Last Embrace Review

Last Embrace is a Hitchcockian thriller which contains a good twist, a couple of exciting suspense set-pieces, and a plot sufficiently intriguing to keep you watching through some excruciatingly slow exposition during the first hour. What makes it more interesting than it sounds, however, is that it deals with a piece of history which is genuinely shocking but very rarely dealt with in American cinema. That it does so intelligently and pointedly within the framework of a commercial thriller is praiseworthy and an early indication of director Jonathan Demme’s skill at taking pulp material and sounding unusual emotional depths within it.

Roy Scheider, still just about a star in 1979, plays Harry Hannon, a government agent whose life collapses after the death of his wife during a routine mission. Following therapy he attempts to resume his career but is alarmed to find that the minute he goes near a railway station, someone seems to attempt to push him into the path of a train. Or is it just his paranoia? A visit to his former boss – a nicely slimy cameo from Christopher Walken – doesn’t help matters much, nor does his discovery that his apartment has been sub-let to a post-graduate student. She’s Ellie, played by Janet Margolin, an actress who was underused and died too young. In between arguments, Ellie passes him a note which has been delivered by hand and contains two symbols in Hebrew meaning “Avenger of the Blood” along with the letters “ZM”.

Hannon’s subsequent investigation leads him not only in the direction of an embittered colleague played by Charles Napier – Demme’s favourite actor – but also into history, his own and that of the Jewish community in New York. It’s in this respect that the film takes an interesting turn. The decoding of the message by Ellie’s supercilious academic admirer – the always amusing John Glover – reveals a shameful episode in New York’s past, the years when the Z’vi Migdal of the Jewish ghetto -the Big Power, the men who ran things – imported Jewish refugee girls and forced them into prostitution through multiple rape. Many died at the hands of brutal men, others screaming and demented with syphilis.

It would be unfair to spoil any more of the twists and turns of the story. The villain of the piece is revealed a little bit too early for my taste, although this could be considered a homage to Hitchcock’s Frenzy to go along with too many other references to count. Scheider is a very solid presence as the hero, Napier and Glover are fun and old-stager Sam Levene steals every scene he’s in as a decrepit Jewish detective.

Technically, the film is on slightly shakier ground. It looks luxuriant – the locations are stunning - but there’s a penchant for handheld camerawork which soon becomes tiresome and the compositions are not always as assured as they might have been had Hitchcock (or De Palma) handled the film. Clearly, Demme is going for a looser style than his model, one which he used in his excellent comedy Citizen’s Band and later in films like Something Wild and the wonderful Married to the Mob, but I don’t think it works for this kind of material, especially when it’s backed by a score by Miklos Rozsa which is gloriously overstuffed in the way that only late Miklos Rozsa scores can be – see Fedora and Eye of the Needle for further examples of this. His music is pure 1940s Hollywood – and wonderfully so – but the clash with the very 1970s visual style is jarring in the wrong way.

Still, the basic storyline is a very strong one – taken by David Shaber from a book by Murray Teigh Bloom – and allows for some interestingly florid action sequences. One of these, in a bell tower, is an absolute treat and, oddly enough, more memorable than the more extravagant climax which takes place at Niagara Falls.

The Disc

Kino Lorber have attracted a lot of criticism for some of their early releases but now that the dust has settled they seem to be delivering the goods quite nicely. Last Embrace doesn’t look wonderful at all but it’s a great improvement on the version which has been screened several times on TV. Colours are very striking and grain is present without being too obtrusive, although the limitations of the shooting in low light are unavoidably obvious. There are some signs of damage and it’s obvious that Kino Lorber have just used whatever MGM have provided with no further work. It’s presented at the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

The DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo soundtrack is adequate without being thrilling. Dialogue is always clear and the lovely music score tends to dominate the non-verbal scenes. There is little in the way of channel separation. Sound effects are a little bit muted throughout. Regrettably, there are no subtitles.

The only extras are the spoiler-heavy original trailer and an 11 minute interview with producer Michael Taylor which is deathly dull since he refuses to dish any dirt whatsoever or even make any mild criticisms. Still at least it’s better than we usually get from Kino Lorber so any attempt at extra features at all should be welcomed.

Please note that the disc is locked to Region A

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