Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Searching Low And High

I’m sitting here in my apartment writing this, wondering how I got here and wondering where this is all going. My head must be somewhere else these days or I would have been able to finish writing something sooner. I suppose I don’t know what to do anymore. Don’t know what to say. Keeping that in mind, I realize that without any attention being paid the 10th anniversary of the release of Steven Soderbergh’s THE LIMEY was passed a few months back. In some ways it’s actually fitting, as if this lean, nasty and adventurous effort by the director would want to stay under the radar, waiting to be discovered by those who would really care. Soderbergh has moved on to making numerous other things since its release, what some might consider a minor stopover between his career rejuvenation with OUT OF SIGHT and the critical and box office triumph of ERIN BROCKOVICH. Soon after that was his Oscar for TRAFFIC and of course the massive success of the OCEAN’S ELEVEN series. THE LIMEY, on the other hand, seems to be loved by a select few that includes those who respond to its deifying of star Terence Stamp as well as its determined non-linear approach to telling its story. The style may not be as extreme today as it was when it was first seen but it remains extremely daring, making it a film without any real present tense. Not to mention how within its tribute to films of the sixties and death knell of the dreams of that era is a film that gains in resonance as time goes on because of how it looks at memory, of loss, of regret. If it is forever consigned to modest status then it might almost take pride in being this scrappy little movie as determined itself as is that stare that Terence Stamp keeps on his face, gazing down at those in his path.

English career criminal Wilson (Terence Stamp) arrives in Los Angeles soon after completing his latest stint behind bars in search for answers as to the death of his daughter Jenny (Melissa George). Tracking down her friends Eduardo (Luis Guzman) and Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren) leads him to the trail famed record producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda) with whom Jenny had a relationship. Knowing that someone is after him, Valentine and security chief Avery (Barry Newman) set out to have Wilson dealt with but things don’t go as planned and Wilson soon makes it clear how far he is willing to go to find out just what happened to his daughter (“Tell me…tell me about Jenny”).

A bracingly simple plot which comes off as an attempt to cross GET CARTER with the art-house stylings of Boorman’s POINT BLANK and made more complex, more resonant by its director, more interested in the idea of exploring the concept of memory within this pulp genre setup. That specific feeling is also helped by the presence of its lead actor, someone who in his erratic career (a star in the 60s, vanished in the 70s and reappearing through the 80s and 90s) really does fit the title of “The Seeker” as the famous song from The Who blares out at us right at the start as he walks into sharp focus. In some ways the movie is about its own process, shredding its narrative into splices that cover the editing room floor. The conversation over the course of an evening between Stamp and Lesley Ann Warren is shown as occurring in four locations, cutting together the sections of the talk in a way that makes no logical sense but that’s clearly not what Soderbergh is going for. This approach was picked apart by screenwriter Lem Dobbs in the infamous DVD audio commentary with Soderbergh (one of the best ever, highly recommended) in which the man who first put all this on paper proclaims, “…I’d say it’s a good movie. I’d recommend it to my friends. But as a screenwriter, I think it’s crippled.” A more ‘normal’ version of the film could certainly have worked as well, with aspirations that would go beyond the normal action approach but Soderbergh seems to have been intent on stripping away as many of the elements that would conform to expectations as possible while still keeping the occasional action beat and shootout. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, the camera holds outside as Wilson goes inside a warehouse to nastily take care of some business and it plays beautifully (and, since Dobbs points it out, all from the script).

Stamp’s Wilson does speak of regret, of the lost relationship with his daughter but equally as affecting as that is the chance to just stare into the actor’s expression, lost after decades of ‘seeking’, alone without family or the friends who he long ago realized weren’t his friends at all. THE LIMEY is about loss, of looking back on the past with nothing but despair and realizing what your actions have truly resulted in. Where does a person go after these things happen? How much can they implode inward and still somehow function? The most powerful characters in this film share that regret even if they don’t speak of it or have anything else in common—Fonda’s Terry Valentine has long since lost any idealism he had back in ’66 and ‘early ’67 (The first time I saw this film I heard his introductory song “King Midas in Reverse” as “Easy Rider in Reverse” and as far as I’m concerned that applies as well). Warren’s Elaine has had some sort of acting career but it doesn’t seem to have resulted in much more than the apartment she lives in and groceries she walks in with at night—that quick shot of the Breyers ice cream container seems to say a lot. Valentine’s latest girl Adhara tells him that he’s not specific enough to be a person, he’s a vibe, and this seems to what has happened to several of these characters through the years, damaged by whatever non-linear series of flashbacks that are spiraling through their own heads. THE LIMEY keeps up its genre trappings just enough to be aware of what it’s supposed to accomplish but its how those things are twisted through the approach that has kept me returning to it through the years.

Some of the humor is of the Tarantino-90s variety but after all, it was the 90s and manages to help emphasize the difference in the two time periods. Though it’s hardly new ground, the observational humor in regards to this alien city as observed by Wilson, like how Eduardo first met Jenny, feels sharp and dead-on—it’s a terrific L.A. movie beautifully photographed by Ed Lachman. Maybe it’s a minor piece of work but it’s also a remarkable one as well and one of the times that Soderbergh’s own clinical examination of his subject matter has caused something much more resonant than might have been expected to result. There are so many things I love about this movie—watching Stamp walk as he makes his way into the downtown warehouse, the car chase that puts VANISHING POINT’s Barry Newman behind the wheel backed by some very cool Cliff Martinez music, the randomness of the whole party scene and how Luis Guzman just wanders through it, the nastiness of Nicky Katt’s character. As fast as it all moves, there’s also the occasional point where it just pauses for reflection like on the drive up to Big Sur. THE LIMEY is lean, nasty, emotional and it knows that you don’t have to worry about getting your movie past the 90-minute mark to give it depth. Just looking into Terence Stamp’s eyes for 88 minutes is really all you need.

Whether or not anyone else was discussed for the lead role, and it is interesting to imagine Michael Caine in the part, Terence Stamp makes it his own in every possible way. After a tortured period of stardom through the sixties which included turning down the film version of ALFIE after playing the role on stage (Caine has written of how he tried to talk Stamp into it before playing the part himself adding, “I still wake up screaming in the middle of the night as Terry takes my advice and accepts the role.”), Stamp disappeared for much of the following decade before his return to the spotlight as General Zod in SUPERMAN and its first sequel. As the eighties wore on he continued to work, often in minor bad guy-type roles (though I love him as Sir Larry Wildman in WALL STREET), but it could be said that to most people of a certain generation he IS General Zod. THE LIMEY uses the actor he had become by 1999 and fusing that with the screen persona he used to be (particularly in how it incorporates actual footage of him in Ken Loach’s POOR COW as flashbacks for Wilson) and the film uses Stamp as the star he was always meant to be. He’s tough, he’s endearing, he’s ruthless as he takes in this strange landscape and the performance justifies Stamp’s entire career. He’s remarkable in the film, even (maybe especially) when he’s doing nothing but staring into space musing about how his fellow crooks (fellow actors?) have long since abandoned him as they went off to their own lives (saying something about the possible fondness Soderbergh has for the film, Stamp briefly appeared again as Wilson for a jokey cameo in FULL FRONTAL).

Peter Fonda is a blast as the sleaze Valentine, letting equal amounts of his massive ego and self-hatred show through. Just as part of Wilson is Stamp, certainly part of Valentine is Fonda and while the two leads have very little screen time together that first moment when the two lock eyes as Wilson exits the party is a damn near perfect silent exchange. Barry Newman digs into Avery with massive relish, a role better than nearly anything the actor got to play for decades before this, while Lesley Ann Warren gives the few moments she has to herself a degree of silent sadness that indicates her relationship with Jenny meant more than she’s willing to express to the girl’s father. Amelie Heinle, coming off as a Denise Richards with intelligence, also gives off an interesting vibe as Valentine’s new girl Adhara, staying wet through most of her screentime almost as if it signifies her continued purity in the middle of all this. Bill Duke, given a memorable line that starts with “There’s one thing I don’t understand…” is uncredited in a key role and Soderbergh sticks his OUT OF SIGHT star George Clooney in there briefly, seen as himself on an entertainment news program acting like a total jackass.

When I first saw THE LIMEY when it was first released I remember being fascinated by the idea of relating it to what L.A. used to be… the sixties that these characters still feel stranded in. Now I look at it and think about the present that I’ve arrived in and wonder about the reflections of my own past, the things that it’s too late to change. Sometimes I wonder if I’m getting a look at the future in my head as well. After all the gunplay and mayhem, THE LIMEY closes on a brief glimpse of the past where there was still the possibility of a life for the character of Wilson to look forward to, the idea of “getting better,” and something that has long since past. As I sit here watching this film yet again after already spending years driving around this city and living my own history, I wonder which point I’m finding myself at. Right now I don’t have the answer but I’d like to think there’s still time.


Unknown said...

What a great post on this film! Actually, I think you'd be surprised at how highly regarded THE LIMEY is by film buffs. The Large Association of Movie Blogs recently did a mini-blog-a-thon dedicated to Soderbergh's films and THE LIMEY was voted #1 in a poll over biggies like TRAFFIC and OCEAN'S 11 so there ya go.

But you're right that it was largely ignored by the mainstream. Not surprisingly considering the non-linear narrative. I always felt that we are seeing things from Stamp's P.O.V., that the film really tries to get inside his head and does so quite well. This film is a meditative crime thriller in many respects as well as a lament on the disappearance of the ideals of the 1960s, how many of the hippies like Valentine went on to become soulless Yuppies contributing to the "Greed is good" culture of the 1980s.

Always liked Terrence Stamp and you forgot to mention another '80s gem he was in, THE HIT, which I think really kick-started his career-revitalization (well, I guess SUPERMAN II probably did). He seems to be working pretty steadily since THE LIMEY. It's just a shame that a lot of is crap but hey, at least he's working.

Oh, and a minor correction Jenny is actually played by Melissa George who was the best thing (IMO) about 30 DAYS OF NIGHT and had a minor role in MULHOLLAND DRIVE. I quite like her and it's a shame she appears in a lot of things that are pretty forgettable.

Anyways, you can count me a fan of this film and I really enjoyed your thoughts on it.

christian said...

Always great to read appreciations of this beloved Soderbergh film. I was at the Austin premiere in 99 and had the chance to talk with Soderbergh at the post-party. He's extremely wry, smart and balanced. He told me about the things he cut from the film, which I wish would be put on disc -- I want to see Ann Margret's monologue to Peter Fonda!

As fer LA, Sodernergh captures the sun-spotted drowsy desperation of this city. I think there's only one way out of here...

Thomas Pluck said...

This is definitely my favorite Soderbergh film, and your review of it hits the nail on the head. To my shame, I didn't recognize Kowalski as Valentine's right hand man, and you're right he's absolutely fantastic. This was my introduction to Luis Guzman as well, and the Bill Duke cameo really sold it for me. I watched THE HIT after J.D. reviewed it, and it's an underrated gem that Stamp really shines in.

Its treatment of revenge reminded me of DEAD MAN'S SHOES, although in the opposite direction. The ravaging guilt that drives it is still there.

le0pard13 said...

For its sheer spare toughness, THE LIMEY is one of my favorite Soderbergh's (TRAFFIC is great, IF you haven't seen the British TV series is it based on, TRAFFIK, IMO). Terrence Stamp is equally superb in his role here, too. I'm so glad J.D. mentioned THE HIT, another of my favorites and one like this film that deserves to be seen and appreciated by more viewers.

The rest of cast really makes some great contributions to this film, too. Also, Mr. Peel, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this film, and how it makes a personal connection with you as someone who has migrated here to L.A. Anyway, this is another of your great reviews and film dissections. Thank very much for this.

p.s., as a L.A.-native, I didn't know we were so drowsy or despairing. Shows how little I know (I am spotted, though) ;-).

Unknown said...

Oh man, I would kill to see those deleted scenes. Very cool that you got to me Soderbergh. I figure he would be like you described. He strikes me as a pretty sharp guy. His commentaries are pretty awesome, even when he guests on other people's films (the one for POINT BLANK is a keeper).

I just remembered that one of my fave little bits of business in THE LIMEY is when Stamp looks at Luis Guzman's Che Guevara t-shirt (foreshadowing a future project perhaps?) and the reaction shot is priceless. it's quick but just one of the many pleasures of this film.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thanks very much for that and it's good to hear that there are other fans out there. I am, however embarrased by both the fact that I've never seen THE HIT (though it's on the queue) and that I got Melissa George's name wrong. I'm particularly annoyed about this because I always associated her role in this with her role in MULHOLLAND DRIVE--two L.A. set films in which she plays a key role who is nevertheless present mostly as a ghostly figure. Oh well. Hey, at least I didn't say it was Phyllis George. As for commentaries, to me Sodgerbergh's track with Mike Nichols on CATCH-22is as good as it gets.


That you commented on this particular film makes me think of John Phillip Law for whatever reason. Anyway, what's interesting about the deleted footage is that they never actually identify Ann-Margaret on the commentary when they talk about the scene. I had to go looking in old Variety production listings to see who was listed. She certainly has her own 60s baggage that would have made her appropriate casting...maybe she didn't work out for reasons they didn't want to discuss which could have something to do with why it remains unseen. But I'm just guessing here. It must have been just great to see it at the premiere.


Thanks, glad you liked the piece and though I may not have said it, this may very well be my favorite Soderbergh as well. Barry Newman really is pretty awesome, isn't he? For whatever reason, that really stood out to me this time more than it ever did before.


It's nice to know that other people hold this movie as special too. Thanks for the nice things you said as always. But now I'm starting to feel sheepish about never having seen THE HIT! I promise, I'll get to it soon.

christian said...

I didn't actually see the footage as it was cut before but Soderbergh said Margret was great, it just was a long monologue and didn't quite fit. You can read her scene in the script...

Marc Edward Heuck said...

It's also a curious footnote that in the same summer/fall 1999 season that THE LIMEY opened, BOWFINGER was still in theatres, also starring both Stamp and Newman, in very funny performances. Stamp is calm lunatic perfection as the leader of the "MindHead" cult, uttering lines like "You must not show Mr. Wiener to anyone...especially the Laker Girls."

Nostalgia Kinky said...

I tell you, if I wasn't so obsessed with OUT OF SIGHT, then THE LIMEY would be my favorite Soderbergh film. Wonderfully moving and written post on one of the great modern films...

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Well, so much for the theory I've had for years on why the scene was cut--I always remembered Lem Dobbs describing it as something like 'one of those things where all the elements are against you'. A shame that we've never gotten to see this footage and now I want to see it even more.


I remember noticing that at the time! Barry Newman also had a very good guest shot during that period on the original version of "Cupid" playing Paula Marshall's father. My mother has sometimes spoken of slightly knowing him in New York many years ago when he was a teenager and it always sounded like she had a crush on him.


Nothing at all wrong with OUT OF SIGHT, of course, I love that one too. I just find myself returning to this one even more. Thanks very much Jeremy, I'm glad you liked this one.

Fred said...

Thanks for a great write up on one of my favorite films of the 90s. The music in the film plays an especially strong role, with the Who's The Seeker telling you all you need to know about Stamp's character and the Hollies' King Midas in Reverse (probably my favorite Hollies song of all time) all you need to know about Fonda's character. And the clip of Stamp singing Donovan's Colours from Poor Cow is also quite affecting (I wonder if Loach's film will ever appear on home video?). The film really captures how we process ideas, memories and current stimula in a way which is usually reserved for great literature, how we sometimes preview what we plan to do (Stamp fantasizing of just going up to Valentine and shooting him at the party) or how something brings back a memory (like the clips from Poor Cow which appear in the film).

Anonymous said...

There's always (more) time in L.A. -- until there isn't.
I saw this, still new in town, over at the Sunset 5 back in '99. This is almost my favorite Soderbergh film ("Out of Sight" wins simply by the bar scene with Clooney & Jennifer Lopez). I don't have much to add to what everyone else has already said, but this is a great write-up for a great film. Also, a Soderbergh audio commentary is a must listen no matter what film is running.

- Bob

Anonymous said...

"My name is Wilson!"

Ah, one of my favourite movies reviewed by one of my favourite reviewers. :)

I bought the DVD as soon as I could lay my hands on it. Shame that it wasn't shown in any cinema around my place.

This is one movie you can watch again and again, always discovering new aspects and enjoying it for its own sake. (KING OF NEW YORK also works for me in that way.)

Best regards,

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I like the way you put it in regards to the music and memory. I've never actually seen POOR COW and someday hope to but for now, this is one of those films that I think I'll always want nearby. Glad to hear from another fan.


The Sunset 5 is exactly where I saw it too, on opening weekend. Glad that someone else who was there liked the piece, thank you.


It's a shame you never got to see it in a theater but yes, multiple viewings are rewarding, almost necessary with this film. Thanks very much for the kind words.

Ned Merrill said...

Wow, hard to believe it's been 10 years since the release of THE LIMEY as I vividly recall seeing this in the theater and being blown away, when I wasn't telling the people behind me to be quiet.

I recall an Onion AV Club interview at the same time with Soderbergh in which he rightly credits GET CARTER, PETULIA, and POINT BLANK as antecedents for THE LIMEY. The above 4 titles would make a pretty good double-double feature, I think.

This is definitely my favorite Soderbergh film though the aforementioned OUT OF SIGHT is superb as well (probably Soderbergh's best BIG movie).

I'm also a big fan of THE UNDERNEATH, which I think is something of a companion piece to THE LIMEY in the Soderbergh oeuvre. Was fortunate to see THE UNDERNEATH at a great neo-noir retro in '97 at the Museum of the Moving Image, which was topped off by one of those "only in NY moments," when a curmudgeon behind me mumbled loudly enough for those around to hear, "Not in the same class as the original." Or, something to that effect. :-) For the record, I also enjoy Siodmak's CRISS CROSS.

As for THE LIMEY, I love Stamp and how he makes no effort to be understood by anyone else...the tension between Newman and Fonda...when a fanboy at the party asks Fonda for a "nugget" about Christopher Cross...the childlike mannerisms of Joe Dallesandro...the frightening Nicky Katt and his vile joke about Einstein's cock...Luis Guzman's first reaction to Stamp showing up on his doorstep...Stamp's return to the warehouse after an initial beatdown...

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thanks for the great comments. I love all those moments too and many more. I've read some of Soderbergh's thoughts on PETULIA before--it's too bad that film isn't better known.

As for THE UNDERNEATH, I haven't seen it for years--I'm probably one of a handful who saw it during its first run--but I would imagine my take on it now might be colored by the director's own dissatisfaction with it. Hell, I should just give it another try.