Tuesday, November 30, 2010

LAST EMBRACE: When Harry Met Ellie

"It begins with an ancient warning.  It ends at the edge of Niagara Falls.  In between there are 5 murders.  Solve the mystery.  Or die trying."

Harry DOES believe in spooks!
The poster for Jonathan Demme’s 1979 thriller Last Embrace grabbed me during its release in 1979!  The multi-Oscar-winner The Silence of the Lambs was Demme's first major suspense thriller, but it wasn’t the first film he’d made in that genre. That honor goes to Demme’s 1979 thriller Last Embrace (LE), which I first saw and loved during its original theatrical run. 

Despite the romantic beginning,  Last Embrace means business!
Poor Harry and Dorothy Hannan should've gone to Westworld instead!
At the time, LE was touted as a romantic Hitchcockian thriller. While LE definitely has strong elements of Vertigo and other Hitchcock classics, I’ve always considered it to be more of a paranoia thriller with film noir touches, which, as a friend quipped, perhaps makes LE
a kind of  “film shachor.”   Roy Scheider, cool and craggy yet suave, had long been one of our family’s favorite tough-guy actors.  At first glance, he might not seem vulnerable enough to be convincing as a beleaguered paranoia film hero.  However, Scheider proved to be perfect casting as Harry Hannan, a government agent with more baggage than Louis Vuitton. Harry is still heartbroken and guilt-ridden about his beloved wife, Dorothy (Sandy McLeod from Romancing the Stone, and Demme's Something Wild), getting killed while she accompanied him as cover on one of his assignments.   After he spends time in a Connecticut sanitarium recovering from his nervous breakdown, Harry has barely had a chance to lose his institutional pallor when he’s almost shoved in front of an express train. When he returns to his spy agency in New York City, his slippery spymaster Eckart (Christopher Walken from Pulp Fiction; Oscar winner for The Deer Hunter; and Oscar nominee for Catch Me If You Can; and so much more!) keeps him at arm’s length.  Maybe Eckart thinks Harry’s sharp cream-colored suit makes him too conspicuous for undercover work. Worst of all, Harry discovers he’s one of several Jewish men getting death threats written in Biblical Hebrew from an unknown “Avenger of Blood”…and so far, he’s the only one still alive!
Don't mess with New York commuters, especially spies!
Everyone scoffs at poor Harry’s jitters. Who can he trust? Certainly not his brother-in-law (Charles Napier from The Blues Brothers; Melvin and Howard; the animated TV sitcom The Critic), a fellow spook who blames Harry for his sister Dorothy's violent death: “You’re careless with people, Harry.”  I think it's safe to say holiday dinners at the Hannan household are tense at best! Our hero eventually joins forces with Ellie Fabian (Janet Margolin from David and Lisa;  Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run;  Annie Hall).  Ellie is a pretty New York grad student who sublet his apartment while he was in the sanitarium.  But the vulnerable Ellie seems to have her own issues and secrets.  Will that spell doom for both Ellie and Harry? And how does a turn-of-the-20th-century Jewish brothel figure in the sinister fix Harry has found himself in?

"Next time, we're taking the bus!"
 Scheider and Margolin had fine chemistry together; their characters’ sensitivity and wariness made me feel for them, and they even had playful moments along the way.  Ms. Margolin was at her loveliest, too. (Sadly, she died of ovarian cancer in 1993 at the age of 50. Janet, we hardly knew ye.)  Scheider, Margolin, and Walken are aided and abetted by a rogues’ gallery of stellar New York character actors, including John Glover as Ellie’s insecure professor boyfriend; Marcia Rodd as Harry’s nervous agency contact; David Margulies (best known to Team Bartilucci as the Mayor of New York City in Ghostbusters, and Michael Caine's psychiatrist colleague in Dressed to Kill) as a rabbi with connections; Joe Spinell and actor/director Jim McBride as thugs; Captain Arthur Haggerty as a bouncer waiting to use the phone; Mandy Patinkin and Max Wright in bit parts as commuters who may or may not have some ’splainin’ to do; and one of my very favorite character actors, scene-stealer Sam Levene (from After the Thin Man; The Killers; Crossfire; The Mad Miss Manton) as the crotchety but likable head of a secret Jewish society; and director Demme himself cameo-ing as a stranger on a train.
As Sam Urdell, Sam Levene can still give any
stranger on a train what-for!
Either the milkman is a lousy speller,
or Harry's getting death threats in Hebrew!

It's Christopher Walken, yes indeed, as Harry's spymaster!

No spy work for Harry?  At least they can enjoy a few bars of "Singin' In The Rain!
Super Harry leaps over the sidewalks of New York in a single bound!
Wine thing, you make Harry's heart sing!  Is Ellie dressed to kill, or what?

In the bell tower, bells are ringing for me and my prey!
Those Blues Brothers are driving me crazy!
Some critics complained that despite Demme’s obvious affection for the Hitchcockian material, LE could have used more of The Master of Suspense’s zest, wit, and verve. I won’t deny that the pace slows down at times, but with Roy Scheider at his peak and Janet Margolin’s touching, multifaceted performance, I was willing to be patient.  Demme and screenwriter David Shaber (adapting Murray Teigh Bloom’s novel The 13th Man) make up for the film’s flaws with plenty of appealingly quirky Demme-style characterization.  Judaism’s key role in LE’s plot was fresh and intriguing, as well as making excellent use of an elaborate, well-crafted red herring. The settings contribute to the film’s Demme-ness; his ace Director of Photography Tak Fujimoto really makes the New York City and Princeton, NJ locations integral to the plot and its Hitchcockian motifs, especially the bell tower sequence and an exciting climax at Niagara Falls (I can hear you making lewd jokes). The film brims with only-in-New-York characters and situations; for instance, the competition for living space in Manhattan provides amusing undertones to Harry’s first awkward encounters with Ellie, kind of like The More, The Merrier with edgy film noir trimmings.  Miklos Rozsa’s swooningly romantic yet forboding score pulls together the film’s emotional undercurrents beautifully.  Between Last Embrace and Still of the Night, if I’d been Roy Scheider, I’d have stayed out of Central Park and environs for fear of elusive assailants!  If anyone knows of a soundtrack for Miklos Rozsa's  Last Embrace, let me know, won't you?

Harry and Ellie fall in love -- but can love last
when the girl of your dreams  has a centuries-old vendetta?


Can this romance be saved, or will their love be on the rocks?

Find out more about Last Embrace at the MGM Archives: http://www.mgm.com/view/movie/1084/Last-Embrace/

Here's a fond farewell to Roy
Scheider from a fan:



  1. Just found out STILL OF THE NIGHT (which I reviewed in a 2-part blog post in September 2010) has become available on MGM.com, too. Along with Warner Archives, they're a boon to those of us looking for relatively obscure movies from our youth and beyond -- yay! :-)

  2. Happy Hanukkah and Happy Holidays to all my Followers old and new! Thanks for hanging out here at TotED with me! :-)

  3. Every time I feel I'm a qualified authority on films, you manage to come up with something I've never heard of. And I always felt like a fan of both Roy Scheider and Jonathan Demme, or thought I was until I read this piece. Now it looks as if I'll have to keep my eyes open for this film. Admittedly the trailer I saw on YouTube didn't exactly sink an immediate hook into me, but that poster's an eye-catcher (yes, yes, yes . . . he tries not to let good posters sway him into which movies to see).

    Also, the idea of Christopher Walken as a spymaster, makes catching this movie that much more attractive of a proposition. Jeremiah claims that Walken never had a "straight" role in his life, to which I reply: "And that's a problem why?"

    Thanks for bringing this item to the public's attention, Dorian

  4. Speaking of movie posters, Dorian, I'd be curious to learn what you consider to be your favorites (as you scream and rend your hair over the idea of being painted into a corner).

  5. Thanks for your comments, Michael! Should you and Jeremiah have an opportunity to see LAST EMBRACE in the not-too-distant future, I'd be very interested in hearing what you think of it. Even playing a spymaster, Christopher Walken can never be completely "straight", so to speak; face it, love him or hate him, Walken's screen presence is utterly unique, bless him. As for movie posters, I could go on about my faves all day! In fact, the poster for LAST EMBRACE is one of my favorites, though I don't own it, alas (found the image online for the LE blog post). Hitchcock movies are my favorites, especially the NORTH BY NORTHWEST poster hanging on the wall between ours and Siobhan's bedroom. We also have handsome posters of THE LOST WEEKEND, THE ROCKETEER, all of the 3 original STAR WARS posters, THE BROTHERS BLOOM (a film I think you'd like a lot if you saw it), and THE DARJEELING LIMITED, and Siobhan has the original theatrical poster for THE MAN CALLED FLINTSTONE in her bedroom. One of these days, I'd like to get a poster for THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, too.

  6. DorianTB, delighted you liked Jonathan Demme's THE LAST EMBRACE. After the film opened, I recall telling my Dad, Sam Levene, that I thought he gave a great performance in the film; my Dad also forged a great friendship with Roy Scheider who went to see his performance in Henry Denker's THE GOODBYE PEOPLE co-starring F. Murray Abraham and Louise Lasser at the Westport Country Playhouse.

    1. WOW! Joseph, I've been a fan of your dad, Sam Levene, since I first saw him on TCM for a double-feature with AFTER THE THIN MAN and THE MAD MISS MANTON, and I've been a fan of his wonderful work ever since! I truly appreciate you taking the time to comment about LAST EMBRACE in particular, since it's one of my favorites, a film that more people should discover and enjoy. Our family also loved Roy Scheider of course, and I'm happy to hear you all became friends as well! Sam was always superb in all the films and plays he was in, but LAST EMBRACE has always been one of my special favorites among his amazing body of work; indeed, he stole the show, bless him! Thanks a million for taking the time to comment on this favorite of mine, and warmest wishes to you and your family! :-D You made our day!

  7. Dorian! Here is another film you've introduced me to. I hadn't even heard of this film before now, but I think I'd really like it. What's not to like? Roy Scheider (and his cream-coloured suit). Christopher Walken, and the New York aura... Thanks for this terrific review and another film to add to my growing Must-Watch List. :)

    1. Ruth, it gladdens my heart when I can recommend hidden treasures like LAST EMBRACE! I'm delighted that you're looking forward to watching Roy Scheider, the lovely Janet Margolin, Sam Levene, and all those awesome characters and nifty suspense in my hometown of NYC, the scene-stealing Sam Levene and environs (NYC is a character too, as far as I'm concerned)! :-D Thanks for your enthusiasm, my friend, and have a wonderful weekend for you and yours!