Friday, February 3, 2012

Film Pairing — Your Cheating Heart, Intimate Murders, Titillating Tales

I confess. I am among those who watch 48 Hours, Dateline and 20/20 when they devote the hour to telling stories of real life murder. As a mystery writer I remain curious about what happens in the real world versus how we interpret such things for fiction. For the most part, these shows represent a type of murder, which isn’t numerically at least, a reflection of what many real life murders are, which is more often unsolvable gang-related slayings, the immediately solved, out of control bar fights, etc.

What we mostly see on network TV are the more interesting personal cases, quite often family related. They involve wives, husbands, and lovers. And while the stories aren’t necessarily classically told, the motives for these murders are classic. Jealousy, greed, revenge. Usually there are least three major people in the equation. The story is usually stretched to fill the time slot with questions like “Just what did she do that cloudy afternoon that could have caused her violent death?” Or, “Everyone liked Henry, but was he the God-fearing man and the devoted husband everyone thought he was?” Usually he wasn’t, but did he kill her? The narrator pushes the story forward in soft, insinuating tones. “No one knew what was waiting for that beautiful young woman on that moonless night, except the person who killed her and who might that be? The police are zeroing in the husband, but was there someone else who had a motive?”

If I were a network programmer, I would call these “intimate murders and titillating tales.” In the end, what we have is murder, mystery, suspense and sex. Hollywood, making the drama from scratch and with far more poetic license, does more, much more. They are able to cast more beautiful women, create more exciting visuals and shape the drama without the constraints of trying to stick to a pre-established set of facts. Usually the TV dramas amount to an arrest and trial. There are only two options: “guilty” or “not guilty.” In the movies, the end can be a complete surprise. And if nothing else, the big-screen, fictional version will have better lighting.

Enter Presumed Innocent. It is hard for me to imagine I first watched this 22 years ago. The reasons I did were probably Harrison Ford, who, with the exception of Indiana Jones, usually played a kind of everyman, and the fact the book was based on a Scott Turow novel. A marriage, an affair, a murder, unintentional consequences, a trial and a twist or two. Sometimes “innocence” isn’t so innocent. Brian Dennehy, Raul Julia and Paul Winfield provide solid support to a solid script in this box office success of 1990.

I hadn’t thought much about Diane Lane before Unfaithful. And while the movie might have been watchable without her, she brought incredible depth to a relatively common triangle. She could have been you or your wife. She was a good person who dares to step out of her predictable role as wife and mother for a moment, just a moment. Life, of course, is never the same. What might be considered shameful becomes much, much worse. The 2002 film features Richard Gere as the husband and Olivier Martinez as the other half of a brief but steamy affair.

Lane is remarkable here. But don’t take my word for it. Though the film came in for some mixed reviews, she was nominated for both the Academy and Golden Globe awards for best actress and won the best actress award from the National Society of Film Critics and another from the New York Film Critics. The film, more erotic than most crime films and perhaps because of its sensuousness, was a major box office hit.

One of the saving graces of both films, not that they necessarily need them, is that the characters are far from pure. Like most of us, just about everyone involved has committed a multitude of small sins and indiscretions. And all it takes is one small misstep to turn a whole life on end.

As accompaniment to this evening’s double feature — and with apologies to the purist drinkers among us — I recommend something rich and sweet. Maybe a Black Russian or a Brandy Alexander. It’s an emotional evening.

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