Three months ago, United States Government agent Harry Hannan (Roy Scheider) suffered a tragedy when he was on an assignment abroad and had brought his wife along for a break, but then the man he was supposed to assassinate stumbled across him in a restaurant and a shootout ensued, leaving the wife dead and Harry landed with grief and a nervous breakdown to negotiate. Having just gotten out of the sanatarium he has been admitted to by way of recovery, he decides to plunge straight back into his work and goes to receive his latest orders from his contact at a New York department store makeup counter, but on further investigation it appears he is being given the runaround. What is going on?
Jonathan Demme's entry into the Hitchcock homage stakes was this deliberately offbeat suspense thriller, the kind of thing that emulated the master director while taking his signature way with a setpiece to places he would never have considered, well, aside from in Frenzy which many imitators followed their cue from when the censors became more lax come the dawn of the nineteen-seventies. So what made this more a Hitchcock tribute and not simply a Brian De Palma or Dario Argento rip-off? Mainly it was the way Demme and the script by David Shaber (adapting a novel by Murray Teigh Bloom) refused to play entirely by the rules of Hitch's more obvious works.
For a start, he preferred to portray an everyman, someone the audience could more or less identify with, in his adventures, yet here Hannan was portrayed by Roy Scheider, an actor who came across as one of those but more often didn't quite fit that profile as he was more comfortable in character leads than uncomplicated leading men. You could argue James Stewart in Vertigo (a blatant influence) was a conventional leading man who Hitch took to disturbing places in that effort, but Scheider was perhaps better suited to this material, especially as the script held its cards close to its chest as far as explaining what was actually going on. We know from the first ten minutes he is involved with espionage, which makes him remarkable after a fashion, but not how far we can trust him.
Of course, it turns out trusting Hannan was the least of our worries as the plot sticks him with post-traumatic stress disorder that he cannot see a road out of until he meets not-so-cute with the young woman who has moved into his apartment while he was in the sanatarium. She is student Ellie Fabian, played by Janet Margolin, an actress who never quite reached the stardom she deserved and died too young a decade after this, her final real leading role. In this case she essayed the apparently straightforward love interest with skill, making you lament that her talent was best captured on the stage, especially when the narrative moves into its final act and we begin to twig we are watching an intense romance obscuring the heartfelt nature of the looming tragedy by dint of the lovers being essentially nuts.
Before that point - and the poster for this bafflingly spoiled the finale by depicting the last scene in a carefully rendered painting, so thanks for that, ad campaign - Demme assembled an impressive cast of other character actors to complement Scheider. They included a brief two scene wonder from Christopher Walken as Hannan's boss at the Agency (whatever agency that may be, another unclear point), the ever-reliable Charles Napier as his brother-in-law with an understandable grudge and liking for peanuts, John Glover as Ellie's sort of boyfriend brought in to decipher a note passed to Hannan in Aramaic which appears to spell his doom, and Sam Levene as a Jewish investigator who teams up with the hero to divine precisely what the looming conspiracy he is embroiled in is actually about. If this didn't make a whole heap of sense on examination, it was constantly surprising (not many thrillers feature a murderer having an orgasm at the point of their kill) and Scheider and Margolin made for a great, bonkers duo. Just don't get it mixed up with Still of the Night. Music by Miklos Rosza.
American director with a exploitation beginnings who carved out a successful Hollywood career as a caring exponent of a variety of characters. Worked in the early 70s as a writer on films like Black Mama, White Mama before directing his first picture for producer Roger Corman, the women-in-prison gem Caged Heat. Demme's mainstream debut was the 1977 CB drama Handle With Care (aka Citizens Band), which were followed by such great films as the thriller Last Embrace, tenderhearted biopic Melvin and Howard, wartime drama Swing Shift, classic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, and black comedies Something Wild and Married to the Mob.
Demme's Thomas Harris adaptation The Silence of the Lambs was one of 1991's most successful films, making Hannibal Lecter a household name, while the worthy AIDS drama Philadelphia was equally popular. Since then, Demme has floundered somewhat - Beloved and The Truth About Charlie were critical and commercial failures, although 2004's remake of The Manchurian Candidate was a box office hit. Rachel Getting Married also has its fans, though Meryl Streep vehicle Ricki and the Flash was not a great one to go out on. He was also an advocate of the documentary form, especially music: his final release was a Justin Timberlake concert.