(Ivan Passer, 1981)
One of the great opening credit sequences sets the tone; a long fade from dark to a black & white slow motion shot of a parade approaching on a sunlit street. Ghostly mariachi band music muffled on the soundtrack and then Jack Nitzsche's eerie, haunting score oozes up: a disturbing mix of feedback, Glass harp, zither and electric strings picking out a melody of ghostly beauty. The image blooms into colour, a dancing girl at the head of the parade, her hair strikingly blonde in the sunlight.
Made at the beginning of the 1980s yet a true product of the 1970s, Passer's adaptation of Newton Thornburg's fine novel is a California Noir, downbeat and brokenhearted from start to finish. The plot has the simplicity of great genre storytelling: a handsome beach bum witnesses a man stuff a body into a dumpster one stormy night. When he realises it was the local millionaire business mogul, his crippled Vietnam veteran buddy refuses to let it go and they embark on a quest for some sort of justice. That synopsis sounds drab, but the glory of the film is in fact not the plot. The characters instead take precedence, and the twisted eternal triangle at the centre of the tale are unforgettable. Jeff Bridges, looking like the golden god movie star his interesting choices never quite allowed him to become, plays Richard Bone, the slacker-cum-gigolo whose refusal to commit to anything has left him cynical and empty. The only thing he seems to really care about is his friendship with Alex Cutter. Cutter, left with only one each of his eyes, arms and legs by the Vietnam War, is played with extraordinary rage, wit and energy by John Heard, whose career never again approached such heights. Here he makes Cutter hilarious, pitiful and terrifying all at once; lashing out at all around with a tongue sharp as razor wire, he is still a romantic beneath the bruised exterior, as his final play for an idealised justice reveals. The scene where he milks his injury and veteran status for sympathy with a Policeman after drunkenly thrashing a neighbours car is a rare light scene in an otherwise grim piece of work.
Lisa Eichhorn matches the men as Cutter's bitter, lonely alcoholic wife Mo, sharing a couple of devastatingly painful scenes with Bridges.
The plot moves slowly as instead Passer lingers with these people, allowing the discomfort and regret of their entwined lives to sink in. But when the plot does kick in late on, our emotional investment makes it wrenchingly powerful.
Passer's direction is inconsistent; often perfectly judged, he sometimes lapses into lazy tv establishing shots which seem out of place with the quality of the script and the performances. The climax, when it comes, also carries a whiff of 80s tv, but its ambiguity and bleak tone give it a haunting quality that Nitzsche's score only underlines.
One of the best Hollywood films of the 1980s.