This in the first of a (possible) series of film retrospectives in which I watch for the first time, a long-time favorite of a podcaster I admire. The first shot in #FilmsFromAPodcaster is 1984’s Against All Odds, as advocated for by the great Bill Scurry (find him on Twitter @WilliamScurry), co-host of the I Don’t Get It podcast (@noahandbillshow), and creator of American Caesar Enterprises on Youtube
1980s neo-noir is an interesting cinematic phenomena. The sunshine, bright colors, and exotic locations of those films, especially as seen in Against All Odds, are leagues away from movies like Out of the Past and To Have and Have Not from which the genre descends. However, they are connected in cinematic terms because examples like director Taylor Hackford’s 1984 film, Against All Odds, are just as indicative of 1980s society and cultural values as the original wave of film noir was of the society and culture of 1940s and 1950s America. The seediness and inherent suspicion of politicians and those in power are still there, as is the fetishization of the sense of the rebellious cool, except instead of fedoras, pistols and cigarettes, it’s beachfront properties and red Porsches.
That eye for desiring objects and status extends from objects to our lead characters. It’s easy to forget how handsome and charismatic Jeff Bridges could be as a leading man, especially since he could summon up that roiling, unpredictable well of emotions he’s carried into much of his character work. As Bridges’ on-screen foil, James Woods has his own version of leading man charisma, only his manifests as a sort of psychic revulsion. We can feel the unctuous slithering just under his skin and we know he has only his interests at heart. Against All Odds is well-crafted and smart enough to keep us guessing about what those interests are (other than his obsession with his estranged wife Jessie, played by the luminous Rachel Ward), as well as his plans to achieve them. The unraveling of the criminal conspiracy at the heart of the plot isn’t nearly as interesting as the unraveling of the characters, especially when the legendary Richard Widmark is the one who tied those illicit knots together. Whatever criminal enterprise he’s engaged in, it’s going to be nefarious enough to keep us invested in the story.
Rachel Ward’s Jessie Wyler is a lightning strike of gorgeous volatility, the kind of woman who could inspire anyone to make a host of bad decisions, especially men as desperate and equally volatile as those played by Bridges and Woods. She runs from an abusive husband (Woods’ Jake Wise) all the way to Mexico, only to fall for the man sent to find her (Bridges’ Terry Brogan). Maybe Bridges doesn’t fit the profile of a football player in the waning days of his career (perhaps baseball or track and field would have been better athletic choices), but the volcanic chemistry between him and Ward is impossible to replicate, and it gives the film its emotional fissile material. It’s Bridges emotionally raw portrayal of Brogan that propels the movie forward. He’s a man quick to anger and quick to passion; a man in debt to criminals, hired by criminals to find a woman who does not want to be found, but is seemingly incapable of duplicity. Any time he formulates a plan or is given instructions by a benefactor with a possible source of income, his intolerance for deception causes those plans to fall to ruin. He can barely keep his affair with Jessie secret from her husband for one conversation before James Woods, the pit viper that he is, sees right through him. Brogan is the last person that should be involved in the schemes of the rich and powerful, and is therefore the perfect protagonist for a film noir; a desperate man driven into dark territory he does not have the tools to navigate.
James Woods’ Jake Wise is just as desperate as Bridges’ Brogan. He’s losing his mind over his wife’s rejection of his abusive affections, he bristles at the efforts of the upper echelons of Los Angeles society to keep him on the fringes, and he’s desperate to establish his own legitimate power base while maintaining control of his criminal enterprises, all while keeping a veneer of legitimacy. These rivers of desperation make him a fascinating foil and adversary for Brogan; not an omnipotent manipulator of chess pieces, but a wounded man grasping at any means at his disposal to advance or die. Meanwhile his wife Jessie Wyler (played by Rachel Ward) is in Mexico, in hiding after assaulting him in an attempt to escape his abuse. She’s a veritable cascade of life and passion, unable to operate under the thumb of either her high society mother or her calculating reptile of a husband. Maybe Jeff Bridges, the in-debt football player sent to bring her back home, is not the ideal partner, but in him she finds someone with whom she can let go. What is the point of self-control to two people who have burned all their bridges? They might as well use that fire to fuel their mutual passion. And boy, do they.
Director Taylor Hackford provides a steady hand throughout, giving us enough time with these characters to believe in them and their motivations. Photographed by cinematographer Donald E. Thorin, we take in the lush Los Angeles and Mexican locations, then contrast them with the shadowed, claustrophobic office spaces in which Widmark and Woods sequester their objects of power. This dichotomy makes the ultimate motivation of the real Brahmans of power (to pave over everything in favor of more concrete-and-plastic LA office buildings), an inevitable and palpable outcome. It’s the nightmare of profit-motivated progress, the kind that will leave people driven by passion like Brogan and Wyler in its pitiless wake. Along the way we are treated to great character work by the supporting cast from the likes of Swoosie Kurtz, an especially slimy Saul Rubinek, and actual football player Alex Karras.
Against All Odds is not a traditional noir, but it is one that speaks the same cinematic language. It’s an exceptionally executed thriller with standout lead and supporting performances, fascinating characters, and of course, a killer theme song. If you’ve never seen it, or if it’s been a long time since you did, follow the advice of Bill Scurry and give Against All Odds a fresh watch.
Film ’89 Verdict – 8/10