Posted: 10/18/1999


The Limey


by Del Harvey

Steven Soderbergh’s latest film is a masterpiece of modern film noir, told in stylish jump-cut sequences intercut with flashbacks to an earlier Terence Stamp feature, and fully packed with tongue-in-cheek dialogue.

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In The Limey, Terence Stamp plays Wilson, an English ex-con trying to find out the real cause behind his daughter Jenny’s death. She is supposed to have died in a car accident on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles; one of those treacherous, winding roads in the LA hills. Despite being described by Jenny’s friend (Lesley Ann Warren) as “a ghost in her life,” Stamp remembers vividly each and every moment spent with his daughter, as shown in frosted flashbacks at varying stages of her youth.

Steve Soderbergh, whose last film was the very finely presented “Out of Sight,” once again plays with jump-cuts, flashbacks and time distortion. This is a masterful technique in his hands, as we are shown in the climactic scenes, which would lack their impact without the background provided through these cinematic flashbacks. This time he has created an L.A. noir that is more a tale of alienation that embraces the outcast in this suspenseful and stylish film.

There is, ultimately, a terrible sadness to this story, as Stamp’s harsh ex-con character is irrevocably intertwined with the distant but loving father who remains forever too late to make a difference in Jenny’s life. Initially he is presented as an enigma, shown in jump-cut on an airplane, then arriving at Luis Guzman’s door, who originally sent Stamp the news of his daughter’s death. Guzman was a friend of the dead girl, and he plays a likable character willing to help Stamp as much as he can. There is a nice twist here because even though he is a denizen of L.A., and Hispanic, he does not even remotely bear the harsh manner of Stamp’s convict. When Stamp uses Cockney street-gang slang, it is Guzman who scratches his head at the strange use of the language, sort of the way a lot of people over 30 stumble over Hip Hop and Rap lingo.

There are several laugh-out-loud scenes that are telling of both the American lifestyle in general and the inherent insanity of L.A., in particular. Such as the scene in which Guzman and Stamp visit Peter Fonda’s house in the Hollywood hills, one of those spindly multi-storied affairs that seems to cling to nothing. There is a fantastically designed swimming pool that juts out over a canyon. When Stamp walks out to the edge, with Guzman at his side, he exclaims, “Blimey! What are we standing on?” Guzman deadpans, “Trust.” In fact, most of the humor in the film is derived from this clash of cultures.

In addition to Guzman, Jenny had a close friend in Elaine, an acting coach played by Lesley Ann Warren. Stamp finds that Elaine knows almost everything about his criminal past. These two friends go a little farther than one would expect, considering what they know about Wilson’s violent past and what little reason they have to believe in him. Even so, they follow blindly as Stamp takes them on a journey up the California coast to Big Sur, once a haven for the hippest of the 60’s counterculture, and the hideaway of that decade’s leading icon, Peter Fonda. Fonda plays Terry Valentine, Jenny’s last boyfriend and a millionaire record producer who has scored it big riding the wave of the 60’s music revival. Fonda is brilliant as the lucky loser who survived the 60’s and who has seemingly lived far beyond his time. In one of the film’s finest monologues, Fonda describes the 60’s to his twenty-something girlfriend by asking her, “Have you ever been someplace that you didn’t know where you were but you felt completely at home, like you’d been there before? That was the Sixties. Well, the Sixties were really only ‘66 and ‘67.” This bit of dialogue sums up Valentine’s character, as he is simply a relic of time supported by the intangibles of wealth, riding the high of a piece of history long gone.

Stamp’s character is also out-of-time, and yet timeless all at once. He is focused, determined, tough, violent, and stubborn. He knows how to roll with the punches, only he’s been punched too many times. The fight still in him, it is the repitition that is wearing thin. Still, it is his perspective that is the most revealing in this tough little film. Soderbergh successfully provides depth to an otherwise shallow character by showing flashbacks of Stamp’s character from an earlier film. The names of the characters are the same, and the story in The Limey has been written to correspond to that early 60’s film. The total effect provides the viewer with a full understanding of this lovable loser who tries, one last time, to fulfill a father’s responsibility to his daughter.

The Limey is a very good contemporary film noir; an exceptional example of the evolution of the genre.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago, is a devout Bears fan, and therefore deserving of our sympathy.

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