By Linc Leifeste | October 15, 2014
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writers: Murray Teigh Bloom (novel), David Shaber (screenplay)
Starring: Roy Scheider, Janet Margolin, John Glover, Sam Levene, Charles Napier, Christopher Walken
Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ ongoing series of Blu-ray releases of classic, if somewhat undervalued/second-tier, films , allows film lovers a chance to revisit old favorites as well as discover new ones. An example of the latter for me is Jonathan Demme’s 1979 quirky, off-kilter, Hitchockian thriller, Last Embrace. The tale of an agent in service of a super-secretive US spy agency who has had a breakdown following the murder of his wife, and is now either out of his mind or being stalked by someone or something, or a combination of the two.
The film opens with agent Harry Hannan (Roy Scheider) and his wife dining at a Mexican cantina when a group of men catch his eye. Recognizing one of the men as an informant he is scheduled to meet with in a few days, he realizes something is wrong and soon bullets begin to fly, leaving his wife dead. From there, we see Hannan being dismissed from a mental hospital after a four month stay. He takes a train home and while waiting at the train station in a crowd he nearly falls in front of a passing train. He believes he was pushed but the standers-by insist he stumbled. His next stop is to visit another undercover agent working at a Macy’s makeup counter to get his next assignment but instead receives a blank assignment slip. He’s convinced there’s been a mistake but the other agent assures him that there’s probably just currently no work for him.
Upon returning to his apartment, Harry discovers that a stranger, Ellie Fabian, is now living there. Knowing it’s common practice for his agency to sublet his apartment while he’s away on assignment he assumes it’s just a mistake on their part that she’s still there. But after she mentions that she was told he would be away indefinitely, he’s even more concerned than ever that his agency wants him dead. So he pays his supervisor, Eckart (Christopher Walken), a visit to discuss his future with the agency. Eckart insists he’s just being paranoid, that the agency is not after him, and that he’s just not yet ready for a new assignment. But after leaving he realizes he’s being tailed and flees but comes face to face with his stalker while paying a visit to his wife’s grave. It turns out to be his brother-in-law and fellow spy Dave Quittle (Charles Napier), who claims he has been tasked simply with keeping an eye on Harry to determine his mental well-being.
In the meantime, Ellie has given him a cryptic note handwritten in Hebrew that was slipped under the door. He takes it to a rabbi to have it interpreted but he claims to only partially be able to interpret it but the rabbi isn’t revealing everything he knows, as he’s on the phone with a colleague, Sam Urdell (Sam Levene) about the note as soon as Harry is out of the door. Ellie suggests they take the note to a Princeton colleague, Richard Peabody (John Glover), who is an expert on Hebrew. Peabody reveals to Harry that the note’s text means “Avenger of Blood” and that he’s the fifth person he knows of to receive such a note but that he’s the only one still living.
From there, there are multiple attempts on his life from various directions, such as cyanide pills slipped into his prescription pill bottle and an ambush by a gunman. With the assistance of Levene and Peabody, Harry attempts to piece together the story behind the note to determine who is after him and why. Truth be told, while the film does a good job of keeping the viewer guessing, in the end there’s much to the implausible story and it’s ultimately style over substance. Demme is clearly going for a feel that is a modern, slightly askew take on the film noir/suspense/thriller tradition and through a combination of interesting camera angles, intentionally awkward, stilted performances and repeated suspenseful scenes, succeeds. While the performances are nearly universally strong, the story’s not one that will ultimately stick with you. That said, there are several visually striking scenes and images from the film that will do just that, including a suspenseful shootout in a church bell tower and a thrilling chase scene at Niagara Falls.