Into the Night
(SPOILERS) “I was taken aback because I did everything I always did. I didn’t do anything different. People just did not show up.” Into the Night was John Landis’ first brush with movie failure, but for a time it would be merely a blip on his résumé. Until the end of the 1980s he would keep on making hit movies. You only have to glance at the book from which that Landis quote is taken (John Landis, by Guilia D’Agnola Vallan) to see that there are a good few out there who vouch for it as one of his best movies. And they’re right. Tonally it may lurch (a lot of Landis’ films lurch; at their best there’s a disarming knockabout quality to them) from slapstick comedy to uncompromising violence (often within the same scene) but there is also an emotional content here, melancholy and warmth, absent from most of his broader comedies.
Much of that can be put down to the charming performances from leads Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer (unfortunately, they’ve only ever reunited in a vocal capacity, on The Prince of Egypt). As with An American Werewolf in London (the only one of his movies that may top Into the Night), Landis’ leads were “proper” actors, rather than the comedy stars he has more frequently worked with. Werewolf shares many of Night’s shifts in gear, (comedy, violence, romance) but does so in a genre far more accepting of such behaviour. While Landis says that he didn’t do anything different, that may be true functionally, but if you have comedy stars above the title you have an informed audience. With a horror movie, likewise. No one knew what to expect with two rising stars, neither of whom had a led a movie before (I’m not including Grease 2, it would be bit unfair) and Landis was never a director to attract punters by name alone (unlike Spielberg).
The director originally intended to cast Gene Hackman as Ed Okin (Goldlbum’s character). The studio nixed the idea because Hackman wasn’t seen as a draw at the time (not such an unreasonable view, given the string of uninspired, turgid thrillers he was signing on for back then). The casting would have added an additional layer to Diana’s (Pfeiffer) attraction to Ed, as she clearly has a father-figure fixation (Richard Farnsworth plays her sugar daddy in a role earmarked for James Stewart). Farnsworth had 10 years on Hackman, but more than 30 on Jeff. That said, I couldn’t imagine Hackman in the role. He’s the very definition of earthy, and could never muster the benign spookiness that comes naturally to Goldbum. The latter’s innate eccentricity eases over the bumps between Into the Night’s straight sections and the comedic ones (Landis was allowed the actor because he could pick anyone from The Big Chill, which had just been a big hit)
Into the Night came at a time when Landis was working as much as possible. He took Trading Places almost immediately following Twilight Zone: The Movie (during the shooting of his segment a helicopter crashed and killed Vic Morrow and two child actors). Of the four films he made between the tragedy and the resulting trial (the other two being Spies Like Us and Three Amigos), Into the Night is the only one where the effects of violence play out. When the brains of a terrorist (one of whom Landis played) are splattered all over Ed at the climax, it’s difficult not see something of the director’s state of mind in Okin’s response; stunned, dazed, unbelieving. That’s not to say the scene doesn’t work on its own terms (indeed, it is probably better not to be conscious of the background to the period of the movie’s production; it becomes too intrusive); there’s a curious game at work where the villains of the piece are at once idiotic (and very politically incorrect) but their actions have real consequences, leading to our hero finally waking up. Landis did something similar with the grizzly slayings of Werewolf, but in reverse; there, comic relief follows the mutilations as David encounters the reproving cadavers of his victims.
Ed: My life isn’t working out somehow.
If Werewolf sugarcoats the pill of the horror/comedy by delivering it in supernatural surroundings, Into the Night’s viewpoint is also skewed. We adopt the gaze of a sleep-starved office worker. Reality for Ed is fuzzy and distorted, the mundanity of traffic jams and development meetings takes on an absurd quality; it is as if Ed is seeing the world as it actually is through his insomniac eyes (“I can’t sleep any more, Herb. My job is a dead-end. I feel weird, like I’m from another planet or something”). It’s a small section of the film, but it encapsulates the ant farm conformity of the 9-to-5 grind better than probably any movie until Office Space. That sense of the strange is only increased when you have Ed’s divisional director played by director David Cronenberg, offering meta-references to both a design issue (Ed is an aerospace engineer) and Okin’s view of the world (“They’re claiming we have a synchronisation problem”).
Ed: I’ll tell you the truth. Diana’s CIA. I’m on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. We’ve got the place surrounded… I’m really from Illegal Immigration. We thought you might have some illegal aliens working around here.
Ed is a highly appealing character, not just because he is personified by the highly appealing and idiosyncratic Goldblum, but also because he breaks with protagonist norms. He is neither overtly heroic nor especially petrified by his encounters. His reflex is to consider going home at every stage in his journey, but his state of mind means he can only drift through the fog of the present. There is a stoicism about him, a resignation to his circumstances and a quiet sense of chivalry. His reaction to the discovery of his wife’s infidelity is not to fly into a temper (he suspected something was amiss anyway, since she kisses him goodbye in the morning with a Stepford Wives-like “Have a nice day”) but to follow co-worker Dan Aykroyd’s advice to head for the airport and Vegas (Akyroyd’s Herb is equal and opposite to Ed, infuriatingly accepting of his conditional and dull existence).
Ed never gets to Vegas; it’s at the airport that he rescues diamond smuggler Diana (Pfeiffer) from a group of Iranians, more by accident than design. Yes, that’s Landis’ obsession with English royalty coming out again in Pfeiffer’s character name (“Diana, like Princess Diana”). Ed is experiencing an existential crisis, such that he is somewhat blasé about his own safety; the only thing he keeps coming back to is that Diana needs his help. His interior state also renders him something of a “new man”; he listens to Diana, rather than impressing himself on her situation. Ed is a reactive figure throughout; while this is in the spirit of the Hitchcock chase movies Landis is inspired by (The 39 Steps, North By Northwest), Ed’s passivity makes him distinct. I really can’t imagine anyone but Goldblum in this part; even when he is exuding fatigue, there is something wired and alert about him. It’s partly those eyes, partly that lank frame (like a 6ft 4” daddy longlegs), partly that naturalistic yet stylised delivery (his cadence is as distinctive as Christopher Walken’s and that’s saying something). It’s a role that needs someone with an irrepressible charisma, because Ed’s tendency to do nothing runs the risk of creating a vacuum at the centre of the movie.
Ed: I’m too tired for all this. I don’t need any more shit in my life right now.
Joe Dante commented that one of the most appealing aspects of Into the Night is that you can’t see where the twists and turns are coming from. In a sense, it takes the random incident of The Blues Brothers (on their mission from God) and pegs it to a standard thriller plotline. The result belongs to a loose ‘80s sub-genre of middleclass white male nightmare movies. The cosseted suburbanite (or urbanite) is thrust into an unfamiliar environment, one that escalates by turns into the uncanny. The best-known examples of this are After Hours and Something Wild (Into the Night is sandwiched between them in release terms). In the former, Griffin Dunne’s word processor, in pursuit of a girl, embarks on a night of frustration and threats to his person, as the entire city seems to have turned out against him. In the latter, Jeff Daniels’ banker is also enticed to depart from the straight and narrow by a girl. Loosely affiliated is Blue Velvet, where Kyle McLachlan returns to his small town and is sucked into its dark underbelly (and again, a significant impetus is an exotic lady). The difference between Ed and the protagonists of After Hours and Something Wild, as Dave Kehr points out, is that his actions are guided by a sense of decency rather than lust. He isn’t concerned with what he can get out of this. His world is already too fractured for such linear motivation.
Ed: My wife is unfaithful to me.
Diana: An affair.
Ed: You make it sound romantic.
Diana: Maybe it is.
Ed: Thank you.
Pfeiffer is radiant as Diana, which is important as it makes up for her sometimes rather weak characterisation. She’s a resourceful damsel in distress, but her background is equally part fantasy narrative and harsh reality (like everything in this movie, the two keep bumping up against each other). The diamonds she smuggles have come from the sceptre of a Persian king (this is why the Iranian secret police are after her); it’s a plotline closer to the batty antics of Help! than anything rooted in the real world. But Landis balances this by offering insight into her method of smuggling; they travelled in her vagina. He pulls the plot back down to Earth with the nitty-gritty of how to carry off such an operation.
Being a Landis film there is surplus of cheerful nudity, but Pfeiffer’s is discreet and alluring; Ed glimpses her striding in long shot past her open bedroom door. It is functional, so not overtly sexualised, and Ed’s reaction is to allow himself a slight smile, as if to acknowledge that he has been indulged but knows it bears no connotations. Pfeiffer was never a Sharon Stone type and has pretty much remained fully clothed since, so she might put this down to Landis catching her at an impressionable age. The scene has a practical point though; Diana does not so much represent the object of Ed’s carnal desire as the promise of his revivification. She is fully alive, and Ed needs to find that place.
Lest we forget, the movie operates from Ed’s point of view, so some distance from Diana is at least partly intentional. She riffs on the femme fatale, her mysteriousness driving Ed to continue to help out. There is certainly some suggestion that Diana has taken easy and foolish options; her acting career hasn’t worked out, she has allowed herself to be supported by a much older man, and smuggling itself is an act of someone who would rather go for a quick fix than make difficult grown-up decisions. But we can’t help but sympathise with her, and her scenes with Jack Caper (Farnsworth) are genuinely touching.
She also gets the occasional great line; when her Elvis impersonator brother (Bruce McGill on fine bilious form) shows no inclination to help her, she exclaims “Elvis wouldn’t do what you’re doing, and I knew him!” much to his fury. Most of all, Pfeiffer effortlessly assumes the mantle of leading lady as if she’d always graced such roles. In the final scene, where we think she has gone and left Ed, we are enormously gratified to see her waiting for him at the end of the hotel corridor. We may not have really got to know Diana, but we don’t doubt Pfeiffer’s sincerity. (This is also sister Deedee’s movie debut; she plays a hooker on a street corner, asking Jeff “Do you want to party?”)
Diana: I know they’re all Iranians, or Persians, or something.
I can’t imagine Landis’ whacky take on Middle Eastern terrorists seeing the light of day in today’s world. Although, to be precise, we just assume they are terrorists; they are actually former Iranian secret police (maybe that’s worse; their indiscriminate destruction derby has an air of state-authorisation). The Middle Eastern terrorist was an easy shorthand during the ‘80s; the same year’s Back to the Future saw the plot set in motion when Libyan terrorists come calling for the plutonium stolen by Doc Brown. Their use as stock villains probably peaked around the time of True Lies, where James Cameron’s lazy racism drew some harsh criticism. Since then the approach has tended to be more careful and qualified, particularly post-9/11. It takes someone like Chris Morris in Four Lions to show a willingness to satirise this sensitive landscape (unfortunately, the movie is a one joke affair stretched to breaking point).
Landis must be conscious aware of the minefield of potential offence he is crossing, but he is bracingly indifferent to it. That he comes out relatively unscathed is down to the tack he takes. He described his approach making them akin to the Keystone Cops; they embrace a slapstick ineptitude that heightens the surreality of the movie. They are clearly very dangerous, but they’re also complete idiots. Accordingly, the choreography of their manic pursuits is a delight to watch (additionally, their approach to searching for the diamonds in any given location is to indiscriminately throw everything on the floor or smash it to pieces, which includes launching a plastic swordfish through a television set).
The masterstroke is in the Jewish Landis playing one the quartet; this was borne out of the necessity of leading his Iranian actors through the slapstick routines (seen to best effect when they run into doors as one), but it also serves to diffuse potential tensions; as caricatures they are too broad and goofy to be seen as representing any kind of commentary. They’re one remove from the Illinois Nazis in The Blues Brothers. Indeed, their careering, ramshackle destructivity is Into the Night’s closest link to the carefree anarchy of that movie.
The hyperbolic violence they inflict is by turns hilarious and disturbing. When it comes to killing, noisy dogs and parrots are on the receiving end of a “Shoot first, don’t bother asking any questions later” policy. Landis beautifully sets up the dog’s death; Ed and Diana take a lift with Jack Arnold (‘50s film director), whose dog starts barking at them (“It’s alright, he’s a nice dog”). Inevitably, the next ones to call the lift are the Iranians, and as soon as the canine opens his mouth they open fire. One might even see this kill-happy depiction as a satirical comment on the way the West views the Middle East (certainly from a modern day perspective), but I don’t think the director has any lofty pretensions in that regard.
Elsewhere, the actions of the SAVAK are quite chilling; their pursuit of Diana’s actress friend Christie (Kathryn Harrold) along a deserted beach is stark and brutal. One might says that the film is consistently inconsistent in its approach; you have to be willing to ride with these variances. The climax, where Ed pleads with one of their number (Michael Zand) who is holding Diana at gunpoint, is filled with unexpected poignancy. Ed shares his existential funk with the uncomprehending gunman (“Why can’t I sleep?”), who shoots himself in a crimson flurry worthy of Peckinpah. It’s these touches, character moments, as much as any unexpected narrative digressions, that underline Dante’s comments about the movie’s surprising twists and turns. It should be recognised also that Landis is a fine comedy performer; there’s an innate clumsiness to his gait, and I’m not sure that anyone else could make his frustration at a resistant doorknob (by unloading a clip at it) as funny as he does.
Ed: Pierre doesn’t speak English.
Diana: He’s such a good cook, though. Who cares?
Landis felt he should have shared a writing credit with Ron Koslow, as he heavily retooled the latter’s original screenplay. He came up with the additional parties interested in procuring the diamonds, Monsieur Melville (Roger Vadim) and his employee hit man Colin Morris (David Bowie). The latter might just be the highpoint of the movie (of which more shortly). Vadim is also great fun as Melville. The sequence in which he apprehends Ed and Diana, only for the police to show up, is a master class in subdued frustration. Referring to him as Pierre, Ed and Diana take charge of his limo and instruct him and his stooge to walk back (policeman to Melville; “So, are you having a nice time in America?”). Melville must remain speechless.
Colin Morris: You’re very good. You’re really very good. I’m amazed we’ve not met before.
Bowie, meanwhile. The Thin White Duke tends to get a bad rap for his movie roles, with The Man Who Fell to Earth the eternally honourable exception. I have no qualms over admitting that I’m a huge fan of his acting work, be it playing himself (Zoolander), Pontius Pilate (The Last Temptation of Christ) or Nikola Tesla (The Prestige). I find him fascinating to watch, and he’s just as suited to comedy as straight drama. Indeed, his Into the Night cameo might be my favourite of his movie roles. He lends Morris a relaxed joviality and a completely unwarranted professional regard for Ed, whom he has somehow concluded is a fellow assassin (“Heh, heh. I like you Ed. I do like you. You’re very good”). He reads Ed as a master planner, such that an approaching police car must have been at his behest (“Very good. Very impressive. I’m sure we’ll chat again”).
The subsequent sequence, in which Ed goes to check on Diana’s rendezvous and discovers a room full of bodies and a television playing Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, is as peculiar in its own way as the scene in Blue Velvet where Kyle McLachlan happens across a strange tableau of a standing corpse in an empty room. It only becomes stranger when Mr. Williams (Carl Perkins) pulls a knife out of his chest and attacks Colin Morris with it (“Let go of my hand, Ed” requests Morris). That’s the last we see of Bowie in the picture and, like all great supporting turns, he leaves you wanting more.
A regularly commented upon feature of Into the Night, more so than the actual plot, is the proliferation of film directors and creative types cast in small roles. I’ve mentioned Cronenberg, Vadim and Arnold, but we also see Paul Bartel as a hotel doorman, Rick Baker as a drug dealer (“Hey man, you want any ludes, er… coke, hash, acid, grass?”), Jonathan Demme, Richard Franklin, Amy Heckerling, Jim Henson, Lawrence Kasdan, Paul Mazursky (more of a supporting role this; he is director/producer Bud Herman, who is dating Christie and whose Emmy is unceremoniously broken by Landis), Daniel Petrie, Don Siegel, Colin Higgins, Carl Gottlieb, Colin Higgins and Jonathan Lynn. We also see fitness trainer to the stars Jake Steinfeld, who has appeared in several of Landis’ movies. I did recognise him on first viewing, as Clive James occasional featured him. Some critics dismissed the cameos as a distracting indulgence on Landis’ part, but it can only be so if you’re aware of their identities in the first place. I had no idea who they were the first time I saw it, and I’m still not conscious of a number of the faces when I revisit it. Others (Dave Kehr again) have seen it as further defining one of the pictures themes; “A dream world defined by dream makers”. I think that’s stretching it to be honest; Landis litters all his movies with cameos because it amuses him to do so, not for thematic resonance.
The picture does touch on the less glamorous side of Hollywood, however. The harsh reality beyond the dream. This is a world of sleaze and exploitation, where budding actresses must fall prone upon the casting couch if they are to stand any chance of getting ahead, and where drugs are rife. Ed’s brief visit to a film set sees Landis work in some effective sight gags; he tries to use a prop phone (“Very funny”), falls through a fake wall and ends up sat nonchalantly cross-legged in a collapsed boulder. And there’s the obligatory See You Next Wednesday poster adorning a wall.
Into the Night readily identifies itself with Landis’ more broadly comic predecessors and his previous foray into romance (I don’t really regard Trading Places as a romance, although it is amiable enough in that respect). It has the loose, freewheeling episodic quality of The Blues Brothers but breaks with Werewolf’s example by presenting an upbeat ending. The transitions whereby Ed decides to remain “in the story” are occasionally clumsy (“I hope she’ll be okay”) but they are intrinsic to his character (he is neither enthused nor resistant to his adventure).
The original ending for Into the Night was more downbeat; Ed returned to his wife. That would have been an unsatisfying conclusion, perhaps more believable for the middle-aged Gene Hackman to “awake” from his insomnia and realise that his trip was over and it’s time to return to the joyless grind. But still wholly depressing. In Something Wild, the protagonist’s life is changed by his experience, and After Hours’ witty conclusion places Dunne right back where he (and we) began. For Night to end as initially conceived would be to render Ed’s odyssey meaningless (particularly since it could only be fear that would cause him to revert to his former life, and that’s one emotion that has not troubled him). The money prize left for Ed and Diana is irrelevant; we care about what happens between them. Landis works it so as to fool us into thinking Ed has been deserted (he falls asleep before they get a chance to sleep together, emphasising the purity of their bond; when he awakes the same advert is playing – Cal Worthington on a plane, riding a hippo – as during the last thing we saw him doing before he set off to the airport. It subtly embeds the thought that this has all been a fever dream, so it’s gratifying that Landis goes soft on us. And, it might just be that he had reasons for ensuring his pictures ended in good places at that time.
There’s one aspect of Into the Night I’ve never been very keen on, and that’s Ira Newborn’s overpowering guitar-synth score. I probably would have labelled it ham-fisted in the past; it’s way too high in the mix, and even B B King doesn’t come out of the mix very well. Landis doesn’t sound wholly happy with it, referring to it as “very unusual” and “odd” (usually code for “a bit shit”). It’s one of those ‘80s scores that has aged quite badly (see also For Your Eyes Only). That said, it didn’t bother me nearly as much on this occasion; perhaps I have become inured to it.
Landis has suggested, correctly I think, that the stigma of the Twilight Zone: The Movie tragedy never really went away. Nevertheless, his fall from favour during the ‘90s was dramatic by any standards. Animal House is by far his biggest success (nearly half a billion gross, inflation adjusted) and the next decade saw him deliver huge hits in Trading Places and Coming to America, substantial ones with The Blues Brothers and Spies Like Us and moderate ones in An American Werewolf in London and Three Amigos. Then he couldn’t get a break. Oscar (very underrated) had Stallone embarking on his inadvisable comedy phase, Innocent Blood failed to recapture the horror-comedy mayhem of Werewolf (but again, it’s an underrated movie). But worse was to come. Beverly Hills Cop III was widely seen as disastrous and desperate, and was duly rewarded with a limp gross; it was as abject as Paul Hogan’s return to crocodilia another decade later. The Stupids outright bombed, and Susan’s Plan (which also has connective tissue to Into the Night, but lacks the generosity of spirit) went straight to video. He wouldn’t make another cinema release until 2010.
The flipside of the failure of Into the Night is that it probably merits the status of a cult movie more than any other in John Landis’ filmography. Towering successes don’t necessarily prevent such laurels, but they can hardly be clutched to the bosom as an undiscovered gem. Landis says it was difficult to get the movie made because it was so unorthodox, and I can see that the shifts in tone might have been a hard sell. But it is very recognisably directed by him, with the looseness and rambunctiousness of his broader comedies (An American Werewolf in London is the one that stands out for me as stylistically distinct, with Landis embracing his inner horror maestro, but even that delivers a climax more Blues Brothers than The Wolf Man). Werewolf shares untested leads with Into the Night and, as vital as Landis’ madcap methods are, it’s the combination of Goldblum’s bemused ranginess and Pefiffer’s spirited beauty that give the movie its heart.