AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY
RUNNING TIME: 102 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Harry Hannan works for a shadowy organisation specialising in assassinations. When he foolishly brings his wife Dorothy along to his latest job in El Paso, a shootout results in her death and Harry’s subsequent breakdown. Several months later, he tries to go back to work but his employers don’t have an assignment for him and, after someone tries to push him in front of a moving train, he thinks that they may want to get rid of him. Returning home, he finds that a student called Ellie Fabian has moved into his apartment, and also that he’s received a strange note, written in Aramaic, which seems to be some sort of death threat….
One of those films that [outside of a Spanish disc with un-removable Spanish subtitles] never got a DVD release [meaning that I had to stick with my pan and scan video recording taped off the TV with adverts] but has now had not just one but two differing Blu-ray releases both side of the pond, Last Embrace is a tense and atmospheric thriller which is undeniably something of a Hitchcock pastiche, and is full of references to the work of the Master Of Suspense, but works very well in its own right. Even without knowing any background about the film, it’s obvious that its script, which fails to really tie together the two parts of the storyline and leaves some things a bit vague, needed some work, but the tale is still intriguing, the film quickly exerts a strong paranoid atmosphere and then never lets go, it’s very well shot throughout – director Jonathan Demme seeming to relish the chance to experiment more than normal – and it probably uses Roy Scheider [whose character isn’t dissimilar to the one he played in Marathon Man] better than any other films except for Jaws and All That Jazz. It’s no neglected classic, but is a quite compelling and satisfying 102 minutes of entertainment, though the fact that it seemed even better than I remembered it may be that I’d never even seen it in widescreen until my viewing of the Region ‘B’ Blu-ray the other day.
Demme remains best known for The Silence Of The Lambs and Philadelphia, but has mostly seemed content to make more ‘below the radar’ [though usually interesting] projects since. Last Embrace is a real oddity in his career, sandwiched between his cheapies for exploitation king Roger Corman and his early, very quirky and blackly comic Hollywood films like Something Wild. United Artists bought the rights to Murray Teigh Bloom’s 1977 novel The 13th Man after several other studios had passed. Demme wantecd Teri Garr as the female lead, but Scheider didn’t want to work with her. Scheider himself was in the middle of a very busy period and was only available for a short amount of time. This meant that the film was shot before screenwriter David Shaber and Demme had completed work on the script to their satisfaction, while some scenes that were scripted weren’t filmed due to the very tight production schedule. The film failed at the box office and wasn’t even released theatrically in the UK due to, apparently, co-star Janet Margolin not being a big enough box office draw. Scheider starred in a surprisingly similar, though slightly inferior, Hitchcock-influenced picture three years later, Still Of The Night, which did get a decent release [well, his co-star in that one was Meryl Streep].
The opening scene, set in the El Paso bar where Harry’s wife dies during a shootout, uses very unconventional editing and filming techniques to give it a dreamlike quality, and cause it to remain in the mind. The camera repeatedly dollies into faces and dissolves are used to cut shots together, while the gunplay is filmed in slow motion. We then re-encounter Harry a few months later and ready to go back out in the big wide world after some time spent in a sanatorium, and straight away something doesn’t seem right when he’s almost pushed off a railway platform – or did he just stumble? He wants to get right back to work, but the mysterious organisation that he supposedly works for doesn’t seem to have any use for him. They always sublet his apartment while he’s away on missions, but this time the lodger is still there and was told that Harry would be away indefinitely. A man, usually blurry and indistinct, keeps following him around, he eventually turning out to be a co-worker who was also Dorothy’s brother and who blames Harry for her death. He almost mistakenly swallows cyanide. And then there’s the small matter of the weird note, a death curse written in an ancient language, and a note which, it is discovered, others have received, and these others have all wound up dead. While some details aren’t very clear, which in a way works for the film because, if you’re into offbeat interpretations [the whole film after the opening scene could almost be interpreted as the nightmare or the hallucination of a dying man who just can’t stop losing the people he loves], the first half of Last Embrace works really well indeed; tense, mysterious, but also quite melancholy. Those three elements come together best in a cemetery scene when Harry is visiting his wife’s grave while being pursued.
Then things slip just a little. The romantic subplot doesn’t seem too convincing, and, despite the scene having a terrifically suspenseful build-up in the North By Northwest manner, a major set piece in a bell tower doesn’t entirely come off because the bad guy, who has come to kill Harry, seems to set himself up in a really awkward position to slay his quarry [music was originally composed for this scene as well as another, but the lack of scoring does probably work in its favour]. Then….and this is where I’m going to be infuriatingly vague because Last Embrace is definitely one of those films that you should watch for the first time not knowing many of the plot details, so I’m not going to give much away….but this is when the film pulls a ‘Vertigo’ [probably the Hitchcock film that Last Embrace is most inspired by], and gives us the answer to its mystery, though many of the details don’t become apparent for quite a few scenes later. Knowing the villain’s point of view does make things interesting as we’re not really sure who to root for in the big climactic chase around Niagara Falls, while the background story of Jewish immigrants in New York, child prostitution and white slavery masterminded by religious groups and camouflaged by socially concerned organisations, is both interesting and properly upsetting, but there’s one big problem here. All this stuff about Harry’s employers being after him is totally left hanging and not concluded in any way whatsoever, which leaves the viewer coming away from the film somewhat unsatisfied even though they’ve probably had a good time watching it.
The Hitchcock fan can have fun spotting homages to Dial M For Murder [scissors], Psycho [shower], Saboteur [final scene] and others, including of course alot of Vertigo. A clever bit when somebody temporarily eludes a pursuer by putting on a yellow raincoat and going into an area where everyone else also has a yellow raincoat is actually borrowed from a similar scene in Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. Demme is not mechanical or rigid in his use of Hitchcock devices and themes, the narrative and style of Last Embrace engaging one on its own terms. The borrowings don’t tend to leap out at you and they do feel like they belong organically to the film, while the movie, one seduction and bath killing aside, mostly tends to avoid Brian De Palma-style sensationalism, though Demme and his cinematographer Tak Fujimoto certainly give us quite a stylish film visually, with lots of lovely slow tracking shots, quick pans towards character’s faces, and handheld [it’s almost hard to imagine, but there was a time when handheld camerawork didn’t mean no attempt to keep a camera steady] close-ups, helping to make the movie feel both expansive and claustrophobic at the same time, which sounds bizarre but you’ll realise what I mean when you watch it. Many scenes are pieced together using camera moves rather than editing. Aurally the film is a treat to with one of the last scores from the legendary Miklos Rozsa, who scores the film just as he would have done in the 1940’s. It veers adeptly from moody romanticism to eeriness [though the choir heard in some tracks was added after the score was finished] to full-on excitement, and is always intensely emotive in that great Rozsa-fashion, if extremely similar to his other last few scores.
Aside from two scenes, the entire film is from Harry’s point of view and really needed a strong actor to carry it off. Thankfully Scheider is fine throughout, superbly edgy – you really feel that he can lose it at any moment – yet still transmitting strength and able to carry off the odd lighter moment in the style of Cary Grant, though it’s rather amusing that, considering his line of work, he wears the same conspicuous suit throughout that never seems dirty or crumpled. Last Embrace also gives his love interest Janet Margolin an unusually meaty part despite their scenes tending to veer wildly from being witty and sharp to rather rushed and unconvincing, and the couple perhaps needing a few scenes together. The actress pulls off the many facets of a part which could have come across as just daft. Amongst a cast made up largely of fine New York character actors, Sam Levene stands out as a rabbi who helps Hary uncover the truth, while Christopher Walken has a very small menacing early role as Harry’s employer. He already has his offbeat style of acting and screen persona well established. Look at the way he widens his eyes in his first scene – it’ll cause you to shudder. Demme thinks that if he and Shaber had been able to finish the script, then they would have had really had something. I think he’s right, but the movie gets nicely by in the form that it’s in; gripping, yet moody and constantly seeming to question. The film ends with so many darn questions, even regarding its final moments [which nicely mirror the opening moments] but isn’t life often like that?