Thursday 4 March 2021

On Blu-ray and Streaming - John Baxter examines Existential Ed in INTO THE NIGHT (John Landis, USA, 1985)

Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer


            The plight of Jeff Goldblum’s character in the 1985 Into the Night  resembles being tied to the tail of a wild horse and dragged through a field of cactus, although the fact that the cactus is Hollywood and the dragging is done by Michelle Pfeiffer does soften the experience.

            Ed Okin is an aerospace engineer languishing in a moribund marriage and a dead-end job. Unable to sleep, he drives at night to the Los Angeles airport, where his life collides with that of Pfeiffer’s Diana, a glamorous party girl who has just deplaned from Zurich with a vagina full of emeralds. 

"Asking The Question"

            Four gunmen of Middle Eastern appearance (one played by director John Landis) are eager to relieve her of this novel carry-on luggage, but Ed spontaneously helps her escape.  Not so naive as she appears, Diana knows the survival value of charm, and uses it to recruit him as her protector. “How do you know you can you trust me?” Ed asks.  The answer encapsulates her character in a single insightful phrase: “Because I know men.” 

            Ron Koslow created the Beauty and the Beast TV series. Before that, he had a patchy career, and Into the Night is tinged with the disappointment and despair familiar to every aspiring screenwriter.  Had the film been made in Paris, Prague or Warsaw, its Kafka-esque absurdities and Godardian games with narrative might have intrigued art house audiences, but another two decades had to pass before Quentin Tarantino led American cinema back to the same well with Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill.   

            Roger Ebert dismissed Into the Night as "a fitfully funny, aimless, unnecessary thriller”, while admitting that the same might be said about many Hollywood productions of the time. It’s true that Stanley Kubrick had little to fear from Beverly Hills Cop, LA Story  and Romancing the Stone, let alone Trading Places,  the comedy that made Landis briefly hot before the deaths on The Twilight Zone of actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese children sent him to professional Siberia. That Jonathan Demme, David Bowie, Don Siegel, Roger Vadim and others played cameos in  Into the Night  was a gesture of solidarity with Landis, the scapegoat for Twilight Zone’s managerial errors. 

            Following the Manson killings of 1969, the press routinely depicted Los Angeles as rife with violence. (A British magazine writer, sent to cover the latest race riots, protested “Do you want me to get killed?”  “Not killed,” the editor said. “Wounded would be good.”) Every week produced a few fatalities among the gangs that fought over who ruled South Central, and most Mondays brought news of more corpses found in the hills, victims of serial murder, a preferred weekend recreation. 

            But little of this spilled over into prosperous Westwood, Santa Monica, Hollywood and Beverly Hills, where the perils of existence were more abstract: depression, frustration and ennui. Particularly at night, their streets were as redolent of loss as the paintings of Edward Hopper. The credits of Into the Night play over a series of such natures mortes; diners, gas stations and department stores closed and deserted, lit only by the chill glare of sodium vapour and neon. Ira Newborn‘s soul score, book-ended with songs by B.B. King, barely lifts the  mood of existential despair.

John Landis

            Landis wanted Jack Nicholson for Ed and Jamie Lee Curtis as Diana, but Curtis turned him down to make Perfect, while Nicholson (as Landis describes amusingly in an addition to the film’s 2017 Blu-ray re-issue) summoned him to his holiday home in Aspen during a blizzard to explain that he wouldn’t play the role “because Ed never answers The Question.” It was an astute observation, since Okin ends the film as bereft of direction and motivation as he began. Even if he and Diana create some sort of relationship, it will not remedy his innate anomie.  

            Hoping to equal the gravitas of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill,  Landis offered the part to both Tom Berenger and Kevin Kline from that film. They passed, which left Goldblum, who had played the pushy journalist condemned to interview celebs for the trash press. In another add-on for the Blu-ray, Goldblum explains how he saw Ed as someone inspired by John Kennedy’s visionary rhetoric to choose a career in aerospace, only to find himself becalmed in the flaccid America of Ronald Reagan. 

            This doesn’t entirely explain him, but the film is so full of incident that one barely notices. It becomes a game to spot the celebrity guests, whom Landis enjoys putting in awkward situations. Don Siegel is caught emerging from a lavatory stall, followed by a half-naked girl. Paul Bartel is a night-club doorman and Jack Arnold a dog owner whose mastiff is massacred in an elevator. Our own Richard Franklin also appears as one of Ed’s colleagues. 

David Bowie, Jeff Goldblum

            David Bowie stands out as an assassin who mistakes Ed’s lack of affect for cool. “You’re verygood,” he says. “I’m amazed we’ve not met before”,  then sticks a pistol in his mouth. Ed is unconcerned. Violence has ceased to trouble him, if it ever did. When a crook takes Diana hostage, he ignores the gun and instead poses The Question. “Why is my wife unfaithful? Why can’t I sleep?” In the ultimate form of “Search me”, the gunman smiles nervously, puts the weapon to his own head, and shoots himself. 


            An excellent copy of Into the Night is available for streaming   IF YOU CLICK HERE. The comments of both John Landis and Jeff Goldblum from the Blu-Ray are available on YouTube.

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