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Crimewave

B

Crimewave

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In 1985, a young Michigan director named Sam Raimi teamed up with a pair of sibling screenwriters, Joel and Ethan Coen, to make a slapstick-noir comedy called Crimewave. It’s a testament to how poorly the results were received—and how the production embittered just about everyone involved—that this meeting-of-the-minds has slipped into relative obscurity over the years, despite the household-name status its collaborating auteurs have achieved.

Not surprisingly, Raimi and the Coens are nowhere to be found on Crimewave’s first official Region 1 disc release, a new DVD/Blu-ray combo pack from Shout! Factory. But the filmmakers’ frustrations are reflected in some of the set’s scant supplemental materials, including an illuminating conversation with Bruce Campbell. “There’s a part of me that’s really glad the movie just disappeared,” the actor admits, before going on to describe how Raimi—fresh off the success of his 1981 debut, The Evil Dead—lost control (and final editing privileges) of his first Hollywood production. The film would eventually be granted a very brief theatrical run, supposedly in just Kansas and Alaska, before falling off the face of the earth. Raimi, who rebounded with 1987’s Evil Dead II, has more or less disowned the project. The Coens rarely speak of it.

While Crimewave is no lost masterpiece, it’s also not the career-low embarrassment its reputation suggests. At the very least, the film is fascinating for the way it merges the dueling sensibilities of its creative masterminds, investing a quintessentially Coen plot with Raimi’s love of broad physical comedy. As Campbell notes, paraphrasing the words of a sympathetic festival-programmer, it’s best to watch the movie with your “silly hat” on.

Speaking of Campbell, he has a fairly small role in Crimewave; when the studio balked at his playing the lead, he was cast as a smarmy ladykiller who competes with the hero for the affections of Sheree J. Wilson (Dallas). The starring role went instead to Reed Birney, doing what he describes during one of the DVD’s brief interviews as a failed attempt at “teenage Jerry Lewis.” In a framing device forced on Raimi by the suits, Birney’s beta-male patsy is introduced en route to the electric chair; he’s been falsely convicted of multiple homicide charges. As a series of flashbacks soon reveals, the real culprits are ox-like brute Paul L. Smith and helium-voiced partner Brion James. Exterminators who moonlight as assassins, the two plug their deadly services in the newspaper, through an advertisement that nonchalantly includes “men” on the list of killable vermin. Gags like that epitomize the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker zaniness of the film, which repeatedly violates the laws of anatomy, physics, and diegetic sound. (See, or rather hear, the moment when Campbell’s bar-side zingers are accompanied by the sound of ricocheting bullets.)

Beyond the appearance of a “Hudsucker Penitentiary,” the Coens’ influence shines brightest during the setup, a murder plot that goes terribly awry. (Given its mixture of noir convention and outsize comic caricatures, Crimewave sometimes looks like the missing link between the brothers’ 1984 debut, Blood Simple, and their 1987 sophomore feature, Raising Arizona.) Yet everything about the visual style screams Raimi. There’s a fast-motion sprint down an alley (à la Evil Dead’s warp-speed plunge through the woods), POV shots from the perspective of thrown objects, and several dramatic zooms into gaping, screaming maws. In many respects, Crimewave is the closest the director has gotten to actually making a Three Stooges movie, complete with bloodless scenes of forks being stabbed into noses and bowling balls dropping onto heads. Raimi stages the mayhem with a kinetic bliss, reinforcing Campbell’s assertion that this largely forgotten curiosity, not the Evil Dead films, best approximates the director’s “real sensibilities.”

In an apparent attempt to upstage the camera moves, most of the cast defaults to a kind of cartoon hysteria—cackling, bellowing, yelping in fear, etc. (James, especially, is like a one-man Tex Avery short.) The excessive wackiness grows a little wearisome by the third act, by which time the film has devolved into a series of setpieces both inspired (a chase through a long row of doorways) and less so (a battle atop speeding cars). Yet even at its most shrill, Crimewave is hard to hate; it’s too flush with personality, and too clearly the work of young visionaries in the process of finding their voices. Fans of either Raimi or the Coen brothers should seek it out—even if the filmmakers themselves would prefer they didn’t. 


Also new this week:

Two Glenn Ford oaters are inducted into the Criterion Collection. The first, 3:10 To Yuma, finds rancher Van Heflin risking life and limb to escort Ford’s captured outlaw to the closest train station, where he’ll be sent on a one-way trip to court—and probably the gallows. (It’s better, though not vastly, than James Mangold’s 2007 remake.) Meanwhile, Ford plays Cassio to Ernest Borgnine’s Othello and Rod Steiger’s Iago in Jubal, a loose Western take on the Shakespeare play.

Olive Films offers several repertory releases. In Irving Pichel’s 1948 film The Miracle Of The Bells, Fred MacMurray returns the dead body of his beloved (Alida Valli) to the coal-mining community where she grew up; Frank Sinatra co-stars as the local priest who helps him secure her burial. John Wayne leads a Dust Bowl town to greener pastures, while romancing Nazi-fleeing refugee Sigrid Gurie, in Bernard Vorhaus’ Three Faces West. And Olive’s Hal Hartley collection grows with the indie maverick’s debut feature, The Unbelievable Truth, and a DVD two-pack of 1998’s The Book Of Life and 2005’s The Girl From Monday.

On the contemporary film front, Matrix creators The Wachowskis join forces with Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer for the profoundly silly, millennium-hopping Cloud Atlas (Warner Bros.). Texas Chainsaw 3D (Lions Gate)—an awful direct sequel to the granddaddy of all backwoods horror movies—comes to home-media formats with and without its third dimension. Roman Coppola’s A Glimpse Inside The Mind Of Charles Swan III (Lions Gate) features Charlie Sheen as the titular Los Angeles hotshot, while Lifetime howler Liz & Dick (Entertainment One, DVD only) improbably casts Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor.

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