Flamboyant artist Ken Russell was eventually sidelined for what the industry calls ‘excess,’ but he was a genuine artist, as indicated by this, his last American film. Absolutely beyond the pale in terms of polite viewing, it’s by turns awkward and insightful, profane… and more profane.
Crimes of Passion
Blu-ray + DVD
Arrow Video (UK)
1984 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 112, 107 min. / Street Date July 12, 2016 / Available from Amazon UK 39.95
Starring Kathleen Turner, Anthony Perkins, Annie Potts, Bruce Davidson, John Laughlin.
Cinematography Dick Bush
China Blue’s dress Ruth Myers
Original Music Rick Wakeman
Written and Produced by Barry Sandler
Directed by Ken Russell
What separates exploitation trash from progressive film art? They say it’s an artist’s vision, and Ken Russell certainly has plenty of that. I can admire Russell’s house brand of outrageousness but I also find much of his work just too fussy, too indulgent. He’s excellent when trying to make other peoples’ ideas work on film, especially in genre work: I find his take on Harry Palmer in Billion Dollar Brain to be delightful, and I’m also a big fan of the movie nobody seems to like, Altered States. Russell creates big emotions on film. He began with free-form documentaries about his favorite composers and seems to think in terms of musical movements as much as in dramatic development. Compared to much of his flamboyant later work Russell’s Women in Love has a realistic surface yet suggests a full spectrum of erotic fantasy.
The director’s ill-fated foray into American filmmaking ended with 1984’s Crimes of Passion, a regular encyclopedia of film content guaranteed to give conservatives apoplexy. It has two of the most daring performances I’ve seen, by actors that must have delighted in taking risks. The story is obvious, the stylized smut talk is often painful to the ear, but once again that old devil honesty raises his head — actors Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins are so good, we’re compelled to see the movie through.
Crimes of Passion is a hooker fantasy with ambitions to say something relevant about sex relationships. As in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, quiet, work-oriented fashion designer Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner) leads a double life as the notorious streetwalker China Blue, providing sex fantasies for varous clients. Hired by Joanna’s employer, who wrongly suspects her of selling the firm’s designs, electronics retailer Bobby Grady (John Laughlin) follows Crane and discovers her secret identity. Grady is separating from his wife Amy (Annie Potts) over sexual issues. He tries to connect with Joanna on a human basis, as each is actually searching for true and compassionate human companionship. Meanwhile, Joanna/China Blue has become the obsession of a deranged street preacher, the Reverend Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins), who believes that he and she are bound together in a bizarre sex / death pact.
Ken Russell excessive? Let’s say that he chooses subjects that allow him to color outside the lines. Ordinary reviewers in 1984 didn’t know how to review a movie with big stars but that plays in a wholly pornographic context. Turner and Perkins volley dialogue that would fit well in a Hustler joke session, and the variety of sex acts portrayed are as graphic as an R rating can get — in spirit, this is an NC-17 picture. Viewers that don’t know why China Blue rinses her mouth with J&B Scotch after oral sex are going to be lost. I myself am not sure if the movie goes beyond the cheap thrill level — see Kathleen Turner talk dirty! — to reveal anything particularly profound about human relationships.
The remarkable Ms. Turner is a genuine actress-adventuress; for daring she’s topped only by Nicolas Roeg’s Theresa Russell. Good roles for actresses are rare for any star, and China Blue is certainly out-there, a hearty antidote for all the softcore-hardcore Emmanuelles of the period. Anthony Perkins’ sex-mad preacher is a far less interesting character invented to give the picture a dangerous context. It’s amusing to compare the China Blue – Rev. Shayne conflict with another film I’m reviewing this week, Miss Sadie Thompson. Sort of a proto-Cronenberg creation that borrows too heavily from Psycho, Shayne pursues a woman named Crane while inventing convoluted reasons why their fates are bound together. The character would be a bore if it were not for Perkins’ absolutely amazing performance — he’s do deep into the role that we fear for his sanity. Perkins cultivates every word in Barry Sandler’s ornately perverse screenplay, making the coarsest lines sound like poetry. If only Shayne weren’t such a mechanical story creation.
Like David Lynch and Blue Velvet, Crimes of Passion wants to contrast American normality with a suppressed underworld of sexual outlawry. But the script’s attempt to present ordinary American characters falls flat. Annie Potts’ unhappy housewife seems victimized by the insistence that every human interaction be sexualized. Potts’ convincing Amy is also not helped by John Laughlin’s weak Bobby Grady; Ms. Potts can’t keep their scenes from looking like unrehearsed one-acts. Only with Kathleen Turner does Bobby seem genuine, and even then the thesis-driven story events keep us from believing what we see. Crimes of Passion is frequently portrayed as a critique of American hypocrisy, but I have to say that I recognize very little here. Bobby Grady and his pal Donny Hopper (Bruce Davison) are supposed to be nice people, but the sex obesessed humor they indulge in just seems false, an exaggeration to bolster the writer’s assertion that normal relationships are always screwed up. A close-friends get-together? I’ll do my Human Penis act! When poor Amy tries to show she’s flexible by telling a dirty joke, it’s pathetic. Plenty of Brit directors made stunningly intuitive movies about America and Americans. The stylized sex fantasy seen here is arresting, until we’re asked to believe it.
We do accept the crazy, artificial storyline just enough to overlook the physical impossibility of Joanna’s double life — her intense workday followed by an equally intense night of hooking really fits nowhere except in a porn fantasy. When Crimes of Passion takes a third-act turn to bring the outrageous Joanna/China Blue character back to human normalcy, the show crumbles. The scene where China Blue is picked up by a housewife to service her dying husband is well acted and quite touching, yet seems 100% out of place; Joanna can’t do what she does with her Johns and then become the compassionate Mother Teresa of hookers. Arrow’s deleted scene gallery includes several scenes that show the development of Joanna and Bobby’s ‘healthy’ relationship; it’s better that they were left out because it all seems an entirely unlikely fantasy. Anything can happen, but Crimes doesn’t convince me that Bobby has left his wife in search of a more fulfilling relationship. When Crimes of Passion is immersed in its deliriously stylized sex fantasy, Ken Russell can make the myths work. When we’re asked to believe that we’re hitting upon revelations about the human condition, I feel like laughing out loud. This show is no place to learn anything about the relationship between fantasy and reality in human relations.
Otherwise Mr. Russell fares well. He confronts his extreme content head-on, a quality that has always separated him from the pretenders. His cutaways to formal erotic art and classical paintings are quite well done, at least on the visual level. But there are still lame ideas flying at us, like a music video that comments on the sad Grady marriage.
What work best are the pulp-porn China Blue and Reverend Shayne characters, odd souls lost in the world of sleaze that Russell finds so attractive. Turner’s blue dress and blonde wig is a dynamite combination that makes her look like a comic book character. And as I said up top, Anthony Perkins’ mad bundle of perversity is inspired. We’re not even bothered that the role is yet another gender-switching take on Perkins’ Norman Bates.
I’ve seen my share of strange ‘scenes’ and people that lead lives far different than my own…. and I still don’t buy the idea that Crimes of Passion has anything particularly relevant to say about sex and human relationships. As a hyperbolic, oversexed freak show, it makes the grade.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray + DVD of Crimes of Passion is a great presentation of Ken Russell’s bona fide cult attraction. Kathleen Turner is tops in some of my favorite movies — Body Heat, The Accidental Tourist and it’s really something to see her play China Blue. As explained in the disc extras, Russell prepared a 107-minute Unrated cut for release. It was heavily cut by distributors both here and in England, and shortened down to 100 minutes. For home video Russell retailiated with a stronger 112-minute cut, which made the title a hot seller/renter back in 1985. The two longer cuts are here, with the 112-minute Director’s cut finished by sourcing the additional sequences from an older videotape master. One must pay close attention to notice the shift in quality for these passages. The image overall is excellent, with Dick Bush’s harsh colored lights figuring in most every night scene not set in the Grady household.
Arrow’s attractive packaging contains a Blu-ray and a DVD, each with two versions of the film. The disc also offers some well produced extras. The late Ken Russell and Barry Sandler share an audio commentary, from when I don’t know. Russell is an enthusiastic booster of his work and quite entertaining. Sandler has his own new interview extra in which he tells the story of breaking in as a UCLA student by taking a script directly to Raquel Welch’s house. He also covers his later adventures in screenwriting and the genesis of Crimes of Passion. Music fans will like the half-hour interview with Rick Wakeman, a rock celebrity from way back. His stories of Russell are amusing. His first credit for music on a Russell show appears to be Lisztomania from 1975.
The deleted scenes add up to about 21 minutes. Barry Sandler comments on why they were removed. That menu choice also contains a gallery of production documents for the movie. “It’s a Lovely Life” is a music video built around a Wakeman rock tune, partly lifted from the rock video seen in the movie. The presentation finishes with a trailer. Arrow’s insert booklet contains an essay plus correspondence from Russell to Turner, asking her to help him make another erotic film a big success.
Crimes of Passion
Blu-ray + DVD rates:
Movie: Different which can be Good
Supplements: see above.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray and one DVD disc in Keep case
Reviewed: July 25, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson