Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Some People Just Can't Lie

The nights seem to get later and later as I find myself drifting off into my own personal film noir. What am I going to do now? What’s going to happen? Should I call that girl? Will I wind up staying up later as I wonder if I should eventually call that girl? Actually, I have a feeling that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Probably just the right thing for my current mindset, the American Cinematheque’s annual Film Noir Festival at the Egyptian is happening again and it really is one of the great things about living in this town. Those who program the series seem to go to every possible length to select films that have too often fallen through the cracks, so we’re not just shown the DOUBLE INDEMNITYs and MALTESE FALCONs that everyone already loves and knows by heart. Almost every single one of them turns out to be worth seeing, shown on what are more often than not beautiful 35mm prints, wonderful to see on the huge Egyptian screen. The crowds have been coming out too so it’s very nice to see the theater so filled up with people who are genuinely excited to see these films. The one strange thing about a few of the titles this year, pointed out to me by someone else, is how a surprising number of them have had endings which are, well, kind of happy. All well and good with some of them but do we really want a happy ending when it comes to film noir? Isn’t part of the point of them to remind you how futile all your dreams are, how screwed you are, how much you’re screwing yourself by falling for certain women? Isn’t that just the sort of thing I need to remember as I drift through those late night hours? Should I really try to imagine things might somehow be otherwise?

The occasional familiar face turns up at this festival as well, like how on opening night a year ago at one point I held a door open for Curtis Hanson. I was happy to do it and it was hard not to think about all the films he’s made that I could have mentioned, a few that probably make it clear how much of a fan he is of this particular genre, but as I usually do under these circumstances I left him alone. One which came to mind and certainly makes it seem like he’s studied these films was his 1990 thriller BAD INFLUENCE, a coolly effective neo-noir set in Los Angeles that seems to go as well with the era it was made in as your average late 40s mood piece goes right with that age. Featuring a pair of leads who are provocatively cast against type and, in addition to having a plot point which bore a strange similarity to something which had actually happened to one of those leads, is one of a number of thrillers the director made during this period that led to his critical and commercial triumphs such as L.A. CONFIDENTIAL later on. The film has never gotten all that much attention since it first played theaters but for anyone who hasn’t caught up with it until now it might be a nice surprise, playing as sly and dangerous with a refreshing amount of intelligence on hand as it does something a little different than you’d expect with what at first glance looks like it will be the usual plot turns.

Mild-mannered Los Angeles financial analyst Michael Boll (James Spader) seems to have his life all planned out for him with an impressive job and a wealthy fiancée but as he finds himself getting pushed around a little too much in both places in his life the pressure is beginning to get to him. Then one day as he nurses a beer sitting in a bar after a bad day at work he finds himself rescued from a possible pummeling by the sudden appearance of the mysterious Alex (Rob Lowe) to defend him. When the two happen to meet again Alex brings Michael into an after hours underground world of Los Angeles which leads to Michael being introduced to the gorgeous party girl Claire (Lisa Zane). This results in certain events that begin to change Michael’s life for the better but when Alex’s games begin to go a little too far and Michael tries to put a stop to it all Alex has a few unexpected plans of his own to keep his own idea of fun going.

Hey, did I ever mention that I was in Atlanta for the Democratic Convention in ’88? So I would like to take this opportunity to emphatically deny that I had anything to do with Rob Lowe being videotaped with those underage girls. I wasn’t around for that. To this day, Rob Lowe and I have never even met (I did spot certain other famous faces down there, but he wasn’t one of them) so you may as well stop asking. A video camera that gets used for similarly sleazy means turns up in the plot for BAD INFLUENCE as well, just a coincidence apparently, but since all that has probably been forgotten about by the world (many people probably aren’t even aware of the incident now) the distance of over twenty years helps the film stand on its own, which it does very well. What works for BAD INFLUENCE is how while its plot seems to have an array of influences from the world of film noir along with a little bit of Hitchcock—STRANGERS ON A TRAIN comes to mind, of course—it seems very impressive how much attention it pays to its characters and how much they affect the flow of the story all on their own. In spite of how there may be vague echoes of something like the 1951 Hitchcock classic in the dynamic of the two men it’s not in any way a knockoff of that film as much as it is a case of screenwriter David Koepp exploring what such a dynamic might be if placed into the modern world. It definitely makes for an intriguing portrayal of an underground Los Angeles circa 1990 and how one gains entry into such places, with some cool music heard during these scenes and even the well-cast bit players provide the right kind of seductive effect.

It’s not quite clear right away exactly where this film is going to go, being led by the shady character of Alex, and the plotting is such that things move so fast, with Michael getting quickly sucked into this secret nightlife quicker than he realizes, that we realize how much he’s in over his head about as fast as he does. With its plot developments coming from what the characters do as opposed to some fake McGuffin that gets whipped up to keep the plot wheels artificially spinning BAD INFLUENCE is free to play as an examination of relationships whether between men & women or men & men, set against the fears of not wanting to get trapped in a boring life but also realizing ones own limitations when confronted with just how far they want to take things. “Who are these people?” asks Spader at one point, with the simple answer turning out to be, “Just people.” Just people like him, as he soon realizes what exactly that means. The neo-noir trappings in this case focus mainly on the relationships between these men in a way that goes beyond simple definitions of homoeroticism with enough left unspoken between the two of them to keep things provocative as Michael, who speaks of how when he was a kid he always dreamed of getting off in the middle of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride so he could live there, finds himself attracted to what this kind of freedom can do for him in the light of day until, of course, he begins to realize what this can all lead to.

The women in the lives of these guys remain on the outskirts of things, but that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t sympathetic to them. There’s even what feels like a certain unspoken sensitivity to those women that is evident in Hanson’s direction, with a particular emphasis placed on various female halves of arguing couples seen throughout, having to deal with these crappy men in their lives. It’s almost surprising how the small bits of extra attention paid to Kathleen Wilhoite’s put-upon secretary pay off as she begins to like Michael less and less without ever knowing why. Playing Spader’s fiancée in an early role, Marcia Cross might be written in a mostly vapid fashion ready to be discarded when her plot function is done with but she comes off a little more sympathetic than that, with the actress playing her as kind of sweet even if she does seem to be approaching marriage as a business arrangement as much as anything. The story moves fast, maybe a little too fast for credibility at times but even if the plot isn’t totally original Hanson’s direction adds immeasurably to what feels like a fairly modest production and a full seven years before L.A. CONFIDENTIAL it’s already very clear how well he knows how to use the frame. And he knows how to keep the suspense going during the second hour, when things move into somewhat more expected thriller-type plotting—when one possibly expendable character is placed in jeopardy since it’s clear what Lowe’s character is capable of it adds that much more to the suspense. BAD INFLUENCE is a modest piece of work that maybe I shouldn’t lavish too much praise on but it winds up working so well the whole way through that I honestly can’t think of very much bad to say about it. Maybe it’s caught me in the right frame of mind, but in a way that few such thrillers ever seem to do anymore, the film lays out its cards in a way that becomes more unexpected and dangerous as it goes on, leaving us with enough to chew on at the point when the credits roll.

The concept of the two leads playing the opposite roles you’d expect them to (at least, in 1990) may not be as much of a surprise now as it was then but the result still works so well that I can’t imagine it any other way. James Spader is introduced in the mens room at his office looking queasy and then proceeding to spend the next several scenes being bullied in one way or another but he’s so instantly likable that when he begins to assert himself about twenty minutes in we’re totally on his side. His control of the character continues throughout with one thing he does during a moment of extreme panic so totally unexpected that it winds up making both his performance and the entire film around him just much more human than usually seems to be allowed with this type of movie. Completely getting me to forget about Sam Seaborne or any other of his nice guy parts, Rob Lowe totally sells both how seductive his character is as well as the turn to the insidiously nasty. As Alex, he comes off as totally immature—that stupid French accent he puts on wouldn’t fool anyone but he seems to know that—and the flippancy works. He’s not a smooth bad guy in a 40s-50s noir but that type wouldn’t work here and the tone is played just right. Paired up against them, Lisa Zane really is kind of dynamite as Claire, the feckless party girl who gets involved with these guys. In relatively little screentime Zane comes off as so disarming in everything she does that it’s as if the actress just happened to wander into the frame and then the film just decided to roll with it. Why didn’t Lisa Zane become a big deal after this? She gorgeous, charming and has enough of an unpredictability to her very presence that we can’t even be sure what’s really going on with her at first. Among the generally strong cast, Kathleen Wilhoite does a lot with her minor role as Michael’s secretary and Christian Clemenson, who years later co-starred with Spader on BOSTON LEGAL, does very strong work as Michael’s brother, a former drug addict who may be the only one he can depend on--when Clemenson tells Spader during a moment of panic he can’t promise what he’ll do if something is found out I just love the way his voice rises slightly. Among the intriguing faces who briefly appear during the party sequences is apparently David Duchovny, credited as “Club Goer” but (assuming I’ve correctly spotted him) he appears so briefly that he’s basically an extra. Still, it’s intriguing to imagine how if it had been made several years later that Duchovny, maybe playing Spader’s role, would have been perfect in the cool vibe the film projects.

For Curtis Hanson, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL eventually marked the dividing line where he moved away from noir towards more character-oriented dramas but unfortunately the various types of films he’s made throughout his career just aren’t getting made very much by studios nowadays—his last film was LUCKY YOU in 2007 and at this point he seems to be directing something at HBO. I’ve actually loved a few of his more recent films but I still kind of hope he’ll make another one as icily effective as BAD INFLUENCE someday. The world needs noir, even in 2011. Maybe especially in 2011. Keeping in mind what I wrote earlier about how several of the films at the current Cinematheque series happen to settle for an unfortunate ‘everything’s all right now’ ending it maybe says something about Hanson’s affinity for the genre that BAD INFLUENCE seems to hold back a little from that. Watching it this time, I couldn’t quite remember the resolution before it happened and I was impressed by how the film left a touch—if only a touch—of a correct sort of ambiguity to things. The final shot even provides some small hope to what’s going to happen in a way that doesn’t violate what’s came before and the unacknowledged gesture feels totally earned. Instead of going for some kind of lame feel-good coda, BAD INFLUENCE seems to know that what happens between people late at night in the middle of a dark city is often something you can’t forget about so easily when daylight finally hits. Which is just the way noir should be. And the way Los Angeles often is.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful review of a film I love! For the life of me I don't know why this film did not get the box-office and acclaim it so richly deserved.

Unknown said...

Excellent look back at this snazzy neo-noir. I remember seeing this in theaters when it first came out and really enjoying it. I probably haven't seen it since then except for maybe snippets here and there on TV but your review really has me wanting to revisit this. I'm with ya on Curtis Hanson. Love L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and WONDER BOYS but that film he did with Cameron Diaz and LUCKY YOU left me cold. I really wanted to like 'em but the flawed scripts and lack of chemistry among the leads just didn't do it for me.

le0pard13 said...

I need to see this one based upon your usual fine review, Mr. Peel. I've heard of it, but I've never seen this. It seems a good follow-up Spader film for me as I recently re-watched his long forgotten feature from 1988, JACK'S BACK (with thanks to J.D. for sparking that one). Thanks.

Ethan Joe said...

I think Duchovny is the guy at the bar in the thick black glasses. It that what you arrived at?

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

That's what it looked like to me--I think the imdb even credits him as "Club Goer With Glasses". That shot goes by really fast and I'm going to guess that he actually had a line but it got cut.

Very glad that everyone enjoyed the piece.