Wednesday, February 18, 2009

M.I.A. on Region 1 DVD Tribute Month (Film 18) Mike's Murder (1984)


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.

10 comments:

Ned Merrill said...

I used to see the Joe Jackson soundtrack album in used record bins all the time and was intrigued by the film. Never did see it, but after reading about Bridges' original cut, I've been hoping that Warner would salvage it for DVD. Over at Home Theater Forum, Marc Edward Heuck reports that Bridges' longtime companion Jack Larson tells him that the original "flashback" cut still exists in storage. Since WHV has been releasing and announcing alternative versions of films from the era (LOOKIN' TO GET OUT, REVOLUTION, CRUISING), perhaps MIKE'S MURDER is not out of the question.

Bob Turnbull said...

I've always wanted to see the original cut as well (never saw the theatrical). So none of Joe Jackson's music was in the theatrical version? I knew things had been changed, but thought that at least one or two of his songs may have made it in.

Jeremy Richey said...

Hey Ned,
That's great news about the original cut. I would love to see Warner's get their act together and put it out.

Bob,
I think two Jackson tracks can still be heard in the theatrical cut and he is credited at the beginning. More predominant are cuts by The Stray Cats and The
B-52s, which really add nothing to the film. I actually wish Barry's score was used more as his main theme is really lovely.

J.D. said...

I know of this film but never saw but am intrigued by your coverage of its troubled production history. I always liked Debra Winger and it's a shame her career kinda vaporized after the 1980s but hopefully the accolades she's getting for Demme's new film will reinvigorate her career.

I'd love to see Criterion give this film the deluxe treatment... in a perfect world they could offer both cuts of the film so that people could compare and contrast.

Ned Merrill said...

With Debra Winger, it's important to note that she left the business in the early '90s on her own accord after FORGET PARIS and SHADOWLANDS. She had her son with Arliss Howard during the period between FORGET PARIS and BIG BAD LOVE (directed by hubby Howard). Good to see her back in RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, indeed.

Organic Meatbag said...

Aye...Terms Of Endearment...that one starts the waterworks on ME! So sad...but Jack Nicholson sure was cool in it too (as usual)...

Colin said...

I just watched the VHS of this. You hit the nail on the head when you say it is frustrating.

There are so many things I love about it, Winger's performance, the climax when she rams the piano up against the door, the Mexican food, Mark Keyloun as Mike, the costumes are terrific, Paul Winfield's begowned in-love-with-Mike movie producer etc. etc.

If only we could see this as it is meant to be. Then it would be a murder MYSTERY, because as it stands there is no mystery about it. The beginning of this released version is SO WEIRD, it jumps straight from a tennis lesson to an intense sex scene, it just feels bizarre.

I am absolutely loving learning about all these rare films and trying to seek them out so thank-you.

Cinéaste California said...

I saw a horribly cut-for-TV version of Mike's Murder on one of my local TV stations about 14/15 years ago. I could tell that the movie was good, but it was so horribly cut. Then to find out a few months ago that it was originally supposed to be in reverse order and that it was supposed to be released earlier than 1984 - that makes even more sense. The thing has haunted me for years, and I can't wait to revisit it.

vhealey said...

i remember seeing Mike's Murder at Copley Place cinema in Boston waaaay back in 1984. It instantly became an all time fav and still is to this day. I adore the film & Debra Winger's performance in it (and any other film she's been in for that matter) It came to mind recently & unaware it hadn't been released on DVD i scoured the Internet looking for it. Unfortunately I've also only seen it on VHS recently. Crappy quality but I was just thrilled being able to watch again after all these yrs As much as I do love it I'd never heard about the original premise. Fascinated all over again. A reviewer from the Boston Globe described Winger's performance as "one of the most understated I've ever seen" and (in my opinion) from the most under-appreciated actresses of our time. For those of you who've not seen I hope you're able to experience it soon..even hacked to pieces it's an absolute gem!

Anonymous said...

FYI, the theatrical cut is now available on DVD-R from Warner:
http://www.wbshop.com/Mikes-Murder/1000112970,default,pd.html?cgid=ARCHIVE