Nestled between two of his outright masterpieces, Citizens Band and Melvin and Howard, Jonathan Demme’s Last Embrace contains only sporadic moments of the filmmaker’s eccentric personality. Demme filters his thriller through a distinctly, and sometimes misguided, Hitchcockian lens, where such adherence to the master of suspense’s tropes appear to stifle his personal style. The string of visual references, from Dial M for Murder’s scissors to a non-murderous restaging of Psycho’s shower scene, don’t exactly add resonance to Last Embrace’s pulpy narrative, and at times the film suggests as if it’s directed by a less confident Brian De Palma. But that’s not to say Last Embrace isn’t entertaining, even if its thrills are of the cheap and empty-calorie variety, as Demme’s tight control of atmosphere augment a darkly comic study in paranoia.
Though the production benefits from elaborate set pieces, and a higher budget than Demme was used to, Last Embrace is nonetheless built on the kind of provocative material the filmmaker had been utilizing in his cheap exploitation period with Roger Corman. Harry Hannan (Roy Scheider), an agent for an ambiguous firm dealing in assassinations, is the recipient of an ominous and vengeful note written in Hebrew that’s received amid Harry’s incessant feeling that his firm might be letting him go, so to speak, and following the traumatic killing of Harry’s wife during a botched operation. Helped by a Princeton student, Ellie (Janet Margolin), Harry’s paranoia-fueled investigation reveals a string of murders to people who received a similar note, and that Harry is connected to these victims via a dark secret in his and America’s past: that of his ancestors participating in white slavery over newly arrived Jewish immigrants in New York, and forcing some into prostitution.
Scheider’s seething intensity throughout the film is conspicuously out of sync with the other performances, as it lacks a levity and self-awareness the other actors bring to the lurid storyline, but this intensity derives from Harry’s pronounced masculinity that Demme amusingly undermines through the character’s debilitating paranoia. Harry’s initial (and genuine) cockiness is certainly born out of his occupational skills, but this devolves into an almost pathetic act to maintain that image as he increasingly loses touch of the real world. Demme’s visual sense is objectively attuned to Harry’s state of mind, in that shots repeatedly feature out-of-focus characters following Harry and that locations come in only two types: cluttered and claustrophobic or oppressively expansive. Demme’s patented subversion of the conventional 180-degree rule, in which the camera takes the POV of one character with the other breaking the fourth wall to speak to them, here harnesses a quality of unease as the audience practically becomes complicit in the dubious activities Harry is involved in (Christopher Walken, in a brief appearance as Harry’s supervisor, plays this to beautifully clinical effect).
Harry’s almost single-minded pursuit to catch the perpetrator makes him blind to the revelation that Ellie was indeed the murderer and acting on revenge (though Harry’s ignorance makes sense, considering that throughout the film he seems to barely listen to anything Ellie says). Ellie therefore is a progenitor to The Silence of the Lambs’s Jame Gumb in that her crimes are retaliation against the failure of the American dream; however, unlike his later film, Demme never ponders the ethical ramifications of Ellie’s actions, as her dabbling in prostitution to reach her targets essentially puts her in a similar position (albeit a sinister one) as the past victims she seeks to avenge.
Last Embrace is an uncharacteristically misanthropic film from Demme, whose cinema pivots on the unabashed yearning for companionship or community on any scale, but the haunting final shot may prove Harry isn’t as unsympathetic to people as he lets on. During the North by Northwest-esque climax at Niagara Falls, Harry fails to save Ellie from falling; his resulting face of terror doesn’t seem to stem from the fact that he couldn’t save her, but that he awaits a period of loneliness, as the film’s alternately melancholic yet warming title suggests. Another companion, however murderous, has slipped through his fingers yet again.
Primary colors, particularly yellows and reds, are all pronounced and bright, and very little instances of debris are apparent. The immersive sound mix is just as rich, with an equal balance between background noises and dialogue throughout.
Aside from the obligatory trailer, the only extra is a brief 10-minute interview with producer Michael Taylor, who somewhat blandly goes through how the production came together while commenting on the film’s legacy. The feature is mostly inessential, though particular pleasure does arise from seeing Taylor seemingly take umbrage with some of the off-camera interviewer’s questions, such as why he thinks the film wasn’t a success when first released.
Last Embrace is a minor curio from the great Jonathan Demme, but Kino’s stunning 1080p transfer should more than satisfy completists of the director.