CIA secret agent Harry Hannan (Roy Scheider) has not been the same since his wife's murder. He suffers a nervous breakdown after the tragedy, which lands him in a sanitarium. Once released, he is pushed in front of a train and only narrowly escapes. Then he receives a cryptic letter that foretells his death. Now Harry suspects that he too is in danger and perhaps the target of a larger conspiracy, especially after he meets a graduate student named Ellie who might not be whom she claims to be, and malevolent types such as a homicidal prostitute and a pushy detective begin to crowd his sinister world. Are Harry's mournful anxieties just degenerating into paranoid madness? He has to discern reality from illusion while on the run because the menace is closing in on him fast.
Jonathan Demme directed this elegant homage to director Alfred Hitchock that features several sequences that mirror the suspense master's own. A shower curtain pulled quickly back might remind viewers of Psycho; a frame filled with people all wearing the same raincoat mimics the famed overhead shot of a crowd of umbrellas in Foreign Correspondent; and the ominous soundtrack was composed by Spellbound scorer Miklos Rosza.
Countless thrillers possess a promising premise, interesting characters, and an engrossing plot, only to careen off a cliff in their final act, inexplicably committing what amounts to cinematic harikari. 'Last Embrace,' an early Jonathan Demme film that honors Hollywood's undisputed Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, is one such movie, and its ultimate collapse is doubly frustrating because it's so unexpected. Quirky, tense, well constructed, elegantly directed, populated by fine actors, and laced with a wry wit, 'Last Embrace' has all the ingredients of a first-class thriller in the Hitchcock vein, and for well over an hour it regales us with an entertaining story peppered with plenty of mystery, intrigue, and sex appeal. But without warning it goes completely south, and once it jumps the rails it never gets back on track.
'Last Embrace,' like many Hitchcock pictures, begins by leading us down one path, before abandoning it and veering onto another. As the movie opens, we see Harry Hannan (Roy Scheider), who works for some vague, unnamed government espionage agency, recalling the violent death of his beloved wife (Sandy McLeod). Her untimely demise, for which he feels partially responsible, prompts a nervous breakdown, and after a few months in a sanatorium, a shaky, paranoid Harry resolves to go back to work. His agency, however, run by the oddball Eckart (Christopher Walken in a priceless cameo), has little use for damaged goods and doesn't believe Harry is ready to resume his duties. Frustrated and angry, Harry returns home to his Manhattan apartment only to find it has been sublet to plain-Jane anthropologist Ellie Fabian (Janet Margolin), who presents Harry with a cryptic note written in Biblical Hebrew that was slipped under the apartment door. Harry soon learns the scribbling is a death threat, but discovering who is trying to kill him is no easy task, and forces him to embark on a bizarre odyssey that leads to strange revelations, violent encounters, and an unlikely romance.
Based on the novel 'The 13th Man' by Murray Teigh Bloom, 'Last Embrace' is packed with twists, turns, and red herrings galore, yet unfortunately, the cumulative effect of such chicanery works against the film, making it feel both frenzied and gimmicky. While it's obvious we're on a wild ride and need to roll with the punches and suspend our disbelief, there comes a point when it all becomes just too much and we detach ourselves from the tale. In addition, the ultimate raison d'être for all the skullduggery, though oddly fascinating (and based on historical fact), doesn't seem strong enough to warrant such rash actions. Hitchcock could somehow weave far-fetched plot elements into the realm of reality - possibly because his characters are so relatable and we trust them - but at age 35, Demme was still ill-equipped to successfully accomplish such a task, and though he does yeoman's work crafting a clever, often captivating film, he doesn't seem to know when to rein himself in.
One thing Demme does know, however, is how to salute Hitchcock, both in subtle and overt manners, and he executes that aspect of the film to perfection. Though not as elegant as Brian De Palma, Demme has a firm grasp on the Hitchcock style, employing a fluid camera, high and low angle shots, and appropriately lush and dramatic music in the Bernard Herrmann vein by Miklos Rosza. (Herrmann, sadly, had passed away a few years earlier, so was unavailable, but Rosza was an inspired replacement, due to his prior experience scoring the 1945 Hitchcock film, 'Spellbound.') True Hitchcock mavens will get a kick out of spotting several nods to the Master's movies, including a lengthy homage to 'Vertigo,' a cheap yet effective shot at 'Psycho' (yes, I mean the shower scene), and swipes at 'North by Northwest' and 'Foreign Correspondent.' Demme even rips off a Hitchcock rip-off, staging his climax at Niagara Falls and taking us on a treacherous tour of the Cave of the Winds, just as Henry Hathaway did in the steamy Marilyn Monroe thriller, 'Niagara.' All these teases are great fun, but they're also a distraction, taking us out of the movie at key moments.
Scheider is no Cary Grant or James Stewart, but he wears the everyman suit well, softening his usual intense, macho demeanor with sufficient wit and charm. He excels in the action scenes, but can't generate the right amount of sexual heat with Margolin, whose performance never really rings true. It's a pivotal part, and her casting feels odd from the get-go. Though she's a fine actress, Margolin often doesn't seem quite up to the role's substantial rigors, making one wonder whether a star of greater stature could have done more. The always eccentric John Glover asserts himself well as Ellie's nerdy boyfriend, and eagle eyes will spot a young Mandy Patinkin in a vital bit.
'Last Embrace' is one of those frustrating films that has so much going for it, yet is unable to seal the deal. While I can forgive some of its plot holes, I can't get past the over-the-top action that comprises the movie's final half hour or forgive the finely constructed screenplay for inexplicably falling apart. As a Hitchcock homage, it has merit, but as a stand-alone thriller, 'Last Embrace' just doesn't measure up to the giants of the genre.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Last Embrace' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Though not nearly as lush-looking as many of Alfred Hitchcock's films, Kino's treatment of 'Last Embrace' does the film proud, thanks to a better-than-average 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that features solid clarity, contrast, and color timing. The source material only exhibits a few errant specks, and while grain levels flucuate, the amount of texture in the frame never overwhelms the image. Some noticeable fading afflicts the print, washing out hues and lending the picture a muted look, but exterior greens and blues still show up well and pastels are nicely rendered. Blacks are rich, whites are appropriately creamy, and fleshtones remain natural and stable throughout the course of the film. Close-ups are especially crisp, highlighting fine facial features well, and both background elements and shadow details are easy to discern. Best of all, any digital tinkering escapes notice, which allows this presentation to remain beautifully film-like.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track supplies clear, well-modulated sound that's devoid of any distortion and age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackle. Very little channel separation could be detected up front, but a wide dynamic scale manages the highs and lows well, allowing ambient nuances to shine and keeping more bombastic elements, such as the blaring church bells, in check. Though the roar of Niagara Falls sounds a bit muted due to the lack of a .LFE channel, other sonic accents, like gunfire and train rumbles are marvelously vibrant and distinct, and the dramatic music by Miklos Rosza is distinguished by excellent fidelity and tonal depth. ('Last Embrace' would mark the legendary composer's final feature film score.) Dialogue is always clear and easy to understand, despite some intermittent mumbling, and quiet stretches are marvelously pure and free of surface noise. A multi-channel mix would really ramp up the film's tension and make the action more immersive, but this track serves the story and production well.
Just a couple of supplements are included on the disc.
Interview with producer Michael Taylor (HD, 11 minutes) - The film's producer provides background on the project, praises Scheider for his commitment to his role and overall preparedness, and claims the actor was easy to work with, despite rumors to the contrary. Taylor is a bit defensive about the casting of Margolin and refuses to disucss other actresses who auditioned for the part. He also verifies the story's historical accuracy, talks about the Hitchcock connections, and addresses the movie's poor box office returns at the time of its release. Though far from revelatory, this is an interesting discussion that's worth checking out.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - All the film's high points are spoiled in this TMI preview.
Jonathan Demme's 'Last Embrace' embraces its Hitchcockian influences, but what starts as a delectable homage with an intriguing story and stylish presentation goes off the rails during its final half hour and leaves a decidedly bitter aftertaste. A sterling performance from a studly Roy Scheider and breezy tongue-in-cheek tone can't quite salvage this romantic thriller that only succeeds in making us pine for one of the authentic works by the original Master of Suspense. Kino's Blu-ray skimps on supplements, but features solid video and audio transfers that properly showcase the nefarious goings-on. Though 'Last Embrace' misses the bullseye by a fair margin, it's still better than many suspense yarns, and is definitely worth a look for fans of the genre and, of course, Sir Alfred.