“Don’t you ever call me a maniac!”
Whenever The Coen Bros. release a new film I find myself running to the theater like a child who’s eaten too much cotton candy. Their oeuvre is pretty much beyond reproach – even their bad movies are better than 95% of the dreck produced in Hollywood. Their latest offering, Hail, Caesar! hit theaters a few weeks ago, becoming a fantastic-if-slight entry into their impeccable filmography. With a heady mix of screwball comedy – Raising Arizona (1987), The Big Lebowski (1998) – and cerebral prestige pics – Barton Fink (1991), No Country For Old Men (2007) – it’s easy to forget that they came up working on campy genre flicks with Sam Raimi.
Oddly enough, it was the bungling kidnappers from Hail, Caesar! that reminded me of that fact. Watching the mismatched pair fumble with an unconscious body as they stuffed it into the back of a delivery van, I kept thinking back to the deranged villains from Raimi’s 1985 film, Crimewave … co-written by none other than Joel and Ethan Coen. Once that bug got in my ear, revisiting Crimewave became a foregone conclusion. But that proved easier said than done.
I first saw Crimewave when I was 11 years old. I’d made a habit of sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night to watch weird movies on HBO. Needless to say, the warped reality of the film left an indelible impression on my young mind. It seems I’m in the minority, though. Since its release, Crimewave has slipped steadily from cult classic to largely forgotten. At the moment, the Raimi/Coen mashup is getting zero streaming love from Netflix, iTunes or Amazon. I had to track down a copy of the Blu-Ray to get my peepers on it again. That cost me $20. I’m happy to say it was worth every penny. I should preface that last statement by telling you one simple fact – Crimewave is not a very good movie. In fact, most Crimewave is terrible. But sometimes that’s a good thing.
The film opens mid-story with a speeding car full of nuns rushing to an unknown destination. On the radio, the grim report of a serial killer’s impending execution plays. As the name Victor Ajax is uttered, the nuns cross themselves in prayer. We immediately cut to Victor (Reed Birney) being ushered to the electric chair by prison guards. Along the way, he begins to spin a confounding tale of the events that led him there in hopes of proving his innocence. As Victor is strapped into the chair, that story begins to take shape.
It’s one twisted tall tale. And a perfect setup for a ’50s style pulp-crime film. And in many ways, that’s exactly what Crimewave is. There’s lying, cheating businessmen. Shady backroom dealings with stylized lighting. A classy dame who may or may not be able to look out for herself. A couple of psychotic henchman with unusually violent tendencies. And even an everyday hero thrust into the extraordinary events by his misguided sense of chivalry. But Raimi has no time for hard-nosed pulp. Aided by The Coens, Raimi turns this clever pulp setup into a violent, madcap adventure. Crimewave is sort of a love story. Sort of a violent crime film. And sort of a slapstick comedy in The Three Stooges vein. A true kitchen-sink of a film that’s framed by the question of whether or not Victor will fry.
With Raimi’s signature blend of campy, whacked out violence, daffy dialogue and way over-the-top acting bleeding into every frame of Crimewave, it’s best viewed as a live-action cartoon. One where bad guys are really bad, forks are legit weapons, an entire room can shift by tugging at the carpet and bowling balls are comically dropped on heads. That bowling ball bit even comes with the twittering of little birds on the soundtrack. True Raimi style. Yes, that same gory giddiness that plays through Raimi’s offerings from Darkman (1990) to Army of Darkness (1992) to Spider-Man (2002) is well on display in Crimewave.
And throughout Raimi’s film, over-the-top becomes a bit of a mantra. As every whacked-out scenario plays out, the film escalates to comically insane heights. Credit the actors for keeping straight faces with the material long enough finish the film. And credit Raimi for getting the campiest most out of his motley cast. As dweebish fish out of water Victor, Birney delivers a charmingly unhinged portrayal of a near delusional nice guy. As Nancy, the object of Victor’s misguided affection, Sheree J. Wilson gives a sultry turn as a proto-feminist damsel in distress. Of course, they’re both outshined by Bruce Campbell – Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981) partner in crime – who gives a deliciously sleazy performance as Renaldo. There’s nothing in the Campbell/Raimi catalogue that quite compares to Campbell’s work here. It’s worth noting that the actor was originally slated to play the lead in Crimewave. At some point in pre-production one of the film’s producers famously quipped, “No fucking way in hell this clown stars in the picture,” and that was that. I like to think there’s alt-universe version of Crimewave where Campbell plays both rolls.
That brings us to the film’s demented villains Faron (Paul Smith) and Arthur (Brion James). You may recognize Smith as Bluto from Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980). James you’ll know from Blade Runner (1982) and a score of other oddball roles over the past 30 years. Of their performances here, I’m not quite sure what to say. James is all over the place with Arthur, playing the maniacal, rat-faced clown with a high-pitched squeak of a voice that’s as grating as it is hilarious. You’ll notice that Smith’s vocal delivery is even weirder. That’s because the actor was at odds with Raimi throughout the shoot. So much so that he refused to say his lines the way Raimi wanted. All of Smith’s lines were re-recorded in post-production. It’s impossible not to notice the overdubbing. But the effect gives a disembodied, otherworldly evilness to Faron. As with every element of the film, if you can get on board with it, you’ll have a hell of a lot of fun. Crimewave is a cartoon, after all. By that standard, Faron and Arthur are pitch-perfect cartoon villains.
They’re also pitch-perfect Coen Bros. villains. One look at this laughably evil Laurel & Hardy and it’s hard not to see the template for Gale and Evelle Snoats from Raising Arizona (1987), Carl and Gaear from Fargo (1996) and yes, the bungling kidnappers from Hail Caesar!. Faron and Arthur even pursue their targets with the same detached determinism of Blood Simple‘s (1984) Loren Visser and No Country For Old Men‘s Anton Chigur – not to mention that Arthur kills with the same sort of invented weaponry that Chigur so relishes. And the violence that the men perpetuate, while completely over-the-top, is actually real-world plausible. One particularly inspired scene sees Faron’s attempted murder of a housewife/witness almost undone by a flower pot being knocked off a window ledge. It’s taut, brutal, quiet and sort of hilarious. Just the sort of comic bleakness you’d expect from The Coens. Oh, and Fargo fans should easily spot the similarities between that housewife and Jean Lundegaard – straight down to the pink bathrobe!
The Coen’s influence hardly stops there. Fans of The Bros.’ films will spot more than a few of the Directors’ staples. There’s a moment in the film after a woman has witnessed a murder. She screams and the camera pushes in on her mouth and seems to go straight down her throat. It’s a shot The Coens use in both Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, and it has the same trippy effect here. Regarding Barton Fink, don’t overlook Crimewave‘s jazz club dance-off ’cause it’s virtually identical to John Turturro’s now iconic USO scene in Fink. And if you want to keep digging, it’s impossible not to see Crimewave‘s Ernest Trend as the template for A Serious Man‘s Larry Gopnick. I know, tracking all these similarities is enough to make you positively giddy. I say embrace that feeling and enjoy the ride.
And trust me, it’s a hell of a fun ride. Good film or not, Crimewave is a fascinating look at the formative years of some of cinema’s most intriguing figures. If you’re wondering why those figures haven’t worked together since – minus The Coens’ limited contributions to Raimi’s Darkman (1990) – it’s because Crimewave’s production was a perfect storm of chaos. Difficult actors, studio interference and budgetary shortcomings all contributed to the film’s overall C-movie feel.
While those factors also contributed to the film’s undeniably campy, no-budget charm, the production left a sour taste in the mouths of all involved. Raimi considered giving up filmmaking altogether after Crimewave. Whatever you think of the film, its production pushed Raimi to get back to his roots and make Evil Dead II (1987) – we should all be thankful for that. For their part, The Coens immediately set their sights on making a violent, campy classic all their own. That turned into Raising Arizona. And we all know what Raimi and The Coens have done in the three decades since.
Released in 1985, Crimewave was an utter disaster at the box-office. Campbell has stated that the film “wasn’t released more that it escaped.” In spite of its flaws, Crimewave remains a compelling blend of styles and substance from future masters … all wrapped up in a delightfully campy disaster. A disaster that you really should experience for yourself, whether that’s for the first time or the tenth. Good luck finding a copy. And if you can’t, just drop me a line. I’ll gladly lend you mine.