Stuck in the same cramped room, staring at the same small screen, my cinematic travels have literally taken me nowhere over the years. Oh, sure, the images flickering on its glossy surface portray a wide array of people doing a wide array of things in a wide array of places, but I can't physically touch or interact with them. If I were, however, given the opportunity to enter any film I wanted, I would definitely think about entering Crimes of Passion, an unconventional, somewhat satirical, yet totally trashy erotic thriller written by Barry Sandler (Making Love) and directed by Ken Russell (Lair of the White Worm). Why, may I ask, would you want to enter that particular film? I mean, what makes it so special? And besides, everyone says they want to penetrate the film they just finished watching, it's human nature. In fact, I know someone who wanted to live like the drug-addled fashion models in Liquid Sky so badly, that they moved to Manhattan, bought a penthouse apartment near the Empire State Building, and started a trendy heroin habit. While I won't be moving to this film's location (L.A.'s skid row) anytime soon, I did notice that the desire to install a flashing neon sign, preferably one with an x-rated theme, outside my bedroom window was quite pronounced after I had finished bathing in its unsavoury glow. In other words, I want to live in a world where lightness and darkness are always fighting one another for radioactive supremacy. It's true, the inconsistencies that come with existing in a realm that features two distinct types of illumination will take some getting used to, but most will agree that the varying degrees of visual comprehension are the one of the signature perks of living life on the edge.
Looking over the wad of words I just typed about the film's unique approach to lighting, part of me wishes I had just said: I liked the way the film was lit, and moved on. But that's not my style, man. The need to convey my love for this film's lurid cinematography in a manner that allowed me to express my true feelings without having to put any self-imposed restrictions on myself was paramount. The only criticism I can think of is that I failed to use to word "lingerie" in my opening salvo. It plays an important role throughout this generous dollop of Reagan-era sleaze, and to not mention even once was a gross oversight on my part.
Since the luminosity is always changing, so is our perception of lingerie (don't worry, it will all start to make sense in a minute). You see, with a fluctuating brightness level, the lingerie, or any other object, for that matter, will seem like it's always coming and going. The way the lingerie seemed to appear, then disappear, only to reappear a couple seconds later, gave the film an unpredictable character that was quite intoxicating. It was almost as if the initial thrill that came with seeing a tarted up Kathleen Turner standing in the pulsating light emanating from the neon sign located just outside the window of her hotel room, her blue dress shimmering in the garish splendour of her vulgar surroundings, was repeated over and over again.
The battle between lightness and darkness is also fought out on the streets of L.A.'s red-light district, as China Blue (Kathleen Turner), a forthright prostitute who may or may not have a heart of gold, and the Rev. Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins), a deranged preacher/psycho-killer who carries around with him a bag containing a small sampling of what he calls "the devil's playthings," butt heads with one another over the spiritual trajectory of their very souls.
Ironically, the first character we're introduced to represents neither lightness or darkness, he's Bobby Grady (John Laughlin), the owner of Grady Home Electronics (a shop that specializes in home security). A man who seems to be living in an amorphous daze, we meet him just as he's just about to inadvertently tell what looks like some kind of support group something deeply personal. Attending the therapy session as a favour to a friend (Bruce Davison), Bobby is goaded into revealing that his relationship with his wife (Annie Potts) isn't going as well as he initially lead on (the fact that it took him an entire week to notice that she'd cut her hair in a manner similar to the way the great Sharon Mitchell wore her hair throughout most of the 1980s was a definite sign things weren't all lollipops and lawnmowers).
Promising to restore "dignity and pride" or was it "pride and dignity"? Whatever, promising to carry out her duties as Miss Liberty 1984 to the best of her ability, we open on a close up of China Blue's smiling face. The camera slowly pans out to reveal that she is sitting on her gynaecological throne in a cunnilingual manner. Describing in graphic detail how one should properly play the flute as a man's head rests in the vicinity of her crotch, China grabs his "flute" (her arms adorned in white lace) and proceeds to blow on it until it makes sweet music.
After his music lands all over her mouth and chin, we meet up with the Rev. Peter Shayne just as he's about to visually devour the lumpy frame of an appetizing peep show stripper (Janice Renney). Shoving an inhaler filled with amyl nitrate up his nose every few seconds, the Rev. Shayne seems hypnotized by her banal gyrations. Bursting out of the peep show theatre in a huff, the preacher plops down his portable soap box in front of the entrance and begins castigating the very sins he seemed to be enjoying moments earlier. Midway through his sermon, he notices a shapely figure sauntering down the street. It's China Blue, a "victim of the night," as he calls her, and two exchange a brief barrage of insult-based dialogue. While it's obvious from the get-go that they don't like each other, the sly smirk the Rev. Shayne wears on his face as she walks away has lead me to believe that he begrudgingly admires the cheeky streetwalker. Just for record, you'll be hard pressed to find anything more off-putting than the sight of Anthony Perkins wiping sweat off his face with a bible while ogling Kathleen Turner's first-rate buttocks.
Where, may I ask, is China Blue heading off to? Why she's on her way to perform an elaborate rape fantasy for one of her regular clients. After punctuating their rough yet awkwardly consensual sex act with some post-coital pleasantries, China displays a sound head for business when she charges ten dollars for the privilege of owning a pair of her blue panties. This exchange of money for used blue panties is a clear indication that China Blue isn't your average whore. It would seem that the blue dress, the platinum blonde wig, and the thick coat of trollop-friendly make-up are all part of a costume she wears on a nightly basis. The identity of the person behind this elaborate facade is a bit of a mystery.
Unwittingly discovering the answer to this mystery, Bobby finds out that China Blue is actually Joanna Crane, a nondescript fashion designer. Hired by the owner of the women's sportswear company she works for to spy on her (the owner thinks she is selling patterns to the competition), Bobby follows Joanna to her swanky apartment. Moments later, Joanna emerges wearing a raincoat and a platinum blonde wig, and proceeds to get into a cab, which takes her to the heart of the city's squalid underbelly. Filming her from the relative safety of his car and listening to her conversations from the fire escape located outside her hotel window, Bobby seems transfixed by Joanna's transformation from a drab yuppie to a vibrant sex fiend.
The conversation Bobby listens to out on the ledge is being conducted by China Blue and the Rev. Peter Shayne, and it's a terrific example of the wacked-out chemistry that exists between Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins, as the two actors both seem to be giving it their all. Awash with purple, pink, and blue, the scene where the fake clergyman reluctantly shows the droll harlot the contents of his bag perfectly signified the go for broke attitude of the two performers. Besides, I also liked the names of the "disgusting array" of items he had in there. My personal favourite being: Foam Rubber Pretty Kitty.
You can't really blame Bobby for wanting to enter the world of China Blue after witnessing what he saw transpire in that hotel room, and that's exactly what he does. Arriving at her door the very next night, Bobby sheepishly gives China a fifty dollar bill (her standard rate for curbside copulation) and the two of them buckle up and prepare to pierce the sexual stratosphere. Pierce the what? Oh, didn't I tell ya? The theme for tonight's mutual debasement involves air hostesses, and you know what that means? Airline-tinged sexual innuendo, and, most importantly, stockings!
Gingerly toss her gold flight attendant uniform onto the floor, allow her to suck on your filthy man toes, take that Quaalude she gave to you, caress her legs with a series of soft petting motions, but don't you dare remove her stockings! Luckily for everyone involved, he didn't. Anyway, filmed via a silhouette and smeared in red and blue lighting, China Blue and Bobby employ a multitude of positions during their maiden sex act. It's too bad Bobby was so eager to jump into the shower after they had finished (I would have waited at least a couple of minutes), as China was a tad offended by his lack of hooker-john decorum. "A tad" offended?!? Who am I kidding? China Blue doesn't do anything "a tad." In the following scene, while dressed as a nun, China Blue tells the Rev. Peter Shayne, "He makes up in diction what he lacks in dick." The film's script is full of clever put-downs like this, put-downs that are mostly hurled in Anthony Perkins' general direction.
The only time we get to see China Blue in the light of day was during the limousine sequence (she's offered two hundred dollars to participate in a three-way). It's also the scene that best allows us to appreciate the crude workmanship that went into the construction of her iconic blue dress. According to my research, the infamous frock was simply purchased at Sears, which just goes to show that you don't need a huge costuming budget to create something fashionable.
While the soft-hued garment deserves some of the credit, it's Kathleen Turner's volcanic presence that makes the outfit and the film as a whole erupt with a wanton kind of vitality. Easily putting herself in same league as Season Hubley (Vice Squad) and Donna Wilkes (Angel), Kathleen gives a career defining performance as China Blue/Joanna Crane. The amount of courage it took for her to straddle that guy during the policeman-hooker fantasy must have been off the charts. Mainstream actresses, specifically ones who like to work in Hollywood on a regular basis, don't usually appear in movies where they're called upon to dig their spiky stiletto heels into a man's legs (by the way, I loved the close-up shots of his bloody heel wounds) while simultaneously sodomizing the very same man with his store-bought police baton.
Getting back to the plot of the film for a second, I was surprised that Bobby's interest in China Blue carried over to Joanna Crane. Don't get me wrong, I liked the whole Paula Poundstone vibe (bulky blazers and kooky-coloured ties) Miss Crane was putting out there, but my inner pervert kept telling me that he would much rather spend his spare copulatory time with China Blue.
Even though Crimes of Passion is only the fourth Ken Russell film that I've seen, it's actually only the second film of his that I've watched utilizing the entirety of my face. While I can't really explain how a normal person goes about watching something with the total sum of one's face, take my word for it, Ken Russell directs the kinds of films that require them to be watched in this particular manner. Interspersed with a dizzying array of unusual stylistic choices, the kind that no sane director would ever dare implement, Mr. Russell, whether injecting the paintings of Aubrey Beardsley and John Everett Millais into his sex scenes or having a scene where a bland suburban couple watch a surreal music video that mocks materialism, seems totally unafraid to skewer society's puerile views on sex. And what a beautiful skewering it is, one that's set to the sounds of Rick Wakeman's synth-rock interpretation of Dvořák's New World Symphony. Speaking of music, the Rough Trade lyric: "There's no limit to the depths you can sink to / There's no limit to the heights you can climb, Crimes of passion, crimes of passion, crimes" would occasionally pop into my brain as me and my face watched this amazing film's seedy yarn unfold.