Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Nearly two decades before Memento and Irreversible made it briefly fashionable to stage a film entirely in reverse, James Bridges' Mike’s Murder was designed to be presented in the same way. A paranoid studio, aware of the drastically changing market in the mid eighties, pulled the film on the eve of its release though and it sat on the shelf for more than a year. The film that finally appeared and failed in 1984 had been drastically recut by the studio to put it back in chronological order, and the original director's cut has still never been seen outside of some early test screenings.
Anyone curious as to why Debra Winger is such a missed figure in American cinema would be advised to have a triple feature of An Officer and A Gentleman, Mike’s Murder and Terms of Endearment. A bold and uncommonly natural actress, Winger’s work in Mike’s Murder is perhaps her best even though the film as plundered by the studio is a bit of a mess.
Writer and director James Bridges had written Mike’s Murder specifically for Winger and its hard to think of another actress who could have brought so much vulnerability and intelligence to what is a very complicated role. Bridges had previously directed Winger in Urban Cowboy in 1980, one of her earliest roles, and the two had had a winning working relationship that made them both excited about the prospect of shooting a murder mystery in reverse. Bridges, probably best know for 1979’s The China Syndrome, was an interesting and occasionally daring director, but his career would sadly take a downturn after the botching of Mike’s Murder with 1985’s unfortunate Perfect.
Mike’s Murder, concerning a sexual infatuation between a lonely bank teller and a small time drug dealer who finds himself in over his head after two deals go badly, is even in its pilfered state quite a fascinating little film. Bridges sometimes awkward and off the wall framing and staging of the scenes gives the film a rather sinister and suitably twisted feel, that would have no doubt played much better in its original form. John Barry’s romantic and melancholic main theme, which resembles his gorgeous work on 1982' Frances, provides an interesting counterpoint to the seedy Los Angeles drug culture of the mid eighties that plays as the film’s backdrop. The cast surrounding Winger is also strong, with special mention going to the supporting turns by Paul Winfield, who had never been so intense, and William Ostrander, who had just made such a splash in John Carpenter’s Christine as the bully Buddy Repperton.
Despite its many winning qualities, the studio’s hatchet job on Mike’s Murder really takes its toll. You can’t completely re-edit a film, change it’s background score (the songs of Joe Jackson were originally meant to provide the film’s music) and alter it’s basic stylistic format without doing more than a little damage. In its released form, Mike’s Murder is a frustrating almost of a film…poorly paced, choppy and, all the way through, severely compromised.
James Bridges sadly passed away less than ten years after the film’s release, which was as botched as the studio’s hacking of it. Debra Winger’s career frustratingly began to flounder after 1984 as well, and she has only appeared in a dozen or so productions since. Her recent turn in Jonathan Demme’s incredible Rachel Getting Married shows that she has lost none of her power though in the twenty-five years since the release of Mike’s Murder.
Mike’s Murder would prove an intriguing release for a Special Edition DVD if Warner Brothers could be bothered restoring Bridges original cut of the film. A bare bones release of the theatrical version would be welcome as well, because looking past all of the released version’s problems there is still something really great here.