Sunday, November 08, 2009

Romeo Is Bleeding (1993)

Hell is the Choices We Make

“You ever wonder what hell is like?
Maybe it ain’t the place you think.
Fire and brimstone?
Devils with horns poking you in the butt with a pitchfork?
What’s hell?
The time you should’ve walked…but you didn’t.
That’s hell.
You’re looking at it.”

How right Al Capone was when he said, “Once corrupted always controlled,” and this maxim comes into play in the marvelous 1993 neo-noir film, Romeo Is Bleeding. The film is from director Peter Medak who created the phenomenal film The Krays (1990), the true story of the infamous Kray twins, who ruled London’s East End crime world until things spiraled out of control. Medak also directed Let Him Have It (1991), the back drop story of Derek Bentley who was executed in 1953. Both The Krays and Let Him Have It are examinations of British crime viewed through a working-class point-of-view. While at first glance, Romeo Is Bleeding may seem quite different from The Krays and Let Him Have It, it’s a portrait of a working-class egoist who becomes trapped in a web of corruption and sex through his lust for wealth.

Romeo Is Bleeding is a frame story, and the film opens with a character named Jim Dougherty (Gary Oldman). It’s May 1st and Jim sits alone in the Holiday Diner, a café stuck out in the middle of the Arizona desert, and he reminisces through a photo album about “a guy” named Jack Grimaldi. The film then flashes back to the past and the life of its New York protagonist, a cocky, corrupt police sergeant named Jack (Gary Oldman):

“Jack was a romantic guy. Big dreams. Problem was there was always a little daylight between his dreams and his wallet. He was a working stiff. 56 Grand a year and never made it past sergeant.”

Using a strong narrative voice-over, the script written by Hilary Henkin, shows that Jack’s problems stem from exposure to the lavish sex-soaked world of gangsters. These are men with expensive tastes who wear designer suits, live in palm-tree lined estates, and sport with beautiful women. Jack envies these men and the lives they lead, and as he watches the orgies between middle-aged, grey-haired gangsters and gorgeous, scantily clad women, Jack thinks he deserves that kind of life too. After all, he reasons, what do these men have “that old Jack ain’t got?” The voice-over makes the point that while most men would stop at envy, Jack goes beyond that: “Inside he wasn’t like anybody. He was doing something about those big dreams.” And when the film begins, Jack isn’t on the slippery moral slope-- he’s thoroughly corrupted.

A sense of admiration radiates towards Jack from his fellow cops, and they’ve nicknamed him Romeo. He regales them with tales of his latest conquests with a deadpan, self-assured manner that generates more than a little envy. One of the cops asks: “How come nobody loves me like that?” and Jack’s sarcastic reply underscores his notions of superiority. But Jack’s private life is overly complicated, and it’s about to become impossible. Not only is he terminally unfaithful to his sexy, beautiful wife, Natalie (Annabella Sciorra), but his simple-minded, pathetically eager-to-please mistress, waitress Sheri (Juliette Lewis) is trying to pressure Jack for more than a quick grope. Sheri is in love with Jack, but she’s wasting her time. Someone should have told her that Jack’s biggest love affair is with himself. Jack thinks he’s really something--from his back street affairs, his joking with the boys, to the way he’s on the payroll of local heavy, Sal (Michael Wincott), trusted henchman of mobster, Don Falcone (Roy Scheider).

Jack’s problems begin when he informs Sal of the whereabouts of Nick Gazzara (Dennis Farina). Nick, safely stashed and busy stuffing his face at the Monte Carlo Hotel, is about to sing for the feds about Don Falcone in exchange for immunity and a new identity in the witness protection program. Jack’s job is simple; he tells Sal where Nick is and is then amply compensated for his trouble: “a quarter goes into a phone booth and 65 grand comes out.” To Jack, it’s all about “feeding the hole” in the back garden where he keeps his payola from the mob. But this time the hit against Gazzara is carried out by “that Russian bitch” Mona Demarkov (the gorgeous, gravel-voiced Lena Olin), a woman who “don’t give a fuck about nothing.” According to Sal, Demarkov is “very modern” and “she wants it all. You know the kind.” Demarkov is now in custody for the hit on Gazzara, and that makes her a liability. Sal offers Jack his usual 65 G to inform on Demarkov’s location…

The film establishes that Jack has two vulnerabilities--women and money--although just which vice is number one to Jack can be argued. But while he has a healthy respect for money and the things it can buy, Jack sees women as brainless playthings to be toyed with and then discarded. Some women go along with that attitude, and some women don’t. Sheri for example, works hard at brainstorming sex fantasies for Jack’s self-centered needs--dancing, stripping, a little B&D--all interspersed with plaintive, disappointed, and tired questions, such as “is it hard yet, baby?” The plot cleverly juxtaposes the lavish sex fantasies of the rich with Jack’s working class version--an overworked waitress pretending to be a lusty Budweiser girl during her coffee break.

Jack accepts all of Sheri’s efforts with an air of boredom and entitlement, and while he’s moderately nicer to his wife, Natalie, there are dangerous undercurrents in their trivial conversations. In one scene, Jack arrives home (late as usual), to dinner and a bottle of wine sitting on the table. He bitches about the meal mumbling that he wishes she’d stop reading those cooking magazines and ending with, “whatever happened to meat and potatoes?” And this is, of course, a dangerous leading question that Natalie zones in on as she edgily replies: “I don’t know Jack, you tell me?”

Jack’s love affair with himself allows him to operate in the grime and the double cross with the idea that he’ll come out ahead because he’s surrounded by idiots. While this may be true in the case of Sheri, it isn’t true about the other women in his life, and when he becomes involved with Mona Demarkov, “he wondered how smart she was.” He should have stuck with that thought, because against Demarkov, Jack is wildly outclassed. Not only is Mona Demarkov extremely intelligent, she’s a lethal, irresistible combination of Jack’s two vices: money and sex. When the amazingly sexy Demarkov makes her moves on Jack, it’s impossible to say whether he’s ultimately seduced by a case full of money or her garter belt. Since Demarkov drapes herself half-dressed over the money, she knows quite well that Jack cannot resist the double lure--and predictably Jack is mesmerized by the sight of the greenbacks and her black lace stockings.

Since Jack lacks a moral core, he isn’t capable of making a decision based on morality, and as an egoist, Jack is only concerned with his own self-interest. Falcone, like Demarkov, understands Jack and makes the point: “You know right from wrong. You just don’t care.” And Falcone’s assessment of Jack is dead right. Jack makes his decisions based on what he thinks is best for Jack, and unfortunately, he interprets that to feeding his self-interest with women and money. Of course with that operating principle it’s just a matter of time before Jack lands so deep in the muck, he can’t climb back out. As the story continues and Jack switches employers, he fails to see the warning signs, underestimates his enemies, and fails to ask himself the appropriate questions.

Jack gradually slips from his power spot as corrupt cop, unfaithful husband, and much-envied Romeo. His physical deterioration parallels his loss of power and control. Whereas in the beginning of the film the males appear to hold the power roles (Sal, Jack and Falcone), with the females trapped in the roles assigned to them, the appearance of Demarkov subverts male dominance. The script hints that Falcone and Demarkov were once romantically involved, and of course, it’s impossible to imagine Demarkov in any sort of relationship--let alone one with a male as the power broker. Once Demarkov is unleashed, and Jack begins to lose control, all the other female roles shift in an unspoken revolt of sorts. Sheri takes a stand (or tries to), and Natalie, the long-suffering wife has some surprises of her own.

In classic noir, women are usually seen as trapped in the roles assigned to them by the males in their lives, and of course then bored and sexually frustrated, women turn to seduction and enroll men as muscle in the plan for murder (Too Late for Tears, Double Indemnity). Sheri and Natalie accept the roles assigned to them by Jack--not that they are happy about it, but they continue to function in relationships in which they exist solely to keep Jack fed, pleasured and in clean laundry. Sheri, in spite of being cast as the floozy girlfriend, isn’t the femme fatale. Instead she’s just seen as another one of Jack’s sad little victims, shoved into an unsatisfying role. Romeo Is Bleeding offers an updated femme fatale in Dermarkov--an intelligent psychopath, a lone she-wolf, who prefers to do her own killing. Jack’s wife, Natalie is also intelligent--far more intelligent than Jack realizes. Jack’s pathetic double-life as a Lothario was never as secret as he imagined, but he was too busy admiring himself to stop and wonder what went on in her head. While Natalie is supportive, faithful and fairly docile up to a point, her subsequent actions counterbalance Demarkov’s extraordinary violence and explosive power-grab.

Romeo Is Bleeding is non-stop neo-noir action complete with flash-forwards and a nightmare sequence. It’s a morality tale of sorts--a man who had everything--except it wasn’t enough, ends up with exactly what he deserves. By the end of the film, in a conclusion that echoes shades of Sartre’s No Exit, Jack is left to rot in a living hell full of memories. Stuck at the Holiday Diner--the planned destination for Nick Gazzara, he’s “better off dead.” The voice-over, sometimes a belated conscience and sometimes a vehicle of regret, makes the point that “A man don’t always do what’s best for him.” And in Romeo Is Bleeding’s character-is-fate scenario could Jack have done anything differently?

Written by Guy Savage


1 comment:

  1. While I've long been a fan of this film I've never thought of it as noir, but as more of a straight up character study/morality tale. As though the writer had watched the Godfather and asked "What if we took Fredo and transplanted him to the no-mans-land between the cops and the mobsters?"
    Your thoughtful analysis though makes me realize that it does indeed walk in noir's dirty slippers even if it doesn't share some of that genre's more obvious visual characteristics. Thanks.


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