Saturday, November 11, 2017

Last Embrace

Jonathan Demme (MELVIN AND HOWARD) directed this Niagara Falls-set thriller in the Hitchcock mold. It even has a chase up a bell tower like VERTIGO. Roy Scheider (JAWS) stars, and he is terrific, but his co-star Janet Margolin (TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN) is even better in a difficult role well-written by David Shaber (THE WARRIORS). Margolin died of cancer in 1993 — she was only 50 — and was one of many actresses of her generation who were talented, pretty, offbeat, and never received their rightful due.

Scheider plays an American spy who suffered a breakdown after the murder of his wife and spent three months in a sanitarium. He grows ever more suspicious and paranoid, first when his employers refuse to assign him a new mission, later when he receives a note written in Hebrew signed by the “Avenger of Blood.” He thinks the government may be trying to kill him, and maybe it is. Shaber’s plot, based on a Murray Teigh Bloom novel, is complex in tried-and-true spy-movie fashion, and many characters are not whom they seem. Margolin, a graduate student who moved into Scheider’s apartment while he was away, could be one of them.

Intended as an homage to thrillers of the 1940s, LAST EMBRACE is at least as interested in the romance between Scheider and Margolin as it is the spy plot, and despite a significant age difference, the actors are believable. Charles Napier, who usually only had great roles in Russ Meyer (SUPERVIXENS) and Demme (HANDLE WITH CARE) pictures, makes a strong impression as Scheider’s brother-in-law and would-be assassin. Other wonderful character actors — John Glover (52 PICK-UP), Mandy Patinkin (THE PRINCESS BRIDE), Joe Spinell (TAXI DRIVER), Christopher Walken (THE DEER HUNTER), David Margulies (GHOSTBUSTERS) — contribute to Demme’s mysterious vibe.

If you get tired of keeping track of the plot’s many puzzle pieces, enjoy the visuals by Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (PHILADELPHIA), who keeps the camera moving almost constantly. Napier’s tailing of Scheider in Central Park and later in a cemetery are directed with visual wit, and an elegiac shot of Scheider slumped on a bench at sunset with the New York City skyline in the background says more than one thousand words. And let’s not forget the tense finale with what Vincent Canby called “yellow penguins.” Miklos Rozsa, who scored SPELLBOUND for Hitchcock, does the same here for Demme in the great tradition of Bernard Herrmann.

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