Raphael Sbarge

Murder 101 (1991, Bill Condon)

It’s kind of amazing how much self-depreciation can turn something around. Not to spoil Murder 101‘s usage–it’s actually not the spoiler for the mystery–but think of The Muppet Movie. Almost the entire running time of the movie, there are frequent acknowledgments of the absurdity of the TV movie thriller genre. Murder 101‘s charm, in the end, is how dumb a lot of it gets….

The story, involving a writing professor (of a one year long course, which seems a little off for undergraduate writing courses) whose assignment of planning a murder for his mystery writing class, has a very TV feel to it. Pierce Brosnan both brings a cinematic quality to the film–so does Raphael Sbarge, which is strange, given Sbarge hasn’t been in theatrical releases since the mid-1980s–and makes Murder 101 seem silly. Brosnan’s performance is fine, but it reminds a lot of “Remington Steele,” down to the wife’s name. There’s an even split between trying hard to overact and acting. If that sentence just gave away the end twist, I apologize. But it’s worth sitting through for it.

Murder 101 establishes its mystery gradually, which gives the movie a real narrative feel–there’s a definite first act, introducing Brosnan back to teaching his course (only one, apparently) after a long sabbatical. Once the mystery starts, then everyone becomes a suspect–because everyone has to be a suspect in a television movie thriller. Except for the resolution, which isn’t particularly interesting, it’s compelling enough. It’s TV fare. But it always seems slightly more self-aware than most television movies allow themselves. Bill Condon’s direction–except when he apes Hitchcock’s low angles–is decent. There’s some visible intelligence at work with the movie. So when it’s just too stupid at times, it seems wrong. I’m not sure if that self-awareness covers the idiotic portrayal of college life, but I’ll give Condon the benefit of the doubt. The one scene I had the most problems with–people falling asleep at a poetry reading–became mildly more possible once I realized I’ve never been to a mandatory attendance undergrad reading.

On to Sbarge. He has this deceptive quality about him, like he’s easy to dismiss, but his performance is solid. He’s a suspect, of course, so he’s got a couple levels to work on… but he’s good. And made me feel bad I ho-hummed when I read his name in the opening titles.

The rest of the supporting cast is okay. Dey Young and Antoni Corone have their high and low points. Kim Thomson’s bad–her big scene is Condon’s worst, just because it’s so stupid. Mark L. Taylor, who’s a fine actor, gets stuck with a bad character.

Murder 101 is a good TV movie, from back when the cable companies were just getting started airing them (this era of relative quality lasted something like two and a half years). The twist is good enough, so well-played, it’s hard to know how much of it was supposed to be a joke.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Bill Condon; screenplay by Condon and Roy Johansen; director of photography, Stephen M. Katz; edited by Stephen Lovejoy; music by Philip Giffin; production designer, Richard Sherman; produced by Oscar L. Costo; released by the USA Network.

Starring Pierce Brosnan (Charlie Lattimore), Dey Young (Laura Lattimore), Antoni Corone (Mike Dowling), Raphael Sbarge (Robert Miner), Kim Thomson (Francesca Lavin), Mark L. Taylor (Henry Potter), J. Kenneth Campbell (Tim Ryder) and Todd Merrill (John Defazio).


Risky Business (1983, Paul Brickman), the director’s cut

There are three things I want to discuss about Risky Business (there isn’t room to cover the fourth, why Tom Cruise is so excellent in this film then mostly terrible for the next twelve years). The subjects are director’s cuts, teen movies and this film’s portrayal of women. All three are somewhat interconnected and maybe the director’s cut of the film is the best place to start.

Risky Business has no official director’s cut. One would have to make it for him or herself. It’s worth figuring out how to do. The original version of Risky Business, for those who don’t know, ends with Tom Cruise–an upper-middle class, three point one GPA white high school student–getting into Princeton because he’s running a brothel when the admissions interviewer shows up. It’s a slam dunk for American capitalism and, famously, not the ending director Paul Brickman originally went with. I think Leonard Maltin even mentions it in his capsule review….

I sat waiting for it, having heard about it for eleven plus years, knowing what was coming next… only for it never to arrive. Something else happens instead, something wonderful.

It’s hard to pick an adjective to describe the film’s portrayal of women–particularly Rebecca De Mornay’s late teens call girl (it’s always implied she’s only a little bit older than Cruise’s high school senior). The film objectifies her initially, then defames her as a con artist. Neither are really positive. The first makes sense for a movie about a teenager who ends up running a brothel with his classmates as customers. The second moves the story along. Where Risky Business is singular among the popular teen movies of the 1980s (it’s telling Business came just before the onslaught of John Hughes’s pictures, which demolished the genre in its infancy) is in the contradiction. That first sense, the objectification sense, it’s a sham. De Mornay’s character is slowly revealed to be a vulnerable, intelligent, frightened young woman. Cruise discovers these things at the same rate the viewer does and the film’s perspective changes as he does. Risky Business has lots of narration and Cruise has to sell it all. He succeeds.

The film takes responsibility for its characters and their complex relationships–both implied and on screen–with their peers and their parents. It’s never cheap, which is what sets it so far apart from the decade’s subsequent teen films. I’m not sure if I can think, past Risky Business and Rebel Without a Cause of a “teen” picture so maturely told. But the director’s cut is what puts Business in this too small class.

IMDb sort of spoils the director’s cut ending for anyone interested, but only slightly. It’s impossible to communicate the scene and the effect in words, if only because Brickman–for a first time director–not only knows how to compose a shot and how to direct actors, he also knows how to pick music. The Tangerine Dream score in Risky Business does much of the film’s stylistic heavy lifting. Brickman does a handful of a snazzy moves–some with editing, some with the narration, some with lighting and slowing down the film (nothing ostentatious, but certainly a little different from the rest of his approach)–and the score tempers it. The snazzy moves seem more natural because the score’s already come in and prepared the viewer. It’s a beautiful fit.

The acting–not just Cruise and De Mornay, who are both fantastic and have a great chemistry (even though her career’s had a far different trajectory than his, they really ought to do another film together)–is great. Brickman assembles an amazing supporting cast. Joe Pantaliano has one of the flashier roles as Guido the Killer Pimp, who enjoys honey in his tea (Brickman’s deft touches are another joy). Bronson Pinchot’s actually really good, as is Curtis Armstrong (but less surprise with him). Bruce A. Young and Nicholas Pryor are also great in small roles.

I first saw Risky Business about twelve years ago. It impressed the hell out of me. I’ve seen it in between then and now and the last time, it didn’t. I’m not sure how the theatrical version would sit with me today–it’s hard to believe I’d think much less of it, given that amazing sequence (both filmmaking and acting) when Cruise heads into the city to find De Mornay–but the director’s cut is sublime.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Paul Brickman; directors of photography, Bruce Surtees and Reynaldo Villalobos; edited by Richard Chew; music by Tangerine Dream; production designer, William J. Cassidy; produced by Jon Avnet and Steve Tisch; released by the Geffen Company.

Starring Tom Cruise (Joel Goodsen), Rebecca De Mornay (Lana), Joe Pantoliano (Guido), Richard Masur (Rutherford), Bronson Pinchot (Barry), Curtis Armstrong (Miles), Nicholas Pryor (Joel’s Father), Janet Carroll (Joel’s Mother), Shera Danese (Vicki), Raphael Sbarge (Glenn) and Bruce A. Young (Jackie).


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