Thursday, March 8, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.3: Jonathan Demme's Last Embrace

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. March’s director is the perpetually underrated Jonathan Demme. Today’s entry is 1979’s Last Embrace.

Grade: 31 (C-)

Handle with Care (aka Citizen’s Band) was an artistic triumph, and a sign that Jonathan Demme was an important director. It was also a gigantic financial failure. The film’s financial woes were so great that Demme had trouble finding work for some time (he stooped to directing an episode of Columbo in the meantime). At a certain point in a director’s career, a “one for them” decision has to be made in order to finance films the director might care about. But even as far as “one for them” films go, Last Embrace is a particularly weak film.

There’s really not much plot worth going into, but for what it’s worth, here it is: Harry Hannan (Roy Scheider) is a secret agent of some sort who goes on a mission in Mexico, bringing his wife along. He meets enemy agents and his wife is killed in a shootout. Months later, Hannan returns from a sanitarium a nervous wreck, and he finds a threatening letter written in ancient Hebrew: “Avenger of Blood”. Hannan’s sanity is in question, his boss (Christopher Walken) sends a fellow agent (Charles Napier) to kill him, and his only real ally is a biology student/tenant (Janet Margolin).

Last Embrace suffers from a terrible script, bad casting, and derivative filmmaking. Alfred Hitchcock’s films always had tight scripts filled with clever dialogue; Last Embrace is poorly plotted, often confusing, and has characters speak stilted dialogue that sounds like nothing anyone in the history of the world has ever said (“This is ridiculous bullshit!”-“Go be mad at who you’re mad at”). It isn’t helped by Margolin’s tone-deaf line readings- an occasional Woody Allen player (Take the Money and Run, Annie Hall), she hasn’t the chops nor the sultriness for a Hitchcockian heroine.

Scheider doesn’t fare much better as a man supposedly coming apart at the seams (although, to be fair, his character’s breakdowns in the script are also rather unconvincing). He exudes too much confidence and calmness (see Jaws, The French Connection, Marathon Man) to play a psychological wreck in the fashion of James Stewart in Vertigo. Even his on-the-verge-of-death character in All That Jazz had endless bravado.

Demme throws in a few interesting touches, most notably the occasional use of on-screen performers for the soundtrack (better used in Rachel Getting Married). But even though there’s a handful of solid set-pieces, Demme doesn’t put enough of himself into the film, and though Tak Fujimoto’s photography is reliably fluid, the film doesn’t have the same nuance or loving compositions Demme’s other films have. The film’s boldest moves- an exploration of Jewish identity and the nature of guilt- seem tacked on, no doubt due to the poor quality of the script (which was unfinished as filming began). Demme considers Last Embrace his least successful film. He may be right.

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