The late writer-director James Bridges earned lots of acclaim — and more than a few dollars — for his 1979 topical hit, “The China Syndrome.”
Before that, he wrote and directed the popular 1973 Harvard-Law School-is-Hell-on-Earth picture “The Paper Chase” that launched John Houseman as a character actor.
But the best work of Bridges’ career — the 1984 Los Angeles drug world drama “Mike’s Murder” — caused the filmmaker a great deal of grief and it has never received the recognition it is due. Warner Bros. hated the movie and sat on it for more than year — after demanding that Bridges rework it in the editing room (fortunately, judging by the original screenplay, the cutting actually improved the final result).
Bridges was given the chance to make this personal project because of two factors — the success of his 1980 John Travolta film “Urban Cowboy” and the fact that he convinced the rising female star of that movie, Debra Winger, to play the central role in “Mike’s Murder.”
Winger had just been Oscar-nominated for “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982) and was about to make the biggest hit of her career, “Terms of Endearment” (the 1983 movie was released before “Mike’s Murder” but was shot while the Bridges film sat on the shelf).
“Mike’s Murder” was marketed as a thriller but it’s really a slice-of-life story about alienation and the difficulty of making personal connections in the vast metropolis of L.A. Significantly, the Winger character — Betty Parrish — spends a good portion of the movie in her car and on the phone trying to make follow-up dates with a handsome young tennis pro named Mike (played by the perfectlty cast Mark Keyloun – above – who has long since dropped out of show business).
About a third of the way into the movie, Betty gets a call from a friend of Mike’s telling her that he was brutally murdered in a drug deal gone bad. Haunted by the promise of a relationship that never really got started, Betty decides to find out more about Mike — she learns that he was dealing on the side and also bumming off a rich gay record producer (Paul Winfield) with whom he had an on and off sexual relationship.
“Mike’s Murder” becomes a story about all of the things we don’t know about the people in our lives. Betty can’t let go of the tragedy of the young man’s sudden death and it leads her on a journey into the underbelly of the L.A. movie and music business — circa 1984 — where she finds unexpected links between the rich and powerful and the underworld of dealers and hustlers.
Bridges takes a cool approach that feels more like a 1970s European art film than an 1980s Hollywood product. There isn’t much plot, but the view of the drug culture is unsettling to say the least. In the final third of the movie, a friend of Mike’s who was in on the drug deal but escaped the butchery, wanders hopelessly through the city trying to find someone who can call off the killers. Darrell Larson (below) plays this part and gives the sort of unforgettably intense performance of which Oscars are made (sadly, few saw the movie and Oscars never go to unknown actors in flops).
Winger is terrific in an uncharacteristically passive performance. We watch Betty as she learns things she would rather not know about the underbelly of her beautiful, quiet Brentwood neighborhood.
A rediscovery of “Mike’s Murder” is long overdue – Bridges died in 1993 with his best work still in the limbo of the lost – but Warner Bros. didn’t get around to issuing the movie on DVD until 2010 as part of its no-frills “Warner Archives” series (just the movie, no supplementary material).
For more information, go to www.wbshop.com.