Saturday, May 4, 2013

Film Review: LAST EMBRACE (1979, Jonathan Demme)

Stars: 3.5 of 5.
Running Time: 102 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew:  Roy Scheider (JAWS, ALL THAT JAZZ, MARATHON MAN), Janet Margolin (ANNIE HALL, GHOSTBUSTERS II), John Glover (52 PICK-UP, BATMAN AND ROBIN, GREMLINS 2), Christopher Walken (THE DEAD ZONE, MCBAIN), Charles Napier (RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), Sam Levene (SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, CROSSFIRE).  Music by Miklós Rózsa (THE KILLERS '46, BEN-HUR, SPELLBOUND).  Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE SIXTH SENSE, FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF).
Tag-line:  "It begins with an ancient warning.  It ends at the edge of Niagara Falls.  In between there are five murders.  Solve the mystery.  Or die trying."
Best one-liner:  "You gotta do better than that, Jack!  WHO SENT YA?!"

LAST EMBRACE is one of acclaimed director Jonathan Demme's (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, PHILADELPHIA, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED) first commercial efforts, and though it's reputation is nearly nonexistent (I hadn't even heard of it until this week), it ranks somewhere between "fairly okay Roy Scheider vehicle" and "lost De Palma film."

Based on the novel THE 13TH MAN by Murray Teigh Bloom, LAST EMBRACE stars Scheider as a CIA-ish secret agent who sees his wife gunned down in Mexico by a gang of dudes including MANIAC's Joe Spinell, a character actor who I've described as "Ron Jeremy meets Vincent Price."

In the wake of her death, Scheider undergoes a nervous breakdown and spends several months in a Connecticut sanitarium.  Upon his release, he finds a stranger (Janet Margolin) subletting his apartment, receives cryptic Aramaic messages, and encounters all sorts of people who are probably trying to kill him, including his own agency.  ...Or is he simply delusional?
And so that's the set-up– Scheider tries to stay alive while attempting to unravel this conspiracy which may or may not actually exist.

How is the film?  It's pretty good.  It's got a great hook, some nice Hitchcockian suspense, and in Scheider, an excellent star.  Scheider really knows how to carry a movie.  The man's one of the best actors of the 1970s.  If you haven't already– go see ALL THAT JAZZ.  Do it now.  
Anyway, the plot of LAST EMBRACE begins to degenerate around the halfway mark, and it builds to some hilariously bad melodrama that may or may not involve the white slave trade.  But Scheider never stops giving it his all, and he will in all likelihood convince you that you're watching a much better movie than you actually are, and that's okay with me. 

His intensity has rarely been matched.  In the scene pictured above, he needs to speak with Janet Margolin, who happens to be taking a shower.  He whips back the shower curtain (with Norman Batesian panache) and begins saying what he needs to say.  There's no hint of lasciviousness or peeping Tomitude– he's got the precision and matter-of-factness of a surgeon.  Scheider has played a lot of CIA and military types before (MARATHON MAN, TIME LAPSE, THE RUSSIA HOUSE, THE FOURTH WAR, etc.) and you absolutely believe him.  His acting choices are simple and understated- when he wants to indicate that ice water runs though his veins, he doesn't showboat around, he just becomes that hardened man.   Incidentally, I recently found out that Roy Scheider was a boxer, long before he was an actor.  He went 12-1 before moving on to theater.  Who knew?

In any event, a few of the signposts and highlights of LAST EMBRACE are these:

#1.  Tak Fujimoto's cinematography.  A long-time Demme crony, Fujimoto is a master craftsman whose first film was fuckin' BADLANDS.  Along the way, he slummed for Corman (DEATH RACE 2000 and others), lensed a few John Hughes classics (FERRIS BUELLER and PRETTY IN PINK), shot the MACGYVER pilot episode, and worked with Demme 17 times.  Somehow he's never even been nominated for an Academy Award.  What the hell!?


#2.  Scheider is waiting for the MetroNorth train to take him from Connecticut to NYC.   On the platform, he's pushed from behind and nearly tumbles into the oncoming train.  He grabs the nearest guy (a young Mandy Patinkin!), puts him in a stranglehold, and begins to question him ("You gotta do better than that, Jack!  WHO SENT YA?!"), all the while poised to deliver an insane karate throat blow, or maybe even the throat-rippin' move from ROAD HOUSE.  God bless Roy Scheider.

#3.  Christopher Walken's brief appearance as a CIA handler.  As always, he's hilarious, creepy, and enunciating unexpected syllables.
He's also wearing ginormous glasses.

#4.  Junta Juleil Hall-of-Famer John Glover as a religious scholar who helps Scheider ascribe meaning to his cryptic Aramaic messages.

He's not particularly given a great deal to do here, but he still imbues his character with the amazing, eccentric energy we've come to love and expect from Glover.

#5.  Hitchockian setpieces.

There's a chase/shootout scene up a bell tower that recalls VERTIGO, and the final showdown takes place at Niagara Falls, referencing Hitchcock's propensity to end films at national landmarks (like Mount Rushmore in NORTH BY NORTHWEST or the Statue of Liberty in SABOTEUR to name a couple). 

In the end, it's a sort of lackluster thriller with some great character actors and brilliant, anchoring lead performance by Roy Scheider.  Three and a half stars.

–Sean Gill

7 comments:

Mike B. said...

You weren't kidding when you said there would be more obscure Scheider on the way; your site is positively on fire these days! It also speaks to my extreme laziness that I also hadn't heard of this one, even after I just said how embarrassed I was to have not heard of the last one, and given that all this time I could've just take literally .25 seconds to click on an IMDb bookmark. And even though these reviews are driving my to-watch list to crazier and crazier levels, I don't mind at all; keep 'em coming!

P.S. That Joe Spinell line almost made me do a spit take!

J.D. Lafrance said...

I don't know if it still is, but this film was streaming on Netflix. It was in my queue and I kept meaning to check it out. This review clinches it.

Loves me some '70s era Roy Scheider. Didn't know about him being a boxer but it makes sense now that I think about it. His weather-beaten face kinda looks like he went a few rounds back in the day, but in a good way. Natural tough guy. I know I wouldn't want him to put me in stranglehold on a subway platform!

Sean Gill said...

Mike,

Thanks, man! There are a lot of holes for me in Scheider's filmography, too– I thought I'd seen a ton, but there's plenty of 80s and 90s material that I've never even heard of.

J.D.,

Good to see ya! This was one of the Netflix stream-aggedon titles that expired on May 1st– I tried to cram in as many as I could before the deadline. I guess the idea is that they'll switch to the ownership of the new Warner streaming service, but the odds of me buying a subscription to that are pretty low. Ah, well.

John Guedes said...

I'm also a big fan of 70's era Scheider, Friedkin's Sorcerer being my personal favorite. Never heard of this one, but will def have to track it down now. Thanks for reviving my old addiction - trolling goodwills for oop vhs tapes!

Sean Gill said...

John,

Oh yeah, SORCERER's a good one. And best of luck on the goodwill excursions- definitely a favorite pastime of mine, too!

Will Errickson said...

This was on Netflix Instant for a hot minute a year or two ago, and it was perfectly fine for an evening's entertainment. Scheider *does* make you think the movie is better than it is! His suit was pretty great too.

Sean Gill said...

Will,

Thanks for stopping by– yeah, Scheider definitely elevates this one (and most everything he's in).