Into the Night resembles a lot of other films of its time: the Los Angeles version of Scorsese’s After Hours or what Miracle Mile would have been if that thing (you know the thing I mean) hadn’t happened. Moving forward, it’s Collateral with one character gender-switched and actually more gunplay, but its most interesting cinematic relative is Eyes Wide Shut. Let’s call it a second cousin: both films are about a man’s two-night journey after he realizes his wife’s infidelity (imagined in Eyes, real here) and more importantly, both take place in a city that’s not quite real. Kubrick created his own hallucination of New York for his film, but director John Landis and writer Ron Koslow had the advantage of making Into the Night in L. A., a city that’s always already part fiction.
As a filmmaker, Landis has a real affinity for the cinema of the mid-twentieth century, a way of bringing screwball and spectacle into the modern world. (I’ll discuss his worst crime of spectacle later.) The Blues Brothers still stands as one of my favorite musicals, even factoring in my massive Chicago-native bias; An American Werewolf in London ranks as one of the most successful mixes of comedy and horror; and whatever else can be said about National Lampoon’s Animal House, it is the definitive campus comedy. No wonder John Belushi was his muse; there’s no other actor of his time who was so large-scale and funny in every way–Landis had to go big just to make him fit. Into the Night plays at the scale of Landis’ best and best-known work, but mixes a tone of pain through the whole thing that’s unique.
YUP, THERE’S GONNA BE SPOILERS
Landis strikes the right hypnotic insomniac mood with the first twenty minutes. The titles begin with a plane landing at LAX (we’ll see the same thing in Die Hard and Collateral) and then we get a series of slow pans over some L. A. landmarks. What’s immediately dislocating is how deserted they all are; we’re seeing the images of the City That Never Sleeps when it is asleep. Everything’s working in slightly slow motion, like it’s all underwater or zombified. (The one thing wrong here will sadly be with us all through the film: the largely godawful score by Ira Newborn. Despite some compelling blues licks from B. B. King, it’s pure 1985 and not in a good way: the synthdrums, the too-fat production, the gagging on clichés. At least King gets to give a strong performance of “In the Midnight Hour” for the end titles.) The concluding shot of this sequence is quintessential L. A.: a pan/tilt over and down from a tall freeway interchange to a suburban house, and the one man awake, Jeff Goldblum’s Ed Okin.
The slowness continues. Spoken lines, in a Kubrickian way, have too many pauses between them and too much space around them. Ed goes from not finishing his breakfast to a traffic jam to falling asleep at his aerospace job (as much as The Falcon and the Snowman, we get some good background detail of the pervasiveness of the defense industry in the Southland); we learn that he’s an insomniac, hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in five years, and he finds out that his wife is having an affair. (Annoyingly, she gets dropped from the movie rather quickly. Stacy Pickren plays her with a lot of sympathy: she loves Ed and cares about him but he’s not there anymore. Once the movie takes its turn, she’s never seen or spoken of again except as Ed’s motivation. Into the Night works on its ability to be not-quite-real, but that just feels wrong.) Landis breaks filmmaking rules in the same way as Eyes Wide Shut and to much the same effect: he shows us too many things happening, refusing to cut out the in-between steps, and where Kubrick created a waking dream, Landis does the opposite for Ed’s sleeping daylight.
One scene in particular spotlights the hybrid of dream and reality that Landis creates: the classic dream moment of waking up in the middle of something totally unprepared. Ed falls asleep in a project meeting and wakes up to find that he’s been doing something wrong for six weeks straight. Everything about this scene is both real and dislocating: the strangeness of the lighting, because all the lights are off except for an overhead projector; the way almost everyone except Ed wears the same kind of glasses, something not at all surprising among engineers in the mid-1980s; and most of all, the fact that Ed’s supervisor is played by David Cronenberg in the first of many cameos by directors and writers in Into the Night. Cronenberg never has to do anything to come across as not of this earth; he’s completely believable as a tech guy saying “naturally this has nothing to do with their godawful carrier tracking loop” and simultaneously completely terrifying when he tells Ed “we switched to QPSK. Two weeks ago.” “I dreamed I woke up and David Cronenberg was chewing me out” sounds like a set up to a joke (the punchline would involve some sort of bodily fluids and spewing) but here it’s exactly what should happen, one more example of Landis’ strong if not perfect command of tone here.
Twenty minutes in, Into the Night takes its turn; it’s not a gearshift moment, simply the start of the story, as what could have been a domestic indie dramedy gets crashed by an international thriller: Ed heads out at night to LAX (perhaps to take up coworker Dan Akyroyd’s suggestion that he go to Vegas) and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Diana literally lands on the roof of his car. One moment earlier, she’d been walking into the parking garage with her current boyfriend/patron and they got jumped by a quartet of SAVAK agents–the MacGuffin here is six emeralds from an ancient Persian scepter. (Swarthy Middle Eastern Bad Guys were quite popular in mainstream 1980s American movies. Here, it’s not quite as bad as, say, Robert Forster’s team of hijackers in The Delta Force, in that this crew has a specificity to them. Their motivation isn’t simply FOREIGNERS HATE OUR FREEDOM. Also, I find it hard to say too many bad things about the SAVAK. Still, “well it’s not the most racist thing in 1985” ain’t praise.) Landis stages the R-rated action here well; there’s both a brutality and a believable clumsiness to it, with people having to deal with fences they can’t quite climb and high heels that break. When the film launches with such an improbable moment, mixing in realistic details actually makes it play as stranger.
With that moment, we’re off, and Into the Night stays both with the pace of a thriller and the not-quite-real tone of the opening for the rest of its running time. It’s not as stripped-down and relentless as Miracle Mile (what is?) but that allows for some downtime with Diana and Ed, as she tries to persuade him to help her, or, after she’s succeeded, they just hang back and talk. Landis often shoots them in separate closeups, which creates a sense of isolation that Pfeiffer and Goldblum still manage to connect across. Landis uses a lot of establishing shots of L. A. at night, both glam and everyday, cheap apartments, estates, diners, hotel suites, casinos, marinas, and closed stores; since much of the plot is Diana trying to get help from the men she’s slept with, we have a reason for all the travel. At one point, Ed and Diana are on a movie set, with all the L. A. surreality that implies. (Ed keeps not recognizing he’s on a movie set, and that leads to a scene of slow-motion slapstick, as phones, walls, and rocks all turn out to be props. Goldblum sitting in a prop rock that’s collapsed under him is a moment of comic sublime; what does it is his air of “eh, I’ll just wait here,” and Paul Mazursky’s equal lack of concern when he sees Goldblum.) It’s exciting without ever being intense, funny without ever generating any laughs, and dreamlike without ever being unreal.
Perhaps Into the Night’s most original aspect is that ambiguous tone, never fully cohering into one or the other. Like Eyes Wide Shut, it’s a film that’s filtered through its protagonist’s consciousness, although Goldblum’s Ed is a lot more active in the plot that Tom Cruise’s Bill ever would be. The tone can be light enough for a comedy, and it’s almost a romantic comedy, while still sliding into the darkness of watching a character die, in complete silence, from her point of view. That would sink a lesser film, but here the death doesn’t land as trivial or pretentious, but genuinely unpredictable. As in a dream, I never knew what was coming next, but I wasn’t afraid of it.
In the absence of consistent tone, something else has to hold a movie together. Here, it’s the chemistry between the two leads, and it’s not a chemistry that’s romantic. Ed isn’t trying to hit on her, Diana’s not trying to seduce him, and the script doesn’t waste a single beat on will-they-or-won’t they. (The one moment where it looks like she might have sex with Ed, she lets him sleep instead. That’s what he really needs, and all of us know it.) Both of them are being honest with each other as they can be, for different reasons: Ed because of his insomnia and Diana because she’s on the run. That honesty between strangers, let loose in nocturnal L. A., is the closest point of contact to Collateral. It’s a strange level of intimacy and friendliness between people who seem to have come from different worlds–they certainly come from different genres.
Weak characters and performances will always sink chemistry; it’s hard to care about people when they don’t exist except as functions of the plot. (This is my problem with most romantic comedies and action movies.) Into the Night allows both Ed and Diana play as strong, independent people, and Goldblum and Pfeiffer more than come up to that level. This forms the second panel of Jeff Goldblum’s great Nerd Quartet of the mid-1980s; The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai was just in the past, Life Story/The Race for the Double Helix and The Fly were still ahead. All these characters are unavoidably Goldblum, and they’re all similar, but he carefully differentiates them to what’s needed in the particular movie. In Into the Night, Goldblum gives one of the most realistic performances around of sleep deprivation. He’s always moving and reacting at about 80% speed; he has to take energy to think about what he’s doing and saying. That’s in contrast to what he usually does, especially in Buckaroo Banzai, where he nails the geek characteristic of thinking faster than he can speak. He goes beyond social awkwardness here into a discomfort with the entire world around him–and he keeps his best card face down until the climax.
Conan O’Brian (I think) said that whatever’s happening in the frame, “the eye goes to Goldblum”; he’s never not compelling, and never not funny. His talent is that he can play so much humor without ever denying his characters their dignity. Even his turn as a Wes Anderson villain in The Life Aquatic feels like a real person. On the technical level, part of it is what Pauline Kael (writing about Diane Keaton) called “fumbling in character”–showing us the whole process of how Ed (or James Watson, or Seth Brundle) gets to his words and actions. He works best in situations like this or Buckaroo Banzai or Cronenberg, where the world has gotten even stranger than him. The dialogue is like the violence: the most ordinary of lines becomes the funniest reaction possible. Late in the movie, facing down the One Behind It All and offering his plan to solve anything, he first responds to a challenge with “well I think it’s a good plan” with a kind of loopy sincerity, and then just rattles off a bunch of lies, Heath-Ledger’s-Joker style. (“His son?” “Illegitimate, but someday it’ll all be mine. You and I could be doing business, going out to lunch.”) The plot and his sleep deprivation combine to produce that exalted giddy-with-disaster state, where the level of danger is so high, even ridiculous, that the mind just stops caring and enjoys it, and Goldblum plays every step of Ed leading into this.
For her part, Michelle Pfeiffer here creates just as much a challenge as Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and she, Landis, and Koslow solve it the same way. There’s no way to ignore how beautiful she is, and trying to do so will result in some huge miscasting. (William Goldman noted the insane wrongness of trying to cast Pfeiffer in Frankie and Johnnie in a role originally played on stage by Kathy Bates.) Her beauty is like Charlize Theron’s in that it’s flawless, making her seem somehow not of this earth, and it’s unjust but accurate that her range gets limited by that. Here, it works, and not just because when she lands on the hood of Ed’s car, she really has crashed in from another world. (Another otherworldly touch is the bright red jacket she wears for most of the film. I’ll just assume it inspired Sarah Polley’s wardrobe in Go, although Doug Liman didn’t film it with the proper color saturation.) It’s because her beauty, and how Diana deploys it, is essential to her character. Great name there too, calling up Wonder Woman, the goddess of the hunt, and the Princess of Wales, who Pfeiffer resembles more than a little.
Pfeiffer doesn’t ignore that beauty but builds a complete character around it. Diana lives from man to man, a permanent piece of arm candy (that’s how we first see her), but what’s unique about Into the Night is that neither she nor the men get judged for that. She works her expressions towards everyone she’s with (and Landis gives her several shots where we see that expression change) but there’s no sense that she’s deceiving anyone. This is just how she lives in the world, and everyone accepts that. Her sister, Christie (Kathryn Harrold) is having an affair with her producer (Mazursky) and again, there’s no sense that she’s a victim or a whore any more than Diana is. Typically, there are two ways to write and play Diana and Christie: they’re damsels in distress or femmes fatales, and neither term applies here. Both those terms exist as plot functions, either to be saved by a man or to fuck them/fuck them up, and Diana and Christie aren’t like that. Diana needs Ed’s help, but not salvation, and she offers him friendship, not sex. At the pivotal moment of the film, when Diana fully reveals what’s going on, he asks “how do you know you can trust me?” and she just straightforwardly sez “because I know men.” It’s direct, without any pride or shame, and you sense that’s what Ed responds to, that’s why he commits to teaming up. Diana and Christie are a kind of character I’ve met in life but don’t often see in movies, honest manipulators.
Outside of Pfeiffer and Goldblum, Landis gives us great supporting cast; like Buckaroo Banzai, he understands the importance of surrounding Jeff Goldblum with players who can come up to his level of weird and compelling. Like Soderbergh with The Informant!, he gets that a big part of tone comes from who we see on screen. David Bowie quietly steals the movie in two scenes as an assassin (the header shot pretty much sums up not just his performance, but the whole film as well), and he gets to go out in a fight to the death with Carl Perkins, because who else could kill Bowie? (I’ll assume Jerry Lee Lewis wasn’t returning calls.) The incomparable Bruce McGill plays Diana’s brother; he’s an Elvis impersonator (we have a Million Dollar Quartet theme going here) and the two of them get a great screwball exchange:
“Elvis wouldn’t do what you’re doing–and I knew him!”
(door slam) “You didn’t know him. You may have fucked him, but you didn’t know him.”
Richard Farnsworth comes in late in the game, as unshakably dignified as in The Straight Story, playing Diana’s lover and principal sugar daddy; Landis himself plays the lead SAVAK agent and gives himself some funny-yet-believable clumsiness, a running joke about his glasses, and a spectacular death in a hail of ownage; Irene Papas brings in her regal presence from a lifetime in film (and Landis favors her with some strong, centered compositions) and Clu Gulager shows up at the very end with his own unique 1970s-style weariness and cynicism. (“Do we thank you, or what?” “I’d say I fall in the ‘or what’ category.”)
Less successfully, for no in-universe reason, Landis also loads Into the Night with cameo appearances from directors and a few writers. For the most part, they’re just not that interesting–almost none of them are memorable performers and we can’t be expected to recognize them. Cronenberg is the lead exception, with Roger Vadim coming in second and Jonathan Demme at least looks disturbing as a Treasury agent in hornrimmed glasses, although he isn’t called on to do much. (I don’t count Mazursky because he’s consistently acted before, all the way back to Fear and Desire.) It’s only effective as an inside–well, I can’t call it a joke, because there’s a not-very-sub text to this: this was Landis’ first feature film after shooting his segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie, where his blatant disregard for any kind of safety practices got one veteran actor (Vic Morrow) and two children (Renee Shin-Yi Chen and Myca Dinh Le) killed by having a helicopter drop on them. (The standard book on the subject, Outrageous Conduct, makes it clear that although it was only after this accident that safety practices were enforced on film sets, Landis went far past any kind of common-sense behavior in demanding the filming of his segment.) He made Into the Night while he was under investigation for involuntary manslaughter (he would later be tried and acquitted); were the cameos the film industry’s, or at least these members’, way of saying “hey no problem bro, you’re still cool with us”? (Steven Spielberg had that great, memorable scene in Landis’ The Blues Brothers but doesn’t appear here, and apparently never dealt with Landis after Twilight Zone.) There’s a level of accepting evil here–and the portrayal of Diana and Christie may be part of that–that’s not so much a theme as evidence.
For the most part, Into the Night mostly successfully holds to its strange hybrid tone: entertaining, complex, not all that powerful, but the climactic scene jumps the stakes remarkably. That’s down almost entirely to the strength of the performances here, especially Goldblum’s. He achieves one of the great sucker-punch moments in film here, something that might also be called a character twist. Like a plot twist, it’s not really a revelation, but a recontextualization of something that was always there; the best example I’ve ever seen comes in the best film performance I’ve ever seen, Natasha Richardson’s Patty Hearst. We see something here that was always there, just waiting for our attention to be called to it.
It happens when, just short of their getaway, Ed and Diana get caught at LAX in a three-way showdown between Treasury agents, Vadim’s men, and the SAVAK agents. (Landis stages and frames this all in a Die Hard-worthy scene.) The last living SAVAK (Michael Zand) grabs Diana as a hostage with every gun still pointing at him, and Ed is just left there helpless. He tries fronting first: “big shot huh? You’ve got a gun, now what?” to someone who doesn’t necessarily know English. “Shithead. You,” he tries, and we can see the realization in his face that there’s no reason this is gonna work. (Landis effectively cuts between every statement from Ed and a shot of the gunman and Diana. Both of them play terror viscerally well.) Ed’s conviction fades as his words do–“maniac”–and then he shifts. Like a Malick character, he has no choice except to just say his truth. The transformation of Goldblum’s face is subtle, extraordinary, and so moving; he (I don’t know if I mean Ed or Goldblum) gives up and just admits who he is, and Landis, again, gives each line its own space, setting each one off with a cut back to Zand, Pfeiffer, and the gun:
Let me ask you something, maybe you can help me. What’s wrong with my life?
Why is my wife sleeping with someone else?
Why can’t I sleep?
Ed and the film jump into a void here; it’s Recognition without the structure of Tragedy, answered with a single BLAM as the gunman kills himself. The movie itself hasn’t been leading up to this revelation; it’s not necessary that the sequence play out this way. (A Treasury agent could have taken the headshot without violating the plausibility here.) That’s the sucker-punch of it: Ed did this because he alone needed to, not because he was forced into it, and the power comes from the actor, not the structure.
That’s not to deny what Landis does here, by the way. The craft of this moment, beyond the emotion, is impeccable and cathartic. Landis and editor Malcolm Campbell compose this sequence as effectively as Scorsese and Thelma Schoomaker did the execution of Tommy in GoodFellas or Nolan and Lee Smith do the reveal of Two-Face in The Dark Knight: Zand turns the gun towards his face; cut to the bloodspray hitting Ed at the sound of the gunshot; cut to a close shot of the bloody body with the head out of frame (and possibly gone) hitting the floor; cut back to wide shot of Diana with the gigantic bloodstain on the wall behind her like a certain Michael Haneke film. The sequence is bloody, not gory. There’s no brains-blown-out image, but every cut happens about four frames before we expect. It doesn’t feel rushed or disorienting, but genuinely and effectively violent, and it’s all down to the cuts and framing.
The ending comes back to the screwball feel, as Farnsworth leaves Diana and Ed a big chunk of cash (minus some pocketed by Gulager–“who you gonna tell?”) and in a series of shots that exactly echoes the opening, Ed falls asleep. The closing shot suggests either further adventures (but Goldblum better be available for Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League first) or Ed and Diana returning to their distinct lives; like Sideways, it’s an ambiguous ending that works, because we sense that this step has been completed–Ed gets a good night’s, or more like a day and half’s, rest, and Diana gets free of her pursuers–and what comes next, either way, is another story. Both films have a similar feeling of darkness and sadness shading a standard genre piece–1940s screwball here, road/buddy comedy for Sideways–and in both cases that’s what makes it land. Into the Night isn’t a great movie, but it’s a memorable one, broad in ambition, intimate in execution; like Howard Hawks, it’s an entertainment that works not on spectacle or budget (although it has both) but on a particular mood and performance, something all too rare in contemporary cinema.