I've always respected the considerable talents of Debra Winger, but always from somewhat of a distance because none of her films are especially close to my heart. After finally watching James Bridges' Mike's Murder, I am firmly entrenched in the Winger camp. Ironically, Mike's Murder is one of her most obscure films due, in part, to its unavailability on DVD for so long (it's now available via the Warner Archive). Even though it came in the midst of her highest visibility, sandwiched between Urban Cowboy, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Terms of Endearment, Mike's Murder tanked at the box office and is barely remembered today.
Bridges, the man behind Urban Cowboy tailored the script of Mike's Murder for his one and only choice, Winger. She is perfect as Betty Parrish, a somewhat introverted bank teller who becomes involved in an on-again, off-again relationship with doomed tennis pro and small-time coke dealer, Mike Chihutsky (Mark Keyloun). After Mike meets his unfortunate fate, Betty trying to find some semblance of closure, is thrust into a seamy world she previously knew almost nothing about. Even though he was completely unreliable and barely there, he had a considerable hold on Betty. Only after Mike dies, does she meet the others that Mike touched: older photographer Sam (Robert Crosson) and music producer Phillip (Paul Winfield), both of whom loved Mike, and Pete (Darrell Larson), a slimy hanger-on who is Mike's drug-dealing partner.
Mike's Murder was originally intended to be told in a non-linear fashion, nearly 20 years prior to Chris Nolan's Memento, a mystery built on this premise. However, after testing poorly with audiences, the film was shelved at the behest of the studio and re-edited into chronological order, with Joe Jackson's original songs and score mostly replaced by a more conventional John Barry score (I love Barry, but this is second-rate Barry to be sure). Jack Larson, longtime partner of the late Bridges, possesses a print of the original cut, said by those who have seen it to be far superior to the release version. As it is, it is a fascinating and moving neo-noir. As Jeffrey Wells, has pointed out in his tribute to the film, it was a case of a good film coming along at the wrong time. When a good chunk of the moviegoing public was primed for big explosions and special effects, here was a small-scale, human drama about very regular people getting involved over their heads.
On top of this, Bridges filled the narrative with offbeat, daring touches, particularly for a mainstream Hollywood production. Most prominent, of course, is its refreshingly nonchalant portrayal of gays (Winfield and Crosson's characters). In addition, Bridges has fun with the peripheral character, Richard (Dan Shor), a comically pretentious performance artist, and friend of Betty's, who at one point has a wild art opening populated by heavily made-up New Wavers, including scenester of the moment, Spazz Attack [scroll about a 1/4 down the page for a small profile on Spazz Attack].
Some of Jackson's excellent songs (which are closely related to his classic Night and Day LP) survive and they are joined by a smart selection of songs from the era including tracks by Chaz Jankel, The Tubes, Devo, Kool and the Gang, Stray Cats, and the B-52's. Cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos, who had previously shot the evocative Risky Business, lends the film a strong visual look and Bridges and his art and production designers make great use of interesting, authentic L.A. locations.
All this goes towards creating a very strong mood piece. Ostensibly a mystery, the film is truly interested in Betty's discovery of the real Mike, something she could, unfortunately, only do after he was dead. Winger is entirely believable and sympathetic in this role; nothing is done very big or over the top. Nowhere is this more evident than in her biggest emotional moment of the film--when's she's informed of Mike's death. She doesn't cry or scream, but her deep hurt and despair can be seen in her eyes. She loved Mike. Winger's a marvel here and so is Paul Winfield who has one of his best, albeit brief, parts (I believe this was one of two times that Winfield, who was gay, played a gay character on film) as the other person who was in love with Mike. The scene in which Winfield's Phillip painfully opens Betty's eyes to the truth about Mike and his world is heartbreaking and the most brilliant moment in a powerful film that sticks with you long after it's over.