Gene Hackman and Anne Archer Cannot Save ‘Narrow Margin’

Narrow Margin” was released in 1990, back when movie remakes were as rare as people owning cell phones. Yes, it is a remake of the 1952 film noir “The Narrow Margin,” and it tells the tale of a Los Angeles deputy district attorney tasked with keeping a witness to a murder safe from a pair of hitmen as they travel through Canada in a train. What we have here is a movie with a terrific cast, some great stunts and sharp cinematography, but it also doesn’t have much of a brain in its head as the characters make one ridiculously stupid decision after another.

The movie starts with Carol Hunnicut (Anne Archer) arriving at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles where she has been set up on a blind date with a lawyer named Michael Tarlow (the late and still missed J.T. Walsh). Things go fine between them until Michael has to take a phone call in his hotel room and invites Carol along with him, not wanting to leave her alone. But then well-known gangster Leo Watts (Harris Yulin) arrives along with his henchman Jack Wootton (Nigel Bennett) and doesn’t hesitate in accusing Michael of stealing money from him. Michael, overwhelmed by his guilt, confesses his crime to Leo who offers to forgive him, providing they never do business together again. But we all know that gangsters are not big on honesty, and Leo has Michael murdered right on the spot. But, of course, they have no idea Carol is hiding in the bathroom and has witnessed everything.

Like any person who knows how rich and crooked people get off too easy in the real world, Carol flees Los Angeles, and yet she is somehow easy to find as Deputy District Attorney Robert Caulfield (Gene Hackman) and Detective Sergeant Dominick Benti (M. Emmet Walsh) come to find her hiding out in a remote cabin in Canada. And as you might expect, it doesn’t take long for these three to realize the gangsters have followed them as they were dumb enough to leave a trail of breadcrumbs in their path. Dominick is killed, and Robert and Carol escape onto a train headed for Vancouver. But, surprise, surprise, they are trailed by a pair of ridiculously well-dressed hitmen determined to take them out, and the movie turns into a cat and mouse thriller as Robert tries to keep Carol alive despite their dire and claustrophobic circumstances.

Now “Narrow Margin” does take place in a time where technology was nowhere near what it is today, but it is hard to believe even back then that a person could easily disappear without much of a trace. The fact these gangsters have little trouble in following Robert to where Carol is hiding out shows what terrible preparation he and Dominick put into finding and keeping her safe, and these guys are public servants for crying out loud!

Then there are the two hitmen played by Bennett and James Sikking, the latter I remember fondly as the Captain of the Excelsior in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.” They come onto the scene dressed to the max in expensive suits and shiny ties which more than spell out to the audience they are bad guys on the prowl. I guess it is asking too much for these hitmen to dress like they are average passengers as doing so just might make them harder to detect. But no, these guys have to show to everyone just how rich and stylish assassins can be to where they are impossible to miss.

There is also the issue of those assassins failing to follow Hackman back to his cabin where they just might find Archer hiding. When you look closely at the screenplay, you will see it has plot holes Christopher Nolan could have flown that giant airplane from “Tenet” through. The characters keep making an endless number of idiotic mistakes, and it just drains much of the suspense and tension “Narrow Margin” hoped to have. There is also a character reveal towards the end, but you can see that one coming from a mile away.

It really is a shame because “Narrow Margin” has the benefit of two great actors headlining it. Gene Hackman is a lot of fun to watch in a role others would have played too broadly. He has a great scene where he faces off with the two hitmen and explains why he won’t accept a bribe to give up his witness. Hackman plays the scene in such a playfully devious way to where it serves as a reminder of why he is one of the best film actors ever. Put him in a bad movie, and he will still give a terrific performance in it no matter what.

Archer appeared in this movie not long after she co-starred in “Fatal Attraction,” a classic which had us all wondering why in the world would Michael Douglas cheat on her with Glenn Close. She makes Carol Hunnicut into a heroine who is both strong-willed and deeply vulnerable as she struggles to stay alive from one moment to the next. She also has strong chemistry with Hackman to where they make quite the team, and the fact they are unable to fully suspend your disbelief is not entirely their fault.

“Narrow Margin” was written, directed and photographer by Peter Hyams. One of his great strengths is in crafting action sequences which truly leave you on the edge of your seat. A car almost going over a cliff is a cliché used in many action movies, but Hyams makes it work to great effect here as watching it almost made my heart stop. There are also a number of great stunts performed on top of a moving train, many performed by the actors themselves. Hyams really knows how to keep audiences riveted to where it is almost worth watching this film just for the action sequences alone.

But in the end, “Narrow Margin” proves to be more laughable than exciting as the characters do far too many idiotic things we can all see right through. Its trailer made it look like a top-notch thriller you would be foolish to miss out on, but sadly this is not the case. When Hackman and Archer cannot save a movie with their strong performances, not much else can.

* * out of * * * *

Alan Parker’s ‘Angel Heart’ is a Devastating Descent Into Hell

Angel Heart” is a heavily atmospheric movie which makes you feel the coldness of New York and the never-ending heat of Louisiana in the summertime which makes you sweat like nothing else can. It is not a loud slam bang movie, and it does take its sweet time in setting up the story and the locations which the characters exist in. Each city proves to be an important character, and they reflect the nightmares and dreams of the main characters. If this movie were made today, I imagine the studios would want the actors cast in it to be younger and hipper and take away some of the dark stuff. I hope this is one Hollywood can leave off of the remake table.

Back when this was made, Mickey Rourke was a much bigger star, and this is one of the many movies he starred in without shampooing his hair beforehand. As Harry Angel, he does excellent work in making this New York City private investigator seem tough and sleazy, yet resourceful and vulnerable. Harry’s life unravels faster and faster as he digs deeper and deeper into the mystery which surrounds him. Watching Rourke here reminds me of what a strong and brave actor he can be when given the right material. Back then, he was not afraid to play someone whose dark side could often prove to be overpowering. His off-screen antics seemed to get the best of him over the years, but thanks to his performances in “Sin City” and “The Wrestler,” there is no forgetting who he is.

The movie credits itself for having “a special appearance” by Robert De Niro. Special appearance? This seems to imply you see him in the movie only once. On point of fact, we see him several times throughout as Louis Cyphre (pay close attention to this name). It is one of the few performances where De Niro never goes over the top and becomes a threatening force without ever having to put much effort into doing so. As Cyphre, De Niro gives a delicious performance of a man endlessly fascinated by the corruption and decay of the soul, and it appears he finds this as delicious as the hard-boiled eggs he always has on hand to eat. When he says the egg is the symbol of the soul and then slowly bites into it in front of Harry, it is a very chilling moment.

Lisa Bonet was deep into playing Denise Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” when she was cast in “Angel Heart.” I imagine the MPAA tricked themselves into giving this film an adults only rating because they got all hot and bothered at one Cosby’s television daughters showing her breasts. I can see them now:

“We can’t let kids see this movie! They will never look at one of television’s famous daughters the same again! This will destroy their innocence!! Won’t somebody think of the children?!”

Alan Parker, who directed “Angel Heart,” ended up cutting out ten seconds of the sex scene between Rourke and Bonet in order to secure an R rating. Upon its release on video and laserdisc, those ten seconds were restored. I first saw this film at New Beverly Cinema which prides itself on showing everything in 35mm, so I can only assume I was watching the theatrical version. But seriously, you cannot convince me this deserved to be an NC-17 movie even with those extra seconds. People can be so testy for all the wrong reasons.

A lot of the controversy surrounding “Angel Heart” almost hides the fact Bonet is actually really good here. A lot of people probably assumed she got the role of Epiphany Proudfoot because of her success on “The Cosby Show,” but Parker made it clear to everyone he picked her because he felt she was right for the part. Having seen this movie, I completely agree. I also have to admit it was fun seeing her naked, but anyway. Epiphany (perfectly named by the way) is a mysterious person who seems to say everything yet reveals nothing, and Bonet captures her character’s mystery very well to where she keeps us guessing.

Parker made many great movies over the years like “Birdy” and the cinematic experience which is “Midnight Express” to name a few. Like “Angel Heart,” they deal with lost souls trying desperately to free themselves of whatever is holding them back. There is a lot holding Harry Angel back, but when he finally gets to the truth, he will find that being held back was actually a blessing he could never see. Parker gives the movie a distinctive look as it takes place in the 1940’s, and he directs the actors very well and gives each a memorable moment which sticks with you long after the lights come up.

Trevor Jones composed the music score, and he does great work capturing the tension and atmosphere. Right from the start, he aids the filmmakers in realizing the horrifying truth Harry has spent the entire movie trying to find.

The first official trailer for “Angel Heart” goes out of its way to make it look like this is the second coming of horror by comparing it to “The Exorcist” and “Chinatown.” This proved to be a bit misleading as this film does not quite reach the heights of those two classics, and it really stands out as being from them. Still, it is a very good film which once against demonstrates Parker’s unique gifts as a filmmaker.

It did not receive much of an audience upon its release which almost led to me putting this in my “Underseen Movies” category, but it has since received a significant cult following throughout the years. Here is hoping that cult following will continue to grow, and that the remake train will leave this one off its passenger list. Seriously, Hollywood really needs to try more original stuff.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

All-Time Favorite Trailers: ‘Cliffhanger’

The 1990’s were not a kind decade to Sylvester Stallone. “Rocky V,” which was supposed to be Stallone’s last go around as Rocky Balboa (LOL), proved to be a critical and commercial disappointment, and his foray into comedy with “Oscar” and “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot” was disastrous to say the least. Clearly, Stallone was in serious need of a comeback as well as a return to the dramatic action movies he became best known for. As a result, he teamed up with “Die Hard 2” director Renny Harlin and Carolco Pictures to star in the action adventure film “Cliffhanger,” and the first trailer made for it remains forever burned into my memory.

The genius of this teaser trailer was how the filmmakers scored the images to Mozart’s “Dies Irae,” a powerful piece of music which served to make this movie seem more epic than it ended up being. There is no dialogue to be heard here as the focus is on the snowy mountain landscape which proves to be as beautiful an environment as it is a brutal one for those unprepared to deal with its frigid temperatures. As we watch Stallone and his fellow cast members John Lithgow, Michael Rooker, Leon and Janine Turner battling the elements which range from climbing up a mountain without a winter jacket or being trapped in a cold lake beneath a thick sheet of ice, it made “Cliffhanger” look like the end all of mountain movies as it captured a reality which is usually faked on a Hollywood soundstage.

Then there is the trailer’s final image of Stallone making a death-defying leap from one mountain side to another, and it’s a fantastic visual to close out on before the movie’s title comes up. Watching him do this quickly reminded me of when he performed similar feats as John Rambo in “First Blood” and its sequels as he the situations Rambo was caught up in were not entirely realistic, but Stallone’s physicality and performance made us believe he one could survive such impossible circumstances to where stopped asking questions and just went along for the ride.

Of course, upon learning Stallone had co-wrote the screenplay, I went in to see “Cliffhanger” with reduced expectations as I figured it would be a variation on the story he writes about more often than not of a man haunted by a tragedy and of his need for redemption. The movie did prove to be very entertaining, but it was not as deep and epic as this trailer promised. Regardless, I look back on this particular trailer very fondly as I said to myself after watching it, “Now that’s how you sell a movie!”

Cliffhanger teaser poster

Paul Verhoeven and Company Revisit ‘Total Recall’ in Hollywood

Total Recall movie poster

On Friday, August 24, 2012, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven dropped by the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood where American Cinematheque screened a 70mm print of his 1990 movie “Total Recall.” Joining Verhoeven for a Q&A after the movie was two of its screenwriters, Ronald Shusett and Gary Goldman. They discussed the rigors of making the movie, and of how the script eventually made its way out of development hell.

As we all know by now, “Total Recall” is loosely based on the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” Shusett said he and the late Dan O’Bannon, writer of “Dark Star” and “Alien,” bought the rights to the story back in 1974, and they completed their first draft in 1981. From there it was set to be made into a movie, but the project kept falling apart time and time again. Filmmakers like Bruce Beresford and David Cronenberg had worked on it for a long time but eventually pulled out due to creative differences or studios canceling the project because of its enormous budget.

“Everything kept falling through over and over again,” Shusett said. “Sets were built, but then the project kept getting canceled because it was too expensive. Back in 1990, this was considered to be the most expensive movie ever made. I wanted to keep all those sets that were built from being torn down, and I asked one studio executive how I could save them. He responded that I should change the movie’s name to ‘Partial Recall.’”

Verhoeven got involved in “Total Recall” because Arnold Schwarzenegger had picked him to direct after seeing “Robocop.” Schwarzenegger had actually been interested in doing the movie for a long time and had encouraged Carolco Pictures producer Mario Kassar to buy the rights to it from Dino De Laurentis whose film company had gone into bankruptcy. The movie had already gone through many drafts, and it took one specific scene to pique Verhoeven’s interest:

“I came to the scene where Dr. Edgemar (played by Roy Brocksmith) visits Arnold’s character on Mars and tells him that he’s not really here,” Verhoeven said. “In that moment you are not sure if what you’re seeing is real or a dream, and that got me really excited because none of the movies I had made in Europe ever had a scene like that. What Edgemar tells Arnold is that what he is experiencing is not true, so we had to prove it wasn’t true again.”

Working with Carolco Pictures on “Total Recall” was “paradise,” Verhoeven said, as they never forced anything on the filmmaker other than actors they hand-picked to star in their movies. He also said the beauty of Carolco is that they never subjected him or the movie to test screenings. Verhoeven went on to make “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” for Carolco, and then the gigantic flop that was “Cutthroat Island” ended up forcing the company into bankruptcy.

Schwarzenegger was set to be the star of “Total Recall” no matter who directed it, and Verhoeven said he was perfectly fine with that. Changes in the story had to be made though as his character was originally an accountant. Verhoeven and the screenwriters ended up changing his profession to that of a construction worker as they all agreed you could not go around Arnold.

Verhoeven also pointed out how having Schwarzenegger in “Total Recall” made the movie “very light” which was great because, as put it, “the straight way of telling the story would not have worked.” This has been further proved by Len Wiseman’s remake of the movie which even Verhoeven admitted “wasn’t good.”

The main problem with adapting any Philip K. Dick story to the silver screen is that they are basically told in two acts, and finding a third act proved to be very difficult.

“I got really scared because there had already been forty drafts written, and we could never seem to figure the third act out,” Verhoeven said. “It eventually came down to Hauser (Schwarzenegger’s secret agent character) always being the bad guy as it gave us somewhere to go.”

One audience member asked Verhoeven how Sharon Stone got cast in “Total Recall:”

“Sharon came in the first day of casting, and after a half hour I was convinced she would be perfect as Lori,” Verhoeven said. “Once we were filming the movie, however, I came to realize what she could do as an actress. After one fight scene where she almost kills Rachel Ticotin’s character and Arnold aims a gun right at her, she quickly changes moods in what seemed like a heartbeat. It was Sharon’s final scene before her character was shot that made me want to choose her for ‘Basic Instinct.’”

Goldman told the audience movies like “The Matrix” and “Inception” wouldn’t have happened without Verhoeven’s pushing the idea of the dream in “Total Recall.” The audience applauded this sentiment loudly, and the movie still holds up well more than twenty years after its release. It’s a shame the producers of the recent remake failed to realize what made the original so good as one of them described Verhoeven’s movie as being “kitsch.” That producer is now eating their own words in the wake of the remake’s critical and commercial disappointment.