Sex, crime and double-crosses galore in the classic 1994 neo-noir.
The Last Seduction is that rarest of things – the critically approved erotic thriller. Made at the height of that widely-dismissed genre’s popularity, the film managed to transcend the intentions of the producers and the apparent limitations of its rivals, partly because it’s much more of a neo-noir than erotic thriller, truth be told – and because Linda Fiorentino is something of a step up as an actress from the likes of Shannon Tweed.
The neo-noir film is a fascinating little sub-division of the crime and thriller movie. It’s a genre that never quite dies, and while it is sometimes self-consciously period in setting and/or noir by definition – think of Union City, Body Heat, LA Confidential and a handful of others – the most interesting examples are perhaps the films that play with noir ideas and mix them with a sweaty, intense sexuality that both plays with and twists the Noir traditions of femme fatales and men who are led to destruction by their libido – Bound is a great example of this.
John Dahl’s The Last Seduction takes this style of neo-noir and twists it in a very modern style, creating along the way one of the great female villains – a woman so irredeemably evil that you’d expect a furious Guardian article about the demonisation of women should the film be made today. Yet women should surely be allowed to be as evil, manipulative and monstrous as men, especially in films where such characters are the central, definitive figures. Fiorentino’s Bridget Gregory is compulsively fascinating, a scheming villain who uses everyone she meets to her own ends and works out such an intricate plan throughout the film – a plan we are as clueless to predict as any of the characters caught up in it – that you can’t help but have a sneaking admiration for her single-minded ruthlessness.
Bridget’s husband Clay (Bill Pullman) is selling drugs on the side to pay for his medical residency, and manages to make an impressive score, selling pharmaceutical cocaine for $700,000 – enough to pay off the loan shark who is leaning on him and still live very comfortably. But when he slaps Bridget after a brief tiff, she decides to make off with the money. How unplanned this is, we don’t know – certainly, the slap seems to be a motivating factor and her fleeing with the cash appears to be the only unplanned moment she has in the whole film, but you rather suspect that this has probably been her plan all along, given everything that happens afterwards.
Heading for Chicago, she winds up in the small town of Beston, near Buffalo. Deciding to stick around for a while until she can engineer a safe return to New York (a plan that we eventually realise has been in the works from the moment she arrives), she takes an insurance job under a false name (claiming to be on the run from an abusive partner) and winds up in an uneven relationship with fellow employee Mike (Peter Berg), who she meets at a bar and decides to use initially for sex. But as the film progresses, it’s increasingly clear that she was looking for a partner in crime – or more accurately a sucker – who could end up as the patsy in her grand plan.
How she slowly hooks him into her scheme is the main thrust of the film, and it’s a fascinating study in manipulation. I won’t go into all the details here, but it involves convincing him that she wants to go into the murder business, offing unfaithful husbands in exchange for payment from their wives. While Mike is initially disturbed and tries to resist, his growing obsession with Bridget makes him easy to manipulate, and before long, he’s on the way to New York to carry out a ‘hit’. No prizes for guessing who the ‘cheating husband’ he has been sent to kill really is though…
Fiorentino dominates the film from start to finish, her cool, calm and collected manner making her the ultimate seductive spider woman. While the femme fatale is a noir staple, she is usually the catalyst for events – rarely has the genre had her as the central character (you can imagine a more traditional noir approach would be to tell the story from Mike’s point of view as he found himself more and more sucked into a world he couldn’t escape from). In this film, it’s Bridget who is the main character and she’s fascinatingly cool in her wickedness. Fiorentino brings a smouldering sexuality to the character (and yes, the erotic scenes in this erotic thriller really do have a sexual heat to them) that makes it all too easy to believe that she could manipulate weak-willed, putzy men like Mike – and her cool, calculating approach to dealing with the men who are out to get her (including private detectives hired by Clay and even the betrayed husband himself) is impressive.
However, the real genius of the film – something that we don’t realise until it is over – is just how well planned everything is. Seemingly innocuous actions early in the story later prove to have a major part in the development of the plot, and nothing is left to chance, ensuring that the plot seems plausible and intriguing. Even a revelation about Mike’s secret marriage plays into Bridget’s cunning plan. This is a woman with a nose for weakness and a willingness to exploit it all the way. As much as we can admire her cunning and intricate planning, so we should applaud the remarkable narrative and spiderweb complexity of Steve Barancik’s screenplay and Dahl’s skilful interpretation of the story.
With a cool jazz score backing the seductive action, this is a remarkable film that still holds up very well today. If you haven’t seen it before, I imagine the slow unravelling of the plot will delight you; if you are familiar with the movie, then there’s probably a lot of fun to be had in anticipating events and looking out for the hints you might have missed the first time around. This is one of those films with multiple plot twists that nevertheless rewards repeated viewing.
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