Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Not All Habits Are Bad

Then there are those long rainy nights where I find myself thinking about some of those women even more than I usually do. And I still don’t understand them any better. Usually when I see films made in L.A. a few years before I arrived here my eyes are always darting around looking for familiar sights and the streets usually seem a little emptier than they do now, as if it’s the city I know but from my own particular vantage point the place isn’t fully formed yet. Of course, everywhere in the world probably looked a little more sparse twenty years ago. But the way the city seems so devoid of life outside the scope of the characters is one thing that stuck out for me recently while revisiting Sandra Locke’s IMPULSE, released in April 1990 just a few years before I hit the scene, but it took me a few minutes to realize that this obviously wasn’t going for an accurate portrayal of life in the City of Angels back then so much an attempt to get a certain neo-noir vibe going. An opening shot overlooking a particularly desolate Sunset Blvd. has to have been filmed around 3:30 to be that deserted and maybe for director Sondra Locke this was a film that was really meant to be experienced at such a late hour as well, the time of night when there’s the chance that certain impulses are always going to get the better of you. A few scenes are set in the rain and as I watched the film for the first time in years recently on a lonely, rainy Saturday night the mood it gave off seemed ideal. Theresa Russell never showed up at my door to complete the feeling but, hey, life isn’t perfect. It certainly isn’t these days. A film that I fittingly first saw in a mostly empty theater, IMPULSE didn’t get much attention when it was released—considering it made just over $2.5 million and never went wider than 155 theaters I don’t even think it got much of a release—and with no DVD release it’s pretty much forgotten by now but I’ve always had a fondness for what the film managed to achieve in its own low-key, no-nonsense way and it proved to be extremely rewarding to see how well it’s held up over twenty years later. Along with being a strong reminder of what a dynamic presence Theresa Russell has been in films when seen at her best, how there still really isn’t anyone else quite like her. The film has had so few people willing to say good things about it through the years that I feel a little like I’m giving away a secret. Or maybe this is just a case where I’m the only one who feels this way.

Lottie Mason (Theresa Russell) is a Los Angeles vice cop who regularly works undercover as a prostitute. Admitting to the police psychiatrist she’s being forced to go to by a department unconvinced of her stability she even admits that the work excites her, that she sometimes wonders what it would be like to lose control. Unfortunately in her job she has to regularly deal with harassment by department head Lt. Joe Morgan (George Dzunda) but she also catches the eye of Assistant D.A. Stan Harris (Jeff Fahey), busy with a case involving an organized crime figure who can’t be located, but clearly interested in Lottie in ways beyond just using her for an undercover assignment. Sparks fly between the two pretty quickly but a bust gone array sends her to the edge where on impulse she makes the sort of decision she’s been wondering about that could blur the line between the two halves of her job little too much. Before she even realizes what she’s done she finds herself at the absolute wrong place at the wrong time and needs to cover her tracks fast.

Hey, if I could figure out some of these women in my life maybe I wouldn’t have to write this stuff and maybe one thing this film does is remind me of how some of them are never going to be figured out so maybe I shouldn’t bother to try anyway. Looking up the dates reveals that IMPULSE (no relation to any other film with the same title) opened just a few weeks after Kathryn Bigelow’s BLUE STEEL, another film directed by a woman about a female cop in a man’s world. I’ve written before on my ambivalent feelings for that film, one with a narrative and characters that ultimately become both ludicrous and secondary to the sensation, regardless of the visual obsession Bigelow clearly brings to the table. In comparison, Locke’s work on IMPULSE (the second feature directed by the actress after RATBOY, which I’ve never seen) reveals that while she may not have Bigelow’s eye for pure style she’s much more interested in how the events of the film affect her lead character while always keeping the momentum building. She’s clearly doing whatever it takes to bring an immediate intensity to every sequence, aided immeasurably by a look courtesy of director of photography Dean Semler (who shot DANCES WITH WOLVES right after this) that brings a hard light, noirish tinge to this look at a rainy, slightly empty L.A. where it always seems to have the mood of darkness even in broad daylight, poking into the hangovers a few of the characters are no doubt suffering through. Locke keeps her camera focused on her leads while always cannily making use of the space around them within a given scene and she displays extreme confidence in how the various action beats are laid out even down to the smallest moments—when an undercover job is about to go bad there’s total clarity laid out through the buildup of how things are going wrong and when a phone call informs someone about another person in the room it’s done with an absolute minimum of fuss as the characters work out the chess moves of the moment and a brief shootout in a liquor store is a thing of beauty in how it resolves itself. The locations, whether grungy or upscale, feel like they’re all connected within the sleaze of the city giving a tone to the entire film which looking at it now comes off as refreshingly adult in a way that just doesn’t happen anymore.

Working from a very sharp script (Story by John De Marco, Screenplay by John De Marco and Leigh Chapman) that feels confident enough in the portrayal of its lead character that the key plot movement involving her doesn’t even occur until surprisingly deep into the running time, allowing us to get fully into her head by that point and while the impulse of the title involves a pretty big coincidence—which, as we all know, really does happen in life sometimes—when it happens everything has been built up so carefully that the point of a sudden close-up of Lottie as a certain sound rings out hits like a slap to the face. Even the little moments linger in the air, like the touch of how she’s given a fake name during an undercover job that is called out immediately as being a fake name and it’s a film that always seems interested in observing how the characters try to deal with each other—these people have histories to go with their regrets and the things they’ve never done which make them what they are, like how Lottie whose apartment seems littered with unpaid bills has never seen snow (“No time, no money”) compared with Stan who has photos and mementos of his life, like the time he climbed Mt. Hood, all around his apartment. None of the relationships are presented as easily defined and even the most unlikable person in the entire film—actually, as close as it comes to an actual bad guy—is given a moment which makes it clear that while he may be a prick he’s not a totally unredeemable bastard. Shadings like this are part of what give IMPULSE the unusual effectiveness that it has, a film where the examination of its lead character is much more interesting than plot stuff and it’s a nice daydream to imagine a version of this story made back during the actual noir days with Barbara Stanwyck or Ida Lupino, pushed as far as the code would have allowed. Even the plot point of a suitcase of money hidden in a locker at the airport could just as easily be found at Union Station as someone tries to blow town. It’s not a film about a guy saving a girl from her own darkness so much as just an acknowledgment that maybe always facing the dead of night alone isn’t necessarily the way things need to go and maybe sometimes doing a shot of tequila with somebody who wants to do it with you can be a nice beginning.

Response to the film at the time, whatever response it got from its meager release, seems to have been mixed. Maltin give it three stars (“Half-standard, half-fresh and always tough”) as did Roger Ebert while still wishing for a version of the movie that wasn’t so concerned with the plot. Caryn James in The New York Times was pretty dismissive, calling it “so generic you can practically sing along” and while I can’t agree with this at all in fairness IMPULSE isn’t quite flawless—George Dzunda’s chauvinist cop referring to women as ‘broads’ isn’t exactly subtle but even the almost-rote BIG CLOCK/NO WAY OUT story point of the second half is dealt with in a very non-showy way that respects the intelligence of the characters onscreen trying to figure it out. In how it offers the feel of dissatisfaction in life and all its predictability, what causes the character to have that impulse in the first place, the film is always probing to examine Lottie but doesn’t excuse her or make her more likable and knows enough to hold certain things about her back, even when she’s staring right at herself in the mirror. Some things need to be held back. Maybe we need those mysteries especially from those women we know we’ll never quite figure out and continue to haunt us during those late evening hours. In some ways what I responded to in this film way back when is what I respond to now—a character piece combined with a tightly executed plot, action scenes that are visceral and to the point along with the obvious ‘All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun’-ness of it all as Godard famously reminded us. Only now it feels like the reasons why I feel this way about these kinds of movies have only deepened.

Theresa Russell’s career as top-billed star ranges from strong early work in things like STRAIGHT TIME along with extraordinary work in films directed by eventual husband Nicolas Roeg such as BAD TIMING and INSIGNIFICANCE. When she’d move into more mainstream work things would be more problematic such as what I remember as an awful performance in Michael Crichton’s forgotten Burt Reynolds thriller PHYSICAL EVIDENCE (and I saw that one in the theater, too. Sheesh) indicating she was a talent who sometimes needed to be in the right hands. Here working with Locke she’s amazing, continually fearless in her onscreen energy with that enigmatic vibe she gives off with her gorgeous looks and that deep, smoky voice totally uninterested in any bullshit but one that she’s willing to let crack at certain times to let you tell what’s going on just under that cool exterior. Her presence is totally in synch with the mood as if director Locke (who it’s easy to imagine playing the part herself a few years earlier) decided to make the visual style the equivalent of the tired, boozy way she sees the world and ultimately it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. There’s also strong supporting work by Jeff Fahey (Lapidus!), George Dzunda, Alan Rosenberg and Lynne Thigpen as a police psychiatrist but this is really Russell’s film all the way. Some may remember that Fahey and Dzunda were both in Clint Eastwood’s WHITE HUNTER BLACK HEART, released later that year, and the making and release IMPULSE of course coincided with how Eastwood terminated their relationship during the film’s production. Whether his influence with Warner may have affected the sort of release the film ultimately got (for the record, his name appears nowhere in the credits) is something I’m going to pass on speculating about.

Sometimes women remain an enigma to the point that you wonder what your relationship with them actually was. Sometimes movies just fall through the cracks and stay there, with no one around to pull them out. So they remain a secret for those few who actually bothered to seek it out and saw something in there. In some ways both these films and these women stay there in your head, lingering, as you try to somehow figure them out. IMPULSE isn’t a great film, but it is a very good film well worth seeking out and if I’m going to be the only one out there with any kind of interest in it I suppose that’ll have to be ok. Revisiting a film like this one does have its rewards. Just like knowing those women.

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