Crimes of Passion Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
Fashion designer Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner) leads a double life. By night, she is China Blue, a prostitute who’s attracted the unwanted attention of two men. One, Bobby (John Laughlin), is a sexually frustrated private detective hired by her employees. The other is psychopathic priest named Reverend Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins) and he is in possession of a murderous sex toy. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Ken Russell’s patented brand of subversive filmmaking runs a challenging gamut – from heady, allegory-laced melodrama, to satirical black comedy, slapstick absurdity, and serious cinematic horror – often within the space of a single film. This squirmy refusal to adhere to genre and storytelling norms makes his work easy to enjoy, but difficult to parse, especially for viewers outside of the director’s most ardent and knowledgeable fanbase. Not long after making his name in the UK with The Devils (1971), two Who-themed rock musicals (Tommy and Lisztomania, both 1975), and a trilogy of experimental bio-pics ( Savage Messiah, 1972; Mahler, 1974; and Valentino, 1977), Russell brought his uncompromising weirdness to Hollywood. His first studio flick was the outwardly hallucinogenic Altered States (1980) – a science fiction retelling of real-world sensory deprivation/psychoactive drug experiments conducted by psychoanalyst John C. Lilly. It garnered him critical praise and opened the door to more introspectively esoteric territory for his next film, Crimes of Passion (1984).
Writer/co-producer Barry Sandler’s screenplay fits the existential and satirical requirements of a ‘Ken Russell joint,’ but the plot is secondary to the plainly-stated themes (the characters spend much of the movie literally explaining the themes to each other) that feed the film’s imagery. Like all of Russell’s best work (or, for those unfamiliar with Russell, Kubrick’s and Lynch’s stranger work), Crimes of Passion is unnerving in its affectations and irony, especially when such things are sheathed in ‘normalcy.’ The film straddles the line between faux-realism and absolute surrealism with purposefully stagey environments, exaggerated performances, and cinematographer Dick Bush’s heavily stylized photography. Kaleidoscopic editing techniques – flecked with frames of erotic artwork from different eras – helps the steady synthesis of lurid roleplaying and Rockwellian domestic bliss until the characters and the audience can’t tell one from the other. Eventually, Russell’s most outré instincts are almost forgotten, but only for a moment, before the insanity pushes back for the jaw-dropping climax. The occasionally shrill mockery of consumer culture (specifically the ‘wedding commercial’) steers Crimes of Passion into Tommy and Lisztomania territory, which is amusing, but also threatens to break the ‘false reality’ with one subversive element too many. Fortunately, it doesn’t steal attention away from the more potent religious and romantic farce, nor does it stifle the tonal motifs.
Crimes of Passion pushes buttons with visual extremes, frantic characters, and shocking sex, but it is also an ultimately emotionally grounded film. Russell’s work tends to poke fun at sentiment by pushing poignant situations to irrational limits and this practice served him quite well while visually reproducing the hysteria of rock music in Tommy of religious zealotry in The Devils. However, here he allows subtle character development and relatable romantic dilemmas – specifically the turmoil Bobby’s extramarital affair inflicts on his relationship with his wife, Amy (Annie Potts), and Joanna’s sobering interaction with a terminally ill client – to co-exist with the neon-baked, psychosexual madness. Because of this emotional anchor, the more expressionistic sequences don’t come across as weird for weird’s sake, which is a problem for his later work (Russell’s follow-up, 1986’s Gothic, for example, is a detached, dopey attempt to marry the director’s strange tastes with horror and costume drama). Crimes of Passion is amusing in its almost adolescent need to shock its audience, but the pieces all fit together and no time is wasted between thematic/stylistic extremes.
At the time of Crimes of Passion’s release, both Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins had entered incredibly specific periods in their careers. Turner was at the beginning of her ‘golden age’ as the heir to Ingrid Bergman’s femme fatale throne, including appearances in Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone (1984), and John Huston’s Prizzi's Honor (1985). These mega-hits all positioned her as a major selling point for Crimes of Passion and granted her the freedom to embrace a truly fearless performance. Perkins, on the other hand, had slowly been trying to dig his way out from under the shadow of Norman Bates throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. He eventually gave up the ghost, embraced the legacy of his most famous role, and ended his career with series of shameless, scene-stealing performances in a litany of genre films. This mixed bag of good & garbage included three Psycho sequels, Robert Kirk’s Destroyer (1988), Gerard Kikoine’s Edge of Sanity (1989), Tobe Hooper’s I’m Dangerous Tonight (1990), Petra Haffter’s A Demon in My View (1992), and, of course, Crimes of Passion. His position is just as fearless as Turner’s, but for the complete opposite reason: she still had everything to prove and he had nothing left to lose. The rest of the cast is also good, but it’s difficult for anyone to compete with Perkins or Turner and the scenes they share are among the film’s most memorable moments.
To be entirely honest, I consider myself an outsider when it comes to the cinema of Ken Russell, despite Tommy and The Devils being among my favorite films. I find his more esoteric, mainstream-bending work daunting, so I’m not sure if I’ve entirely grasped the essence of Crimes of Passion. Still, I’m looking forward to mulling it over, revisiting it, and refining my opinion, which is sort of the essence of what makes Russell’s best work so valuable.
Crimes of Passion was available in an R-rated theatrical cut and an unrated ‘European’ versions on R1 DVD (for a complete list of the differences between the cuts, click here) from Anchor Bay Studios. There was also a complete ‘director’s cut’ (112:26) Laserdisc release from Lumivision that was considered the standard by fans (see the quotes in this section below). Arrow’s Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack marks the HD debut of both the European cut and the director’s cut. Both 1080p, 1.85:1 transfers were sourced from the same exclusively 2K scan of the original 35mm interpositive. This results in sharp close-up textures, busy background patterns, crisp edges, and a very impressive dynamic range. The footage is relatively grainy, especially in ‘uncontrolled’ environments, where Bush’s layered lighting doesn’t break things up, but the grain itself appears natural and relatively consistent. Other print artifacts are minimal (there are brief sections where chemical stains warble throughout the frame) and compression isn’t a problem, either, because seamless branching saves disc space. The director’s cut’s deleted scenes are added from a less impressive magnetic tape transfer, though the dip is quality is less than you’d think. These shots usually recognizable due to increases in digital noise and rougher gradations.
Having never seen the film, I assumed this neat, tidy, and extremely vivid transfer was the best representation of Crimes of Passion. However, in the time it took me to finish this review, there has been a bit of controversy over the color timing. According to Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas:
Arrow's transfer – admittedly beautiful in many respects, and certainly no obstacle to appreciating one of the great American films of the 1980s – seems calibrated to favor onset realism whereas the original laserdisc transfer ("digitally transferred from Orion Pictures' master interpositive print in consultation with cinematographer Dick Bush") retains his brushstrokes, as it were, depicting lives more drenched in, and torn by, fantasy. And the record shows which version the director and cinematographer approved.
Lucas then reached out to Arrow and restoration supervisor James White replied:
What we sourced for this restoration was the original 35mm Interpos struck from the negative, which came with its basic grade already timed/baked-into the material, so I don’t believe there were any circumstances where we wrestled with the material to achieve a certain look, against what the material was naturally giving us once basic settings were applied to the scans. It’s odd as well as we were using reference sources throughout to match/improve upon previous grades from earlier DVD releases and I don’t recall a single situation where we veered away from the basic template provided by these reference sources.
Again, I don’t know exactly what this particular movie is ‘supposed’ to look like, so I’m just acting as a reporter here. For Lucas’ complete and well-researched article, including some screen-cap comparisons, click here.
Both cuts of Crimes of Passion feature uncompressed, DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtracks that are sourced from the original magnetic transfer. The depth and layering of sound here is complex enough that I actually thought this was a stereo track, until I finally realized there was no stereo movement. Dialogue and basic sound effects are clean, volume levels are consistent, and ranges are naturally affected by the environment – i.e. if a window is closed, a performance is appropriately muffled and the pretend 8mm shots feature purposefully condensed sound. Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s blazing synthesizer score reimagines melodies from Czech composer Antonín Dvořák's "Symphony No. 9” (sometimes known as the “New World Symphony,” 1893). It’s sort of the ‘80s rock/pop answer to Wendy Carlos’ Beethoven-themed Clockwork Orange music. The score has a rich sound, despite the single channel treatment.
Commentary with director Ken Russell and producer/screenwriter Barry Sandler – This commentary (which is only available on the director’s cut) was originally recorded for Lumivision’s Laserdisc. The two filmmakers jibe nicely with each other while filling time with behind-the-scenes information and thematic discussion. Listeners can learn loads about the film without spoiling too much of its calculated abstruseness. Sandler also does a pretty great job reigniting the conversation whenever it falters by asking Russell questions, though there are some long bouts of silence.
Barry Sanders: Life of Crime (22:07, HD) – In this new Arrow-exclusive interview, the producer/screenwriter discusses his early success while writing Kansas City Bomber (1972) at only 19-years-old, convincing Raquel Welch to star in Kansas City Bomber, putting his own experiences as a gay man into the groundbreaking drama Making Love (1982), the genesis of Crimes of Passion, and working with Russell, Kathleen Turner, John Laughlin, and Anthony Perkins.
Rick Wakeman: Composing for Ken (28:54, HD) – In this second new interview, Crimes of Passion composer recalls his relationship with Russell, being hired to both add music to and appear in Lisztomania, Russell’s life lessons for film composers, adapting Dvořák’s themes, and his Crimes of Passion cameo.
Seven deleted/extended scenes with optional commentary by Sandler (19:55, HD) – This is another ‘legacy extra,’ taken from Anchor Bay’s second DVD.
It’s A Lovely Life (3:14, HD) – A music video directed by Russell, featuring footage from the film (as well as footage of Wakeman himself) that was made to promote the film on MTV.
Gallery of script notes and maps from the making of the music video
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.