Last Embrace (Demme, 1979)

Last Embrace has an oddly star-studded lineup: Scott Rudin before he became super-producer, Jonathan Demme post-Corman, but pre-mainstream consciousness, Tak Fujimoto before big pictures like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Sixth Sense,  Roy Scheider in the midst of a good run (Jaws, Marathon Man, Sorceror, All That Jazz and…Jaws 2), and Christopher Walken with a mustache.

As far as 1970s thrillers go, this one’s not the finest.  It’s got some of that Pakula-paranoia, and Scheider yet again proves himself to be a fine actor, but the structure leaves something to be desired, and some of the technique is a bit shifty.

Here’s a look at the opening scene.  It begins with a long handheld panning shot of an outdoor cafe:

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The shot eventually (somewhat clumsily) moves forward and finds Harry Hannan (Scheider) at a table with his wife).

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Intro the shady-looking criminals, and the standoff ensues:

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This is where it gets strange.  Demme then goes into a series of fast dissolves as both parties notice one-another-

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-and the shootout starts.

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The use of the dissolves seems impressionistic, shunning the traditional passage-of-time use.  This is something closer to maybe Chabrol or other New Wavers.  Demme seems to want the dissolves to heighten the moment, to imply, perhaps that time is both standing still and flying by as well.  It all almost works, but the combination of all these techniques, plus some slow-motion, makes the scene odd as a prologue.  We’re just thrown right in – not only into a shootout, but also into unconventional technique; it kind of feels like Demme doesn’t trust the material to carry the weight he wants it to.

Demme throws in some Hitchcock references.  There’s the Vertigo-stand-in church tower:

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And the North by Northwest-stand-in Niagara Falls:

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These are pretty fun set-pieces, somewhat oddly placed amidst an otherwise 1970s NY thriller.  These shifts are part of the fun and part of the problem with Last Embrace.  It keeps you on your toes De Palma-style, but then at the same time struggles to find its identity.  Is this Marathon Man or is it Obsession?

The aforementioned structure is also problematic.  Janet Margolin plays Ellie Fabian, Hannan’s ally and/or nemesis.  Her introduction as the latter is poorly placed in that it sucks away suspense.  It leads to a nice climax, but kills what could tense Hannan/Fabian interactions beforehand.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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