The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Limey.

Terence Stamp is Wilson, a English ex-con who arrives in Los Angeles to hunt down the man responsible for his daughter’s “accidental” death, a record producer named Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda). Propelled along an increasingly brutal search for the truth, Wilson’s singleminded desire for revenge splinters into a meditation on cultural dislocation, an elegy on fatherhood, and a radical, fragmentary investigation of memory. Conceiving of the film as “Alain Resnais making Get Carter” and featuring throwback casting with Stamp, Fonda, Barry Newman, and Joe Dallesandro, Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey is a modern tough guy classic and a seminal work of American independent cinema.

SPECIAL FEATURES

  • Restored 4K digital transfer, approved by director Steven Soderbergh and cinematographer Edward Lachman, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary with Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs
  • Audio commentary with Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda, Lesley Ann Warren, Barry Newman, Joe Dallesandro, Soderbergh, and Dobbs
  • New introduction by Soderbergh
  • New conversation with Soderbergh, editor Sarah Flack, cinematographer Edward Lachman, and actors Luis Guzmán and Lesley Ann Warren
  • Deleted scene featuring Ann-Margret
  • Isolated music score
  • Trailers and TV Spots
  • PLUS: A new essay by critic Ashley Clark

In 1998, Steven Soderbergh found success with Out of Sight (1998), a $48 million production with Hollywood A-listers George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez and a celebrity producer in Danny DeVito who bought the rights to Elmore Leonard’s novel following the success of Get Shorty (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1995). The film won top prizes with the National Society of Film Critics and made nearly $78 million at the box office. Soderbergh, for his part, came out of the project feeling that he had made a significant step forward as a filmmaker who understood the types of movies he wanted to make and the type of artist he wanted to be. Looking to further interrogate Out of Sight’s complex narrative structure and explore ideas left out of the film, Soderbergh remained in the crime genre for his follow-up, a movie the director affectionately described as “Resnais making Get Carter” (and told his star was “kind of Point Blank“). The Limey (1999) earned back only $3.2 million of its $10 million budget, yet it became a critical darling and a cult favourite in the years that followed, only one of many tricks of time pulled by Soderbergh and the film.

Terence Stamp stars as the film’s titular Englishman, a freshly released ex-con named Wilson who arrives in Los Angeles intent on finding the culprit responsible for his daughter Jenny’s death in a supposed car accident. Enlisting the help of Jenny’s acting class friends Eduardo (Luis Guzmán) and Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren), Wilson’s focus quickly lands on Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), Jenny’s boyfriend and a successful record producer with some shady criminal connections. Valentine is protected by Avery (Barry Newman), his security man, and a pair of hired guns (Nicky Katt and Joe Dallesandro), however Wilson is undeterred by the threats, the beatings, and the gunshots levelled at him. Stamp’s career criminal/avenging dad is cobblestone hard and his black clothes, his Cockney accent, and his uneasy swings between “man of few words” inexpressiveness and rhyming-slang loquaciousness set him apart from The Limey’s cast of Californians, easily declaring him to be the ostentatious avenger typical to the revenge film. Terry, who is Malibu soft, is no match and their eventual meeting is inevitable.

Stamp and Fonda are inspired casting. Both actors came to prominence in the 1960s and the two even co-starred in a sense, appearing in different segments of the omnibus film Spirits of the Dead (Federico Fellini, Roger Vadim, and Louis Malle, 1968), yet prior to The Limey shooting, they had not seen each other since an Italian film festival in the late ’60s. Soderbergh carefully offers parallels and contrasts between the two men. With Stamp and Fonda separated in age by only two years, Wilson and Valentine are peers both in vintage and in affection for Jenny, and Soderbergh even makes a joke of how each made their money in the music industry (Terry as a famous producer and concert booker; Wilson robbing the box office of a Pink Floyd concert). There is also The Limey’s canny reliance on each man’s iconic star persona which draws on Fonda as an emblem of the free-wheeling ’60s, trading on his indelible associations with countercultural films like The Wild Angels (Roger Corman, 1966), Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), and The Trip (Roger Corman, 1967), and Stamp as an almost preternaturally hard and unforgiving man, recalling roles as a gangster in Stephen Frears’ The Hit (1984), an alien supervillain in Superman II (Richard Lester, 1980), and even the Devil in Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984). It’s a fascinating comparison — the relaxed freedom of the open road against the punishing force of a closed fist.

Soderbergh’s idea of The Limey being Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971) as made by Alain Resnais proved a more challenging effort than he originally intended. The Get Carter connections are readily discernible — the dead relation, the faked car accident, the stranger arriving in town, the beach-set climax – however Soderbergh’s desire to bring Resnais-like complexity to The Limey’s narrative structure resulted in an editing process that became a “vortex of terror” for the director. The initial cut of the film proved to be a dismal failure when screened for friends and family and Soderbergh and his editor Sarah Flack found themselves in the unenviable position of having to reconceive the movie entirely. The key to salvaging The Limey was found in a piano riff by the film’s composer Cliff Martinez which repeated itself with a slightly off-tune quality. Soderbergh heard the sound of “somebody remembering something” and he and Flack began assembling disparate shots over the tune, gradually finding the “algorithm” to the film. Eventually, they created an atemporal visual style that alludes to a stream of consciousness, of our constant state of living in the present while also considering the past and anticipating the future (a notion and practice that sounds remarkably comparable to Guy Maddin’s concept of “scrolling”).

While I haven’t seen Soderbergh connect this eliding approach to montage as specifically related to Wilson’s quest for vengeance, it’s fascinating to me that this narrative technique was found in the context of a revenge film. Time and perception are integral to revenge cinema as the exercise of vengeance is preoccupied with recalling past harms, with measuring and understanding them, and with enacting some compensating punishment in the present. The past rests most explicitly in Soderbergh’s use of Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967) which stands in for Wilson’s days as a young man and father. Introduced to the film by screenwriter Lem Dobbs, Poor Cow provides Soderbergh with footage of a young Wilson (Dave in Poor Cow) as a tender criminal in love with a young woman named Joy (Carol White). Loach’s kitchen sink, social realist view of the 1960s compares nicely with Fonda’s associations with the era and with the transformed presence of Stamp as a weathered and tough chaw. Awareness of Joy’s struggles in Poor Cow’s story and of Carol White’s own tragic life adds further depth to Wilson’s situation, as do other backward-looking touches like the appearance of Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro and the use of tracks like The Hollies’ “King Midas in Reverse” and The Who’s “The Seeker.” The effect of these elements is to pull Wilson (and, to a lesser extent, Terry) out of the present and strand them in a kind of existential limbo somewhere out of the past.

Soderbergh’s greatest temporal flourishes brilliantly convey this sense of The Limey being trapped out of time. Wilson’s expository discussions with Eduardo and Elaine each progress coherently as linear conversations, however Flack and Soderbergh represent them as continually shifting between different settings. Two-shots and shot-reverse-shot exchanges find Wilson and his partner swaying between locales (backyards and moving cars; apartments and boardwalks), seemingly placing them everywhere and therefore nowhere at the same time. The Limey also frequently returns to a bracketing image of Wilson on a plane however it is left open as to whether the Englishman is leaving Los Angeles and remembering his actions, arriving to LA and fantasizing on his plans, or potentially both, with the remainder of the film merely occupying equal footing in a nonlinear presentation. Where other revenge films place their avenger in a dual position of experiencing the past harm and pursing the present vengeance, Soderbergh offers a more nuanced and complicated view by presenting his traumatized Englishman in the position of being temporally adrift, lost amid the emotions and experiences that propel him forward.

The Limey’s evocation of Alain Resnais and his temporal fluidity is even more appropriate when considering the cathartic promise that revenge cinema relies upon. Cathy Caruth observes that traumatic experience results in “double-telling,” where the repeated experience of the traumatic event oscillates between the unbearable nature of the offence and the confounding experience of surviving it, all in the hope of eventually grasping its nature and containing its damaging power. She describes this moment of reconciliation by discussing Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and the moment when Eiji Okada slaps Emmanuelle Riva from her near-hysterical recollections of her wartime experience and back to reality. For Caruth, the scene involves a “shock of sight” that provides a moment of access by way of a violent display, something more powerful than either passivity or mindless excitation and comparable in some ways to the cathartic violence of revenge. Soderbergh’s shock of sight arrives not in Wilson’s forking path fantasies of shooting Terry at a mansion party, but during a confrontation on the beach where Wilson’s anger and Terry’s desperation collide. And where revenge cinema typically relies on overdetermined and heavily calculated violence to declare its justice-making, The Limey uses the intensity of the scene to allow each man to recognize their own blameworthiness for Jenny’s death, to perceive the abjection at the heart of their actions, and to avert further violence. In this moment, Soderbergh not only resolves his revenge narrative in an unexpected way but also stabilizes his unsteady temporality, bringing catharsis to the film at a structural level and presenting a maturity often unseen in the revenge film mode.

The Limey is a cracking, charismatic, neo-noir gem and so it was promising news when Steven Soderbergh teased on Twitter that a new 4K scan of the film was forthcoming. The tweet led to a flurry of speculation on who might release a special edition of the film as there was notable anticipation for an improvement upon the movie’s dated DVD. Unfortunately, this new print only resulted in a new digital version of the film getting released on December 10th and some subsequent repertory screenings being organized. With no accompanying news of any physical release, it’s MMC!’s opinion that the Criterion Collection should step up and fix this right two and eight! Soderbergh is a favourite director of the Collection and The Limey is just small enough and well regarded enough to make it a natural release for Criterion. If so, I’d like to Aaron Hone take a butcher’s at putting together a cover treatment for the film. Hone’s thin lines and light colours would be in keeping with the film soleil look of The Limey.

Credits: This imagined Criterion edition ports over the commentaries, isolated score, and trailers and TV spots included on The Limey’s previous DVD release. The group discussion reflects a Q&A session held during a recent screening of the film at the Lincoln Centre (and the cover synopsis cribs liberally from the summary description for that screening). MMC! hopes that Ann-Margret’s often praised, 8-minute scene playing Terry’s ex-wife is available, as it’s been included among the special features as well. Lastly, Ashley Clark was chosen to provide an essay given his praise for The Limey during one of Film Comment’s “Decade Project” podcasts.

I will shamelessly start by giving credit to my own work on revenge cinema, as well as to Cathy Caruth’s influential book Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. This post also owes debts to Geoff Boucher’s recent interview with Soderbergh for Deadline, R. Barton Palmer’s “Alain Resnais Meets Film Noir in The Underneath and The Limey” and Geoff King’s “Consciousness, Temporality, and the Crime-Revenge Genre in The Limey” in Palmer and Steven M. Sanders’ The Philosophy of Steven Soderbergh, Nicolas Rapold’s piece for Reverse ShotRoger Ebert’s review, Edward Guthmann’s reviewDan Schneider’s extensive review and his extensive interview with Lem DobbsPhil Noble Jr.’s piece for Birth. Death. Movies., Frederick Blichert’s article for VICE, Shane Scott-Travis’ essay for Taste of Cinema, Josh Spiegel’s article for /Film, and Bill Craske’s essay for Senses of Cinema.

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