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Deep in the Heart aka Handgun

by Glenn Erickson Apr 27, 2024

Ignore the exploitative original posters … this thriller from 1983 is a clear-eyed view of America’s gun problem, expressed, wouldn’t you know it, by an Englishman. Filmmaker Tony Garnett formats his show like a vigilante shocker, but the real subject is a culture gone awry. Karen Young makes a star-caliber debut as a Boston schoolteacher targeted for point-blank sexual terrorism . . . and who discovers that she’s one woman alone against a society that blames the victim. It’s yet another unexpected rediscovery from Fun City Editions.


Deep in the Heart
Blu-ray
Fun City Editions
1983 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 99 min. / Handgun / Street Date April 2, 2024 / Available from Fun City Editions / 39.95
Starring: Karen Young, Clayton Day, Suzie Humphreys, Helena Humann, Ben Jones, Jane Abbott.
Cinematography: Charles Stewart
Production Designer: Lilly Kilvert
Costume Design: Janet Lawler
Film Editor: William Shapter
Original Music: Mike Post
Co-producer David Streit
Written. Produced and Directed by
Tony Garnett

Back in 1966, critic Pauline Kael unleashed a particularly vitriolic review of Arthur Penn and Lillian Hellman’s  The Chase. Most reviewers found the Marlon Brando potboiler to be awkward and overstated, and moved on. Kael deplored its violent depiction of Texas as a hotbed of racism, greed, and political corruption, and declared it a left-wing smear. In this vision of he new, affluent Texas, real men pack guns, blacks can become random targets for white violence, and a lawman who tries to uphold the law will find himself ambushed by vigilantes. The capper of  The Chase is a replay of Ruby’s assassination of Oswald. The message was that America is not the Land of the Free or the Home of the Brave, but a corrupt illusion.

Hollywood made movies to make money. Divisive, thorny issues like racism and sexual inequality weren’t particularly successful at the box office. After the ratings code came in, some disturbing features of the ’70s treated ‘backwoods’ America as a place of horror and outright savagery. But most of the time the status quo for mainstream fare presented social problems in terms of a few bad apples — a corrupt sheriff, a psychotic criminal. The hero will most likely be a gentle, thoughtful yet very masculine guy, who just happens to use violence in his daily life to keep the peace … the Marshall Dillon template.

 

American movies thrived on stories of gun violence, but few really addressed the realities of American gun culture. The issue was eventually relegated almost exclusively to news documentaries. Movies and TV now display more guns than ever, but few have anything to say about the proliferation of gun violence.

Things weren’t that different in 1983 — the English film Handgun, carried here by Warner Bros. as Deep in the Heart, received only a tiny token release. In both countries it was marketed as a vigilante picture, part of the exploitation sub-genre begun by the success of Death Wish and  Taxi Driver. Femme versions that made a mark were Lamont Johnson’s 1976  Lipstick and Abel Ferrara’s 1981  Ms .45.  Those movies were less about female empowerment than the glamorization of violence. Sexy women avenging rape with guns … kinky. *

This one actually is about female empowerment.

Deep in the Heart tells a different story. Fresh-faced schoolteacher Kathleen Sullivan (Karen Young, excellent) has relocated from Massachusetts to Dallas, where she tries to adjust to a somewhat different social culture. High school history lessons stress the glorious official story of the Lone Star State’s creation. The local view is that Texas just sees things more clearly, without a lot of liberal nonsense getting in the way. Kathleen’s colleagues are welcoming. A fellow teacher introduces her to the confident young attorney Larry Keeler (Clayton Day). Larry has good manners and a flattering approach. Kathleen is slightly wary of his tendency to explain things to her, as if his role were to take charge at all times. Larry assures her that she’ll soon adjust to her new life.

The persistent Larry pushes for more dates, putting on pressure to accelerate the relationship. Kathleen is no pushover yet doesn’t want to be rude — which leads to a dinner at Larry’s place that becomes a rape. When she rejects his advances, Larry brandishes a gun from his fancy collection. Assuring her that he won’t hurt her (!) he insists that she undress and follow his instructions for her own good. It’s her problem and he’s simply helping her get free of her her silly feminine hysteria.

 

The rape scene itself is nearly unbearable — matter-of-fact blunt and psychologically brutal. Larry uses brute force and the threat of gun violence, with the horrible pretense of ‘doing Kathleen a favor’ that she will ‘surely thank him for later.’ His selfish cruelty is off the charts; he knows he can get away with this date rape, and blame Kathleen if she makes trouble.

Kathleen goes through the humiliating process of reporting the attack and submitting to a rape test. Due to the absence of hard evidence, the police and a lawyer decide that they can’t help her. There’s nothing to prove that the sex wasn’t consensual, so the default position is that she is another ’emotional female.’  When it looks as if the rape will result in a pregnancy, screenwriter Tony Garnett takes the idea to its logical extreme. Kathleen gets a cold shock when she brings her trouble to a priest. His answer is worse than anything the lawyer tells her: “Well, a child born of this unfortunate circumstance would be a blessed event.”  (para.)

Kathleen then undergoes a radical ‘personal adjustment.’  She joins Larry’s gun club and takes training in firearms. She drops her ‘soft’ appearance, cutting her attractive long hair.  She becomes less tolerant of her colleagues’ condescending remarks; in the classroom she jumps on student misbehavior that she before would have let slide. Kathleen takes an aggressive stance against the idea that ‘men are men, women ought to be sexy and submissive, and guns, history and politics are not open for debate.’

The trap Kathleen sets for Larry is a good one, a righteous payback. Deep in the Heart does indeed evolve into a femme vigilante thriller, but it’s in no way exploitative. The subject is justice and female empowerment, not cheap thrills. No women in lingerie with machine guns here.

O give us the power … to see ourselves as others see us.

What may not be immediately apparent is that the movie was made by an Englishman, primarily for an English audience. Several sequences dwell upon American rituals we take for granted, but in 1975 were novel subjects to U.K. audiences: a high school pep rally, an all-female ‘Foxy Boxing’ exhibition in a men’s club, a county fair with a gun show. It wasn’t just Lillian Hellman who envisioned Texas as a kind of Hell — Elia Kazan & Budd Schulberg’s  A Face in the Crowd also saw something culturally askew in a Texas pep rally — a scene that introduced Lee Remick as a sex-charged teen waving cheerleading pom-poms instead of guns.

 

That’s part of the appeal — some of Deep in the Heart feels like an anthropological study of American madness, like the amusing documentary  L’Amérique insolite (America as Seen by a Frenchman). Tony Garnett doesn’t depict every Texan as seriously flawed (something that even The Chase does).  The pleasant old guy who teaches Kathleen how to shoot hasn’t a mean bone in his body. Apparently Massachsetts has fairly stiff handgun laws. Kathleen is surprised that she can just write a check in a Dallas gun store and walk out with a revolver. The old gent expresses disbelief that anyone would want things to be any other way.

Is it just Overcompensation?

Larry Keeler has his act down. His pals at the law firm are mostly married, which makes him the rogue male who seems to have a new girlfriend with every season. The attorney-chat stays clear of comments about blacks, but is peppered with jokes about homosexuals. Larry’s speech to Kathleen’s class about ‘handguns as a historical tradition’ is very smoothly presented … even as he checks out the underage girls in his audience. We can’t say that the overall critique of this paternalistic feudalism is off the mark. Larry is a narcissistic, predatory menace, and insecure about his masculinity.

Larry’s logic is horrifying — “stop being so troublesome and submit as a woman should. It’s what you want but you just won’t admit it.”  Larry calmly tells Kathleen that she is the problem, that she is the one out of line, that her disobedience is the source of all this unnecessary discomfort. He keeps repeating that he’s not pointing the gun at her so she has nothing to fear … knowing that a defense attorney at a rape trial could spin these particulars to make Kathleen’s accusations look crazy. Larry’s relaxed self-assurance would surely prevail in a courtroom, over Kathleen’s expected emotional ‘instability.’

 

For some it is a crime just to use the phrase ‘Deep in the Heart’ in this critical context.
The performances are outstanding. Clayton Day’s loathsome Larry Keeler is utterly convincing. The actor has a small supporting part in the same year’s  The Day After but is otherwise unknown to us. This was Karen Young’s first film. She proceeded to projects with Andrei Konchalovsky and Alan Parker, enjoyed a more varied film and TV career but is still an unfamiliar name. The film’s audio commentary sadly reports that Ms. Young’s feature work peaked with the 1986 movie  Heat, a star vehicle for Burt Reynolds. Her character’s function is to be beaten up so Burt can rescue her.

In Deep in the Heart we also expect the heroine to be attacked, and our closeness with Kathleen makes it a harrowing ordeal. Ms. Young pitches Kathleen’s attitude just right — we don’t blame her for giving Larry the benefit of the doubt, even when he rushes things. He acts as if a close bonding is happening just because Kathleen admits she’s having a good time. A woman could easily miss the danger signals in Larry’s behavior.

Part of the problem is Kathleen’s school colleague, who makes it her business to push the new teacher into a romantic affair. Is this a gross distortion of the culture, or a problem for independent women everywhere?  Kathleen’s personal life  seems to be everybody’s business but her own.

 

Rape can Radicalize.  Oppressive forces do indeed motivate Kathleen to change. The men at the gun club say they like the idea of women with guns, but the ‘new’ Kathleen isn’t looking to some strong male for protection. The payback elements in the film’s final act fulfill the requirements of the vigilante subgenre without going overboard. Kathleen reasserts her independence without causing a (major) bloodbath. Nothing ‘blows up’ to provide action for a grindhouse trailer. Perhaps a good tranquilizer gun is a good solution for the Larry Keelers of the world. This is the best film we’ve yet seen about the relationship between Gun Psychology and Sex Psychology.

The commentary tells us about writer-producer-director Tony Garnett’s work with the famed Brit filmmaker Ken Loach. They made film history with the superior 1969 drama  Kes, which placed in the top ten of all-time best British films. Garnett also produced the movies  Earth Girls are Easy,  Follow that Bird (!) and the good dramatization of the Oppenheimer story,  Fat Man and Little Boy. His Deep in the Heart shows a great talent doing fine work with risky subject matter.

Typical of Garnett’s thematic precision is the film’s opening. An early shot sees some traffic emerging from a highway overpass — and even before we pan to the right, we know we’re going to see the Dallas Grassy Knoll and the School Book Depository. No further comment is necessary. The musical play at Kathleen’s high school is revealed to be Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, an all-American comedy that teases the notion of lonely guys acquiring mates by kidnapping them. Surprisingly, these allusions do not feel forced. We Americans already know this story, from one end to the other.

 


 

Fun City Editions’ Blu-ray of Deep in the Heart is a fine rendition of a colorful, well-produced movie. It looks and sounds better than new, picture and audio.

The photography flatters Ms. Young. With her bright, open face and wide-set eyes, she could pass for a teenager at age 30. Unfortunately, most of the film’s available images show Young either in worried mode, or seriously distressed. The new disc artwork by Tom Ralston has a very nice likeness, though, and we have to admit that a smiling Kathleen Sullivan wouldn’t be the right image for the cover.

Fun City tends toward select, quality extras; their interviews are especially good. This presentation features an older interview with director Tony Garnett and a particularly informed and helpful commentary from Erica Shultz and Chris O’Neill. Realizing that Handgun / Deep in the Heart sees America through foreign eyes is essential to understanding the movie. We are told that in 1975, no English high school would stage a Broadway musical. We wonder how many foreigners really expect all of America to be like a parody of Texas — remember the overstated ‘Texas hoedown’ scene in Ken Russell’s  Billion Dollar Brain?

Did the makers of Deep in the Heart hope that it would spur a cultural discussion, as had Death Wish?  Practically speaking it could only be marketed as a Female Revenge / Vigilante movie. Some of the original posters give the impression that the show is about an armed, berserk woman stalking a make victim — a guy with a ’70s designer hairstyle.  

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Deep in the Heart
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Audio commentary by Erica Shultz and Chris O’Neill
Interview with producer/writer/director Tony Garnett
Image Gallery; theatrical trailer.
Illustrated pamphlet with new essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
April 25, 2024
(7110deep)

*  Forget the ‘Rocky Horror’ communal movie experience; even I had second thoughts about how some movies were being received. When attending too many showings of  The Wild Bunch and  Platoon, rowdy males cheered every violent outrage, especially when aimed at women: “Kill the bitch!”CINESAVANT

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Text © Copyright 2024 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Alfredo Garcia Garcia

Thanks Glenn. A real discovery

James Kenney

I don’t know if Ms. 45 is a glamorization of violence, it’s about a woman who goes insane because of her trauma, ends up killing friends and innocents at a party. Related to your direct point re: Wild Bunch & Platoon, Danny Peary in his Cult Movies book speaks of being at a Times Square Ms. 45 screening where rapists surround Tamerlis in an alley and the audience was indeed cat-calling and whooping it up…and when she shoots them all, they were stunned into silence. I think Ferrara is working at a higher plane than you give him credit for, but I’m just making conversation, not saying you’re wrong. Great review, I had only vaguely heard of this film, had no sense of what it was.

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