By Ben Bussey
The late, great British auteur Ken Russell was never one for doing things by halves. As such, when he crossed the pond to give Hollywood a whirl in the early 1980s, no way was he about to leave his abrasive, in your face attitude behind. Russell’s time in the US was brief and by all accounts troubled, but the two films he made in that time – 1980’s Altered States, and the film in question here, 1984’s Crimes of Passion – stand up today among the filmmaker’s most revered and interesting work, deeply deserving of their enduring cult status.
Now, given that Crimes of Passion stars one of the most renowned blonde bombshells of the era, and deals with sexual subject matter, it’s not too hard to think of it as a forebear for the erotic thrillers Hollywood would produce in years to come: 9½ Weeks, Basic Instinct and so forth. This, however, is to overlook one key element: Russell. This is not a filmmaker who would ever be content to just present his audiences with something so safe as a simple turn-on. Indeed, Crimes of Passion is one of those movies for which the term ‘erotic’ seems inappropriate, and/or inadequate; this is a film which gets neck-deep in sleaze, as interested in the grotesque as the glamorous. Sex is the first thing on just about everyone’s mind, but as we all know, not everyone reacts to those impulses the same way: some embrace them, some repress them, some are left guilt-ridden balls of neuroses because of them, and others barely feel them at all. Crimes of Passion sets out to explore this territory in a very provocative manner, and the result is a film which is visceral, arresting, alarming, and amusing, and most definitely isn’t to all tastes.
John Laughlin is Bobby Grady, a struggling small businessman specialising in home security and surveillance. Not only is he not doing so well financially, his home life in general isn’t in the best place, his relationship with his wife Amy (Annie Potts) growing ever more tense, and devoid of physical intimacy. Anxious for extra cash, Grady accepts a private investigation job from a clothing manufacturer who suspects his new designer Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner) of selling designs to competitors. However, on following her, Grady finds she’s wholly innocent of the charge, but has an altogether bigger secret: by night she’s a hooker, going by the name China Blue, donning a platinum blonde wig and whatever costumes might suit the fetishes of her john. Throwing herself into her work with vigour, Joanna becomes whatever they want her to be; but one particular regular, a psychotic street preacher (Anthony Perkins), develops a fixation on China Blue which threatens to become lethal.
I realise I’ve credited Ken Russell for pretty much all the film’s balls-out brashness thus far, but credit is of course also due to screenwriter Barry Sandler who dreamed up the whole thing. Given the film arrived around the time the ‘high concept’ approach was taking off in Hollywood, Crimes of Passion is not only bold in its subject matter and content, but also in terms of structure. While there is a clear linear narrative, the film overall is less interested in this than in presenting a series of character-based vignettes. For the bulk of the first act we’re presented with two entirely distinct worlds: the gaudy, neon-lit, make-up and body fluid-splattered domain of China Blue, and the white picket-fenced, beer and barbecue suburbia of the Gradys. But in both arenas, sexual frustration runs riot, the Gradys not getting nearly enough whilst China Blue overdoses nightly, clearly as desperate to fulfill a need as any of her clients. When these worlds finally collide, can real contentment be found somewhere between the two extremes?
There’s no question that the real heart of the film, and the root of its cult status – and, not for nothing, its past issues with the censors – are the China Blue sequences. There are many moments which, at face value, would seem to be all about shock value whilst doing almost nothing to advance the plot, but without which the film would no doubt feel empty and pedestrian: the ‘Miss Liberty’ intro, a faux-rape sequence, a limo backseat threesome, a brief encounter with a terminally ill senior citizen; and most notoriously the sadomasochistic cop sex scene, shot and edited in a delirious frenzy which recalls Russell’s most infamous sequence, the censored ‘rape of Christ’ from The Devils.
Most rewarding, however, are the scenes between Turner and Anthony Perkins. The Psycho actor was absolutely inspired casting as the (bogus?) Reverend Peter Shayne, and reportedly brought a great deal of himself to the part; as Sandler discusses in the extras, the role had originally been written as a bogus psychiatrist, but was amended at Perkins’ suggestion – and as Russell’s feelings about religious zealots were never a great secret, the director clearly relishes these moments. These dialogue-heavy scenes are handling beautifully, piled high with innuendo and classical references in a manner that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Russ Meyer movie, but with a heavy sense of underlying menace that takes the film into real horror territory at times.
All this being the case, it’s no accident that the Grady sequences feel a bit humdrum by comparison; but even so, there’s no denying these scenes prove a lot harder to digest. John Laughlin is well cast as a simple salt-of-the-earth blue collar guy, but he’s such an average Joe that, while it’s easy to see why he’d be drawn to Turner, it’s trickier to believe she’d be drawn to him. But the real casualty is Annie Potts. Okay, so we’re left under no illusions that husband and wife have grown apart, but Amy is presented as 100% unsympathetic: prudish, frigid, emasculating, demanding, dismissive, joyless. Their relationship is presented in such an imbalanced way that once Grady and China Blue come together (know what I mean nudge nudge), the whole thing smacks of mid-life crisis heterosexual male wish fulfillment; perhaps ironic, given screenwriter Sandler is gay.
Even so, Crimes of Passion is a fascinating and engrossing piece of work; a must-have for existing devotees of Russell, and a fine entry point for anyone hitherto unfamiliar with the director’s work. As ever, Arrow Video have done a fine job on the disc. We’ve got two cuts of the film; the original theatrical cut presented by Russell in its uncensored form, and a slightly extended director’s cut (as ever in these cases, these are moments which add a little more context, but don’t significantly change or improve the film overall). We also have the aforementioned interview with Barry Sandler, plus an equally in-depth discussion with Rick Wakeman, whose brash synth-driven score is a vital element to the film’s none more out-there, none more 80s vibe. We also have the full version of the music video featured in the film, the unforgettably screechy It’s A Lovely Life. Interestingly, Wakeman notes in his interview that the song had been recorded in a key that was too high for vocalist Maggie Bell, and with more time at their disposal they might have re-recorded it; but it’s hard to imagine the song serving the film quite so well were it not as ear-piercingly shrill and melodramatic. Once again, this is a Ken Russell film; understatement isn’t an option.
Crimes of Passion is out now on dual format DVD and Blu-ray, from Arrow Video.