Thursday, March 03, 2005

DVD: No Way Out (1987)

I didn’t plan on this being “Thrillers of ‘87” week. That’s just how it worked out. Honest.

I don’t want to overstate this movie’s importance to me. But I couldn’t begin to guess how many times I watched it in the halcyon days of the late ‘80s. It was steeped in sex and intrigue, for one thing. And it was a popular thriller at a time when I was first becoming interested in the form. There were lessons to be learned from it: how to handle exposition, the impact of a well-timed plot twist, the power of setting scenes in unlikely locations. To this day I vividly recall a key late encounter involving a paraplegic computer genius that takes place on a Pentagon basketball court.

In the years since I’d last seen the movie, I’ve read THE BIG CLOCK, the 1946 Kenneth Fearing novel on which it’s based, and become a huge fan of the 1948 film adaptation, with its bristling script by novelist Jonathan Latimer.

All three versions use the same plot. A powerful man murders his mistress and wants to pin the blame on a visitor she had the same night. Tracking this “killer” down falls to a trusted employee, who finds the clues pointing to himself. The remake moves the action from New York journalism circles to the Pentagon, which suits Hollywood’s bigger-is-better mentality. As the last act of the story unfolds inside a sealed building, why not use one of the largest in the world?

I thought watching the movie again would be fun. Instead, I was in a pile-up on Memory Lane.

Like many films from the Tangerine Dream and shoulder pads era, it has dated badly. What was it about that decade? I’m glad I don’t have any children running around. I’m not sure how I’d explain Steve Guttenberg to them.

The first third of the movie is unbearably slow, and when the plot does kick in momentum is lost in pointless action sequences.

Still, parts of it hold up. Like the Kevin Costner/Sean Young sex scene in the back of a limousine. And the performance of Will Patton as the creepily devoted aide spearheading the cover-up. It’s the kind of part that would springboard Kevin Spacey to stardom a few years later. Patton works steadily, but he never again had a role this substantial. Perhaps because he was a little too good here.

As for the final plot twist, when many critics decried as ridiculous: I loved it then, and I like it now.

It pleases me no end to note that heavy-set character actor Dennis Burkley, whose filmography includes multiple turns as bartenders and sheriff’s deputies as well as characters named ‘Oatmeal’ and ‘Hillbilly,’ plays the Elsa Lanchester role from the 1948 version.