Thursday, September 8, 2011
Five from a Favorite - Murder, Obliquely (Alfonso Cuarón, 1993)
Fallen Angels was a short-lived noir anthology series that aired on the Showtime network in the early 90's. Tapping an impressive array of talent both in-front of and behind the camera, the series as a whole was rather uneven, its primary shortcomings stemming from its knack for overly-convoluted screenplays, as well as the hiring of celebrity directors (among them Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks) who far too often struggled delineating the complex crime plots, and who favored a rather uncreative and on-the-nose approach toward the genre's signature visual and atmospheric qualities.
There were however a couple of utter triumphs buried within this curious series, and my favorite among them is probably Alfonso Cuarón's haunting episode Murder, Obliquely, based on a Cornell Woolrich short story and starring Laura Dern and Alan Rickman. The story takes place in the 1940's, and centers around Dern's character Betty, a timid, attractive and single store clerk whose main hobby is socializing with her married friends and wallowing in her own self-mythologizing sense of elusive love. A perpetual fifth wheel, Betty seems bound to the idea of sitting in a quiet corner like a ghost and watching passion play out in front of her, until one night at a small gathering she meets and obsessively falls for the brooding, wealthy Dwight (Rickman), an equally wounded romantic with a dark streak in a troubled marriage. The idea of love for Betty is portrayed as an illness with no cure - she even wishes for an "antibiotic for love" at one point - and her disembodied, foreboding narration throughout lends a tragic weight to her increasingly slavish infatuation.
Impressively directed by Cuarón and shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life), the immensely striking visuals (borderline miraculous by the television standards of the time) are rich in their attention to lighting, color, composition, and the smokey textures of the period. Dern as always makes the most of an interesting role turning in a subtly intense performance, and Rickman is operating in a particularly intriguing mode, blurring the lines between the romantic lead and devious villain-types he was so often flip flopping between in the late-80s & early-90s period. Murder, Obliquely clocks in at only 27 minutes, but it is a carefully crafted mini-masterpiece of stylish, fatalistic romance that warrants rediscovery.