Things weren’t looking too good for Ken Russell’s ‘Crimes of Passion’ (1984) last night as after only half an hour I was finding it scuzzy, sleazy, lurid, messy, awkward and cheap. “This is like naff Brian De Palma!” I thought to myself as sex, violence and shock factor all jostled for position in a neon drenched 80’s erotic thriller. “I hope there’s more to it all than this.” Fortunately there is… and most of it is total freaks-ville. Fantastic!
Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner) is a fashion designer by day but, come night, secretly transforms herself into China Blue, a prostitute who will make any of your desires come true for a price. Needless to say China attracts attention, most notably from a “Reverend” (Anthony Perkins) determined to “save” her and Bobby (John Laughlin), an ordinary guy in a sexless and loveless marriage. Bobby desires China because Bobby desires the intimacy he’s missing at home. The Reverend desires China because the Reverend might be part of China herself, a manifestation of what she denies.
Although the bigger question might be what is American society denying in itself? Watch ‘Crimes of Passion’ and find out!
The initial problem with ‘Crimes of Passion’ is the deliberate tastelessness you have to overcome. This is best represented by the soundtrack, which is by Rick Wakeman. Now Rick Wakeman is a fine prog rock keyboard player who produced a decent body of work during the 70’s. But 80’s Wakeman was a whole other matter where he underwent some serious lapses in taste (specifically in his choice of keyboard sounds), an excess of cheese and a general feeling of simply being out of step with the decade. In that regard though, film and music make a good fit.
Then, about 45 minutes or so in, something happens. All the pieces start coming together and we can gradually see what director Ken Russell and writer Barry Sandler are getting at. Even the music, a constant variation on Dvořák’s theme from his New World Symphony, reveals its function and sly humour. It’s not that ‘Crimes of Passion’ suddenly becomes a taut, tight, highly focused thriller but more that a surprising, and even touching, sensitivity and depth come to the fore.
This most apparent in a scene of confessional intimacy between Bobby and his emotionally distant wife (Annie Potts). It’s a six minute long take with the camera, totally static, looking down on this couple as they open up their inner most thoughts and feelings to each other. It’s a scene of real emotional sensitivity and honesty that deals with how, yes, sex is important in a relationship but also how it’s the connection, the intimacy, that matters. It was really rather touching.
Not that the movie pulls back on the shock factor because, concurrently to all the above, Russell puts the pedal to the metal in terms of freaky shit and mayhem which involves everything from amyl nitrite, strap-ons, giant metallic dildos called “Superman”, religious guilt, sexual abandon, sexual repression, sexual violence, bondage, BDSM and threesomes. This is all heightened further with some extraordinarily blistering dialogue about the nature of guilt, identity and life.
The only thing that was missing for me was what I would call a “Typical Ken Russell Extended Freak Out Sequence”, only for the film to then obligingly deliver what might be his most jaw-dropping scene ever (and we all know that’s saying something!). All I’ll say is it involves a policeman, razor-sharp heels, blood, his massive black night-stick and aggressive anal buggery. Now THAT’S the Ken Russell I know and love.
The film does have a few issues, though: the final “reveal” feels too indebted to Perkin’s work for Hitchcock; the script can be a tad clunky, a little stagey and sometimes seems to struggle to contain all the themes it’s dealing with. It also wear its pretentions to literature a little too heavily on its sleeve (how can any film where the lead character is reading John Fowles not?).
I really responded to ‘Crimes of Passion’, and strongly so. It is flawed in several departments and is so in your face that more sensitive viewers might come away heavily bruised, but it is also much more than a straight forward erotic thriller. As an exploration of sexual dynamics, lust, relationships, identity and masks, fidelity, social norms, lust, power and passion it’s vastly superior (and more intelligent, humane and alive) to ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (1999). In fact, it makes Kubrick film feel like ‘Home Alone’ in comparison which, let’s face it, it basically is (man-child Tom Cruise gets abandoned and has to fend for himself at Christmas time).