“Mike’s Murder”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

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In the 1984 “Mike’s Murder,” Debra Winger plays Betty, a young woman whose staidness is underlain by a barely-discernible yearning for immediacy. She has the most sensible of jobs — she’s a bank teller — and nothing about her lifestyle suggests imbalance, but Winger lets you see the fuzziness burbling below the comported exterior. Sensuality radiates from her infant skin, and when she goes out without a bra on it seems less like a provocation than an oversight, as though she simply never learned to wear one. She’s in a state of harmonious contradiction.

So when Betty starts seeing Mike (he’s her tennis instructor), we’re instantly concerned for her well being, because we sense how easily the idyll of Betty might be disturbed. As played by Mark Keyloun, Mike is all wired energy and bullshit theatricality. He’d be smarmy if he weren’t so childlike (he, too, is a mass of contradictions). But he’s handsome and he’s great in bed and when Betty thinks of him a dreamy cast colors her face. She likes this guy, probably more for the effect he has on her than for any reason she’s capable of articulating.

But Mike’s attentions are erratic — he shows up at random, months sometimes intervening between appearances — and it quickly becomes apparent that he’s involved in the cocaine trade. And then one day he turns up dead, killed in retribution for a petty heist. Betty doesn’t grieve — or not exactly, at any rate. She hardly knew Mike, after all, and on some level she realizes he wasn’t worthy of her affections. But the loss zaps her at the foundation of her self-image, and it forces her into a tizzy of self-examination. When she sets out to investigate the murder, she’s not trying to solve the crime, she’s attempting to explain Mike to herself, to substantiate the feelings she had for him.

Some of the themes and situations here recall “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” but “Mike’s Murder” is free of the earlier film’s moralizing tendencies, and it’s not out to shock. The director, James Bridges, eases the audience through Betty’s emotional states while allowing the genre elements to slowly coalesce around the edges of the narrative; it’s a very subdued thriller. He’s aided in this by cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos, whose use of neutral tones and natural light sources gives the picture the hushed look of an old photograph. The supporting cast is effective too, especially Paul Winfield as Phillip, a music industry bigwig whose mansion in the L.A. hills serves as a haven for young hustlers. Pitting his physical heft against his hooded, sensual eyes, Winfield is able to suggest a brusqueness tinged with sympathy. He’s a chickenhawk with a heart of gold.

As Betty’s investigation progresses, an image of Mike begins to cohere, but it’s frustratingly secondhand. It’s gleaned from photos, audio recordings, videos — it’s as though Mike has been refracted through the prism of ’80s media. The movie makes some stabs at literalizing this idea, mostly via an artist character who is courting Betty, but it doesn’t quite come off; it’s about the only thing in “Mike’s Murder” that feels heavy handed. When left on its own, however, the theme has real resonance. When Betty looks at Mike posing in black and white glamor stills or cavorting like a Chippendale in a home video, she seems to be attempting to imagine herself into the images, the way a kid might while looking at photos of his dead grandparents. These scenes nail the way in which the verisimilitude of photography can feel like a cheat, like a sham invocation of things that are lost forever. In comparing her internal facsimile of Mike with the external ones, Betty realizes they’re both inadequate.

Related:

  • Some of the odd and (to me, anyway) interesting qualities of “Mike’s Murder” may be attributable to the production’s troubled history. It was originally intended to run backwards, a la Christopher Nolan’s “Memento,” but it was recut into chronological order after bad test screenings. Here’s a nice blog post which discusses some of this.
  • The film was finally released on DVD a couple of years ago as part of Warner’s burn-on-demand line. Buyable here.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Movies, Performers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to “Mike’s Murder”

  1. Days of Broken Arrows says:

    I remember hearing they commissioned Joe Jackson to write a soundtrack/score but didn’t use it. It was released, though, and one song, “Memphis,” was a college radio hit.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      I was going to mention that in the “related” stuff, but I couldn’t find a good summary online. I think you were the one who first made me aware of that. I see the full score is out now on CD

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  2. Callowman says:

    Haven’t seen it since it came out. I remember feeling that it didn’t quite deliver, that there was a lot of emotion coiled up in the Debra Winger character that had nowhere to go and thus went nowhere. This is one of those films seen in youth that I’d like to revisit to see if it hits me differently. At the time I feared I might be a bit like Mike. Perhaps the emotional energy I spent fending off that feeling sapped my response to Debra Winger.

    I suppose I should get around to watching “Terms of Endearment” again, too – a film whose ending a) made me cry and b) made me loathe myself at the same time, for being unable to control my body’s response to such a crappy, manipulative film. Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all…

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      There’s certainly a lot of validity to that — the movie ends up not developing or paying off like a conventional thriller. I think I liked it so much in part because it’s about Winger’s character slowly pulling back the layers of her impression of Mike — trying to get at what made him important to her. Whether that was planned from the outset or is simply an artifact of the movie’s odd history, I’m not sure. But it worked for me. Plus, great performances, a great look, great locations, etc.

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  3. I can’t let this conversation go by without adding: Man, what a hottie (of a real-girl sort) Winger was for five or ten years. I wonder if it was fun or a pain in the ass to direct her — I can see it going either/both ways. And what a dull thing she’s become. Have you watched her “Inside the Actors Studio” episode? Or “Looking for Debra Winger”? Zzzzzzzz ….

    Are there young American actresses today who have anything like her early-phase naturalistic kind of sultriness and heat? I don’t get to new movies much so I wouldn’t know.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      I’ve avoided “Looking for Debra Winger.” Sad that she’s become more a symbol of Women in Film than an actress or a personality.

      I don’t think there are many actresses who’ve had what Winger had as a young woman. The French specialize in that girl/sexy woman sort of thing (Brisseau is great at spotlighting it, Ozon too), and yet I can’t think of a French actress who’s had Winger’s easy, approachable, and unselfconscious sexiness.

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    • Callowman says:

      Which Debra Winger roles are you talking about? “An Officer and a Gentleman”?

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      • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

        I’m thinking mainly of “Urban Cowboy” (which aside from Winger is pretty awful) and “Mike’s Murder.” I saw “An Officer and a Gentleman” on cable as a kid and I don’t remember it too well. She had a real electricity, a something or other that’s hard to put your finger on. Sassy and tough but also soft, and she looked even better when her hair got a little messed up and she started to sweat. That scene in “Urban Cowboy” where she does all the sex positions on the mechanical bull is classic. Too bad she didn’t become a star until she was 25. I also liked her in that noir spoof thing with Nolte from the early ’90s, but by then she had a different sort of presence.

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    • Days of Broken Arrows says:

      One man’s symphony is another’s folk song. Back then I always saw her as “Hollywood bland,” that generation’s edition of Renee Zellweger or any of the other average actresses put on screen so female movie-goers won’t feel too threatened.

      Rene Russo is more my cup of estrogen. Or Madeline Stowe. I felt they radiated more sex appeal, panache, whatever.

      It also didn’t help that at the time my girlfriend’s dad didn’t find my joke funny about this movie: “They needed better focus: was it about the officer or the gentleman?” How was I supposed to know he was a Vietnam vet?

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  4. Joel says:

    Enjoyed reading! This is a shrewd analysis of a movie that works at a weird, subterranean level. Debra Winger is sublime in her understatement. It really is a shame so few people know this movie.

    I wanted to see more of that startling pre-credit prelude–to get more of a chance to be smitten by Mike’s awful physical charisma. He is the sweet, infantile Don Juan you just can’t resist, even though you know he’s bad news. And he’s got a great ass.

    It’s still a beautiful movie as is but I’m still hoping to the see the original cut someday. Given the disastrous circumstances of its preview screening, I can’t imagine James Bridges thoroughly compromising his original maverick vision out of anything but fear and studio pressure. Jack Larson, who died this year, apparently had the only copy and wanted to release it like bad.

    I can tell you love Pauline Kael. Her rhythms are hard to resist!

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  5. senakisan says:

    Enjoyed reading! This is a shrewd analysis of a movie that works at a weird, subterranean level. Debra Winger is sublime in her understatement. It really is a shame so few people know this movie.

    I wanted to see more of that startling pre-credit prelude–to get more of a chance to be smitten by Mike’s awful physical charisma. He is the sweet, infantile Don Juan you just can’t resist, even though you know he’s bad news. And he’s got a great ass.

    It’s still a beautiful movie as is but I’m still hoping to the see the original cut someday. Given the disastrous circumstances of its preview screening, I can’t imagine James Bridges thoroughly compromising his original maverick vision out of anything but fear and studio pressure. Jack Larson, who died this year, apparently had the only copy and wanted to release it like bad.

    I can tell you love Pauline Kael. Her rhythms are hard to resist!

    Like

    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed that old piece. Yeah, probably guilty of mimicking PK a bit here. I suppose there are worse thing!

      Like

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