Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Red Heat (1985)

I am half-Italian (just the good half), and I think that this has largely influenced my love of Italian cuisine. Shocking, I know. It's not that I feel that Italian food is better than foods of other nationalities; it is just my preference. Granted, I have never eaten food in another country (unless you count Canada, but when I was there many moons ago I mostly grilled food I brought), so what I actually like is Italian food as prepared in America. Does that make me jingoistic? I would plead not. Still, the more I think on it, regional epicurean dishes like shepherd's pie or coq au vin, while I'm sure are quite tasty, simply don't appeal to my tastebuds. To my understanding, the cuisine of East Germany (you know, before David Hasselhoff brought down that pesky Berlin Wall) was much more potluck-y, due to the paucity of certain ingredients, and substitutions which, at least the way I imagine them to taste, would make my mouth pucker and seal like when Tweety poured alum into Sylvester's gullet. One has to wonder if the food in their prisons was better or worse. Sfortunato!

Christine Carlson (Linda Blair) flies to West Germany to meet soldier and fiancé Mike (William Ostrander), who's time in the armed forces is expiring. After some heavy petting, the mood chills when Chris discovers that Mike doesn't want to leave the military. Taking a walk to calm her nerves, Chris espies scientist Hedda (Sue Kiel) being abducted by (we assume) East German secret police. So, naturally, they abduct Chris, too, force her into a false confession on trumped up charges of espionage, and send her to jail. Inside, Chris learns that the big cheese in her barracks is Sofia (Sylvia Kristel), Warden Einbeck's (Elisabeth Volkmann) literal lapdog (in more ways than one) and just a plain old meanie. Meanwhile, Mike attempts every diplomatic avenue available to get his betrothed sprung but to no avail. Will Chris ever breathe in free air again?

Red Heat (not to be confused with the film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Belushi) falls under the auspices of the Women In Prison movie. In this regard (and so many others), it fulfills its obligations. You have the masculine lesbian warden. You have the shadowy interrogation scene. You have the obligatory shower scene. You have the obligatory love scene (and I have always had a problem with that title; they're sex scenes; the characters in them may love each other, but the only purpose they serve in the film is to get some skin onscreen). But like all things cliché, stereotyped, and old-hat, it's not what you have but what you do with it that counts. And the filmmakers behind this piece have certainly brought, if not their A Game, their B Game (which, if we were grading on a bell curve, would probably bring it up to an A anyway). The shower scene is anything but sexy, I thought. The interrogation scene is highly effective in its treatment of the action and the interrogators. The warden actually has some depth (not much but some) rather than just being some cardboard villain. There appears to be some pride taken in the final product, and the viewer can't help but appreciate it. 

Co-writer, (and according to IMDB) co-director Robert Collector brings an alarming degree of professionalism and thoughtfulness to what could easily have been a by-the-numbers WIP film. Both he and cinematographer Wolfgang Dickmann treat much of the shot compositions like a Classic Hollywood Film Noir. Many shots are bathed in pools of shadow and light. They aren't afraid to move the camera, and it's almost always motivated and unobtrusive. The filmmakers know how to reframe a scene within a single shot to give a sense of editing, as well as cutting back on set ups. The shot variety belies other films in this budget range (which couldn't have been more than a few million), though some of the compositions in the exterior scenes look a trifle flat.

The film gives us that perennial 1980s theme of the good guys, embodied by the United States Of America versus the bad guys, in the guise of the Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics. Quite cleverly, though, they did it in an end run sort of way. After all, most people (I'm sure Germans excepted) usually think of China or Russia when they think of communist countries. East Germany was underused cinematically in this regard, probably because so many other films used Nazis as their main villains. Yet, East Germany has that great, Eastern Bloc look to it, while also having the grace and grandeur of the natural countryside and the history of its ancestral architecture. The question, then, is do the filmmakers make full use of this resource? To some slight degree, yes, particularly in the early going, as the stage is set. However, the film is primarily set in a prison, so there are not many opportunities to utilize the regional charm. Still and all, the villains are communists, from Sofia, who is "Red" not only in her allegiance but in her hair, lingerie choice, even her lipstick, to the aphotic men who hold dominion over the institutions which hold our characters captive.

Another motif of films set in prisons is dehumanization. Even the most stalwart of characters with the noblest of hearts are tested inside prison walls. But the effect is the end result of a process. There is a system of inculcation that the prisoners go through. They all wear drab, formless gowns, marking them as sexless and nondescript (again, Sofia being the exception). Their lives are governed by mindless, robotic work, turning out product to feed the faceless State. The repetition of humiliating acts turns any sense of hope the victims may have into one of despair and surrender, until even rock bottom is not the lowest one can go. Of course, as consumers of this sort of cinema, you and I know that there's only so far and so long a person can be pushed before they push back, and when Chris hits that point, it gratifies completely. And in a film that is of a higher quality than it has any right to be, that's just sauce for the goose.

MVT: Dickmann displays a deft eye for composition and lighting. His shots are textbook chiaroscuro, and his camerawork is fluid and refined. His efforts go a long way in turning an exercise in formula into an attractive, satisfying film.

Make Or Break: The Make for me is the buildup to the film's climax (you'll know it when you get there). The filmmakers use precision crosscutting (okay that may be a bit overstating, but…) to raise questions and then answer them satisfactorily at the right moment, and it sets the tone for the onrushing finale, wherein (inevitably) all hell breaks loose.

Score: 7/10

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