Stormy Monday

| July 20, 2017

As a writer/director, Mike Figgis crafted a feature work in 1995 that the revered Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deemed worthy of winning and/or being nominated for four Academy Awards with Leaving Las Vegas. Earning Nicolas Cage an Oscar win for Best Actor and finding Figgis himself nominated for Best Director, this is where wider audiences at last took notice of Figgis. But I’d argue people should have taken notice of Figgis’ work earlier. I’d in fact say it should have happened seven years earlier with his 1988 theatrical debut as writer/director with the “romantic thriller” Stormy Monday.

Stormy Monday is a film nobody talks about when discussing gangster movies, but we should. Sure, it’s no Godfather or Goodfellas. But what Figgis accomplished here within the framework of the gangster film is something remarkable: a moody, jazz-styled, neo-noir satire of the global spread of American capitalism in the 1980’s. I mean, of how many other gangster pictures can that be said? Exactly!

The film stars Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) as a Brendan, a sort of drifter who applies for a cleaning job at a jazz club because he himself so loves jazz. As a result, Brendan inadvertently finds himself the newest addition to gangster club owner Finney’s (Sting) gang, a gang in the earliest stages of a war with American gangster/real estate developer Cosmo (played with a villainous charm by Tommy Lee Jones).

You can imagine right now just how such a story would normally play out in a film, having seen any number of other gangster pictures. But Figgis approaches this all-too-common narrative of a young man joining the mob and toys with it like a free form jazz musician riffing on a motif. It’s less about telling a conventional film narrative than it is about building atmosphere, exploring the characters, and weaving a more naturalistically slow-burn tale about love and violence. All of this is bolstered of course by Figgis’ collaboration here with his director of photography, the legendary Roger Deakins!

Much of what happens is realistically pure coincidence. Brendan falls for Cosmo’s girl Kate (Melanie Griffith) not through the conflict between Finney and Cosmo but by running into her in a mall, completely by accident and before he knows anything about the pending gang war. Brendan only meets back up with Kate when he wanders into the restaurant she works at for something to eat, and he learns about a planned attack against Finney simply because he’s seated at a table in the restaurant next to some men talking openly about the attack.

Such coincidence may play awkwardly to some audience and may not in fact make for the most compelling cinema, but it’s a fascinatingly realistic approach to a story that would otherwise potentially romanticize gangsterism. Adding to the realism is the brevity of any physical conflict between Finney and Cosmo’s men, and the way in which members of each gang act like any other person might in public so as to not draw attention to themselves. When we first see Finney and Cosmo together, they have a very formal discussion without goons surrounding them as two men might.

It’s Figgis’ attention to detail here and his structuring of the film according to jazz rather than filmic standards that make Stormy Monday stand out among the pantheon of gangster films—that, and as I mentioned above, a poignant castigation of capitalism and the anti-humanist sentiments rampant capitalism can foster. On one side of the film, you have a romance brewing between Brendan and Kate who, outside of a gangster film, we can see having few problems in coming together romantically. Complicating things for them on the other side are the machinations of Cosmo, who visits Newcastle as part of the “American Day” celebrations he and his cohorts have cooked up to bolster pro-American sentiment in the area as he forcibly takes over the city’s real estate.

In one scene we see family businesses being forcibly shut down against the owners’ will per the order of the invading American capitalists, and in another, Cosmo’s cronies speak lovingly of America as “rich,” “powerful,” and “benevolent.” The radios play American music while photos decorating the walls of the restaurant where Kate works depict the bloody corpses of murdered American gangsters. This kind of visual call-and-response is but one of many building toward Figgis’ broader message about the inhumanity of capitalism throughout. And it’s here, in his 1988 debut as a theatrical feature filmmaker that Figgis proved himself to be a filmmaker worth watching, a filmmaker who could tell a story interestingly and who had something to say—whether you agree with him or not.

If you want to go back and see where Figgis got his start, you can now check out Stormy Monday on Blu-ray/DVD from Arrow Video US that is truly the only way to see Stormy Monday unless you can somehow track down a 35mm print! The 2-disc set boasts a stellar image transfer that highlights Deakins’ cinematography beautifully. There are, however, a few points in the audio track where the sound becomes rather tinny, but it seems to me that that was an issue in the production of the film, not in the transfer. After all, you get some tinny background dialogue over the top of other perfectly naturally sounding audio.  By way of special features, Arrow’s release of Stormy Monday boasts audio commentary with Mike Figgis, a video appreciation by critic Neil Young, the theatrical trailer, and a booklet containing an essay by Mark Cunliffe.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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