AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT DVD AND BLU-RAY: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 112 min [Director’s Cut], 106 [Unrated Version]
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Bobby Grady is an electronics store owner who occasionally moonlights doing surveillance work. His wife Amy seems to have lost all interest in sex and even affection. Grady is approached by the owner of a fashion design house to spy on an employee, Joanna Crane, whom he suspected of selling clothing patterns to his competitors. Grady discovers the accusations are unfounded, but also finds out that Joanna is moonlighting as a prostitute using the name China Blue, shedding her business attire for provocative clothing and willing to indulge all her client’s sexual fetishes. He’s immediately besotted, but also after her is the crazy Reverend Peter Shaye who wants to “save her”….
Revisiting films you loved when you were young can always be a risky venture that may end in disappointment. It’s been, believe it or not, over two decades since I’ve seen Crimes Of Passion, which was a favourite movie of mine when I was 15-16 [yes I know I was too young], though probably for the wrong reasons. Coming back to it after all these years, I now can’t understand why it took me so long to see it again, as I loved it again. Ken Russell’s barmy ‘Belle De Jour on drugs’ erotic drama is extremely over the top [though of course that’s par for the course from Russell, which is probably one of the main reasons that critics tended not to receive his films very well], extremely sleazy and extremely silly, but it’s also very funny [it is in many ways a comedy], has a simply stunning performance by its female star which is a brilliant example of the kind of performance that is Oscar-worthy but would never in a million years be considered by the Academy because of the nature of the film in question, and, in its own way, has commendable and sometimes brave things to say about sexuality, hypocrisy and, indeed, life.
This was Russell’s second American film after the mind blowing Altered States. He immediately said yes to Barry Sandler’s screenplay, partly because it had similarities to Alban Berg’s opera Lulu [based on source material that had already been filmed as the silent classic Pandora’s Box] which he’d been wanting to film for years, and was made for Roger Corman’s old company New World Pictures. Cher was considered for the role of Joanna Crane/China Blue, while Jeff Bridges was offered the role of Bobby Grady, but wanted too much money even after he lowered his fee. Anthony Perkins asked Sandler to change his character Reverend Peter Shaye from a shoe salesman to a minister and, just like Shaye, would sniff amyl nitrite and not change or wash his outfit. The film was filmed entirely in Los Angeles and mostly in the studio. Russell removed 13 mins of footage [see bottom of review] before release, and shot some scenes with different takes to please the MPAA, but the MPAA still had a field day with the film, trimming down nearly all the sexual material including dialogue [apparently the words “sweetdick” and even “cock” were deemed offensive] and shots of erotic pictures which are sometimes cut it to scenes. Most of the China/Bobby sex scene was gone and China’s sadistic encounter with a cop totally removed. For some reason, New World insisted that two scenes between Bobby and his wife Amy went too, possibly because they made her very unsympathetic. In the UK, the BBFC treated Crimes Of Passion comparatively lightly, only removing 24 seconds of sexual material, notably shots from the cop scene and an earlier enacted rape. Despite all the fuss, the film got a fairly limited US release and was not a hit though, unsurprisingly, it was better received in Europe.
I couldn’t help but chuckle at the film’s opening with the extremely frank dialogue, which include a dirty joke about Adam and Eve, heard over the opening credits, because I could imagine the staid censors of 1984 getting wound up almost immediately without having even seen a single image. We’re first introduced to China Blue dressed up as Miss Liberty [the filmmakers couldn’t use Miss America] replete with medal and crown, sitting on a gynaecologists chair with a client performing cunnilungus on her. After their fun, he seems to actually really like her and wants to see her again, but she’s having none of it. Already, it’s obvious that she’s afraid of real intimacy. Nearby where all this is taking place is a peepshow performer dancing nude, the camera moving around the peepholes showing the watchers [one of whom is really enjoying himself] until it comes to Reverend Shaye, sniffing amyl nitrate and looking like he’s about to foam at the mouth. He sees China and says he wants to save her, but is clearly fighting his attraction to her and the sordid world he walks around in. And then there’s the nominal ‘hero’, who’s bit of a dull sort compared to the other two, but who functions nicely as a kind of ‘everyman’. Bobby Grady is stuck in a sexless, indeed loveless, marriage and you know that, as soon as her sees China, he’s going to want her.
These three main characters dance around each other throughout the film, usually trying to get one of the others to properly reveal themselves and take off their ‘mask’. It’s perhaps a weakness of the script that Amy is so unlikeable [even with the removed scenes] and therefore we don’t dislike Bobby for quickly cheating on her with China, but despite the numerous and often kinky sex scenes involving China and various clients, and the often tongue in cheek approach, there is a kind of sweetness to the Bobby and China relationship and we want this odd couple to work things out. The main point, of course, is that Bobby wants her to respond to him as Joanna, not China, and be brave enough to develop some genuine feelings for a man rather than all this fakery she indulges in where she’s in control. Perhaps even more interesting though, are the scenes with China and Reverend Shaye, the latter being undoubtedly a perverted hypocrite but also someone who does seem to know China very well even as he’s involved in a terrible internal struggle between his faith and basic human sexuality. These moments superbly balance uncomfortable tension, black comedy and just a bit of truth, as well as some really laugh out loud moments [as long as you’re the broadminded sort] such as when it’s revealed what the Reverend has in his bag [put it this way; it’s things you hardly ever see in the movies].
Even though much is implied, this is still, in its full version, an astonishingly raunchy movie for 1984, be it Bobby and China re-enacting pictures from a Japanese book on sex in silhouette, or the stiletto on China’s shoe cutting into her cop trick’s leg as she has sex with him, doing something very interesting with a truncheon at the same time. By comparison, a section where China is paid to visit a wife’s dying husband is extremely sad. Most of the scenes involving China are wonderfully shot by cinematographer Dick Bush with lots of pink, red and blue, and the neon-dominated look seems to have influenced many later films including Only God Forgives [I’ll also be surprised if David Lynch hadn’t seen this prior to making Blue Velvet]. Flickering light is also put to excellent use, like in Perkins’s first close-up. The only thing that rather lets the side down is that Russell doesn’t seem bothered about ramping up the thriller aspects, and the climax is rather thrown away, though his film is so much fun anyway that it doesn’t matter too much. While not as insane as some of his other work, there are still moments of madness like a peculiar advertisement on TV for what seems like wedding cutlery where newlyweds turn into skeletons which works as a comment on the state of Bobby’s marriage. And there really is a fair bit of food for thought. While it has Russell’s usual attacks on religion [and yes, there’s a scene with a nun] and reinforces the idea that sex without love is unfulfilling, it also dares to say [no wonder the American censors got so hot under the collar] that repressing your sexuality could be a bad thing, that fantasies are no match for genuine intimate connection, and, perhaps even more importantly, reminds us that that too many of us settle for something we don’t really want, and that it can actually be productive to be confused in life, that it’s fine to admit to yourself that you don’t know what you want, to be vulnerable, and even to hurt.
Kathleen Turner’s performance may be one of 1984’s best. She’s clearly relishing taking on such a difficult role and going down paths which many wouldn’t want to go down, but is also highly convincing and incorporates lots of clever detail, be it the different accents she puts on for each of the times China dresses up, or the quite subtle, not overdone looks of dissatisfaction and even – you can just about tell – disgust after some of her antics. Perkins is in full-on psycho mode and even appears in drag, but nobody does it like him and he’s both hilarious and frightening at the same time. John Laughlin is a tad bland, but he does pull off very well some of the longer dialogue scenes, especially a lengthy conversation between Bobby and Joanna in bed, a great scene in itself with the camera remaining still for around six minutes but the reflections of their curtains blowing giving the scene an interesting ambiance, while the couple have a really realistic chat about sex and marriage of the kind you don’t see in a film like this. Annie Potts does what she can as the dislikeable Amy. Now I’m undecided on Rick Wakeman’s extremely loud and insistent score. The main theme, borrowed from Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony [as are a couple of others], is adapted into an amazing variety of different guises, but I was sick of hearing it after a while, and the less said about the song version the better. The score’s cheesiness does work for the material though. Overall Crimes Of Passion is a total blast of a film, exuding style and energy but with quite a lot to say and actually very insightful. It’s one of mad Ken’s most sheerly entertaining pictures as well as, in it’s own way, one of his most poignant.
Arrow Video bring Crimes Of Passion to Blu-ray with a very strong transfer which really makes the most of the neon look of more than half of the film. I don’t remember the film looking nearly as great when I used to watch it. The film can be watched in its Unrated Version, which contains all the censored footage, or a Director’s Cut, which also puts back in the two Bobby/Amy scenes which were cut prior to release. The Director’s Cut is the version I watched and the extra material, while of slightly less audio and visual quality to the rest, added some extra balance to the story in my view. Arrow incorporate the special features from the old Region 1 laserdisc release, which include the 18 mina of footage Russell removed. It’s all good stuff, be it Bobby and Joanna [Laughlin and Turner are excellent here] talking after sex or Joanna and Amy coming face to face, though would have undoubtedly slowed the film down. The commentary by Russell and Sandler, which I decided to hear all of, is excellent for its first half; informative, amusing and frank. Then suddenly Sandler tells us that Russell has left to catch a plane and has to do the rest on his own! He’s okay solo but I sorely missed Russell. To these old features Arrow have added a few more bits and pieces, and I’m about half way through the Rick Wakeham interview which is quite extensive and tells us some great stories about Russell, though the advertised footage of Russell attending a showing of the film is missing in action. A quick look at some discussion forums reveals that it’s probably because the quality was poor. In any case, this is another excellent package from Arrow for a true cult classic.
* Brand new 2K restoration of the film from original film materials
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations of the director’s cut and unrated versions of the film
*Optional subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Audio commentary with director Ken Russell and producer-screenwriter Barry Sandler
*Seven deleted/extended scenes with optional commentary by Sandler
*New interview with Barry Sandler
*New interview with Rick Wakeman
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil
*Illustrated booklet containing new writing by Ken Russell’s biographer, Paul Sutton, correspondence between Russell and Kathleen Turner, and an on-set interview with Russell