Directed by Jonathan Demme
Friday, August 3 at 92YTribeca's "Bastards of Hitch"
"All I need is a little work," says traumatized secret agent Harry Hannan (Roy Scheider) to his worried psychologist in the opening moments of Jonathan Demme's Last Embrace. Coming on the heals of his wife's brutal murder and his own three-month stay in a sanitarium, it's a cocky and dismissive sentiment that echoes L.B. Jefferies presumptive attitude at the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. Both men see their professions—the former a spy for some shady government outfit, the latter an extreme photographer—as an escape hatch from the emotional repression building up inside.
This is just one of the many Hitchcock references in a shifty and sometimes convoluted narrative that tracks the unstable Harry as returns to New York City and battles sudden fits of paranoia. When he meets a young graduate student (Janet Margolin) who relies on her physical appearance to hide her true nature, the darker shades of Vertigo become apparent. An accidental bump on a train platform gets stylistically ballooned into an extreme riff on the opening cursory nudge in Strangers On a Train, an absurd confrontation involving a shower curtain echoes Pyscho, and Last Embrace's extended-climax at Niagara Falls is a direct descendant of North By Northwest's Mt. Rushmore finale. Even more fascinating in regard to Demme's Hitchock-borrowing is his brilliant use of public places (parks, courtyards. cemeteries, trains) as seemingly silent areas brimming with malicious intent. No matter where Hannan goes, or how calm the place may appear, the open environment masks multiple hidden threats.
While Demme isn't as adept as Brian De Palma at capturing the sheer terror of Hitchcock's subjective aesthetic, the plot's treatment of heritage—a string of murders foreshadowed by Aramaic death threats—parallels, and shows his understanding of, his artistic debt. Demme uses some of Hitchcock's greatest camera tricks to reflect on his own character's survivor guilt. It seems the cost of ignoring the past is an ongoing roller-coaster ride of self-sabotage and masochism.