Love at Large: Noir is All Around

13 Sep

The three Love at Large leads (l-r): Elizabeth Perkins, Tom Berenger, and Anne Archer. At the time of Love at Large’s release, Berenger was still basking in the goodwill generated by his Best Supporting Actor nod for 1986’s Platoon. Interestingly, a year after Platoon, Berenger appeared with beautiful Mimi Rogers and Lorraine Bracco in Ridley Scott’s exquisitely packaged romantic thriller Someone to Watch Over Me. Berenger played a married detective who becomes intimate with an eyewitness (Rogers) in a murder investigation. Unfortunately, the movie was released too close on the heels of  the only slightly similar Fatal Attraction (featuring Oscar nominee Anne Archer) and could not match that film’s powerful hold on audiences. I think Someone to Watch Over Me and Love at Large would make an excellent double feature.

I’ve recently become reacquainted with two of my favorite Alan Rudolph movies. The other night, I turned on my TV just as one of the retro movie channels began running 1984’s Songwriter, starring Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Rip Torn, Melinda Dillon, and Golden Globe nominee Lesley Anne Warren.  More recently, I finally splurged and bought a copy of 1990’s Love at Large, starring Tom Berenger, Elizabeth Perkins, Anne Archer, and, oh yes, Neil Young. Love at Large has actually been on my Amazon wish list for quite some time, years maybe, and every now and then, I get an email alert that there are only “X” number of copies still in stock (for the time being), or the price has dropped, or whatever.  Usually, I resist such pitches, but this time I chose not to ignore the advisory because I really enjoy the movie, it’s hard to locate as a rental, and, heck, I  actually had a few extra dollars at my disposal.

Anyway, this sudden re-entry of Rudolph into my life prompted a conversation between Michael and me. We were trying to pinpoint the last time we saw an Alan Rudolph movie in a theater. I seemed to recall that he had actually directed a big screen version of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast at Champions. Did he really? Did I just imagine it? I know we didn’t see it. I also remembered that Emily Watson had starred in a Rudolph movie that I skipped. What was the title? Was she in the Vonnegut adaptation? Anyway, to find the answers to these questions and more, I went to the trusty Internet Movie Database, and what I discovered shocked me: Rudolph hasn’t made a movie since 2002’s The Secret Lives of Dentists. Wow. Has it really been that long? Oh, and, yes, he did direct Breakfast of Champions, with a cast that included Bruce Willis, Albert Finney, Nick Nolte, and Barbara Hershey. By all accounts, it was dreadful mess and flopped hard. Oh, and, yes, Emily Watson starred in Trixie (2000), but I’m not a huge Watson fan, so that’s that.

Still, it’s been more than ten years since Rudolph was behind a camera. Oh, and I checked: he hasn’t died. He’s actually second-generation Hollywood, the son of prolific TV director Oliver Rudolph whose many,  many credits include everything from Adam-12 to Batman, The Brady Bunch, The Donna Reed Show, McHale’s Navy, and oh so many others. The younger Rudolph first came to prominence as a protege of Robert Altman with 1976’s Welcome to L.A.  Altman produced the film, and it featured many of his repertory players: Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Sally Kellerman, and Sissy Spacek (who starred in Altman’s Three Women).  It is true that Rudolph’s films bear no small resemblance to Altman’s, what with that snaky camera movement and characters with tortured inner lives; plus , Rudolph’s offerings can be a tad talky–not that that’s a bad thing either. I also happen to think that  Rudolph’s films recall Neil Jordan at this best, considering the characters’ haunted romanticism along with lots of intrigue and reversals of fortune. The main difference between the other two directors and Rudolph is that he sometimes traffics in quirkiness–there it is, the dreaded word–which isn’t always necessarily a good thing. Sometimes a little is, frankly, too much.  Sometimes not. Also, Rudolph is rarely as commercial as Jordan and the late Altman when they’re/were on a roll.


Noir much? My first Rudolph experience was Remember My Name (above) starring Geraldine Page along with the then real-life married couple Anthony Perkins and Berry Berenson (both now deceased). Chaplin won the Best Actress prize at the 1978 Paris Film Festival. I saw Remember My Name at the historic Highland Park Village, not too long after its balcony was converted to a second auditorium–back in the day when Saturday nights were owned by the Rocky Horror Picture Show crowd.

Of course, many of Rudolph’s best films revel in the mystique of film noir. You know the effect:  weary cynical loners, femme fatales, low-life hoods, powerful mobsters, diners, smoky bars and clubs, back alleys, rain-swept streets, and a touch of neon.  Rudoph’s musical sensibility also contributes to the noir aspects of his films, specifically the jazzy scores of composer Mark Isham, marked as they often are, by the lonely sound of a muted trumpet; likewise, look at some of the titles: Remember My Name and Trouble in Mind, both of them inspired by famous blues songs.

On the other hand, not all of Rudolph’s movies embrace noir-ish elements as is the case with Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, his Dorothy Parker biopic; its unofficial companion piece, btw, is The Moderns, which features a mix of fictional characters along with real-life figures, such as Ernest Hemmingway (played by Kevin J. O’Connor), in 1920s’ Paris. Additionally,  Roadie and Songwriter are all about the music biz, or at least the fringes of it. The latter also represents what is sometimes known as Rudolph’s “hired gun” efforts, meaning the films were scripted by others as opposed to the films for which he has sole authorship. Mortal Thoughts, with Demi Moore, Glenn Headley, Bruce Willis, and Harvey Keitel, would also fall into that category.

Rudolph is also known for his generosity with performers–actresses specifically.  Of course, ever luminous Julie Christie earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, on top of several other accolades,  for playing a former movie star in the depths of despair in 1997’s Afterglow. She would have gotten my vote If I’d been a member of the Academy though I freely admit that I’m completely enthralled by Christie in almost all things.  Jennifer Jason Leigh seemed destined for an Oscar nod thanks to her larger-than-life turn as the one and only Dorothy Parker in the aforementioned Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. The Academy had other ideas though Leigh was still recognized by other groups  including the National Society of Film Critics and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (i.e., a Golden Globe nod); Leigh’s critics were likely turned-off by the heavily affected speaking voice she used for the character; however, both she and Rudolph defend the choice based on recordings of Parker reading her own work, and, certainly, Leigh hits all the right emotional notes of a complex, no, difficult, woman, dazzlingly so–but I digress. In 1984, Lesley Anne Warren not only earned a Globe nomination for the aforementioned Songwriter (in which she  played a country singer whose decline is as swift as is her rise to fame), she also scored a flashy role in Rudolph’s wildly acclaimed Choose Me.  Other actresses who have been honored with either awards or nominations from critics or at film festivals include (in no particular order)  Lori Singer (Trouble in Mind), Genieve Bujold (The Moderns), Lara Flynn Boyle (Equinox), and Geraldine Page (Remember My Name). That’s not to say that Rudolph isn’t kind to actors–witness the frequent collaborations with Keith Carradine, multiple appearances by Kristofferson and Willis, not to mention Matthew Modine who snared an Independent Spirit Award nomination for playing dual roles in Equinox.  Furthermore, Rudolph wasn’t the first director to hire singer-songwriter Willie Nelson as an actor, but he certainly provided a nice showcase for Nelson’s laid-back style.

For all of that, however, nobody was lining up to serve accolades for Love at Large, but I think it’s, well, gorgeous, noirish fun. Here’s the set-up: Berenger plays Harry Dobbs,  as a friend observed, a shamus.  Maybe not the brightest private dick on the planet, but he usually gets the job done. Oh, and his girlfriend (Ann Magnuson) is a real piece of work, seemingly incapable of happiness. They barely tolerate each other. Then, in true noir fashion, a beautiful and mysterious woman (Archer) approaches Dobbs about a job, a job that should be straightforward if laced with an element of danger;  however, complications pile up quickly, not the least of which  involves Berenger’s character crossing paths with another detective, confident yet high-strung,  played by ever-adorable Elizabeth Perkins.

In the same way that Hitchcock lets audiences in on Vertigo‘s big surprise well before James Stewart’s character discovers the truth, in Love at Large Rudolph similarly reveals his hand to the audience while keeping Berenger and Perkins in the dark about a twist that spins the story into an entirely different, and no less perilous, direction.  In this way, Rudolph creates tension and ups the fun quotient for audiences willing to kick back and enjoy the show. Even so, there’s still plenty of mystery for audiences to savor.

Anne Archer Beauty

^ When Anne Archer starred in Love at Large, she was enjoying a major career boost thanks to her Oscar nominated turn as Michael Douglas’s sexy, and too good be true, wife in the 1987 blockbuster Fatal Attraction. In 1990, she appeared in Love at Large as well as Narrow Margin. Archer is second generation Hollywood. Her dad is prolific TV and film actor John Archer while Marjorie Lord (Make Room for Daddy) is her mommy. Her husband is Terry Jastrow, with whom she co-starred and co-wrote 1982’s Waltz Across Texas.

Besides Rudolph’s nifty script (with a few more than obvious puns), the movie benefits from heavy atmospheric touches, such as nighttime exteriors awash with smoky haze and interiors that recall old Hollywood at its most luxe. To clarify, for all practical purposes, Love at Large unfolds in present day Portland, Oregon–or rather what passed for the present in 1990. It looks fairly contemporary at first glance; however, Rudolph and his team of designers and location managers (Susan Mina Eschelbach, Ingrid Ferrin, Charles Harrington, Steve Karataz, and Steven Legler) play a nifty trick, drawing on elements that suggest earlier eras: ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, etc.  A little Art Nouveau, a little Art Deco. Some of the film absolutely looks modern while the nightclubs and hotels–with massive suites–positively evoke memories of, say, Casablanca and Laura–only in color, reminiscent of, say, Millers Crossing and Bullets over Broadway, two movies from the 1990s that were set during Prohibition.  Meanwhile, per the IMDb, Dobbs drives a car from the 1970s while Perkins tools around in a 1960s model. There’s also plenty of blue lighting effects, playing upon a song that Archer’s character sings: ” You don’t what love is until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues.” Oh, and speaking of that little ditty,  Rudolph and cinematographer Elliot Davis (who also worked with the director on Equinox and Mortal Thoughts) come up with a doozy of a shot, pulling in for a tight close-up  of Archer  at the microphone thrillingly timed with a dramatic lighting cue.  A bit of perfectly synchronized movie magic that reminds us why we love to go to the movies, and why we especially love noir.  Well, that’s just one of the showiest shots Rudolph serves. The truth is, the movie unspools one incredible image after another; however, unlike the almost mechanical precision/composition of, say, a Coen brothers movie (such as Millers Crossing), there’s something dream-like about Rudolph’s imagery. Again, that’s why we love the movies.

In the end, Rudolph does not give his audience the satisfaction of a neat and tidy ending without any loose ends. No, there are questions galore left unanswered, but I think that’s the point. Others might hate it. The movie’s title indicates that love is somehow too big too be contained. It roams where it roams.  As depicted, love is a mystery that cannot  be explained. I think that’s also why Rudolph sets his story in a period non-specific film noir fantasyland: to show once again that love is timeless yet also mysterious. Oh, and then there’s that Leonard Cohen song that plays over the opening credits: “Ain’t No Cure for Love.”  No cure whatsoever. Again, love is both inescapable and inexplicable.  It’s at large.


Elizabeth Perkins would have made a great foil for Woody Allen (better than a noticeably strained Helen Hunt) in 2002’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Oh, if you ever get a chance, check her out opposite Kevin Bacon in He Said, She Said (above), a little-seen, gimmicky battle of the sexes comedy that gives Perkins a chance to shine even more than she does in Love at Large.

The three principals, Archer, Berenger, and Perkins, acquit themselves admirably, conforming as they no doubt do  to Rudoph’s vision. Archer is a knock-out, and, again, Rudolph photographs her with great care to heighten her allure; however, some audiences might not appreciate the breathless affectation she brings to almost every line reading. I like it because I think it fits Rudoph’s italics-heavy conceit. Ditto Berenger and his goofy cragginess. It’s not realistic, but then this is not a realistic movie. Instead, it’s film noir as a metaphor for love. Nothing especially realistic about that. Perkins plays it fairly straight, but she has a sassiness that very nearly recalls old-school “Gal Friday” roles from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Plus, with her dark curly hair, striking dark brows, thick lashes, and pouty red lips, she brings to mind vintage glam–and one of the greatest of all Hollywood beauties, also named Elizabeth, and that’s no less than Elizabeth Taylor, of course, though somehow more accessible. (Oh, and let’s not forget that Taylor portrayed the mother of Perkins’s Wilma Flintstone in the first live action, big screen adaptation of the old animated Flintstsones TV series, so someone somewhere saw the resemblance. )

I’ve always thought Perkins was one of our most under-appreciated actresses. Yes, she works steadily, and she even boasts Emmy and Golden Globe consideration for her supporting turn on Weeds, aside from her portrayal of a frustrated toy company executive in the now classic Big and fine work in Barry Levinson’s celebrated Avalon (released the same year as Love at Large), but too much of her output has been in, well, second tier vehicles, projects that just somehow missed the mark creatively or under-performed commercially, per her recent short-lived sitcom, How to Live with Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life). Sometimes, as in Weeds, she’s the supporting player rather than the lead. Too bad. I think Perkins could have easily stepped into almost any role that Meg Ryan played in her heyday. Think about it.

Love at Large also boasts a formidable supporting cast that includes the aforementioned Magnuson along with Ted Levine (a year before he became famous for playing the terrifying Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs), Kate Capshaw, Annette O’Toole, and Ruby Dee, who comes on like gangbusters as Perkins’s detective agency boss.  Barry Miller and Kevin J. O’Connor have smallish roles as well.  And then there’s Neil Young, who contributes barely more than a cameo. Still, it’s worth the wait.  Wink.

Alan, come back. We miss you.

Thanks for your consideration…

Oh, one more thing…


Btw: Am I the only person who has ever noticed a striking resemblance between actor-writer Michael McKean (above), the real-life spouse of Love at Large actress Annette O’Toole, and Ted Levine (below) who plays the spouse of O’Toole’s Love at Large character? Okay, maybe the resemblance isn’t 100% though the butterflies in McKean’s photo certainly bring to mind Levine’s moth obsessed serial killer  in 1991’s Oscar winning The Silence of the Lambs. Uh-huh.

In The Silence of the Lambs, the villain of the piece (Jame Gumb aka Buffalo Bill) surrounds himself with weird flying creatures. In this case, it's those creepy "death head" moths.


3 Responses to “Love at Large: Noir is All Around”

  1. Brian Clements 13 September 2013 at 9:35 pm #

    Great piece, Melanie. I was always very interested in Rudolph and wondered what ever happened to him. For a long time, Trouble in Mind was one of my favorite films. Great soundtrack, too!

    • listen2uraunt 14 September 2013 at 3:51 am #

      Thanks for reading, Brian! I also love Trouble in Mind. Michael likes it too because he once lived in Seattle for a short time, and Rudolph makes excellent use of the location. I used to own it on VHS. Now, I don’t even know if it’s available on DVD. I know Equinox is not available on DVD, and that makes me sad. Maybe they’re both available to download, but that’s not my preference. Can you believe it’s been 10 years since Rudolph has made a film? Incredible.

  2. listen2uraunt 12 November 2016 at 8:25 am #

    Reblogged this on Confessions of a Movie Queen and commented:

    Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen passed away earlier this week at the age of 82. Besides being influential among his peers, many of whom covered his material with great reverence, Cohen’s songs cast their spells on many filmmakers who used his music to startling effect. Some examples include Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, and Alan Rudolph’s Love at Large. I wrote about the latter a few years ago, and I repost today in honor of the late Mr. Cohen. Thanks for your consideration…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: