Wild Things (1998)

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Teenage sexpot Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards) is hot for teacher Sam (Matt Dillon), a former lover of her wealthy widowed mother Sandra (Theresa Russell) but he’s not having any. Well, not with her. So she cries Rape and he gets caught up in a very dense web involving loser Suzie (Neve Campbell) who also calls Rape. She was busted for drugs the previous year by Detective Duquette (Kevin Bacon) and suffered 6 months in the clink. When personal injury shyster lawyer Ken (Bill Murray) defends Sam the plot gets as convoluted and murky as a Florida swamp.  The girls admit they made it up because Sam didn’t protect Suzie from prison. Sam celebrates his eventual defamation winnings – by having sex with both girls. They were scamming Sandra for money. And that’s just the start of it. Cross, double cross, murder and betrayal are at the centre of a complex story that opens out like a neverending Russian nesting doll. Twisty Twister McTwisted isn’t in it! Sexy, funny, outrageous and brilliant neo noir. Written by Stephen Peters and directed by John (Henry:  Portrait of a Serial Killer) McNaughton, with a notable score by George Clinton. Super steamy.

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The Misfits (1961)

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What an air of melancholy hangs over this elegy to the western. Arthur Miller had written a story about cowboys killing mustangs for dog meat and it evolved into a screenplay, rewritten many times, for director John Huston. The character of divorcee Roslyn sitting out the legally required time in Reno was based on his wife Marilyn Monroe and the elaboration is strikingly different from the Monroe who inspired Pola for writer Nunnally Johnson in How to Marry a Millionaire. She befriends Thelma Ritter and they hang out with a couple of old cowboys, Clark Gable and Eli Wallach and Roslyn doesn’t realise they round up horses to kill them. The troubled set was not aided by the breakdown of the Miller-Monroe marriage, her on-set overdose, the deadening heat and the behind the scenes attempts to turn Monroe’s character into a prostitute at the behest of Eli Wallach, her so-called friend – Huston and Miller were into it, Gable refused to let it happen. He was tremendously loyal to his co-star and she regarded him as a father figure. He wanted this to be his swansong before his retirement from the business and said it was the best film he’d ever been in. He was only fifty-nine but looks decades older. He is utterly convincing as the jaded alcoholic taking advantage of wounded older women. He insisted on doing his own stunts but a weak heart, a heavy smoking and drinking habit, and delays his wife said Monroe caused, meant he died right after filming ended and before the birth of his only son. Montgomery Clift’s problems were evident to all involved and he would only last a handful more years himself. This was Monroe’s last credit and it remains an epitaph not just to her and her abilities – she is tenacious and febrile as Roslyn – but to an era of stardom, a genre and to Old Hollywood. Full of hopelessness, death, gallows humour and potential greatness, but Miller was not the world’s best screenwriter and failed to capitalise on the story’s promise.  He even gives the last scene to Gable which tells you all you need to know about his attitude to his wife – he wrote it for her. Nonetheless, this remains a must-see.

Impulse (1990)

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Two of my three favourite actresses (Natalie Wood, Romy Schneider) died aged 43 within 6 months of each other so I was glad Theresa Russell, the third in that triumvirate, made it through 2000 without a scratch. Most of her career to date is renowned for her collaborations with (now ex-) husband Nicolas Roeg, but she also carved out a more mainstream body of work in Hollywood, where she started aged just 17 in The Last Tycoon. Made between Physical Evidence and Whore, she’s Lottie, an undercover vice cop whose streetwalking role leads her into further trouble after a shooting episode and an issue of harassment involving her colleague George Dzundza – which means regular visits to a therapist. She’s falling for DA Jeff Fahey but while undercover trying to entrap a drug smuggler goes to the home of a mob boss who gets shot. She goes from investigator to suspect. Has she been set up? What a rarity this was in 1990 – a film about a woman cop, made by a woman (weirdly, Blue Steel was another one that year). The story by John DeMarco was turned into a screenplay with the action adventure specialist Leigh Chapman (one of those terrific women we hear so little of) and was the second outing as director by Sondra Locke whose longterm relationship with Clint Eastwood hit the skids during production. (Fahey and Dzundza also featured that year in Eastwood’s White Hunter Black Heart, released 6 months later). She and producer Albert S. Ruddy rewrote part of the script. Los Angeles is seen by night and shot by Dean Semler as a neo-noir, amplified in the piano-based score by Michel Colombier. There is notable costume design by Deborah Hopper who has since become Eastwood’s go-to collaborator.  It was practically buried by Warner Bros in their sleazy collusion with Eastwood to destroy Locke’s career. There were two resulting lawsuits  which became mandatory reading for students. You can learn more about that if you must in Patrick McGilligan’s biography of Eastwood but you’ll have to take a shower afterwards. Meanwhile, this is a necessary outing for Theresa completionists and never mind the naysayers.

Straight Time (1978)

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This had a convoluted birth. The novel on which it was based was written by Edward Bunker, a career criminal who wrote it in prison on a typewriter provided by producer Hal B. Wallis’ wife, a woman he’d befriended on the outside. Mrs Wallis died in 1962, Wallis didn’t like her old friends, and Bunker wasn’t finally released until 1975 when he began writing in earnest and No Beast So Fierce finally got published two years before he got out. Dustin Hoffman picked it up and intended that it be his directing debut – which it was, for a few weeks, until it all got a bit much and Ulu Grosbard was brought on board. The screenplay was credited to Bunker, Alvin Sargent and Jeffrey Boam but Nancy Dowd and Michael Mann (the same) were also involved in rewrites. Hoffman plays Max, the ex-con who gets major grief from his parole officer but secures  a job courtesy of a sympathetic recruiter (Theresa Russell). However his attempts to go straight start to go awry when he hooks up with old friend Willy (Gary Busey), a junkie … This is a fine 70s movie, with some of the nihilism and the unclear ending you might expect from films of the era. Hoffman makes the most of his role and with Harry Dean Stanton as support this is pretty fantastic from the point of view of performance. It was the incredible Russell’s sophomore movie, after The Last Tycoon. The following year she would be in the classic TV mini-series Blind Ambition;  the year after, the modern masterpiece, Bad Timing. All by the age of 23. Bunker wrote more novels and screenplays and acted a little – for Tarantino. Who else? (He was Mister Blue.)

Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980)

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One of the great modern films. Directed by Nicolas Roeg from a screenplay by Yale Udoff with costumes by Marit Allen. An incredible, mesmeric performance by Theresa Russell at the age of just 22, opposite Art Garfunkel. Vienna looks incredible. Watch. Listen. Learn. I’ve written about it at http://offscreen.com/view/bad-timing-costumes.