[NOTE: Time for a new category, explanation to follow….]
The Wrong Man
Director: Jim McBride (1993)
You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole
Down upon your knees
“She Belongs to Me” (Bob Dylan)
Alternate unused title: “You Wish She Belonged to You (And You’ll Keep on Wishing, No Matter What)”
(Beware: Spoilers included!)
The great lie in the American version of the modernist myth (well, other than it being somehow “modern”), is that we’ve cast off the old Puritanism and traded it in for our new, liberated selves.
Fat chance. We’re Americans and we’re stuck with who we are. Last I looked, even our porn is grim. Take out rock and roll and maybe very early New Orleans jazz and it’s been one long march to the reaper, hat in hand, for four hundred years, though at least now, in the new millenium, the march is growing shorter, day by day.
When it comes to writing about art at length, however, as opposed to preaching about the state of the world as an occasional aside, I prefer to ac-cen-tu-ate the positive. If paid up members of the heavily industrialized crit-illuminati didn’t keep bringing my mood down, I’d be a regular ray of sunshine around here. That’s why I’ve mostly stayed away from noir, film or otherwise. There’s a roadside bar between here and town. If I want to encounter the dark side of the American dream I can stop in any time. Since I don’t drink, ain’t any good at schmoozing, and am a long way past my high school social or physical reflexes being anywhere near their prime, I reckon I could get rolled by the dark side quicker than just about anybody.
So I doubt I’ll be dwelling on this, but I’m not immune to noir-ish charms, if that’s what you want to call them, and I’ve decided that whatever I’m not immune to, I shouldn’t be too proud to write about.
My first visit with The Wrong Man in twenty years seems like a good place to start.
The film shares a name with a classy affair by Alfred Hitchcock, which came out in 1956. That one rates a full point-and-a-half higher on IMDB, doubles the rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is taken quite seriously by many serious people and, even with Vera Miles’ great, unnerving performance as a woman driven to the nuthouse when her husband is wrongly accused of murder, is about one-tenth as destabilizing as this Clinton-era sleaze bucket from a mid-level Hollywood pro that was apparently made for Showtime but also played at Cannes, which is pretty destabilizing all by itself.
Is it any good?
I have to say I think so, which I think is the most you ought to ever be able to say about any noir after a couple of viewings twenty years apart.
The story is simple but deceptive. After twenty years I remembered basically where it went…
…but very little about how it got there (and, really, not as much about the ending as I thought). But, either way, it didn’t feel like anything that would fall apart on a dozen viewings, which is the other thing you have to be able to say about a noir to start deciding if it’s any good, let alone really good.
So check back with me about ten viewings from now on that.
I promise it won’t take twenty years…or two hundred.
One thing I can say is possible is that I might get tired of Kevin Anderson, who plays the nominal lead and sustains a narrow range of slightly befuddled expressions throughout, whether by choice or typecasting I bet his own mother couldn’t say. One thing I can say for certain, is that I won’t get tired of John Lithgow or Rosanna Arquette, who enter about fifteen minutes in and proceed to both take over the screen and make all that simplicity very, very deceptive indeed. I mean, I won’t again forget the beginning…
…Or, bang, bang, bang, that it can’t be reconciled with that ending in the imagination the way Arquette miraculously reconciles it on-screen.
Between times, in the heart of the movie, it’s all faces. Basically, those three.
There’s an occasional Mexican thrown in, mostly policemen, and well played all around. But, mostly, it’s three souls truly adrift in a strange land, every part of which is made stranger by their continued presence. The land’s not haunting them, they’re haunting it…or anyway Lithgow’s Phillip Mills and his “wife,” Arquette’s Missy, are. Anderson’s Alex Walker is caught in the wash, running from the Mexican police because he’s wanted, in classic dream-logic noir fashion, for a murder he didn’t commit. Mills and the girl he keeps calling his wife (whether she really is or not and what it would mean if she either is or isn’t, are some of the dozens of things I feel certain are worth pondering in this particular dream), don’t know what he did and don’t care, at least not until the very end, when, by means entirely persuasive without being entirely logical, they come to care a little.
Meanwhile, he’s a fish on a hook and they like taking turns jerking the line and watching him flop.
What sort of complicates things is that Phillip himself is a fish on another hook. That’s the one Missy keeps yanking on and that’s the real narrative here. It’s all about the hook-pulling and the triangulation of those three faces. One which hardly changes…
One which shifts almost entirely between degrees of suspicion…
And one which is on the hunt for endless kicks….
and, hence,can hardly stay still for a second…
I don’t really know of any equivalent to what Arquette does in this movie. She’s a purely sexual being, playing somebody who can’t add two and two and wouldn’t bother to try if she could. She’s crazy as a loon. And, except for maybe when she’s stripping to James Carr’s version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody,” drifting in on the kind of station you can always tune in on the radio playing in your dream version of the Mexican boonies, in a scene that, by the time it arrives, is as likely as the sun rising in the east tomorrow….
or wondering if her “husband” is dead…
or pulling a gun on him, when it turns out he isn’t…
,..she’s kind of klutz.
She’s also got the fashion sense of an attention-starved four-year-old….
She lies the way the living breathe and the dead sleep…constantly and naturally….
. And, if you don’t like the one she just told, she’s got another, even better one, waiting right behind it.
Oh yeah, she also sucks her thumb when she’s riding around in the backs of cars….
fans her crotch for the bus crowd when the night’s too hot….
and is good at exactly one thing, which is making everybody sweat…
…including whoever is on the other side of that camera there.
She’s Carroll Baker in Baby Doll and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde and Melanie Griffith in Something Wild, only with the ante upped and all rolled into one. Any hint of artiness has been replaced by pure crass.
Sort of like you imagine it would be, if you ever met this girl in “real” life and were stripped of any protection or pretension mere civilization might offer.
One reason she’s so good at the one thing she’s good it, is that she’s only interested in two things: nailing everything on two legs (as long as she doesn’t have to chase it…too much work, she’d much rather you just keep popping up in her car or wandering back to her bedroom)
and being cared for (which is why you are always going to have to put up with her current man until you prove you’re somehow better for her)…
About these issues, she is passionate and relentless.
You can see where this might lead to complications. Anything that happens along, she can talk her husband into giving it a ride, even if (maybe especially if) the police are after it.
A movie, that’s what. A real movie sort of movie, made up out of purely sordid but tangible dreams. The kind Quentin Tarantino is always bragging so much about wanting to make but never quite does, and, if it’s true that he turned down Arquette for the lead in Pulp Fiction in favor of Uma Thurman, then he’s even more of a coward than I think he is, which, until now, I didn’t even consider possible.
There’s no real hope of romance or redemption in The Wrong Man: Hollywood kind, pulp fiction kind, or any other kind. I’m not even sure a sane person would wish those things on any of the people involved. Certainly no sane person would want to be caught dead in a hotel room with them.
But the thing is, the characters are human size, even if the situation isn’t. To some degree, they are even likable. You there, with your sanity, wouldn’t want to be caught standing next to them when the bullets start flying. But you can see how it might happen just the same.
As I said, Kevin Anderson’s Alex is a pawn in all this. The movie is about faces and his hardly changes expression. Arquette and Lithgow are familiar. He’s not. They have histories as actors, even if those histories mean next to nothing here. They’re old pros stealing scenes from the nonentity as easily and thoughtlessly and greedily as their characters steal his character’s soul.
Or at least they make it seem that way and without a hint of professional slickness showing anywhere. They’re caught in a project that’s part road movie, part southern gothic (with as much dream-sharp dialogue as Tennessee Williams ever gave anybody), part neo-noir, part south-of-the-border wet dream (I think I had this exact one when I was in the tenth grade), part soft-core porn flick, part made-for-cable-because-there’s-no-more-drive-ins-for-it-to-play extravaganza, with a real actress standing in for the various cable-ready Playmates of the Month, most of whom weren’t built as well, nearly as anxious to show it off or anyways capable of making a bareback ride on John Lithgow seem like something a girl might just naturally want to do.
So they take one piece of Old Hollywood advice that for all I know may be taught in chic acting schools as well.
If you take the part, whatever it is, sell it.
The result is a movie that starts running when they show up and, for all the laughable complaints about “slow pacing” from the peanut gallery at IMDB and elsewhere (I’d bet ninety-nine out of a hundred paid up members of the crit-illuminati would say the same if they ever deigned to watch it in the first place, because they would surely have their defenses up every second of the way), it never sets its feet again. It just keeps leaping and crawling and pointing its toe, searching for something solid underneath, until the very end, when it turns into genuine tragedy of the kind that classic noir almost never achieved, even in the rare instances where it was tried (I’m always amazed at the number of fake happy endings Old Hollywood noir could snatch from the thinnest possible air).
And that’s what makes this one a little shocking–the running and running and ending up in a place where the earth seems very far away. Arquette’s Missy Mills screams over her husband’s congealing corpse because she may have no more idea than we do whether he deserved it or not, but she knows in an instant that she’ll never find another sucker quite like him.
The closest she could hope to come is moving down the track, too fast for her to catch up to and too broke to make it back on his own. And just because she sucks her thumb once in a while doesn’t mean she doesn’t hurt as much as you do buster!
Well, anyway, that’s what I’ve made of it so far.
I’m not worried, though. I’m sure I’ll understand the rest eventually. In twenty years or two hundred.
(In case you are wondering, that’s Missy’s “Yeah, I banged the kid last night, and I’m thinking of running off with him. But don’t worry, I might change my mind at the station right before they shoot one of you for the murder you either did or didn’t commit and I’m sure whatever I do it will be worth it” look.)
[NOTE: This has never been released on DVD as far as I can tell. There’s currently a copy on YouTube for those who are into downloading or watching on-line. I’m, uh, not recommending it or anything. Because, really, it could make your day or rot your liver. View at your own risk.]