Archive for May 1979

Last Embrace

May 4, 1979

Years before Jonathan Demme made the great thriller The Silence of the Lambs, he made this non-great thriller firmly and boringly in the Hitchcock vein. Roy Scheider is a government agent whose wife was killed in front of him during an attempt on his life. He thinks the agency wants him dead, but someone else does, too. The plot (taken from Murray Leigh Bloom’s novel The 13th Man) has something to do with New England Jews and white slavery; Janet Margolin, as an anthropologist who’s more than meets the eye, seduces Scheider and gives a performance that explains why her career didn’t survive the ’70s.

Demme puts nothing of himself into these paranoid shenanigans — the movie is all too transparently his attempt to do something bankable. This was also Christopher Walken’s first post-Oscar movie, which shouldn’t raise your hopes; playing Scheider’s untrustworthy boss with a wispy mustache, Walken is funny but is only in it for about three minutes. John Glover, with another awful mustache, plays some sort of scholar stuck on Margolin; he’s completely expendable. Demme regular Charles Napier steals the movie as Scheider’s former brother-in-law, a hit man — Napier knows how to sell a line like “If I wanted you dead, you wouldn’t be walkin’.”

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert

May 2, 1979

“If you had a choice,” asks Richard Pryor, “between gettin’ hit by a bus or dyin’ in some pussy, which line would you be in? I know which line I’d be in — I’d be in that long motherfucker, Jack.” Pryor had done other concert films (like 1982’s Live on Sunset Strip, which offered him post-suicide-attempt), but this is far and away his finest — Pryor firing on all cylinders, enacting quarrels between black and white, between dog and monkey, between his young self and his grandma (“Boy, go out and get me somethin’ to whup yo’ ass with”), between his mind and his own aggrieved heart (“You thinkin’ about dyin’ now, ain’t you?” the organ growls as it goes into cardiac arrest; “You didn’t think about it when you was eatin’ all that pork”). Pryor will occasionally lapse into a truism — “The hospital ain’t no place to get well” — and then chase it with “You can die in there and nobody give a fuck,” something so bleak and blunt it forges its own hilarity.

Many comedians — hell, any comedians worth the stage space they take up — cite this film as the Rosetta Stone of stand-up, the reason they’re in the business. I’d like to see a special-edition DVD with the Patti LaBelle performance the opening credits tell us we’re missing (“Sing it, motherfucker, yeah!” Pryor praises her, as only Pryor could), but the one that’s out there now is more than enough — a man, a microphone, and the surreal, magnificently human universe he creates with his voice and body. The direction is no more than point-and-shoot, but Pryor makes this a great film all by himself.


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