This post is a short addendum to this piece I did on this site back in 2015 on the 5 great roles of Roy Scheider. I revisit these films every now and again and am always on the lookout for films I haven’t seen starring Scheider. So, when someone told me to check out Silence of the Lamb’s director Jonathan Demme’s thriller, Last Embrace, I was on it.
Last Embrace appeared in 1979, the same year as Scheider did his jaw dropping turn as the womanising, drug taking, dance instructor, Joe Gideon, in Bob Fosse’s All the Jazz. And, frankly, the two films couldn’t be more different.
Last Embrace sees the tanned, sinewy actor playing a character called Harry Hann, an agent for some shadowy unspecified US government intelligence agency. The film begins with Hann getting out of a sanatorium where he has been recuperating after the murder of his wife by unnamed assassins (look closely and you’ll see one of the killers is the late, great, Joe Spinell) in an attack that was obviously targeting him.
He makes his way back to New York City – nearly killing a civilian waiting for a train in PTSD flashback – and once there, goes to a makeup counter at Macy’s Herald Square, which is where he receives his assignments. The counter attendant passes him a lipstick container but all it contains is a blank piece of paper. Next he goes to his apartment to find it has been rented out to a doctoral anthropology student called Ellie Fabian (Janet Margolin). Ellie passes on a note she says he received in his absence, which is in Hebrew and he can’t read.
Confused by what is going on he visits his supervisor, played by Christopher Walken (a strange role given his performance before that was in 1978’s The Deer Hunter). The supervisor blows him off as being not fit to return to the field and assigns another agent to follow and then kill him. It is not made clear why.
After suffering nightmares from what is clearly some pretty heavy duty psychological injuries, Hann is nearly murdered by cyanide that someone has slipped in his antidepressant medication.
Figuring the note must have something to do with the attempts on his life, with the help of Ellie, Hann takes its to a professor of Hebrew, who tells him it means “Avenger in Blood”. The professor shows him a collection of similar notes, the recipients of which all fell victim to strange, biblically themed murders.
Amidst a burgeoning romance with Ellie and following a very Hitchcockian gun battle in a university bell tower with the intelligence agency operative sent to kill him, Hann is contacted by an old Jewish man. The man is part of a mysterious committee that is investigating the murders associated with the notes. While the two of them uncover the fact that Hann’s grandfather was one of several people who owned a brothel on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the scene shifts to a hotel in Niagara Falls. Ellie, dressed as some sort of mid-century dancing girl cum prostitute, murders an elderly john by drowning him in a bathtub.
Hann gradually pieces together the story that Ellie’s grandmother was trafficked into the brothel from Europe and she has taken it upon herself to murder all the brothel owners as a form of revenge. He is torn about what to do, having fallen in love with her, leading to a bizarre but effective final confrontation between the two at Niagara Falls.
Scheider is great as the severely traumatised Hann. No surprises there. Margolin, whose acting career was cut short by premature death from ovarian cancer at the age of 50, is also good. She left small body of work, of which her best performance, in my view, is a small but very convincing role as a Jewish concentration camp survivor in the stunning and little known 1965 film, Morituri (which I suspect is actually the film I shoulds be spending my time writing about here).
There’s some nice cinematography by Tak Fujimoto and a good a Miklós Rozsa score, but I really didn’t know what to make of this film or should I say films, because it really feels like at least two, maybe three pictures in one. There’s a Hitchcock-style suspense which bleeds into a kind of proto 1990s psychological thriller – the two being very closely related – a romance, and what feels at times like a paranoid conspiracy thriller. And the three films do not talk to each other at all.
My quest for other great films that Scheider did continues. Got any suggestions?