I'd never read any of Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder novels, so I watched this without any pre- conceived ideas. The fact Scudder, a New York City private eye, is uprooted from his native habitat and relocated to The City Of Angels doesn't bother me in the least. Hell, the best Mike Hammer depiction, another quintessential New York P.I. detective, ever made to date had exactly the same treatment. Kiss Me Deadly (1955) was shot in and around L.A.'s old Bunker Hill neighborhood and is a bonafide classic Film Noir. Of course, 8 Million Ways To Die isn't in the same league, but it gets enough acceptable Noir stylistics right and has a neat "Gaudi Style" townhouse set piece, and a great final denouement on a private replica of Angels Flight to make it respectable enough.
I'd never seen the film on it's initial release so here it is now 32 years after the fact. The film, I've read was a flop, and various reasons are given. It was directed by the great Hal Ashby more known for topical dramas and quirky comedies ( Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979) and not for gritty crime films. Though I've read that he was going through the same problems with alcoholism as the main character in the film. Which perhaps was what attracted him to the project in the first place. But all that is pure speculation. The studio took control of the film away from him and had it edited their way.
The adaptation for the screen of Block's novel was also troubled. The first screen treatment was by Oliver Stone, which was then passed to R. Lance Hill, (as David Lee Henry), and finally given to Robert Towne to doctor what he could. Stone wanted to get his name off the credits. The dialog shows this "too many cooks syndrome," there are some great scenes and lines in some sequences and there are some chuckle inducing clunkers in others.
|Smog city and the skyscraper tombstones of Bunker Hill|
The film stars Jeff Bridges (The Last Picture Show (1971), Fat City (1972), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), Cutter's Way (1981), The Big Lebowski (1998), Hell or High Water (2016)) as Matthew "Matt" Scudder, Rosanna Arquette (Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), After Hours (1985), The Wrong Man (1993), Pulp Fiction (1994)) as Sarah, Alexandra Paul (Baywatch TV Series (1989–2001)) as Sunny, Randy Brooks (Reservoir Dogs (1992)) as Willie "Chance" Walker, Andy García (The Untouchables (1987)) as Angel Maldonado, and Tommy Lister (Jackie Brown (1997)), as Nose Guard.
The film opens with a title sequence that features a circular flyover of 1985 Los Angeles, from the skyscraper tombstones that mark the grave site of Bunker Hill to the massive convoluted concrete freeway system to a zoom on a single police car cruising a traffic lane. We hear a conversation in Voice Over.
Joe Durkin: The murder rate used to be a thousand a year. Three a day, and that was high. Now it's five. Higher in the summer. Fourteen two Fridays ago. We get the death penalty six, seven times a day, only it's not for murderers, it's for ordinary citizens.
Matthew 'Matt' Scudder: Yeah, there are 8 million stories in the naked city. Remember that old TV show? What we have in this town is eight million ways to die.
Cut to a green jacketed County Sheriff's detail filtering through Beth Israel Cemetery. Scudder stops and takes a swig from a hip flask and passes it to a colleague. Scudder seems to be one of those functioning alcoholics who basically marinate an all day load. They surround the house of a drug dealer Hector Lopez (Wilfredo Hernandez). Scudder through the slats of a glass window shade attempts to make an arrest. While his fellow officers enter the kitchen through the interior of the house.
|Hector Lopez (Wilfredo Hernandez)|
Killing a father in front of his wife and kids sends Scudder off the deep end, he boozes himself out of the force, and gets estranged from his own wife and daughter in the process. It's ironically one of the 8 million ways to die
Six months later he's in AA getting his six-month sobriety badge, and trying to put his life back together. He is now sort of an unlicensed P.I.
There is an amusing sequence during an AA meeting, that depicts all the other more acceptable vices the members have, smoking, coffee, soda, etc.
After one of his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, a woman hands Scudder a note, which invites him to a party at a swanky private gambling club on a hill in Malibu. The place seems to be accessible only by a cool funicular similar to Angels Flight.
|Chance's Malibu Club|
|Chance (Brooks) Sarah (Arquette) Scuddder|
|Angel Moldonado (Garcia)|
When Scudder first arrives he is greeted enthusiastically by another high priced prostitute named Sunny (Alexandra Paul). She acts as if she's met him before. Scudder is flattered but tries to warn her that if he met her in the last year, he was on a serious bender and doesn't remember her at all. But it was Sunny who invited Scudder sight unseen, and she is obviously highly aroused by what she got. He's like a human Christmas present. Sunny is very clingy and practically dripping with anticipation. She is so possessively out of control that her friend Sarah is both highly amazed and worried by her friends reactions. Scudder and Sunny leave the party for his apartment. This whole sequence is highly amusing.
|Sunny (Paul) and Scudder|
Back at the apartment Sunny tries to seduce Scudder, she tells him that she is frightened and she wants out of the business and wants to use him for protection until she can get out of town.
|Do you know what I do?|
Scudder agrees to help and Sunny pays him 5,000. Scudder mistakenly assumes that Randy is her pimp. Scudder goes to Randy and offers him 2,500 for Sunny. Randy sets Scudder straight telling him that he's no pimp and that he just pays Sunny and Sarah a flat rate to attend his parties and any work they get out of his club is their own money. He's happy because their being there brings his gambling club more business.
|"I ain't no pinp"|
Randy: I hate money when its new it cuts your fingers and when it's old it stinks....
Later, Scudder while taking Sunny around town on errands, makes the mistake of leaving her for a few minutes at a Dry Cleaners that is next door to a Frontier Shop. He goes in to buy his daughter some riding boots. It's just enough time for Sunny to be snatched and dragged off into a van. Scudder pursues in his 1982 Ford Mustang even though the kidnappers have flattened one of his tires.
A gritty chase through the back streets and alleys of Culver City culminates in the brutally slashed body of Sunny being dumped off the Centinela Avenue Bridge. This disaster topples Scudder right off the wagon into Noirsville.
Scudder wakes up days later in detox. Dried out once again he's out for revenge.
Checking through some things Sunny left at his apartment Scudder pieces together that Angel is running drugs through Chance's legitimate businesses and that Angel had Sunny killed when she crossed him. Scudder persuades Sarah to leave the club with him, as a jealous Moldonado looks on. Later Scudder and Angel have a confrontation over snow cones outside the L.A. Coliseum and Angel forces Sarah to leave with him. Scudder informs Chance of the cocaine stashed at his business.
Scudder and Chance then set up a meeting to exchange Sarah for Angel's stash of cocaine at an empty warehouse on Signal Street in San Pedro. Angel arrives with Sarah duct-taped to the end of a shotgun.
Scudder has booby-trapped the drugs with gasoline and threatens to destroy them if Sarah is harmed. Angel stalls but after seeing some of his cocaine burned he agrees to cut Sarah loose. However all hell breaks loose and a shootout leaves most of Angels men and Chance dead. Angel escapes in the chaos.
Scudder and Sarah head back to Chance's club. As they ride the funicular up the hillside they have a final shootout with Angel who is waiting for them at the top.
Jeff Bridges is believable as Scudder, Randy Brooks nails Chance, Alexandra Paul believe it or not outshines Rosanna Arquette, but her career in films never took off, Arquette's greatest Noir turn is as Femme Fatale Missy Mills in the excellent but little seen The Wrong Man (1993)
Andy Garcia is a bit over the top as Angel, but that is a minor quibble.
It's all speculation, but it is believed that had Ashby not been dismissed from the project he would massaged the final film differently, would have used different takes and allocated time for more character development. As it is sequences like the confrontation with the snow cones and at the warehouse seem to drag on hysterically way too long. An uneven film with some great sequences, definitely worth a looksee. Screencaps are from a R2 Second Sight DVD, 7/10.