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Good Drama Movies (1980-85): Crimes & Misdemeanours

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Ren Zelen itcherThe eighties was a decade which provided many commercial successes and created several franchises, but not every 1980s movie aimed to be a blockbuster. I’m completing my look at the drama movies of the 80s by outlining some of the unusual movies you may have missed. ~ Ren Zelen

No bucks, no Buck Rogers…

After the innovations of the 70s, films in the 80s were generally less experimental and more formulaic, with many eager to capitalize on new CGI techniques now available.

Some of the films of the era seemed traditional and conservative, reflecting the times, but a few were still intent on being radical and innovative. Independent movies in particular, made by various directors and writers, provided uncompromising, low-budget, original visions outside the hidebound studio system.


Uncommon Drama Movie Recommendations

‘Bad Timing’ (Nicholas Roeg, 1980)

One would ask the question ‘What is a kiss?’ And the answer is merely an inquiry on the second floor as to whether the first is free…

Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) is a psychiatrist living in Vienna who meets Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell) through a mutual friend. Though Alex is older, he’s attracted to Milena’s young, free spirit. Despite the fact that Milena is married, their friendship turns into a passionate affair that veers into obsession.

When Milena ends up in the hospital from an overdose, Alex is taken into custody by Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel) who wants him to explain the extended lapse of time between her overdose and his call to the hospital.

In ‘Bad Timing’, director Nic Roeg, a visionary firebrand of British cinema, unravels the strands binding two people in an obsessive love affair. Flashbacks in the movie show Alex poised and repressed – a professional voyeur who lends his expertise to NATO military intelligence – and Milena, a chaotic free-spirit. The story reveals how they drag each other towards breakdown.

In the film’s present time, Netusil nudges Alex toward the memory of what he really did in the hours before the dying Milena reached the hospital. Netusil probes into Alex’s mind and discovers how Alex and Milena drove each other to extremes. “It was all about frailties,” Roeg says. “…. You cannot intellectualise yourself out of obsession. You cannot cure yourself of it.”

‘Cruising’ (William Friedkin, 1980)

They told me that there was some… special assignment… and that I was right for it…

Detective Steve Burns (Al Pacino) goes undercover in the underground S&M gay subculture of New York City to catch a serial killer who is preying on gay men. The psychopath is scouring the city’s gay clubs and viciously slaying homosexuals. Detective Burns is required to don leather attire and conform to the gay-club culture while attempting to trap the killer.

But as Burns becomes immersed in club hopping, he begins to identify with the subculture more than he expected to and slowly begins to distance himself from his girlfriend, Nancy (Karen Allen). Meanwhile, the NYC police force’s homophobia becomes apparent and the killer remains at large.

Al Pacino in one of his lesser-known roles gives an intense yet relatively controlled performance.

‘Blow Out’ (Brian De Palma, 1981)

No one wants to know about conspiracy any more!

While out recording sound effects for a cheap exploitation flick, Jack Terri (John Travolta) stumbles upon a real-life horror when he witnesses a car careening off a bridge and into a river. Jack jumps into the water and manages to free Sally (Nancy Allen) from the sinking car, but the other passenger is already dead – a governor intending to run for president.

As Jack investigates his tapes, he hears something questionable – is that a tyre blowing out or a gunshot? As he seeks Sally out and they start a perilous romance, Jack makes further shocking discoveries and enters a web of conspiracy that threatens both their lives. The original event is complicated by a series of murders, possibly designed to lay a false trail and throw the police off the scent of a political conspiracy.

With a story inspired by Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’ and a style De Palma borrows from the suspense of Hitchcock, ‘Blow Out’ is tense, politically informed, and littered with cross-references to other movies, other directors, and actual historical events.

It remains one of De Palma’s best and most original films because he is successful at populating his plot with interesting, credible, three-dimensional characters, something sadly lacking in other thrillers, then and now.

‘Body Heat’ (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981)

You can stand here with me if you want but you’ll have to agree not to talk about the heat…

One of the best films in the neo-noir category, Lawrence Kasdan’s first film conveys a steamy, Floridian heat, adding to the sensual atmosphere of his homage to the iconic 1940s Noir movie ‘Double Indemnity’ (1944). 

Horny shyster lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt) begins a passionate affair with Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner), wife of a wealthy Florida businessman (Richard Crenna). With the help of one of his criminal clients, bomb maker Teddy Lewis (Mickey Rourke), Ned and Matty hatch a scheme to kill Matty’s husband so that they can run away together with his money.

But complications build upon twists and double-crosses, launching the hapless lawyer into a situation far more treacherous than he imagined.

Kathleen Turner makes her striking and sexy screen debut as the gorgeous Matty alongside William Hurt in a role against type as the horny lawyer duped by a beautiful, bored and rich trophy wife.

‘Silkwood’ (Mike Nichols, 1983)

I know what you’re doing, and you’re the wrong person to be doing it. It’s dangerous… that’s all I’m going to say…

This drama is based on the true story of Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep in one of her formative roles), who works at a nuclear facility, along with her boyfriend, Drew Stephens (Kurt Russell), and their roommate, Dolly Pelliker (Cher).

When Karen becomes concerned about safety practices at the plant, she begins raising awareness of violations that could put workers at risk. While intent on continuing her investigation, Karen discovers that she has somehow been exposed to high levels of radiation.

Mike Nichols’ Silkwood’ is a fact-based story about 28-year old metallurgy worker in an Oklahoma plutonium plant and union activist ‘whistle-blower’ Karen Silkwood. Silkwood was believed to have been purposefully contaminated, psychologically tortured and possibly murdered to prevent her from exposing blatant worker safety violations.

Karen Silkwood died in a mysterious automobile accident. She was on her way to deliver some documents to a New York Times reporter when her car skidded off the road. The documents were never found. Was the accident caused in some way? The movie doesn’t point suspicion only toward the company she was threatening to expose.

The movie is the story of an ordinary woman, hard-working, passionate and funny; who made people angry simply because she told the truth and did what she thought was right.

‘The Right Stuff’ (Philip Kaufman, 1983)

I’m tired of smocks, I’m tired of engineers telling us what we can’t do, I’m tired of everybody that says we are not pilots!

This adaptation of the non-fiction novel by Tom Wolfe chronicles the first 15 years of America’s space program after the Russians launched Sputnik, “I for one do not intend to go to sleep by the light of a Communist moon,” declared Vice President Johnson.

It highlights the era of Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaking the sound barrier in the late 40s through the orbiting of the Earth in the early 60s by John Glenn (Ed Harris) who agrees to take a ride on an untested rocket he is warned is dangerous. The film recounts the dangers and frustrations experienced by those involved with NASA’s earliest achievements.

Writer/director Philip Kaufman’s film is an epic screen tribute to the early years of the US Mercury astronaut space program of the 1960s and the first seven astronauts that took part. It depicts their family lives and the personal crises during an era of political turmoil and technological innovation. ‘The Right Stuff’ didn’t do great business at the box-office, yet it received eight Oscar nominations (and won four).

It is now generally agreed to be a must-see film for space-race fans, cultural history enthusiasts and movie lovers alike.

‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ (Stephen Frears, 1985)

Don’t get too involved with that crook. You’ve got to study. We are under siege by the white man. For us education is power…

In a seedy corner of London, Omar (Gordon Warnecke), a young British-Pakistani is torn between his alcoholic father (Roshan Seth), a disillusioned socialist who wants his son to go to university, and rich uncle Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey), who wants Omar to become an entrepreneur. Nasser’s gift to his nephew is a run-down south London laundrette, which by dubious means Omar hopes to transform into a successful business.

However, Omar is attacked by a group of racist punks, but defuses the situation when he realizes their leader is his boyhood friend, leather-jacketed, peroxide-quiffed Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis).

Johnny’s National Front sympathies are challenged when he reconnects with Omar and the pair rehabilitate the laundromat together and embark, unexpectedly, on a love affair. But Johnny’s redemption is riddled with moral compromises. (The role of Johnny – a youngster adrift in the dog-eat-dog years of Thatcher and squatting in filthy tenements gave Daniel Day-Lewis his first substantial role).

Stephen Frears’s breakthrough film captures south London in the 1980s – oppressively grey and shot through with political tensions. Made for Channel 4 but promoted successfully to the big screen, the Oscar-nominated screenplay was written by a young Hanif Kureishi.

‘Educating Rita’ (Lewis Gilbert, 1983)

I’m beginning to find me. It’s great…

Rita (Julie Walters) is a married, working-class, hair-stylist in her 20s who wants to get the education she missed. She begins studying with Dr. Bryant (Michael Caine), a professor of English Literature who is using alcohol to cope with his divorce. Despite his personal problems, Dr. Bryant helps Rita realize her academic potential. In turn, her passion for learning revitalizes his love of teaching.

However, when Rita’s blue-collar spouse learns that his wife is more interested in education than homemaking, he becomes frustrated by her burgeoning independence.

‘Educating Rita’ is a gem of a movie, created by the fertile pen of Willy Russell whose angry message is that people are trapped by their environment not their abilities. The film is directed by Lewis Gilbert, who coaxes two career best performances from his leading actors.

The immensely talented Julie Walters gives a splendidly rich interpretation of her character, bursting with the need to better herself  but stymied by circumstance. For any erstwhile student of English Literature her reactions to its traditions and tenets have the caustic brilliance of natural wit and lack of pretentionMichael Caine shines in the role, here cementing his transition from leading man to classy character actor.

In ‘Educating Rita’ Lewis Gilbert gives a contemporary spin on Pygmalion, by turns witty, sombre, funny and touching, and finally optimistic, leaving us with hope for life and the doors education opens and the possibilities it makes available. You should see this movie, you won’t regret it.

‘Birdy’ (Alan Parker, 1984)

I guess it’s kinda hard to be good at something nobody wants, huh?

‘Birdy’ is about the relationship between two friends from South Philadelphia. One of them, Al, played by Nicolas Cage, is a slick romeo with self-confidence and a flirtatious way with women. The other, nicknamed Birdy (Matthew Modine), is nerdy, shy, and fascinated with birds. As kids, they are inseparable friends, but later they grow apart. 

Birdy (Matthew Modine) returns from the Vietnam War mentally scarred from the horror he has experienced. He is so damaged he shuts himself off from reality, and remains perched high in his room staring out of the window and imaging that he is actually a bird. Confined to a mental hospital, the doctors are at a loss as to how to treat him.

In an attempt to help, his best friend Al, whose face has been disfigured in Vietnam, visits him every day in attempt to try and break through to him.

The war scenes and the challenge of bringing Birdy back to reality may be less compelling than the story of how he arrived at the strange, secret place in his mind. The film is essentially a two-hander and there is much attention, care and detail placed in their roles by Cage and Modine which is what makes the movie as unique as it is.

The two actors have immensely difficult roles, as both are handicapped in later scenes by being denied access to some of an actor’s usual tools; for Cage, his face; for Modine, his whole human persona. They overcome those limitations to give us characters even more touching than the ones they started with.

‘Blood Simple’ (Coen Brothers, 1984)

If you point a gun at someone, you’d better make sure you shoot him, and if you shoot him you’d better make sure he’s dead, because if he isn’t then he’s gonna get up and try to kill you…

 ‘Blood Simple’ is the first feature film from independents Ethan Coen (producer) and Joel Coen (director) – a clever, complex, suspenseful, neo-noir thriller. This promising start indicated the beginning of their many entertaining, successful, off-beat, humorous, quirky and dark-edged films.

‘Blood Simple’ begins deep in the heart of Texas, where jealous saloon owner Julian Marty hires a cheap divorce detective to kill his young wife and her bartender lover – but the detective gets a better idea.

The move is blessed in its central performances. Dan Hedaya plays the unkempt owner of a scummy saloon. The young, neglected wife (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with a protective bartender (John Getz). The detective is played by that poet of sleaze, M. Emmet Walsh. It is a tale of murder, mis-read motives, a premature burial, plot twists, and an unfortunately impaled hand (belonging to the vile private-eye).

‘Blood Simple’ is an increasingly tense and blood-soaked tale in which greed and lust trap the characters in escalating nightmare. The plot twists in upon itself. Characters are found in situations of diabolical complexity. The genius of the movie is that logically, step by step, one thing inexorably leads to another. This pitch-black comedy won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and featured the screen debut of Coen regular Frances McDormand.


Nostalgia Is a Thing of the Past

The 1980s gave us an array of first-rate films and introduced some remarkable new talent. At all levels, from ambitious prestige films to dazzling genre pictures, the decade had a lot to offer. The new home video market had to be fed, so the demand was for product of all sorts.

Videotape rental expanded to specialty niches and cult markets. Filmmakers could finance projects through video and foreign presales, and investors took chances on indie movies. These dramatic movies led the field in ambitious independent films which played alongside popcorn pictures, Oscar contenders, and summer blockbusters.

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