From time to time, I like to revisit films that I don’t like, but that I should. For instance, let’s say the movie got good reviews, has an actor that I really like, is about a subject matter I’m interested in– theoretically I should like it, right?
Only sometimes I don’t…for whatever reason. Same for just about anybody who likes movies, I presume.
Then sometimes it’s just the opposite–the movie didn’t get good reviews, it has an actor that I really don’t like, so on and so forth…
And for whatever reason, I like it. Go figure.
So this is the first of a series I’ll revisit from time to time–Lord willing. I’m calling it, Worth Another Look.
Betty has a thing for Mike. Even though they’re very different–she’s a respectable, responsible mid twenty’s adult; he’s the same age, but emotionally immature–the chemistry between them is palpable. It’s noticeably more intense for her.
Their relationship is casual. They hook up. Occasionally.
Mike is Betty’s tennis instructor. He is also a petty drug dealer operating on the fringes of the early 80s gay subculture. Betty doesn’t know all the sordid details of Mike’s private life, but she knows he’s shady and that, even in small doses, he’s not good for her. Still she can’t resist him when he summons, and she pines for him when he doesn’t.
Then one day Betty gets a call from a photographer named Sam, a vague acquaintance and a close friend of Mike’s. He tells her that Mike’s been killed–no, it’s worse than that–he’s been murdered, brutally.
Betty recognizes an ache, a jealous lover’s taunts inside Sam’s unsettling voice. Even so she accepts the invitation to his apartment so that they can commiserate. “There are things Mike would want you to have,” he begrudgingly tells her.
Once there, Sam gives her the rundown: it was a drug world hit and the hitters were sending a message. The rest he doesn’t know and doesn’t understand. He tells her that Mike was small potatoes, not important enough to warrant such brutal treatment.
Then he asks if she knows Mike’s friend, Pete. Betty recalls talking to Pete once on the phone, but she’s never seen him face to face.
“Good,” Sam says. He tells her to keep it that way.
Betty’s older friend, Patty, tells her the same thing…pretty much. Patty lives voyeuristically and vicariously through Betty’s adventures, particularly her sexual ones, so she’s not keen on wet-blanketing her friend’s initiative–but, seriously, how dumb can Betty be? Does Patty have to scream it?
“Damn, girl! Cut him loose. It’s not worth it! He’s literal dead weight.”
But Betty can’t. She’s numb without Mike’s electricity. So she starts asking questions. Her inquires lead her further into the labyrinth of Mike’s other life where his was and hers is cheap.
In 1984 Mikes Murder was a commercial failure and a critical flop. Of it, New York Times reviewer Vincent Camby wrote,
“… a case might be made that Mike’s story is a cautionary one, that his fate represents the corruption of innocence, but this movie appears to be less interested in fate than in making Los Angeles low life seem as exotic as it is dangerous.”
But perhaps Mike’s Murder had the misfortune of being judged by another, much more stylized erotic neo-noir of the 80s, Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat. (Just go along with me here…it’s possible.) Whereas Body Heat is unquestionably the better film, it is also on the opposite end of the erotic neo-noir spectrum.
Mike’s Murder is a quiet, under-stated film that comes to a slow boil. Director James Bridges unobtrusive style does not objectify his subjects or exploit their circumstances, but that is not to say that the film isn’t hot, it is. And while it may straddle the boundaries between noir and thriller, it is unabashedly erotic.
It’s compelling, too–and terrifying. The last 20 minutes comprise one of the most on the edge-of-your-seat endings in all of cinema.
But it’s the camerawork of famed cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos (Major League, A Bronx Tale, Risky Business) snaking through the neighborhood haunts of Los Angeles as Betty drives–mostly in broad daylight–that brands Mike’s Murder with genre defining atmospheric dread. (We are unaccustomed seeing L.A. this way–cookie cutter middle class–at least those of us who have never lived there are.) And it’s Debra Winger’s performance as, Betty, the girl next door, mourning the tragic death of a young man gone before his time and her own, all too brief, sexual awakening that hurts and haunts.