Ken Russell has always liked to outrage. He's been at it for years. One might think that he would have run out of ways to offend people by now, but he's still going strong. He was only mildly controversial in his last film, Altered States (the best he could do was a little light drug and sex stuff, but he did manage to make waves by annoying the screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, so much that Chayefsky removed his name from the film). Russell is back in the old Women in Love and The Devils form. He's got them walking out of Crimes of Passion outraged, just the way he likes it.
Russell manages this feat by a combination of explicit sexual scenes and what may be the most foul language ever heard on the screen. The latter is made even more shocking by the way it's used, intermixed with Bible spoutings. Russell throws in a little Grand Guignol, since he isn't really comfortable making a film without it, and voila! Something to offend almost everybody.
Crimes of Passion is about love and sex, and particularly about those who have problems with them. Well, that's most of us, but Russell isn't interested in slight confusions and little hurts. We're talking *real* problems here. The central character, played by Kathleen Turner, is a glacially repressed fashion designer by day, and a hooker by night. Anthony Perkins, playing a crazed street preacher, is uncertain whether he wants to save Turner, screw her, or kill her. Maybe all three. By contrast, John Laughlin's character is well off. He's just stuck in a marriage without true love and has fallen for a woman who can only relate to men as tricks.
The plot concerns Laughlin's encounter with Turner, initiated when he takes a night job as a private eye, spying on her to see if she's selling industrial secrets. He discovers that she is doing something far more unlikely. The straightlaced designer who freezes when she talks to men becomes China Blue, a streetwalker, by night. China Blue will perform any man's fantasy, for a price, and is always in control. Laughlin is in the process of discovering that his wife doesn't really enjoy sex with him, or for that matter, anything else they do together. He finds out that what he really wants is Turner. But does he want China Blue or the full woman, who is so schizophrenically split? Can he bring the halves together?
Meanwhile, Anthony Perkins waits in the wings, playing a deranged, self-proclaimed preacher. His sermons are the height of weirdness, as fire and brimstone unexpectedly gives way to sexual fantasy expressed in the most explicit terms. These speeches are one of the most fascinating things about the film, and Perkins delivers them brilliantly. Of course, we know from the moment we first lay eyes on him that this preacher is crazy. After all, he's being played by Anthony Perkins, and screen convention states that street preachers are always crazy.
Eventually, the strange story begins to take some conventional turns, which is rather a pity. In the end, there are no great surprises. Writer Barry Sandler's inability to find a suitable ending is disappointing, but the dialog he has written is excellent throughout and the situations have a strong central interest. Ken Russell's direction is also fine, particularly in his handling of the actors. Perkins' casting removed any chance of true suspense, but he plays the role so well that one can't fault that. Laughlin is good as a self described Boy Scout who suddenly finds himself taking a trip into the bizarre. The real acting honors go to Kathleen Turner, though. She takes incredible chances, and does things that many actresses would be unwilling to do. Her character, while always interesting, is more pitiable than admirable, and Turner does not try to portray her as just a good girl gone wrong. She has major problems, and great confusions. This role confirms Turner as one of the most important actresses in Hollywood.
Crimes of Passion is also well supported by its cinematographer, who gives the film an appropriately sleazy look in places, yet manages to show the beauty in even cheap, neon-lit hotel rooms. Any cinematographer who can avoid the pitfall of making inappropriately pretty pictures deserves praise. Making pictures which are simultaneously garish and beautiful is an accomplishment. I fear I do not have his name available, but whoever he is, he did a good job. Not so Rick Wakeman, who composed, or rather plagiarized, the score. The soundtrack is an electronic trashing of Dvorak's New World Symphony, with three or four themes beaten relentlessly into the ground. Dvorak isn't credited, which, under the circumstances, is the way he would have wanted it. Wakeman is lucky that he already has a reputation. If this were his first score, he would never get a chance to compose another.
Crimes of Passion is definitely for adults only, R rating or no. Russell fought many battles and made many cuts to prevent an X rating, but what remains is still far more erotic than almost any other Hollywood film ever made. I think that the film got it's rating just because the MPAA rating board was tired of fighting. I detected at least one place where an obscenity had been looped out, but, considering what was left, cleaning the film up this way was like putting out a fire with an eyedropper. Those offended by explicit sexual scenes, or by explicit sexual talk, or especially by the juxtaposition of both with religion, would do well to avoid this film. Crimes of Passion is definitely not for all tastes, and I expect that many will disagree with my assessment, but I liked it. It had some, though perhaps not enough, courage, and the filmmakers were willing to address issues that many people wouldn't even talk about in private. The execution doesn't match the intentions, but, considering how ambitious the intentions were, that may have been too much to ask.
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