Sunday, June 23, 2013

Last Embrace (1979)

          Director Jonathan Demme continued his steady climb from the quagmire of exploitation flicks to the rarified realm of mainstream movies with this intelligent but underwhelming homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Just as Brian De Palma did in his various tributes to the “Master of Suspense,” Demme emulates myriad tropes associated with Hitchcock—convoluted plotting through which the discovery of a simple object eventually leads to the revelation of a perverse conspiracy; elaborate action scenes involving iconic locations; the presence of a woman who’s either an angel or a devil, or both; and so on. Last Embrace even features music by veteran composer Miklós Rózsa, who scored the Hitchcock classic Spellbound (1945) and whose music for Last Embrace echoes the style of Hitchock’s most revered composer, Bernard Hermann. About the only thing Last Embrace doesn’t have that one normally associates with Hitchcock’s work is a crackerjack story. Instead, the turgid narrative—adapted by David Shaber from a book by Murray Teigh Bloom—stirs up danger and mystery without generating much in the way of emotional involvement.
          Roy Scheider stars as an American spy named Harry Hannan. In a prologue, Harry’s wife is killed during a bizarre standoff with an underworld figure. The story then cuts forward several months and dramatizes Harry’s attempt to reenter his professional life, despite having spent the intervening time receiving psychiatric care. The reason for all this backstory is to put viewers on edge once Harry starts to suspect that he’s been targeted for murder—is he a marked man, we are meant to wonder, or is he just nuts? The story then adds another layer of mystery, which is related to doctoral student Ellie Fabian (Janet Margolin), who rented Harry’s New York apartment during his hospitalization. Eventually, Last Embrace‘s scope broadens to encompass such random elements as academic rivalries, Old Testament lore, and prostitution. Things get a bit difficult to follow after a while, and a lot of the story strands feel underdeveloped.
          Nonetheless, Scheider’s a great fit for this sort of material, with his slow-burn line deliveries and wiry build making him quite convincing as a man of action on the verge of snapping. Alas, the script never lets him soar. Meanwhile, Margolin is likeable and pretty but hampered by a confused characterization and limited dramatic skills. Worse, there’s zero chemistry between the two, which renders the narrative’s romantic angle inert. Last Embrace features some highly enjoyable sequences, such as a bell-tower shootout between Scheider and a fellow spy (Charles Napier). Further, the film’s finale (which is set at Niagara Falls) has atmosphere to burn, and it’s interesting to watch Last Embrace in order to spot early attempts at cinematic devices that Demme revisited, to much stronger effect, in the 1991 masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs; for instance, the way he probes Last Embrace locations with a Steadicam represents a dry run of sorts for the way he used the same camera rig in The Silence of the Lambs.

Last Embrace: FUNKY


Will Errickson said...

I enjoyed this one, Scheider was great, loved his '70s duds. But yeah overall it's pale Hitchcock. Definitely worth a watch though.

Nathan said...

Reviewed this one myself not too long ago. It is a solid movie, but compared to De Palma's Hitchcock riffs, definitely a little stale. It travels the same smutty ground De Palma often did, but never elevates it into anything of substance.

Tommy Ross said...

Yikes! I'm so confused..I was gonna pass on this til I saw the last two comments..what to do, what to, looks interesting.

the happy problem said...

Just a quick correction from the screenwriter's daughter: it's David Shaber, not Michael Shaber. He also wrote The Warriors, Hunt for Red October, Nighthawks, and others.

By Peter Hanson said...

Corrected, and sorry for the error -- thanks for letting me know.