Two years ago, I concluded my case study of The Ladd Company's "Tree of Life" logo with the promise that a review of one of the company's lesser-known pictures was in the works. I sincerely hope you didn't hold your breath on that. The gestation process has been long and slow (thanks in part to the sound on my old VHS copy of the film suddenly deciding to become borderline inaudible shortly after I wrote that) but finally I'm making good on my promise. Thus, I present to you the first installment in "What Murdered Mike's Murder?", an idea I've had sprawled across the back-burner for almost as long as I've been running this blog. Here's where I'll be looking at a film that got brutally gutted, firstly by unimpressed test audiences and then in the editing room in an earnest (if futile) attempt to manufacture a crowd pleaser and finally got a sniff of indifference from the critics before the world obligingly forgot that it ever existed. It is not a perfect film by any means - and yet is a film that echoes its subject matter perfectly in so many (inadvertent) regards.
I find myself endlessly fascinated by Mike's Murder, a much-ignored feature film from director James Bridges, who is probably most famous for his nuclear disaster thriller The China Syndrome (1979). Released in 1984, Mike's Murder is a low-budget drama focusing on the dingier side of Los Angeles - the side populated by thieves and hustlers and crammed full of perilous dead ends. The story was apparently a very personal one for Bridges, who'd known a number of people who were killed for their involvement in the Los Angeles drugs trade. He remained haunted by their deaths, which were not deemed notable enough to make the news headlines and stayed hidden away within the homicide notices of local papers, compelling Bridges to make a picture revolving around that sense of lives being casually rubbed out and going largely ignored by the wider world. He had great ambitions for Mike's Murder, which he envisioned as a highly experimental piece with an unconventional narrative structure, but this was all offset by a disastrous test screening in early 1983. Audiences did not take to Bridges' arthouse sensibilities, with nobody in that initial, 1,200-strong test audience seeing fit to give the film their vote of approval. Bridges was so unnerved by their response that he delayed the release of the film for a full year to allow time for extensive retooling. Mike's Murder was given a full, top-to-bottom makeover in order to remove as much of that arthouse DNA as possible, and the end result is a film that blatantly shows the cracks and the glue, and which takes on a peculiar life of its own all because of it.
Mike's Murder centres around the relationship between two individuals living low-key lives within the cracks of Los Angeles society - Mike (Mark Keyloun), a drifter-cum-tennis instructor who supplements his income by hustling drugs on the side, and his would-be girlfriend Betty, a young bank teller with a more promising career trajectory ahead of her (she's played by Debra Winger, our good friend from Black Widow). Mike and Betty first meet upon the tennis court and share an intimate evening together, but their relationship never takes off thanks to Mike's errant lifestyle, which obligates him to keep a low profile and to be constantly on the run. He and Betty cross paths every so often, each time bringing the renewed hope of a fresh start that invariably goes nowhere. Eventually Mike meets an unnatural demise, as the title promises he will, and when the news reaches Betty she sets out to investigate - although the story never really comes together as either a mystery or a thriller. In fact, "never really comes together" would be an apt description for so many facets of Mike Murder. It is a film about a relationship that is waiting to happen, but never does, much as the film itself seems to take place on a largely monotonous sideline, from which it catches the occasional glimpse of something happening off in the distance, but is only prepared to move in so far for a closer look (as per the American Film Institute's entry on the film, this was a stylistic choice on Bridges' part, for he was booking to simulate the experience of watching the Los Angeles underground it evokes from the detached perspective of a vehicle passing through). It has very little narrative momentum behind it; the particulars of Mike's murder are not especially compelling, and the film's attempt to manufacture a dramatic third act, in which Betty is confronted by Pete (Darrell Larson), a treacherous associate of Mike's, is wholly unconvincing and does not lead to a satisfying pay-off (although it does incorporate a pretty slick moment in which Betty is able to fend off Pete by feigning an earthquake). Bridges' film positions itself as more of a character study than a mystery, with Betty's investigation being less about unraveling the truth behind Mike's disappearance and seeking some form of retribution than about gaining a fleeting window into the life of the man who had her transfixed for so long, but whom she never had the opportunity to understand in any kind of substantive detail.
Mike's Murder is a film about the haunting suggestion of what might have been, and precisely what makes it such a fascinating (and frustrating) experience is in the puzzle it inadvertently imposes upon the viewer as to the picture that might have been, had those early test audiences been a smidgen more favourable. Watching Mike's Murder, one is struck by just how unevenly it unfolds as a narrative; the curious time skips which seem purposely designed to confuse the viewer as to how much time has elapsed between Mike and Betty's sporadic encounters, the disjointed, episodic structure of the earlier sequences, complete with ominous fade-outs which become less prevalent as the story goes on. It's in these opening stages that we get our most tantalising glimpses of the picture that Bridges initially wanted to make, and it's probably no coincidence that these constitute the strongest moments of Mike's Murder - when it is a film about two souls wandering in and out of one another's lives, exchanging vague pleasantries and then going their separate ways, never getting close enough to satiate their mutual longing for intimacy. Mike's arc might be where all the danger and excitement is (ostensibly, anyway), and yet it is Betty's perspective that rings the truest, the most engaging sequences being those in which we catch Betty in the mundane comfort of her own home, where she's greeted by intermittent telephone communication from Mike. The first act shows Betty having to bond with Mike from afar, getting the occasional glimpse into his precarious lifestyle while she herself moves up in the world (in that she receives a promotion throughout the course of the film). The film's atmosphere is well-sustained at this point, evoking a contrast between the seediness of the Los Angeles underground and the city's sunny, glamorous exterior, and - more often - the sheer banality that lies in between. Once the titular event occurs and Betty switches into amateur sleuth mode, the film becomes significantly less interesting (Paul Winfield's charming performance as a gay record producer with whom Mike was also romantically involved notwithstanding). The sequences in which Betty retraces Mike's old haunts have a fun, noir-ish feel, but the story has nowhere to go and is basically just spinning its wheels for the remaining hour. We got to spend enough time with Mike prior to his demise to know that he's not an amazingly deep or interesting character, and the scant revelations gleaned by Betty on her travels - his bisexuality, his love of Polaroids - do little to alter that. There is a concurrent narrative thread regarding Pete's increasing desperation in the aftermath of Mike's demise, since he figures that he's next on the hit list, which ultimately prompts him to seek out Betty and put her at direct risk at the only point in the film, but this fails to generate narrative tension. Mostly, Pete's involvement comes off as a contrived attempt to raise the personal stakes for Betty, in a manner which comes dangerously close to undermining the deliberate mundaneness which characterises the rest of the picture. What genuine pathos the film is able to eke from Mike's demise comes from the distinct lack of drama surrounding it, and from the revelation that his murder is nothing more than part of the milieu in a city where near-identical stories are playing out on a daily basis, as hinted at by one of the figures encountered by Betty, an aspiring Chippendale dancer named Richard (Daniel Shor), who informs her that Mike was one of multiple friends he lost this week to drug-related causes. As I say, the film doesn't have the narrative momentum to function as a thriller, yet it is obligated to masquerade as one thanks to the rigorous efforts to reign it into a more routine structure. This was not a picture destined for conventionality, yet it has had conventionality awkwardly thrust upon it, and what we are left with is a curious end-product that never seems happy with itself or settles into any kind of consistent shape. As a narrative, Mike's Murder does not satisfy, and yet it leaves a lingering impression by virtue of its oddness; it is a portrait of loneliness, alienation and, ultimately, survival (on Betty's end of things, anyway) with an obvious hole where something more should be.
As noted, Mike's Murder was born from Bridges' own experiences of having acquaintances vanish abruptly from his life due to their involvement in the Los Angeles drugs scene, so it shouldn't surprise us that his original conception was for the film to focus overwhelmingly on Betty's perspective. Indeed, one of the reasons why that early telephone conversation between Betty and Mike proves so effective is because it puts the viewer in a position where they, too, are at a distance from Mike, only able to glean whatever cagey details about his circumstances he cares to disclose to Betty - a sensation not sustained elsewhere in the film, where the narrative intersects freely between Betty's daily routine and Mike's adventures in hustling (until Mike's luck runs out and his narrative thread is usurped by Pete). The film's AFI page describes Bridges' original cut as a "subjective film", complete with a number of flashbacks and fantasy sequences that were ultimately removed in response to test audience feedback, although Wikipedia and the film's IMDb's trivia page (not the most reliable sources of information, I'll grant you) both specify that the original intention was for the film to have a backwards narrative - in which case, it appears that the film would have opened with the titular murder already having occurred and from there traced things back to the inception of Mike and Betty's relationship, and to their one night of genuine intimacy. This puts the viewer at a significantly different starting point, for the implication is that Mike's character would have been presented as a mystery that was slowly revealed to us over the course of the film - the "real" Mike behind the violent (yet alarmingly routine) killing might not have been any more deep or interesting than in Bridges' final cut, yet the entire point, one assumes, would be to convey the extent to which Betty remains affected by their fleeting encounters, and by his abrupt erasure. We look back from Betty's perspective, attempting to fill in the blanks and assemble a portrait of Mike based on her meagre first-hand experiences and other characters' recollections; the promise of what might have been versus the stark and unfulfilling reality.
Rearranging a film designed for backwards chronology to run in a more linear fashion is not a task to be undertaken lightly, and I think this accounts for why Mike's Murder winds up falling so flat on the narrative front. The overall story may be exactly the same, but our perception and the overall meaning of the film are inevitably going to change depending on where we enter in and where we ultimately end up, and this is one of the things that most intrigues me about Bridges' film - its implications about the drastic differences that changes to the narrative layout can make to a picture. One of the most popular films to utilise the reverse chronology technique would of course be Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000), the stylish neo-noir that gave the then up-and-coming director the much-needed exposure that ultimately led to his becoming a Hollywood favourite (although, contrary to popular belief, Nolan did not invent the technique, which has long been a favourite of experimental storytellers - Harold Pinter had already successfully applied it in his 1978 play Betrayal, which was adapted into a film starring Jeremy Irons and Patricia Hodge in 1983, itself echoing a narrative device used by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart for their 1934 stage production Merrily We Roll Along, and I'm sure there are earlier examples still). If Mike's Murder was indeed intended to follow a similar narrative format, then I am reminded of that "The Beginning of The End" edit that you can access as a hidden feature on home media releases of Memento, which plays the events in their true chronological sequence (warning - some spoilers for Memento will follow). Although this "chronologically correct" version of Memento makes for interesting companion viewing besides the official release, there are multiple reasons why it could not hope to function as a substitute for it. "The Beginning of The End" is as tediously, joylessly straightforward as a narrative can be - everything we are informed in advance is going to happen happens, until finally we reach our painfully abrupt conclusion and the experience halts. There is no mystery, and no sense of betrayal at the end, because we've known all along that the protagonist's mission is founded on a lie. More than anything, it bears out just how much of the film's impact hinges upon the novelty of its narrative form. Memento benefits immeasurably from keeping its viewer suspended in a state of perpetual uncertainty; too much clarity, and the whole thing crumbles.
In the film proper, the backwards narrative serves two important functions - firstly, to provide a structural reflection of the protagonist's unusual mental state. Our hero, Leonard (Guy Pearce), was the victim of an assault which left him brain damaged, resulting in a condition called anterograde amnesia, meaning that he is unable to create new long-term memories. Leonard's long-term memory up until the assault remains intact, but he has no means of remembering anything that has occurred since and is dependent on a system of carefully-managed visual cues - tattoos, post-it notes, Polaroids* - to keep him grounded within the present moment. This is particularly important, as Leonard has lofty ambitions of tracking down and exacting personal revenge on his mysterious assailant, whom he also believes to be responsible for the death of his wife (Jorja Fox). Because the narrative unfolds in reverse, we share in Leonard's temporal blind spot, never knowing exactly what has led him to his immediate predicament and having to rely on the meagre clues at our fingertips to keep our sense of narrative coherence afloat. Like Leonard, we experience the constant dislocation of existing only in the present, although unlike Leonard we do have a memory of sorts - we have the luxury of understanding where his story is ultimately headed and this in turn affects what sense we are able to make of the present, notably our perception of Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a figure who wanders continuously in and out of Leonard's journey and whom the viewer is primed, from the start, to see as untrustworthy. Which us leads onto the format's second function - to engineer and purposely misdirect the viewer's expectations. Because we have spent the entirety of the film sympathising with Leonard's plight, it only heightens our feelings of betrayal at the end when we discover that Leonard has, in actuality, been deceiving himself, and by extension us. As it turns out, Leonard would sooner exist in his own custom-built narrative than come to grips with the reality of his situation, his unending compulsion to play judge, jury and executioner seemingly having more to do with shielding himself from a few unpalatable truths than with avenging his wife's death. An exercise in audience manipulation, Nolan's film evokes in a broader sense the manner in which memory colours our perception of the present, and how this relates to our sense of purpose and identity - a dangerous business when so much of our comprehension of past events rests on misinformation and misdirection (in some instances quite willfully). Leonard may be an extreme example, but Nolan uses him as a metaphor for the kinds of self-deceit we are all posited to practice on some level.
Mike's Murder concludes with yet another confusing time skip, with Betty having returned to her home some undefined time after her encounter with Pete, now finally ready to pick up the pieces and move on with her life. Her memory of Mike still haunts her but she has found a more positive way to incorporate that memory into her life going forward. Playing that story backwards, the film becomes less about Betty's resilience than about investing the deceased Mike with a life and humanity; the attempt to trace Mike back from his afterlife as a series of static images acquired by Betty at the end of her arc and locate the individual who was lost in all of this. It becomes a story about necromancy and tearing open old wounds as much as survival and moving on. Still, as per the AFI page, the re-editing process was a lot more complicated than just a simple rearrangement of the order in which sequences ran (if it were as straightforward as that, then I might have had a crack at creating my own fan edit by now). Entire sequences were pulled because they were deemed too violent or distasteful, including one in which Betty visualises Mike's brutal killing (this was probably a good call, as the titular murder is more effective for not occurring onscreen in any shape or form) and a moment in which Mike and Betty engage in mutual masturbation during their telephone conversation (which would account for why that particular sequence fades out so abruptly). Additional sequences were also shot and incorporated into the final edit, including most of the footage focusing on Pete's side of the story - this does not come as a revelation, given how awkwardly his arc meshes with the rest of the narrative (although, curiously enough, the AFI does stipulate that "Debra Winger was not involved with any of the reshoots", implying that the gratuitous climax in which Betty and Pete face off was always intended to be a part of the feature). The irony is that Bridges was apparently satisfied with the changes and believed that they had resulted in making Mike's Murder a stronger picture, although the film opened up to tepid critical reception and was swiftly banished to a black hole of deep obscurity. I cannot blame the world for its indifference - as a standalone piece, Mike's Murder is not particularly successful. It's a bit limp as a character drama, despite occasional flashes of style, and its retroactive attempts to make the film more narrative-driven are conspicuous and misguided, so that the ugliness of Pete's story ends up detracting considerably from whatever subtle poignancy the doomed central relationship might have brought. And yet, we know that this is not the film as it was originally intended to be. It could well be that Bridges' original cut was entirely deserving of its disastrous test screening and that the edits did improve (if not salvage) the experience - but the fact remains we'll never know, and it's that unknown factor that transforms the film from a relatively uninspiring drama and into a tantalising curiosity piece.
I note that even the promotional artwork was drastically different (and a lot more kickass) for earlier conceptions of the film.
Sadly, Bridges died of cancer in 1993. He made two more pictures after Mike's Murder, Perfect (1985) and the Michael J Fox vehicle Bright Lights, Big City (1988). His death would appear to eliminate all prospects of us ever getting a director's cut reflecting his original vision for Mike's Murder, but then the film's failure to leave any kind of dent in popular consciousness may already have put pay to that. Let's face it, you'd never heard of Mike's Murder until you read about it here. I'd only heard of it because I'm such a Ladd Company obsessive. Even the man who sold me my (terminally decrepit) VHS copy of the film remarked upon my obvious eye for obscurities. The film was never likely to have mass appeal, and yet I've found myself going back to it time and time again, ever more intrigued by this dreary little drama that doesn't quite get itself off the ground. Like Memento, it presents the viewer with a puzzle of sorts, but unlike Memento, it's not a puzzle that one can possibly hope to solve. No amount of gazing into the film's assorted narrative and stylistic voids will leave us any more enlightened as to the film that Bridges originally set out to make, and which, if you squint, you just about catch enough teasing remnants of lurking in the final piece. It's a mystery that sucks you in - not the total non-mystery as to what became of Mike but the greater question as to what happened to Mike's Murder. The film ends up languishing in a hazy kind of no man's land - too straightforward and unadventurous to stand out as anything particularly visionary and yet too odd and unconventional to cater to mainstream tastes. It seems destined to satisfy no one, and therein lies its bizarre appeal.
Oh, and I finally gave up on trying to force my old VHS to behave. Fortunately, Mike's Murder has been released via the Warner Archive collection on a region-free disc, so the film is at least easy enough to get hold of nowadays.
*As a Polaroid hobbyist myself I must confess that it frankly bugs me that Leonard appears to get immaculate Polaroids every time, despite the fact that he shakes them so vigorously - which, contrary to popular belief, does not do them any good. NOBODY gets immaculate Polaroids that frequently, particularly when they treat their prints so haphazardly. What can I say, it's just not fair.