Erotic thrillers aren’t usually clever or hilarious. Nine times out of ten, you’re contending with an insulting menagerie of Basic Instinct-style idiocy, replete with diabolical acting and ‘Oh, of course, it was that fucking guy!’ plot twists. Well, you know what? What if I told you that there’s a somewhat pervy Al Pacino vehicle that is comprehensively well-acted, well-paced, has a great soundtrack, and that it is thrilling, funny, and moving? What if I also told you that is it is completely nuts?
Frank Keller is a burnt-out NYC detective with over twenty years of service to his name, and not much else going on in life. When he’s not tending to his ailing father, Frank seems to divide his time between melancholically sitting around and directing pent-up hostilities towards his ex-wife’s new partner, who coincidentally happens to be another cop in the same precinct. Pacino plays Keller with that excellent world-weariness that he began to cultivate in the early 1980s, his eyebags constantly weighing him down, coupled with the notion that, at all times, those whiskey-and-smoke tones of his are constantly saying ‘Fuck this shit’ in his head.
Manhattan is being afflicted with a fresh spate of serial killings, and it is certainly an odd one; all of the victims are middle-aged men found naked and face down in bed, a .38 slug embedded in the back of their head, and an old 45rpm of the titular Phil Phillips song playing on the dresser. The only clues are lipstick-stained cigarettes and all of the victims being single guys who recently placed ads in a lonely hearts column, so we know from the get-go that the murderer is a particularly cruel arsehole (not that the whole shooting people in the back of the head thing was much of a giveaway on that front).
When it transpires that men are dying in a similar fashion over in Queens, a local detective named Sherman Touhey initiates contact with Frank at a police social event, and pitches the only sensible solution to all of this terrible death malarkey: The two of them must collaborate in a sting operation in which they post their own ads, and go on dates with various women. I’ve always wanted to see a film where the same plot device is utilised, but it turns out that the focal cop is just a dickhead who wants an excuse to get his leg over during working hours, and doesn’t actually give a shit about solving anything, because that’s just my sense of humour. Anyway, I digress.
John Goodman lends the film some powerful weight (pun ambiguous) in his role as Detective Touhey, selling the image of a tough and intelligent cop whilst always remaining hilarious John Goodman. Partnered with Pacino’s ability to be very funny in his own weird way, it establishes brilliant chemistry that has many authentic moments of levity while maintaining grit and suspense. These guys are a likeable team, even if their careers have made them a bit cynical and jokey about people having awful crimes committed against them.
After placing fake contact details and a goofy romantic poem in one of the columns, Frank sets out on a few dates, which alternate between amusing and depressing, with Sherman posing as a waiter in order to bag up the ladies’ wine glasses for the DNA lab. One night, the respondent in question is Helen Cruger, a spunky Los Angeleno who immediately knocks Frank’s socks off and, lo and behold, he wants to keep seeing her. Ellen Barkin is arguably the best element about the film as Helen, her personability and zest for fun measured by down-to-earth quick wits and a lack of tolerance for any nonsense. In her various bright and garish outfits throughout the film, she is pure 1980s strong-and-independent woman, and a cause of simultaneous dazzlement and frustration for Frank as he finds her next to impossible to read.
What makes it a special movie is the lack of cliches and cheesy sentimentalism that typically adorn films about love and relationships. There are no stupid instrumental ballads, cornball dialogue about one person completing the other, or wincingly over-the-top first kisses. Sure, these two are attracted to each other, but that predominantly manifests in the form of ‘I want to take you back to mine and rip off all of your clothes’ as opposed to ‘If I could compare thee to a summer’s day’. It’s a relentlessly steamy picture (I’ll blame my teenage mindset for the VHS getting so badly worn out), Frank & Helen engaging in a whole bunch of risky and animalistic heavy petting and keeping an effective level of tension there at all times, as there is something about the other that neither can quite put their finger on. He has a nagging feeling that she might be too good to be true, and she seems to be waiting for this ”printer” to whip out a gun and badge at any minute. Frank’s professional suspicion lends itself to several paranoid and unnerving moments in which the audience is bound to feel just as freaked out and desperate as he is, wondering if he’s next in line to have his brains decorating a mattress in his birthday suit. The pitfalls of hooking up with a potentially psychopathic killer, I guess.
It’s a great, overlooked little vehicle for Al Pacino, his and Barkin’s racy play balanced nicely against the disturbing catalytic murder investigation. The twists and turns are not mind-shattering but they are certainly clever and unexpected enough, it’s essentially one to watch for the performances. Neo-noir at its kooky, sultry finest.