Monday, July 11, 2016

Crimes of Passion (1984)

While there have been exceptions, for the better part of the past 20 or so years it seems as if Hollywood and American films in general have stopped caring about taking chances in terms of material, choosing to stay stagnant in a sterile CGI/green screen rut. It might seem strange that there was once a point in time however when a Hollywood film with several million dollars behind it could cause a major stir, draw the ire of the MPAA and be completely subversive. Paul Verhoeven for example had this down to a science with films like RoboCop (1987), Showgirls (1995) and Starship Troopers (1997), films infamous for their content but for their intelligence as well. William Friedkin’s notorious Cruising (1980) also immediately springs to mind. So its not entirely surprising that Ken Russell would be invited to Hollywood to make Altered States (1980), although Russell’s reputation as a result of his clashes with Paddy Chayefsky who adapted to screenplay from his own novel not only led to Chayefsky taking his name off the film, in the process Russell found himself becoming a persona non grata of sorts in Hollywood. Never one to let reputation get in the way, Russell again managed to cause a major fuss with his follow-up to Altered States, 1984’s Crimes of Passion, one of Russell’s most outrageous films and at the same time one of his most heartfelt.

Electronics salesman Bobby Grady (John Laughlin) is hired by a fashion designer to do some nighttime surveillance trailing one of his employees, Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner) whom he believes is stealing from him. While following Joanna, a serious, no nonsense business woman by day, Bobby is shocked to learn that at night Joanna takes to the streets as China Blue, a sharp tongued prostitute willing to fulfill any fantasy. Bobby, who’s marriage to his high school sweetheart Amy is in shambles, pays Joanna, as China Blue, a personal visit and soon finds himself falling for the real Joanna, all the while Joanna is being relentlessly pursued by reverend Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins), a psychotic preacher obsessed with “saving” her.

Crimes of Passion is a blunt as a film can be in the way it presents it ideas yet at the same time can still be a bit difficult to get a read on in that while its subject matter is incredibly heavy, this is also a Ken Russell film filled to the brim with bizarre and flamboyant moments. On a purely surface level, this is a film about sex, however deep down its really a film about fear. Bobby’s fear of admitting his marriage has lost whatever spark it may have had, Amy’s fear of admitting her lack of interest in sex and Joanna’s fear of being herself and letting anyone into her life in an intimate manner outside of her China Blue persona. Its these things which give the film its heart, particularly in the dialogue department. The discussions of sex are frank and at times awkward yet purposely so, for instance in a brilliantly performed scene between Bobby and Amy where the two are finally honest with each other for the first time in what seems like ages. On the opposite end of the spectrum would be the back and fourths between China Blue and Reverend Shayne, which are just fierce but also darkly comic and the film does have a tendency to bounce back and forth between being a serious drama, erotic thriller and absurdist comedy and the later takes over every time Perkins is on screen in one of the most hilariously deranged performance ever captured on film.

Russell would return to similar territory and controversy later in his career with Whore (1991) which in many ways could be seen as somewhat of a sequel to Crimes of Passion with its pull no punches look at the life of a streetwalker mixed with the occasional moment of Russell oddness, although nothing that comes close to the lunacy that is Perkins in Crimes of Passion. Whore also features a typically fearless performance from Theresa Russell just as Crimes of Passion features Kathleen Tuner in one of her most iconic and greatest roles, no hyperbole. Aesthetically however the films are worlds apart with Whore being no frills and shot documentary style whereas Crimes of Passion is smothered in flashy neon lighting and 80’s kitsch even featuring a random moment of classic Russell surrealism represented by a television commercial and the film is equally defined by its gloriously 80’s synth score via Rick Wakeman. Despite the controversy surrounding the film upon its original release, it would appear that the film has been somewhat forgotten about over the years especially when compared to other Russell titles like Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971) or Tommy (1975) just to name a few. Both perverted and poignant with astounding performances from Turner and Perkins, Crimes of Passion is a quintessentially Russell experience and deserves to hailed as one of his best films and a 80’s highlight.

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