Skip to main content

I have done some desperate, foolish things come 3 o'clock in the morning.

Sea of Love
(1989)

(SPOILERS) It’s difficult to imagine Sea of Love starring Dustin Hoffman, for whom Richard Price wrote the screenplay but who bowed out over requests for multiple rewrites. Perhaps Hoffman secretly recognised what most of us don’t need telling; there’s no way he fits into an erotic thriller (I’m not sure I’d even buy him as a cop). Although, he would doubtless have had fun essaying the investigative side, involving a succession of dates on the New York singles scene as a means to ensnare a killer. Al Pacino, on the other hand, has just the necessary seedy, threadbare, desperate quality, and he’s a powerhouse in a movie that, without its performances (Ellen Barkin and John Goodman may also take bows), would be a mostly pedestrian and unremarkable entry in the then burgeoning serial killer genre.


Well, I say unremarkable. The rightly most-remarked-upon aspect of the murder mystery side is how unsatisfyingly it’s resolved. Sea of Love is so scant of red herrings that it almost has to be Ellen Barkin, in that Jagged Edge/Basic Instinct suspicious protagonist “Is she/he-isn’t she/he, ah, what the hell I can’t help myself” vein. That it isn’t, and that it turns out to be Barkin’s loopy ex, played by none other than Henry out of Portrait of a Serial Killer (Michael Rooker; that movie ought to have been a clue, and would have been if anyone had seen it), announcing himself in double-take fashion, having been confined to a couple of early scenes as the cable guy who gives Pacino’s Frank Keller a bum lead, is disappointing to say the least.


It also means that, on revisiting the picture, it’s singularly evident how completely unreasonable Frank’s paranoid/loaded suspicions of Barkin’s Helen Cruger are (even the surname cues deadly antics). About the only time the movie properly puts her in a position that suggests serial murdering mood swings is when she shows up at Frank’s apartment with the Sea of Love 45.


But the upside of a revisit, without a fixing on how it turns out (although I’ve seen it a number of times before, not for about two decades), is that the quality of the performances really sinks in. Pacino’s is a tremendous portrayal of a functional alcoholic, one who spends his nights reeling uncontrollably, making rash choices and beset by crazed fears, but by day is a shrewdly competent police detective, and one given to sudden deductive leaps (admittedly, some of those also come while he’s on the sauce).


There’s a lot about Frank that isn’t terribly likeable; he’s self-involved, manipulative, and tries to turn his own errors into Helen’s. He’s a particular arsehole to Richard Jenkins, who is now married to Frank’s ex (an unseen Lorraine Bracco; her scenes were deleted). But Pacino carries his character and us along by dint of sheer charisma. It’s as if he had all that energy backed up, having been on four-year big screen hiatus from following the slaughter Revolution received critically and financially. We’re witness to the loose, freewheeling charm that comes naturally to the actor but was more frequently buried beneath an ultra-serious method approach.


He’s just great when paired with Goodman and indulging in buddy banter with fellow cops. In some respects, even more so than the intensity on display when he’s running through his drunk act or working himself into a state of extreme nervous tension over what Helen is doing with that gun in her handbag. Certainly, we also see the first signs of a tendency that would come to define his post-‘80s career: Shouty Pacino. Although, at least here it isn’t a lazy crutch, and his “Ho-ly cow!” Is both shouty and a comic highlight of the movie. Frank’s outburst about how,“Come the wet-arse hour, I'm EVERYBODY'S DADDY” is less laudable, however, so it’s swings and roundabouts. Perhaps the clincher, on the credit side, is his final scene with Barkin, where wee Al gets barged by a passer-by and just carries on acting. What a trooper!


Ellen Barkin oozes sultry, decked out with a salacious squint, crumpled smile, boxer’s nose and a similarly pugilistic attitude to sexual encounters. She’s every bit as perfect for this role as the unhinged Glenn Close and the impossibly-aspected Sharon Stone are in Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct respectively, offering a grounding to the drama, whether she’s sporting a ridiculously movie-exotic red leather jacket or strolling panty-free for a liaison with Frank in a supermarket (Frank spends a lot of his time in supermarkets). She promotes just the right kind of smoky lustfulness. Barkin is possibly the least bland actress who ever rose to the ranks of leading ladies, which may be why she didn’t stick: too unconventional (she’s also great in The Big Easy, a couple of years earlier).


On the other side, Goodman is an absolute delight in the partner role (in a year where he also ruled in a partner role in Spielberg’s somnambulant Always), exuding effortlessly charm and confidence as he launches into a rendition of Sea of Love and throwing off casual quips that make Al look great (“What are you, a fucking cop?”: “Sometimes”); they have an easy, instant rapport. He’s also great, as if it needs saying, in the dramatic scenes, such as his one-night stand with lonely Lonely Heart Gina (Christine Estabrook).


Of which, Richard Price may have had a patchy time getting screenplays to theatres without being tarnished by hacks, but he creates some marvellous little scenes throughout that further underline how well observed this is character-wise. Harold Becker is in no way one of the great directors, but he services the material diligently. Gina’s initial encounter with Frank, garlanded with balloons (“They’re the only things keeping me up”) is matched by interviews with unhelpful potential victims (“I swear on the eyes of my children” one protests, lying that he hasn’t been playing away; in the next scene he is discovered dead).


The string of dates is both hilarious (“If you’re a printer, I’ve got a dick” assesses one of Al’s alleged profession; curiously the same profession as Jack Nance in Eraserhead – well, only curious because I watched them on consecutive nights) and heart-breaking (Patricia Barry’s older woman, who Frank makes his excuses to, and who he then sees observing him with later dates, is awful for her and awful for the heel it makes Frank feel). There are also memorable spots for William Hickey (as Al’s dad) and John Spencer (his lieutenant). Samuel L Jackson also gets one scene as “Black Guy”.


Thematically, of course, the picture comes at the tail-end of AIDS-panic ‘80s, and it’s worth considering how it distinguishes itself from glossier fare like Fatal Attraction and the later, knowingly-ludicrous Basic Instinct. It’s stating the obvious that this is a movie where sex with strangers can lead to death, and more particularly the death of men.


Allied with this, there’s a very evident homoerotic aspect; Terry Cruger makes a great play of having his victims undress and mimic sexual congress before killing them, suggesting repression and panic on his part. This is paired with the (often very funny; “Roses are red, violets are blue I’ve got one yay long and it’s all for you”) macho-hetero banter between fiercely straight cops; there’s an underling theme of sexual insecurity throughout, one that doesn’t only manifest in Al’s drunken fumblings and terror (it’s also interesting that Sea of Love comes at the opposite end of a decade where Al last played a cop, cruising gay bars in search of a serial killer).


Complementing the whole is a fine Trevor Jones score, a masterpiece of insistent, sleazy liaisons, rising tension and hot sax. It ought to be corny, but it absolutely works, and again I think that’s down to the greater whole being stapled to a cast who make it work. Slip Michael Douglas into this role, effective as he was as the go-to, sexually corrupt guy of that era, and the whole thing looks ridiculous.


It’s also worth noting that this saw the advent of the sub-sub-genre of the serial killer’s favourite song accompanying their homicidal sprees, something that would run nearly a decade and take in the likes of Striking Distance (Lil’ Red Riding Hood), The X-Files (Beyond the Sea) and Fallen (Time Is On My Side), the latter also featuring Goodman.


I well remember the release of Sea of Love, coming as it did a week before Black Rain, which at the time I was much more enthused over (Ridley Scott! Yes, I was young and foolish). Not really very similar, except in as much as both were cop thrillers starring 40-something stars released in September 1989. Sea garnered the critical applause, by and large, and also beat Rain at the box office. Well, in the US; worldwide, Black Rain made $134m to Sea of Love’s $111m. But that was a nice earner for Pacino’s comeback; he would continue to pick bankable (and qualitively very variable) fare for the next decade.


The aspirations to serious character drama are both to Sea of Love’s credit and disarray (the cop-out ending looks that much worse after such invested work, but even early on you’re left slightly askance; it took the old lady next door two days before she banged on her unlocked neighbour’s door and ask him to turn the record down?) They ensure it’s well above average, but the crudeness of the procedural aspect means it can never rise to the status of a classic.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

Ours is the richest banking house in Europe, and we’re still being kicked.

The House of Rothschild (1934) (SPOILERS) Fox’s Rothschild family propaganda pic does a pretty good job presenting the clan as poor, maligned, oppressed Jews who fought back in the only way available to them: making money, lots of lovely money! Indeed, it occurred to me watching The House of Rothschild , that for all its inclusion of a rotter of a Nazi stand-in (played by Boris Karloff), Hitler must have just loved the movie, as it’s essentially paying the family the compliment of being very very good at doing their very best to make money from everyone left, right and centre. It’s thus unsurprising to learn that a scene was used in the anti-Semitic (you might guess as much from the title) The Eternal Jew .

No, I ain’t a good man. I ain’t the worst either.

A Perfect World (1993) (SPOILERS) It’s easy to assume, retrospectively, that Clint’s career renaissance continued uninterrupted from Unforgiven to, pretty much, now, with his workhorse output ensuring he was never more than a movie away from another success. The nineties weren’t such a sure thing, though. Follow-up In the Line of Fire , a (by then) very rare actor-for-hire gig, made him seem like a new-found sexagenarian box office draw, having last mustered a dependably keen audience response as far back as 1986 and Heartbreak Ridge . But at home, at least, only The Bridges of Madison County – which he took over as director at a late stage, having already agreed to star – and the not-inexpensive Space Cowboys really scored before his real feted streak began with Mystic River. However, there was another movie in there that did strong business. Just not in the US: A Perfect World .