Movie of the Month: Crimes of Passion (1984)

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Every month
one of us makes the other two watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made James, Britnee, and (our newest contributor) Kenny watch Crimes of Passion (1984).

Brandon: Director Ken Russell was a madman. Whether exploring the farthest reaches of his twisted psyche in projects like Altered States & Lair of the White Worm or making more commercial projects like the musical film Tommy, Russell had a knack for finding the surreal in the mundane. His films would reach for cinematic mindfuckery that audiences would expect in dignified art films, but his particular brand of on-screen madness was typically grounded in a mundane, often tawdry context. For instance, both Tommy & Altered States are overflowing with bizarre, dreamlike imagery but one is essentially a glorified The Who music video and the other is (reductively speaking) about a dude on drugs in a bathtub. Russell’s films are simultaneously both artful & cheap, an unholy marriage of high & lowbrow art and that’s partly why I love his work so much

In some ways Crimes of Passion, a 1984 sex thriller starring Kathleen “Serial Mom” Turner as a fashion designer by day & prostitute by night, is the prime example of Russell’s self-conflicting nature. It’s a visually stunning work that uses a Bava-esque attention to lighting to create an otherworldly playground of sexual fantasy & escapism, but it’s also just pure smut. It occasionally attempts to laud the virtues of sex work, but also uses the profession as a means to leer at naked bodies. It reads like an intentionally cruel vilification of marriage & monogamy that also has a lot to say about the hypocrisy of self-righteous religious piety, but it’s also just a long string of dirty one-liners like “Don’t think you’re getting back in these panties; there’s already one asshole in there.” Crimes of Passion is thoroughly bewildering in its refusal to be engaged with as either high art or low trash, but instead insists that audiences simultaneously appreciate it as both. In other words, it’s pure Ken Russell.

Kenny, what did you make of the film’s tonal mix of art house solemnity and tawdry sex jokes? How did its leering salaciousness interact with its more sincere views on monogamy & religious faith for you?

Kenny: “A Priest, a hooker and a husband walk into a motel…” This sounds like all the makings of a bad joke, but instead these are the ingredients to a perfectly balanced portion of 80’s cinema. The film walks a very tight line, carefully trying to not be cast as weighty or absurd. Without question, the director maintains a perfect tonal balance with the film’s mix of the “sacred against the profane.” However, the thing to marvel in is how Russell frames the context. What is sacred is absurd (ex. “holy sex toy”). What would be filth, the viewer comes to recognize as sacramental. I love the way it flips the norms on the viewer.

Speaking of flipping societal norms, how cool is Russel’s vision of China Blue? She has all of the makings of a kick-ass comic book anti-heroine. A successful woman in fashion, who finds herself trapped by the dated expectations of how “normal” people should behave, escapes to her seedy lair in the underbelly of the city to find a safe haven among the deviant. I love how she is placed in a position of power throughout the film, and how her independence as a woman is never compromised.

Did anyone else care for Ken Russell’s reversal of traditional gender roles? What are your thoughts on the dynamic of the strong female and the meek male character in need of saving?

Britnee: China Blue (aka Joanna) is the definition of an independent woman. Kathleen Turner is a total goddess that is known for portraying strong women in film, so she was perfect for this role. Russell really did an excellent job switching up traditional gender roles in Crimes of Passion by giving China Blue the power to create and control her own world while both major male characters, Reverend Peter Shayne and Bobby Grady, are both pretty weak and cannot function without their China Blue fix. The Reverend is the scariest, most unstable individual that one could ever imagine, and I was really shocked at how she wasn’t intimidated by him whatsoever. She didn’t run and hide from him, but instead fought him at his own game. Also, I think it’s important to mention that Russell didn’t end the film in a traditional way by giving China and Bobby an over-the-top wedding that leads to a happily-ever-after marriage. China didn’t need to marry Bobby in order to make a better life for herself; she already had her shit on lock.

One thing that really stuck out to me when we watched Crimes of Passion was how it seemed like two different movies mixed into one. The beginning was like an insane fever dream, but the second half of the film had a much more mild tone and was more on the serious side. It’s known as an erotic thriller, but it didn’t really feel like a thriller in the beginning. If there were any elements of a thriller in the beginning, they were definitely overshadowed by the all the peculiar incidents.

James, do you think that there was a significant change in the style of the film towards the latter half? If so, what are some of your thoughts/opinions of why Russell would do this?

James: Besides the completely bonkers ending, I agree that Crimes of Passion shifts to a subtler, more character driven direction in its second half, but tonal shifts are kind of a Russel trademark. As Brandon addressed in his opening remarks, Russell loves to have trash coexist with highbrow art and all of his films have done this with varying degrees of success. (Crimes of Passion is definitely up there). For me, the real heart of Crimes of Passion lies in its subdued second half, as these deeply damaged characters come more into focus.

The scenes of Bobby and Amy’s crumbling marriage and China Blue meeting with a dying man, in particular, are outstanding and it’s refreshing to see Russell, whose stylistic tendencies can sometimes overpower his actors, give them center stage and let their performances drive the movie. Turner, Laughlin, and especially Perkins pull out all the stops (he apparently huffed real nitrous between takes), putting in more effort than maybe the film deserves. I say this because, in the end, I am skeptical that Russell had a clear message he was trying to convey with Crimes of Passion. Much of the film feels like Russell being a prankster provocateur, which is not to diminish the visceral, surreal experience of watching it.

Brandon, what do you think Ken Russell set out to do with Crimes of Passion? Was he trying to make a genuine statement about relationships and sex or is he merely being a “prankster provocateur”?

Brandon: My short answer would be that he’s doing a little bit of both. There is an undeniable central message to Crimes of Passion, it’s just not a particularly deep one. The film essentially boils down to the thesis that monogamy = bad. There’s a vivid contrast between the miserably drab home life of the central married couple and the wild escapist fantasies of China Blue’s sex work that intentionally makes seedy, New York City prostitution feel divine in comparison to the straight life’s cruel bickering. China Blue has fun with her stable of johns’ perversions, never arguing with them until the minute she has a truthfully passionate impulse and falls in love. That moment is what tips the film to the slower, more grounded second half, so in a way monogamous love even has the gall to spoil the fun of the film itself.

And then there’s Russell’s prankster sensibilities running rampant in details like Anthony Perkins’ deadly “superman” vibrator and a nameless john’s terrifying bait & switch rape fantasy mined for dark humor. Russell was nothing if not a series of absurd contradictions and the contrasting anti-monogamy message & sex-obsessed pranks of Crimes of Passion can best be observed in harmony in the film’s soundtrack. I wasn’t keeping a tally, but I want to say that the not-so-subtly sarcastic, anti-monogamy ditty “It’s a Lovely Life” plays more often in this film than “That Thing You Do!” plays in That Thing You Do! Every time I thought they were finally playing a new tune, a stray bar from the chorus of “It’s a Lovely Life” would interrupt and remind me that there really is only one song on the soundtrack, like the movie was one overlong, salacious music video for a parody of a rock song. I’m definitely willing to chalk up that effect to Russell being a “prankster provocateur” (nice descriptor for him, by the way).

Kenny, considering that Crimes of Passion was released just a few years after the launch of MTV, can you see ways in which it was influenced by the music video as a media format?

Kenny: This movie couldn’t be more MTV if it had a Billy Idol music set in the middle. The cinematographer’s love of neon had to be the envy of any 80’s music video director. Sharing what I like to call an “80’s noir” look with other films such as Nightmare on Elm Street, Weird Science and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, I can certainly see how the director would use the look of the film to amplify the fever dream feeling Britnee spoke of. However, nothing in the movie seemed more 80s than the performance from Tony Perkins.

Britnee, did you find Russell’s decision to cast Perkins to be a bit of type casting at play?

Britnee: Absolutely! Type casting is definitely something that I get annoyed with from time to time, but I’ll let it slide for this one because Perkins was disturbingly perfect as The Reverend; he was a complete psycho, so who would be better for this role than the original “Psycho“? As crazy as this may sound, I find Perkins much more terrifying in Crimes of Passion than he is in Psycho. He’s just as demented as Norman Bates, except he’s got a sick religious obsession with a hooker and a bag of dangerous sex toys.

Crimes of Passion is not a very popular film. Even just in the group of Ken Russell films, it’s still more unknown than others. I don’t understand why it’s so underrated because it’s actually an amazing film with a star studded cast. It doesn’t even have that much of a cult following, which absolutely blows my mind. This movie is perfect for elaborate midnight showings. Picture it, a crowd full of fans dressed as China Blue singing along to “It’s a Lovely Life”; it’s just meant to be.

James, why do you think Crimes of Passion wasn’t a a bigger hit? Why doesn’t it have a large cult following?

James: I totally agree that Crimes of Passion should have a much bigger cult following but I think the film’s bizarre mixture of sex, violence, and humor was probably a turn off to mainstream audiences in 1984 who were expecting a more straight forward erotic thriller. This is also the exact reason that I enjoyed the film so much and why I think the film would play better for audiences today who have a more ironic, postmodern sensibility.

Lagniappe

Brandon: In some ways “should’ve been more popular” feels like the story of not only Crimes of Passion, but of Ken Russell’s entire career. Sure, he had a huge hit on his hands with his The Who musical Tommy and I know he has his die-hard fans, but his name is not one you typically hear when weirdo auteur names like Cronenberg & Lynch get tossed around. His films The Devils, Lair of the White Worm, and Altered States are just as arresting & cerebral as anything in those directors’ repertoires. Crimes of Passion has a little bit of a lighter hand than these titles, but its affinity for cheap sex jokes makes it even more of an anomaly than some of his other works. Sex sells, after all. Russell should’ve been more of a household name and the playful sex-obsession of Crimes of Passion should’ve been his foot in the door.

Kenny: Crimes of Passion is a must see for any 80s film buff. The lighting, the set pieces and art design, along with the acting, will give any film fan the nostalgic feeling of watching the dream sequences of A Nightmare on Elm Street combined with the eroticism of The Red Shoe Diaries.

Britnee: Crimes of Passion was a hoot! It’s been well over a month since we all sat down to watch it, and I still catch myself singing “It’s a Lovely Life” while reminiscing about all the insanity that occurred in the film. Also, I’m just realizing how China Blue kind of looks like a sassier version of Disney’s Cinderella. I’m not sure if Russell did this for any reason whatsoever, but it’s just something to think about.

James: Overall, the film is nuts, features memorable performances, and deserves a rightful place among Ken Russell’s best work.

Upcoming Movie of the Months:
June: James presents Blow Out (1981)
July: Britnee presents Highway to Hell (1991)

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9 thoughts on “Movie of the Month: Crimes of Passion (1984)

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