Synopsis: By day, Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner) is a prim workaholic fashion designer. At night she becomes China Blue, a kinky hooker on the streets of Los Angeles. But when she finds herself being followed by a private investigator (John Laughlin) and stalked by a fanatical preacher (a truly over-the-top performance by Anthony Perkins), Joanna’s depraved double life threatens to explode. In a world ruled by mad passion and holy obsession, can one woman survive the most dangerous emotion of all?
Annie Potts and Bruce Davison co-star in this landmark adult thriller directed by the inimitable Ken Russell (Tommy, Altered States, Women In Love) that became one of the most controversial films of the decade.
eyelights: its crazy campiness. its social commentary. the sexy bits.
eyesores: Anthony Perkins’ extravagant performance. the cheesy score. the corny dialogues.
“Although we may run out of Pan Am coffee, we will never run out of TWA tea.”
I don’t remember why I first picked up ‘Crimes of Passion’ from the discount shelf of the video store I worked in, so many years ago. Was it because of its promise of titillation? Was it because of Anthony Perkins, whom I’ve had a weakness for since ‘Psycho II‘? Was it because Ken Russell’s films had been recommended by a customer?
I honestly can’t remember. But I recall that my reaction was extremely negative; I couldn’t believe just how gawdawful this movie was. I hated it. Bitterly.
But, recently, I stumbled upon an uncut version on DVD in one of my favourite second-hand shops. At the time, I was trying to complete my run of films relating to sexuality before starting another series. I was going through a set focused on prostitution and I decided that revisiting this sleazy nugget might do the trick (pardon the pun).
There were two reasons:
1) I have developed an appreciation for camp and trash over the years since I last saw this; perhaps I would reconsider it now,
2) I was jumping into a set of horror-themed films of a campy nature and I thought that this would make for a decent segue between the two series – especially since it also tied in nicely with the suspense elements in ‘Belle de jour‘ and ‘Fatale, Book 2‘, the previous blurbs.
It was a good gamble, because it really did fit the bill. ‘Crimes of Passion’ had a seedy side to it that tied in nicely with ‘Belle de jour’s darker elements, it had the criminal underworld side that tied it to ‘Fatale’, and it’s riotously campy enough that it also works relatively well with my next entry… uh… which will remain under wraps for now.
But is it a good film?
Hmmm… well, let’s say that ‘Crimes of Passion’ can be entertaining – in a deliriously nutty kind of way. After all, it’s about a private investigator who is hired to dig up the dirt on a successful fashion designer, only to find out that she moonlights as a hooker. Tie in his marital problems and a stalking priest who obsessively wants to “save” our femme fatale’s soul, and you’ve got a camp classic.
Honestly, I have no idea if Ken Russell intended to make a serious film when he and writer Barry Sandler joined forces, but what could have been a serious exploration of intimacy and North American morals, is hampered by a tendency to write cheesy or inane dialogues. Throw in a some subpar performances as well as outrageous ones and it loses all credibility.
Even the more accomplished actors, such as Kathleen Turner are a hard watch. Turner does a decent job of portraying Joanna Crane but, as China Blue, she becomes a cartoon character – that is, the very stereotype we typically see in North American cinema and television: artificial sexiness, theatrical line delivery and classless. Was it Joanna playing out her vision of what a hooker “should” be, or Russell and Sandler’s doing?
Meanwhile, Anthony Perkins was all bad all the time. But sort of fun, in that so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. As Reverend Peter Shayne, he overdid every single line, like a poor actor on tons of cocaine. It’s hard to imagine that it was deliberate, but, according to Kathleen Turner, Perkins would sniff nitrate before each take. That would explain a lot, because he’s sweating, shaking and manic pretty much the whole picture.
John Laughlin, who reminded me of Scott Bakula by way of Tom Cruise, somehow, could barely deliver a line convincingly. He had a few good moments as Bobby, but he wasn’t entirely capable of being real. And it’s not like his part is tough: he plays a family man, for goodness’ sake! It seems to me he just needed to be himself, really. Apparently, Jeff Bridges had the part but didn’t take it due to salary issues. Now that would have been something.
Of course, much of this may be due to the ridiculous dialogues that Sandler penned – it would be hard to deliver absurd or corny lines realistically, I suppose. I don’t know if it was intentional or if Sandler couldn’t do better, but it’s a shame, because a lot of excellent exchanges and commentary on relationships and North American values were buried in a sea of cheese, thereby diluting their impact.
The fact is that ‘Crimes of Passion’, for all its outrageousness, its exploitative sex, and shock elements, is more about people than it is about cheap thrills: the large part of the picture revolves around the intimacy issues of the characters and how they revisit the roles that society expects of them. There was more of it, but it was cut out due to time constraints. It’s probably a good thing, too, because it would have changed the film’s tone.
Speaking of tone, I don’t know who thought this was a good idea, but Rick Wakeman was hired to score the picture. Say what you will about Yes, but my experience with prog-rock musicians is that they make poor motion picture scores, heavy on the pomp, rarely understanding the subtleties of the work; they mostly add a layer of kitsch. This is probably why a few ended up doing horror film music in the ’80s, what with their oft-extravagant nature.
Mind you, the film is meant to be stylistic, not realistic (which again begs the question of what Russell was trying to do with this). Case-in-point the fluorescent lighting which saturated the screen, or the cuts to erotic works of art by artists such Aubrey Beardsley and Sir John Everett. This was clearly about style, but I wonder what Russell’s intention was, ultimately. Did he not have coverage enough to edit his scenes with?
Truth be told, I was getting into the spirit of things this time around and enjoying the silliness of it all: Rev. Shayne sermonizing on a box outside a strip join (after spending time there, of course!), the pointy vibrator, the peculiar nightstick scene, Bobby’s awkward exchanges with his spouse, Amy (played by the lovely Annie Potts), the limousine sequence, …etc., but then there was a terrible twist ending that made NO sense.
After seeing this most ridiculous final attempt at giving us a few chills and thrills, I just couldn’t help but knock the picture down a notch; it was more than I could take, even after all the camp I’d endured thus far.It was ill-conceived and poorly executed, a ridiculous last stab at suspense in a picture that couldn’t that convincingly even if it wanted to.
At its core, ‘Crimes of Passion’ has an excellent -if outlandish- story, but it’s put together in such a way that it makes it extremely challenging to fully appreciate it. I know that there is a chance that it will grow on me in time, but I’d be loathe to recommend it to most; it’s just too obtuse a confection for mass appeal.
Date of viewing: September 12, 2013