Suddenly, she’s transformed into a beauty queen, a nun, or a stewardess (sorry, “flight attendant” just doesn’t cut it).  Turner seems to be having a lot of fun with these different personas; presumably the more absurd the better.  It’s almost a shame when China Blue reverts to Joanna, who seems drab and boring by comparison.

The other primary character, Bobby Grady (John Laughlin), is supposed to be the “everyman” of the story, but just comes across as loathsome and unsympathetic.  His whiny, obnoxious demeanor serves to distance him from the other characters.  We’re supposed to believe that he’s one of the good guys, but his motives seem mostly selfish.  We never see much motivation for his wife’s unresponsive behavior (played by Annie Potts in a thankless role – most of her scenes were cut).  Grady runs a home security business, and is hired by the owner of a fashion design company to observe one of his top employees (Joanna).  Instead of uncovering industrial espionage, however, he finds that she’s leading a double life.  He becomes entranced by China Blue and her anything goes persona.  Their relationship strikes a chord that presumably makes each individual more authentic as their true selves emerge, but it never really gels onscreen.

By far, the most compelling character is the Reverend Peter Shayne, played by Anthony Perkins at his creepy best.  He’s a deranged street preacher who appoints himself as China Blue’s savior, but he’s a walking contradiction.  Shayne is repulsed by the flagrant displays of debauchery that he witnesses on the street, but frequents a local strip club and indulges in recreational inhalants.  He stalks China Blue at every turn, choosing their encounters as an opportunity to proselytize about what he perceives to be her depraved, soulless lifestyle.  Russell remarked that Perkins actually used amyl nitrite and slept in his preacher clothes to immerse himself in the role.  The results speak for themselves.  Perkins completely steals the show every time he’s on screen, with his wired, unhinged performance.  In the middle of Shayne’s climactic confrontation with Joanna/China Blue, he breaks into a rousing piano-accompanied rendition of “Get happy” that must be seen to be believed. 

Russell continually keeps things interesting from an auditory and visual perspective.  He frequently employed classical music in his movie soundtracks, and Crimes of Passion is no exception.  The music by Rick Wakeman of the progressive rock group Yes utilizes variations of Dvořák’s New World Symphony throughout the film.  The cinematography helps create a world ripe for China Blue’s erotic fantasies.  In her domain, everything is bathed in a garish red and blue neon-infused glow.

Crimes of Passion is obviously the work of a talented filmmaker, with its juxtaposition of sacred and profane imagery and themes of people who lead dual lives.  Even though it’s only partially successful in reaching its objectives, it’s eminently watchable.   It’s worth a look for Perkins’ eccentric, off-the-wall performance that borders on self-parody, as well as Turner’s uninhibited portrayal of a woman living out her id-driven compulsions.  Sandler’s screenplay, unfortunately, isn’t quite up to the level of its director or lead actors, with its simplistic depiction of women, who only seem to fall on either side of the Freudian fence (i.e., Madonna/Whore complex).      

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