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Into The Psyche of a Broken Man…revisiting John Landis’ Into The Night May 16, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 1980s, Desert Island Films, Drama, After Hours at Cafe 80s, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Crime , 7 comments

Into The Night (John Landis, 1985, USA)

Dir. John Landis; screenplay by Ron Koslow; starring Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dan Aykroyd, John Landis, Bruce McGill, David Bowie, Richard Farnsworth, Clu Gulager

John Landis might be remembered for Trading Places, Blues Brothers, and An American Werewolf In London. He may be remembered by his detractors for the horrific accident that occurred during the filming of The Twilight Zone. For me, his career should be remembered for the 1985 masterpiece Into The Night.

The film, starring Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer, is a little seen gem (not unlike his vampire flick Innocent Blood) that sheds the genre trappings of say An American Werewolf and the iconic prominence of stars and celebrity in, for example, Trading Places, Blues Brothers, or Coming To America. It’s a film that focuses on character, very much inspired by its time, with Landis not having to worry about special-effects (ala man changing into werewolf) or eccentric spectacle (look no further than The Blues Brothers or Animal House). It’s Landis’ most assured piece of filmmaking, and debatably, his greatest ever achievement.

The film is also prominent because it was the first Landis made after the tragedy of 1982 when Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le, and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, were killed when a helicopter stunt went wrong. Landis and other production crew were initially blamed and charged with manslaughter. Many people still hold Landis responsible for the deaths but the fact remains that after a long trial, Landis and the other crew members were acquitted in a court of law. The director was clearly deeply affected by the terrible deaths – more than many give him credit for – and this can be seen in Into The Night. His vision is pessimistic and bleak. He shows a disregard for commercialism and a materialistic world, and uses Los Angeles (the most fictionally abused city by American cinema, where dreams are made and broken) as his backdrop. His main character is confused, alone, miserable. He can’t sleep, almost an indication he has to spend more waking moments in his misery than those who can sleep. The film is very a much an investigation into what happens when conventional life loses its boundaries and suddenly a cavernous space opens up with infinite possibility. It’s about a frightening reality that isn’t governed by pop-culture, television adverts, or consumerism. Landis depicts a world where we have to make choices – not always the right ones – but choices that aren’t necessarily straight-forward. Ed, the main character, learns what he wanted by the end of the movie but can’t fathom what it is at the beginning. The choice, therefore, isn’t always in front of us, and we might never know what it really is, but it exists.

Retrospectively, it is wonderful how director John Landis has actor Jeff Goldblum working in a plain office doing a job that needs no other distinction than appearing awfully boring, and probably requiring its workers to turn-up nine to five, five days a week. His job description is not required, the only thing worth noting the fact it has something to do with the machination of technology. It’s an idea that extends to his life in that he is so bored with the everyday machination of his being (like in the board meeting when his turn to speak interrupts the flow because he isn’t doing his work properly), he’s inadvertently trying to break down the boundaries of the familiar conventions that bind him. It’s almost as if he wants to breakout but he can’t bring himself to do it - a fear of the unknown, of what isn’t conventionally part of his life - preventing his desperation to break free. The fact he has insomnia signals that inadvertent rebellion. Coming home one day to hear his wife screaming in orgasmic pleasure with an anonymous stranger triggers his pursuit of change – his pursuit for adventure.

Into The Night shares some similarity to Scorsese’s After Hours - two films that flirt with the idea of ‘ordinary’ thirty-something men working in jobs that appear to trap them, both looking for the catalyst that opens new territory and new ideas. They share the femme fatale and both are primarily set at night, but these films are not about a lewd concourse between a man and a woman, they’re about musing about life outside of one’s own and finding adventure when the walls of the American dream have broken down.

Into The Night begins with a plane landing, followed by shots of corporate Americana before gently moving towards a quiet suburb, entering the bedroom of a house owned by Ed Okin (Jeff Goldblum). He sits in bed, wide awake, next to his sleeping wife. Ed has insomnia. He tells his friend Herb (Dan Aykroyd) who recommends he uses it to his advantage and should take the late flight to Las Vegas. He’s unsure at first but when he comes home to find his wife having an affair, he heads to the airport. Parking the car, Ed takes a moment to survey his predicament, but his attention is quickly removed to a distraught young woman who gets in the car and begs him to drive away. Four armed men chase the vehicle out of the parking lot but Ed is able to escape. The girl tells him her name is Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer), and that she doesn’t know why the SAVAK (Iranian secret police) are following her, but they murdered her friend as they got off the plane. Ed probes her for information that she isn’t willing to provide, she just asks him to take her home. However, Ed is about to get more than he bargained for as an already long night begins to throw up more mystery, more murder, and a lot more intrigue, as he inadvertently becomes another player in a dangerous cat and mouse adventure, set against the backdrop of a cold Los Angeles night.

Essentially, Into The Night is about superficiality, in that life is based on false pretences. If we live our lives by pre-conditions what will happen if we are faced with a series of unconditional, uncertain avenues? Ed Okin is told that Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer) has nothing of her own, that she has only what is given or what she takes. This is mirrored in him because his own life is simply based on what has been given to him such as the conventions of getting married, having a steady job, a car and a house – all things that are supposed to equate to happiness (in both the conventional sense of the word, and the way such life choices are viewed by common American values) but there’s something distinctly missing in his life. He’s accepted all these things because he knows of no other way but if they are supposed to make you happy, then why isn’t he? Director Landis continually abuses our senses with the superficial world that surrounds us – Diana is a model for instance, and Ed examines the stylised photos at her apartment. Her brother idolises Elvis and tries to live like the man himself, driving around in a car that proclaims ‘The King Lives’. Indeed, when Ed and Diana visit a film set in search of her friend, it is the artificial props that cause Ed a problem as he leans against a false wall and falls through it, and sits on a papier-mâché rock crumpling it to a pulp. When he tries to make a call from a payphone two prop engineers look at him questioningly as they pick up the prop and take the phone from his ear.

It’s interesting that the men that chase Ed and Diana around the city destroy every place they visit looking for clues to their whereabouts, as they put to the scrap heap the very physical embodiments of the superficiality that bind us. They break a film director’s awards, smash televisions, vinyl records and stereos. In essence, Landis reverses the narrative psychology of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ character roles, in that what the corrupt, and potentially evil SAVAK are doing is the very thing Ed needs to save himself. The SAVAK agents are not content with what is given to them, they are chasing the riches. When Ed and Diana meet, it’s at the airport and Diana asks Ed why he is there. He tells her that his life isn’t working out somehow, but Diana wonders why he is drawn to the airport. He has no answer, but it seems to lead to the idea that he inadvertently tries to chase the riches, like his insomnia being an inadvertent rebellion to life’s constraints. The airport signifies a place of relatively infinite possibilities with its key to the world – other countries, other cultures, other people. Finally, when cornered by the Iranian secret police and questioned Ed starts to fictionalise his reason for being caught up in the situation – ‘I’m on her majesty’s secret service, we’ve got the place surrounded’. Shrugging he says, ‘I’m really from immigration, we thought you had some illegal aliens working around here.’ Ed begins to breakdown the superficiality that binds him, embracing it, consciously fictionalising his predicament into a fantasy world that holds no such boundaries, conventions or constraints.

Landis paints Ed’s adventure much like a dream, Goldblum’s forlorn facial expression indicating he can’t remember the last time he slept. He allows bits of information to come through but Landis captivates the viewer by a languid narrative that is part road-movie, part mystery, which seems at times as rebellious to convention as Ed wants to be. Landis takes the film on quite unique tangents, his unhurried pace a sign of Ed’s tired insomniac. In between quips about American consumerism, he keeps Ed and the audience in the dark, much like the night that surrounds them, and through following a rather arbitrary plot direction Landis is able to instill the indistinctive, incomprehension of a nightmare that bares no outcome. Indeed, the film could be seen as Ed’s dream played-out in reality, though it takes the form of a nightmare because that is how he sees his life. It’s ironic then, that to learn from a nightmare you have to stay awake all the way through it, but that again is another example of the film’s rebellion of constraints that bind society.

Whether Into The Night is an interpretation of Ed’s dream or reality itself, it’s quite unforgiving in its bleak outlook. Landis depicts a world of corrupt excess and pessimism rooted in big business capitalism that permeates from characters that are seemingly miserable in their riches, or chasing such riches within the confines of violent, greed-ridden crime. The SAVAK want Diana’s diamonds and are willing to kill anyone that gets in their way, while a mysterious French entrepreneur with a British henchman also wants to get their hands on the loot (Landis using their very different nationalities to suggest that the problem is hardly local, perhaps a rather haphazard criticism of globalisation), all manoeuvring in the criminal underworld. Yet the ones that have riches fair no better as Diana’s ex-sugar Daddy is a dying cripple who hates his wife, and whose many expensive cars lay soullessly in an oversized driveway. Similarly, a Hollywood producer is more dismayed at his film awards being smashed than the well-being of his trophy-girlfriend. When the police ask he claims he doesn’t know what happened to her even though her dead body lays a hundred yards away on the beach, his preoccupations going no further than his broken living room. Landis provides a quite horrid sense of life based on commercialised excess to the point of it being an epidemic that breeds through a weakened, consumerist society. This is beautifully depicted in Diana’s brother whose fascinated, idolisation of Elvis Presley has turned him into a social misfit who struggles to even afford a downtrodden, one bedroom apartment. In a sense, it isn’t apparent what Ed really wants, but he doesn’t know himself, because his life has become alien to him. When a gun is held against Diana’s head and he’s facing the possibility of his own death, he says: ‘Let me ask you something, maybe you can help me. What’s wrong with my life? Why is my wife sleeping with someone else? Why can’t I sleep?’. This is a haunting reminder that the answers are a little hard to come by when the reassuring conventions that govern one’s life have broken and you’re looking beyond the profit-margins and collector’s items, the adverts for cheap dinners and the fast cars that guarantee the trophy-blonde.

Into The Night has been criticised for being overly self-referential and it would be unwise to overlook Landis’ constant use of cameos in the form of ‘director’ friends that show-up constantly in the movie (from Lawrence Kasdan, David Cronenberg and Landis himself, to Amy Heckerling, Jonathan Lynn, Paul Mazursky, and Don Siegel, plus many more), and his homage to one of the first films that could be termed post-modern - Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein - which is shown within the film. In many ways, Into The Night acknowledges itself as an entity apart from the ‘real’ world, much like the nineties vogue kick-started by Wes Craven with New Nightmare and continued through Scream and its sequels. Here were movies where the characters acknowledged their existence within a film, their lives governed by conventions set out in fictionalised accounts within previous films. It’s certainly an idea that examples Landis’ love of movies, but also shows how popular culture governs cultural identity as reality and fiction blur, so that they are hardly separate entities at all. Taken at face value, this is as superficial as the phony-reality the film criticises, but at its root it’s a post-modern fear of mass cultural identity disappearing into itself, so that Ed’s question of ‘what’s wrong with my life’ becomes the rather more complex ‘what is life itself?’

Landis has certainly concocted an enjoyable journey into the enclosed, urban expanse of inner-city Los Angeles - an ‘island’ surrounded by the build-up of its own excesses. Ed’s adventure is frequently amusing, largely through Goldblum’s laconic, deadpan performance but Landis juxtaposes the humour (the SAVAK’s pursuit painted in cartoon-like styling as if they are bumbling bad guys following a treasure map) with reasonably graphic violence (when a girl is drowned, and when David Bowie’s psychotic Englishman kills some people who offered to help Diana). The film takes no half-measures right down to a genuine fear of the upper classes, and a lack of confidence in an evidently corrupt police force. Yet the film’s sense of ambiguity (both in Ed’s character whose core is born out of an existentialism that is suggested by the world that surrounds him, and in the mystery of Diana’s femme-fatale) is what holds everything together. The film’s episodic nature is far more fulfilling than the term might suggest, each segment offering another clue to Ed’s predicament and his world, rather than a narrative cog for the plot to move forward. Landis is far more concerned with Ed’s life than Diana’s survival, that everything that happens is simply a clue to where ‘X’ marks the spot, not in terms of hidden treasure but in Ed himself. For Ed, the ‘gold’ is the answer to his question ‘what’s wrong with my life’, and for Landis, it is the utterly brilliant premise for us to find out. This is a true, underrated, eighties classic.

Rating: 5 out of 5

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