Between An Officer and a Gentleman and Terms of Endearment, Debra Winger collaborated with James Bridges on Mike’s Murder. The director of Urban Cowboy, The China Syndrome, and The Paper Chase‘s first original script followed Betty, a bank teller in L.A. whose casual affair with tennis instructor Mike piques an interest strong enough to want to learn who murdered him for scamming some cocaine. This hook didn’t save it from a production nightmare. Spooked by the final cut, studio executives made editing suggestions (with Bridges’ acquiescence) that concretized his kaleidoscope of images and excised most of Joe Jackson’s score. All for nought, for the film sat on the shelf until a quiet and craven limited release in 1984. When I rented the movie in summer 1995 its shell was one of those shoebox-sized things that marked the first wave of VHS rentals; for all I know I was the only person to pay money to hold it for three nights. Pauline Kael’s review, praising Bridges’ courage and Winger’s performance, was better known than the movie. Finally released by Warner Archives in 2009, Mike’s Murder deserves (re)evaluation; while not the stunner Kael watched, it’s a terrific and occasionally moving film that captures the gauzy moment as the L.A. studio rock years and New Wave converged, with coke as connective tissue.
Showing the contours of Betty’s life — the promotion from teller to accounts manager; talking to her mom — does a subtler job of creating a sense of time passing than shards of flashbacks. Six months, two years pass. Their “relationship” consists of one good night, picking him up when he’s on the run in the daylight from the drug dealers, and a couple of apologies for missing dates, one of which leads to a goofy, sweet, and believable round of phone sex during which Mike sounds high. Betty likes him but isn’t stuck on him; she’s ambitious. She has no illusions about what he does, what goes up his nose, and where he’s going. But when they talk her voice gets lower and she softens; there will always be sparks between them. It’s a believable, adult relationship — love at first sight is closer to lust on second and third sight — and Winger deserves credit for making it so.
Then Mike’s good luck vanishes, thanks to the recklessness of buddy Pete (Darrell Larson), who stole a couple grams of coke from the same dealers. Devastated precisely because their relationship trembled with possibilities, Betty wants to learn what happened. Rushing to a common friend’s after learning about Mike’s fate, she sways a bit when she realizes it overlooks the tennis court where she met Mike (Winger is so in control that she telegraphs her character’s reluctance to show more emotion than she needs to). The most conventional part of Mike’s Murder shows Pete on the run from the guys as he descends into cocaine psychosis; Larson’s uneven work — frightening one moment, bug-eyed like a Muppet the next — doesn’t help. But at this point the film’s best drawn character makes his appearance: record producer Philip Green (Paul Winfield), at whose house Betty dropped Mike off when he thought he was being pursued. As played by Winfield in a lovely performance, Philip is a man who sucks at playing tough and world-weary. From the looks of the quiet early morning orgy that Betty interrupts populated by a Chippendale stripper snorting old coke and two bikini-clad women it’s clear Philip can be talked into anything if the persuader has the correct muscle tone. Admitting he was in love with Mike to a woman he hasn’t met isn’t cathartic; it’s the only American film of the era in which gay relations aren’t made into An Issue (Making Love) or phantasmagoria (Cruising). “I’m happy I don’t know anything,” he says, voice trembling.
The ending is a poop-out; the film just stops. But this decision works in Mike’s Murder‘s favor: life goes on. The scenery and rogue’s gallery of types adduce Bridges’ vision of the sun-blasted flatness of El Lay. A dive with a bored Mexican in a paper hat flipping burgers. The Chinese restaurant at which Betty and a friend eat beer and oversauced spare ribs. The concrete air conditioned tombs of Brentwood, living images stolen from Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, the best album about L.A. recorded in the seventies (“Edith and the Kingpin” could be about Mike). The reel to reel player in Philip’s mansion (he orders the Chippendale stud with the blowdried hair to get him a cranberry juice; by the time he’s done with Betty he’s switched to warm champagne; Bridges choreographs the movement from living room to pool terrace without fuss or comment). A media artist with period Warren Zevon hair and specs named Richard (Dan Shor) who says things like “The ephemeral is the eternal” with self-mocking eye rolls.
Unemphatic, confident, devoid of histrionics (except for one woman-in-distress scene), Mike’s Murder stood no chance of being a hit. What’s amazing is that the studio didn’t even give it a shot on home video; it could have become the cult success it deserves to be. Worse, its failure destroyed its director’s career. Bridges, survived by a male partner of thirty-six years (the guy who played Jimmy Olsen in the “Superman” TV series!), made the aerobics film Perfect with John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis and the square adaptation of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City starring Michael J. Fox, which could have done for Manhattan in the late eighties what Mike’s Murder did for L.A. in the early eighties. Denizens of local video stores — what remains of them — should find a copy of Mike’s Murder or stream it. Forget Kael’s grandiose claims about Winger’s performance ranking with Jeanne Moreau’s in La Notte. It is true that she and Bridges create a rarity: a vivid recessive character. Things happen to her, but Winger is so alert to Betty’s limits that the performance feels major anyway. The picture no doubt helped her intense star work in Terms of Endearment (where she deserved the Oscar, not Shirley MacLaine).