Film is a primary means of political expression. Commercials are often deliberate in their strategy to compel the viewer to the marketplace, sometimes earning only thirty seconds or so of our precious attention. But film can be stealth, patient and equally powerful in its capacity to move the viewer. When movies are at their best, they ignite conversation; they have the potential to change people.
Controversial British filmmaker Ken Russell is known for creating showy and cheap works saturated in sleaze and scandal. The genius of many of his movies, however, is the cloak of perversity that drapes the social criticism and allows them to pack a major punch. His sexual and religious themes, along with his willingness to explore the darker recesses of humanity, set him apart from his contemporaries.
Perhaps his most misread effort is the sleek and bawdy Crimes of Passion, a trashy send-up of sexual relations in America.
The film opens on a couples therapy session. Husbands and wives sling insults at each other like only lovers can. Bobby Grady (John Laughlin) observes with a smile that stops just short of his betraying eyes.
“Mr. Grady. Is there anything you’d like to say?”
“I’m happy. Been married to the same woman for eleven years.”
The picture cuts quickly to the image of a sex worker called China Blue (Kathleen Turner) perched atop a grand chair, a man’s head hovering between her legs as she pretends to be a pageant winner called Ms. Liberty. Liberty, from the Latin libertatem, meaning freedom to do as one pleases.
China Blue is actually Joanna Crane, an unhappy bachelorette who uses her position as a successful fashion designer to mask her inner-sorrow. Years of bad relationships have rendered her incapable of articulating her feelings. She moonlights as a call girl in an effort to feel close to someone. She gives herself over to the various characters she plays each night (every one a bit more sensational than the last) to come clean with herself.
Among her more devoted clients is Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins), a holy messenger who delivers sermons on “victims of the night” and “Earth-crippling plagues.” He looms over the crowd from his improvised soapbox but is crippled by China Blue’s seductive charms. She peers at him with heat in her eyes, her gaze piercing his soul and exposing his deepest desires.
He reads her promiscuity as a call for help. He believes that if he is able to lead her back to the path of righteousness, he may be redeemed for his own indiscretions.
“Save your soul whore.”
“Save your money shithead.”
Anthony Perkins is remembered fondly by fans of horror cinema for his role as the benevolent creeper in Psycho, but it’s his dark and disturbing rendition of a formidable priest in Crimes of Passion that will haunt my memory. He is a loathsome presence, his bloodshot eyes twitching uncomfortably beneath his disheveled hair, sweat pooling around his endless black eyes. He peers at China Blue with disdain but his corruptive grin gives away his true feelings. She saunters away, a queen in the grubby kingdom she has created for herself as he caresses his cheek with the soft pages of his bible and sinks into a lurid daydream.
As China Blue entertains the sexually-confused reverend, Bobby and his wife, Amy (Annie Potts) trade barbs over broken garbage disposals and proper food preparation.
“Why did you pour all that maple syrup on my pancakes?”
“What do you think, I’m trying to poison you with maple syrup?”
Cinematographer Dick Bush shoots the couple in a muted style, his bland approach and colorless compositions effectively capturing the sterility of their relationship.
At one point Bobby and his wife sit down to watch TV. Middle-age figures dressed in wedding garb flaunt lavish possessions: a luxurious vehicle, high-priced dishware, a pair of pure white birds. Without warning, they toss the items into a large swimming pool. Their expressions sink faster than the sterling chinaware. They dive in after their sodden property, the water surrounding them all at once, and come up with the birds, stiff and ugly, feathers matted by the over-chlorinated water.
Bobby and Amy look to the television in and effort to escape their own existence, not to see their problems reflected back at them. The on-screen couple place the ivory creatures in a pair of small coffins and bury them, along with their hopes and dreams, in the soil. Marriage has sucked the excitement from their lives.
Bobby first spies China Blue from outside her apartment complex. She sheds her business clothes (and with them the façade of perfect contentment) and steps into her nighttime attire. Bobby pauses to piss on a tree, the liquid waste symbolizing a release from his restrained life.
Bobby accompanies China Blue to her neon and smoke-infused world. They lay together. There is something different in their exchange that sets it apart from China Blue’s typical transactions. Bush utilizes formalist film technique to capture the act with a sense of warmth and intimacy. He photographs them in silhouette through a red curtain. They move in unison, their flowing outlines as soft as the crimson window covering. Though erotic, there is a delicacy to the proceedings; a lyricism and compositional beauty that distracts you from the infidelity taking place. In that moment, you feel for them, deeply.
When they’re through, Bobby turns to China Blue and says, “I wish I could tell my wife how you made me feel. Was it just part of my imagination?”
In another scene, Russell crosscuts Bobby in bed with Amy with the image of China Blue alone on a large mattress. Bobby reaches for his wife. She recoils. The juxtaposition of the two sequences serves to underline the theme of the picture.
When Bobby and Amy finally come clean with one another, it’s in bed. Dark shadows loom thick over their bodies like the clouds of dishonesty that have formed over their relationship.
“Maybe it’s time we both stop the conning.”
When Bobby shows up unannounced at her door, Joanna is irate. The veil of secrecy she’s worked so hard to maintain has been punctured.
“If you think you’re gonna get back in my panties, forget it. There’s one asshole in there already.”
She eventually warms to his presence. When Reverend Shayne exposes the real her however, she loses control. She quickly transforms into China Blue and tortures a client in an effort to restore order. The scene is the exact opposite of the one shared with Bobby and is tough to stomach. China Blue sinks her heels into the soft flesh of the client’s thighs and penetrates him with the broad end of a baton.
Later she is hired to gratify a dying man. She runs through her various characters. The man wants none of it. He loves his wife. Sadness wells in China Blue’s soul and eyes. Her voice quivers. She realizes it’s time to leave the part. She removes her wig and reveals her real name. Joanna and the dying man embrace each other with a sense of hope.
The movie ends with Bobby back at another therapy session. This time he is honest with the group.
It would be easy to cast Crimes of Passion aside as perverse exploitation. There are enough outrageously scandalous set pieces to shake the sensibilities of even the most liberal of viewers. But that would be unfair. The film can be enjoyed as surface level entertainment but it’s also a reaction to the self-deceit that plagues American peoples every day. Anyone who has ever felt compelled to conceal some part of themselves to get through can relate.
The sexual revolution was reaching its end in the 1980s. Depictions of sex as entertainment were becoming more and more common. Russell’s Crimes of Passion takes advantage of the new liberties afforded filmmakers of the period.
The audaciously over-the-top script by Barry Sandler is brilliantly humorous. There are so many quotable exchanges I found it difficult to refrain from reciting them all.
Rick Wakeman’s synth-driven soundtrack terrifically reworks Dvorak’s New World symphony and augments the strangeness of the proceedings.
The whole thing is a kaleidoscopic attack on the senses, a whirlwind of sex and violence that perfectly encapsulates Russell’s unusual ideology and is well worth another look.
SINCE ITS RELEASE:
Kathleen Turner was a hot commodity in 1984 following her golden-globe nominated role in Romancing the Stone. Though she is a dominating presence in the movie, many thought it an odd choice for her to take on the part of an emotionally neglected sex worker in a Ken Russell flick. She got back on track in the eyes of mainstream America with The Jewel of the Nile and has enjoyed a productive career ever since. Russell continued to divide audiences throughout his career, his pictures often triggering national table topics. His provocative take on a 17th century, radical priest in The Devils (made thirteen years prior to Crimes of Passion) continues to rattle the thoughts and feelings of audiences today. His late efforts suffered from low production value (many times being filmed at his home with non-actors). Russell passed in 2011 at the age of 84. He left behind a collection of artful and intelligent, though polarizing movies worthy of exploration.