Thursday, March 4, 2010
Into The Or What Category
There’s a lot that could be said about John Landis but right now, at this moment in time, I’m just going to say how much I genuinely enjoy INTO THE NIGHT. That’s right, INTO THE NIGHT, the Landis-directed comedy thriller that opened to little box office in February 1985 and was forgotten soon after, probably by the time his next film SPIES LIKE US opened for the Christmas holiday at the end of the year. Forgotten, that is, except for a handful of people out there in the world who have maintained a quiet admiration for its sneaky and at times genuinely screwed up charms. It’s one of a handful of movies from the director that, since it is freed from having to serve as a vehicle for Aykroyd/Belushi/Murphy/Chase/Whomever, revels in the chance to play as pure, unfiltered Landis and that’s where a good chunk of the screwed up element comes into play. But maybe life in Los Angeles is like one giant dark John Landis comedy anyway, where some twisted combo of comedy and danger in our lives is always teetering on the brink of madness. INTO THE NIGHT screened at the New Beverly recently on a double bill with FLETCH, which despite what you may think isn’t a John Landis film (that film’s director would be Michael Ritchie) but it did serve to make the night a double bill of ‘films released by Universal in 1985.’ In case that’s what they had in mind. Have I said before that the 70s-80s Universal logo is my favorite of all time? It feels like it goes perfectly at the front of INTO THE NIGHT coming just as the sound of a plane taxiing in for a landing starts to be heard. Whatever the studio, I was looking forward to seeing it and as the film unspoiled I found myself not just enjoying it, but flat-out loving how the movie had clearly taken such pleasure in creating itself.
Depressed and insomniac aerospace engineer Ed Okin (Jeff Goldblum) sees his problems only get worse when one day he drives home from work early desperate to get some sleep and discovers his wife having an affair. He doesn’t confront her but late that night, still unable to sleep and presumably following a co-worker’s suggestion to spend a night in Las Vegas, he drives to the airport when while in the parking lot he stumbles across a beautiful woman named Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is being chased by four mysterious men who obviously want something she has. Ed rescues her and drives her off into the Los Angeles night but as he takes Diana several different locations throughout the city in search of safety, they soon realize that not only are the four men still in pursuit but several other interested parties are as well.
Sort of the L.A. equivalent of AFTER HOURS, INTO THE NIGHT sets itself apart by not only placing its darkly comic atmosphere in the middle of a complicated smuggling plotline but in the very distinct tone that Landis gives every moment, one where in just a few seconds things can turn more deadly than you may have expected. Billed as “A Dangerous Romance” on the poster, most of the romantic element seems to be implied more than anything and the character of Ed Okin, who admits that he feels “like I’m from another planet or something” barely seems capable of entering into one at this point in time anyway. It’s not really a romance at all but a collision of a guy from an allegedly real world with a gorgeous blonde who comes from a world he barely could have dreamed of, one represented by a superficial world of beach houses, huge yachts, sleek cars and movie studios where nothing whatsoever is real. One thing I was slightly surprised by on this viewing that I didn’t remember is that the two lead characters do actually kiss at one point but it comes off as a surprisingly human moment in the middle of all this, not a lame bit of romance that just feels shoehorned in. The rest of whatever’s going on between the two of them you just have to take on faith. They seem to trust each other because there’s no one else for them in their own world’s that they can depend on. It’s all set in a Los Angeles of blah people living blah lives in blah houses as Cal Worthington ads play nonstop on TV seemingly unaware of what’s going on right around them in the dead of night, a city that also seems like it’s from another planet and is much more beautiful and foreboding at the same time with beautiful women, including our lead character, living lives with rich older men without any apology whatsoever from them or the movie.
Written by Ron Koslow, INTO THE NIGHT is certainly a different film to look at after having actually lived in L.A. for years, now fully knowing the geography of it all and realizing how much ground it covers making it even more fun to watch this time around. I do honestly wonder if the city streets were this much of a ghost town in the middle of the night even back in 1985 since it’s really not the case these days (Beverly Hills I could believe) but it provides the perfect atmosphere for this familiar yet strangely unreal world that we enter. There are continual laughs throughout and it is a comedy but one with a very skewered perspective and with people at times seemingly appearing out of nowhere things sometimes make about as much sense for Ed Okin as they would in any sort of dream—in this context, the few scenes that take place during daylight hours almost come off as more intimidating as a result. The whole thing is shot in Landis’s trademark DRAGNET dead-ahead style as if challenging us to decide what we make of some of this with the occasional quick cut away from something brutally surprising but some occasional forays into a certain kind of dark comedy go beyond even what he’d done before. The four Iranian secret police agents pursuing Diana, one of which is silently played by the director himself with a giant scar along his throat (guess who gets the most violent death during the climax?), come off as kind of the Four Stooges yet more than ever before for me their destruction of various people’s homes comes off as genuinely vicious and frightening—maybe it’s meant to be funnier than it comes off or maybe Landis is testing us to see how we respond to these luxurious places being trashed. Either way it leads to one particular sequence that starts off as darkly funny then almost before we realize it results in a character’s death, done in such a way that comes off as somehow wrong, going to a different level than even the darkly comic nastiness of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON ever did. It’s particularly surprising considering the whole TWILIGHT ZONE-THE MOVIE thing, then still just a few years old, to a point where you almost want to say, “What the hell, Landis?” There’s the feeling that maybe he wants to say something about the destruction of material objects versus the objectified person who has been shockingly killed but it either comes off as too subtle or just something that he isn’t interested in exploring to any great effect. Maybe that’s the effect that Landis is going for or maybe he was just in need of some serious psychiatric help but for a few minutes in the second half the nastiness almost becomes too much.
Coming in the wake of what occurred on the TWILIGHT ZONE set the number of familiar faces who turn up in small roles feels like a show of support for him, not to mention all the infamous cameos by directors and others—Paul Mazursky, David Cronenberg (playing a scene with Goldblum a year before THE FLY), Roger Vadim, Waldo Salt, Jack Arnold, Don Siegel, Paul Bartel, Colin Higgins, Rick Baker, Jonathan Lynn, Jim Henson, Amy Heckerling, Lawrence Kasdan, Carl Gottlieb, Jonathan Demme and I’m sure I’m forgetting somebody. The story covers various points of the L.A. basin from the Marina to Hollywood to Beverly Hills to Century City to Malibu to Bel Air to downtown, along with a visit to the Ships Coffee Shop that used to be on La Cienega as well as several key trips out to LAX. The side trip to a studio filming a TV show gives us random but still pertinent jokes as Ed makes a fool of himself over all the things that aren’t real but this section also presents us with the most blatant exposition of the movie as Diana lays everything out for Ed in front of a brownstone facade, a blatant movie type-plot laid out in a blatantly phony environment.
Tied into these elements that reflect on what we’re watching the script is genuinely well-constructed with some clever dialogue sprinkled throughout though Goldblum does wind up saying a variation of “This is just too weird for me,” a few times too many to Diana as he tries to get away back to his boring life where he can’t fall asleep. But there’s never any shortage of inspiration with several terrific setpieces including a car chase through the deserted Century City and the parking lot of the Century Plaza towers, the climactic airport shootout (this is like a John Landis movie—lots of people panicking) and, best of all, a long, drawn-out sequence at the midway point as Goldblum slowly makes his way through a huge, seemingly deserted apartment with none other than ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN playing on TVs in each room (Bud, Lou, Lugosi and Chaney all justifiably are given screen credit in the end crawl). The way the sequence gradually builds to its payoff is extremely well put together (the film was edited by Malcolm Campbell who cut several other films for Landis around this time), wit the counterpoint of the older movie seen everywhere being one of the most unexpected and successful uses of this kind of device that Landis has ever achieved. Much of this mayhem is backed up by a fantastic score by Ira Newborn along with B.B. King and some of the most pleasurable moments throughout are when Landis has the confidence to just let the music play as Ed Okin goes from one place to the other and by a certain point this sort of thing just had me grinning from ear to ear. INTO THE NIGHT definitely isn’t perfect with those weird tonal issues but maybe that’s part of the point anyway since it’s not always easy to figure out the tone of where you stand here in L.A. But I will admit that I love it, crazy as it is. The movie, I mean. OK, the town too. The film almost shows who Landis is more than anything else he ever directed—a screwed up guy yet eager to get you to like him in a twisted way. I’ll say that it’s not only John Landis’s best film but for total entertainment value probably my favorite of his as well.
Goldblum and Pfeiffer play off each other extremely well and they have a genuine chemistry which really makes it feel like the two actors truly like each other so it makes it easier to like both of them as a result. It may not be a sexual chemistry but it’s definitely something and it’s a feeling that grows as the film goes on. Goldblum’s responses to this madness always stay grounded no matter what, maybe best exemplified when he catches a quick look at Pfeiffer walking around nude. The nonplussed look on his face at that moment feels totally genuine and he couldn’t be more likable as a result. He’s a complete rarity in this world, a menschy everyman who trusts in this beautiful woman, so she trusts in him. Just a guy who wants to know why he can’t sleep, he winds up bringing to the movie some kind of morality that it may not have had otherwise. Pfeiffer infuses her character with some kind of inner life that makes her endearing even though it could very easily have come off as too chilly. Her talent is still developing here but it’s impossible to miss how good she already is. And, yes, she’s stunningly beautiful as well. Among the supporting cast are a number of actors who are able to turn what are essentially jokey cameos that couldn’t have taken more than a day or two to shoot into full-blown characters--Bruce McGill as Pfeiffer’s Elvis impersonator brother is particularly good as is David Bowie (who winds up in a mortal struggle with Carl Perkins) playing the mysterious Colin Morris. Director Paul Mazursky has an actual role playing a producer, Kathryn Harrold is Diana’s too-willing actress friend, Dan Aykroyd (more than anyone else here, obviously doing a favor) makes a nondescript appearance as Ed’s co-worker, Richard Farnsworth is terrific in one scene as the rich old man Diana once loved and Irene Papas is appropriately intimidating as the powerful Shaheen Parvici figures into things late in the game. Not to mention that near the end we get a terrific appearance by Clu Gulager as a Federal Agent glaring at the two leads big time—for anyone curious, the veteran character actor is seen pretty regularly at the New Beverly these days and he was absolutely there that night. His main line when asked “Are we under arrest or what?” is “I’d say you’d fall into the or what category” which he repeats a variation of moments later and, maybe because of his character’s annoyance in delivering it, is one of those lines that you remember years after you’ve ever seen the film. The New Beverly audience gave his name a big round of applause when it appeared in the credits. For those looking for Landis trivia the same version of “The Girl From Ipanema” heard in the elevator in THE BLUES BROTHERS turns up here as well and a SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY poster can be seen in Mazursky’s office.
It’s such a tonally strange movie vacillating between something genuinely likable and at times surprisingly violent that you begin to wonder who’s in charge of all this messiness. The answer, of course, is Landis, a madman who throws all these elements into this stew whether it goes together or not. Thinking about it as I write this I find myself almost feeling more critical about it than I first intended but that night I found myself sitting there in the New Beverly with a big grin on my face, feeling hugely satisfied by this film I first saw long ago and extremely pleased by how this twisted comedy with characters who I’ve always had a fondness for remains so enjoyable. The truth is that I think I like it even more than I'm saying. The truth is that I think I love it. When B.B. King singing “In The Midnight Hour” kicks in as that patented Landis cast recap starts as the end credits roll it feels like an absolute celebration of the movie we just saw which at its best is hugely entertaining and I was thrilled to see that’s still how it plays. It’s a movie that makes the line, “Can I have a ride to the airport?” sound like the most wonderful entryway to a more exciting life imaginable. If only it really did work out that way with the Dianas of this world but as I’ve learned any number of times by now, it’s usually not the case. At least there’s still INTO THE NIGHT to let us dream and I’m very glad it’s still there. And remember: When in Hollywood, visit Universal Studios. Ask for Babs.