Jazz Noir: Mike Figgis’ Oddly Brilliant STORMY MONDAY

By James Kenney

“Every film should conform to the idea it’s a black comedy and science fiction. Doesn’t matter if it’s Hamlet or something.  Then you can work your way backwards and make it work.” — Mike Figgis, Stormy Monday Blu-ray commentary

1988’s Stormy Monday, about a ruthless American businessman intent on buying up the waterfront district of Newcastle, England, and the tough resistance he encounters from locals, is one of my all-time favorite films, a neon-drenched tough and funny film noir version of Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero, where an outsider (in this case Sean Bean) finds himself in an unfamiliar environ (in this case Newcastle) where eccentric locals offer plenty of color but are also willing to sell themselves out to an encroaching American looking to buy up land (in this case Tommy Lee Jones). But, these locals expect the American to be polite.  When he isn’t, they bite back.

Stormy Monday‘s original title was ‘Round Midnight. Figgis wanted Sting to play the Thelonius Monk piece on a stand-up bass in a key sequence, until someone mentioned that Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight was already in production, so he settled on Stormy Monday for a title—but as Figgis mentions on the Arrow Blu-ray release commentary, “you’ll search [the movie] in vein for a reference to Stormy Monday.” Still, it’s a good, evocative title– if any movie is a moody jazz piece at 24 frames per second, it’s this.

Figgis, subsequently best known for directing Leaving Las Vegas and Internal Affairs, throws a lot at the audience quickly, but it isn’t pretentious or mannered like some of his later work (the Loss of Sexual Innocence and Hotel come to mind); the film is, to borrow a term from Pauline Kael, “pleasantly bananas”; there is a bouncy, fizzy humor to the storytelling, and the film (shot by Roger Deakins) presents a poet’s imagined idea of Newcastle you’ll want to visit, if not live in, every corner an Edward Hopper diner or a smoky lively jazz club (Figgis cops to Hopper’s paintings of shared loneliness and WeeGee’s stark photography as key inspirations). While no doubt his muse led him to plumbing some deeper depths of humanity in Leaving Las Vegas, here in his feature debut is still the most inviting example of Figgis’s idiosyncratic filmmaking technique; Monday is much more lilting and offhand than anything he’s done since.

In fact the film is all idiosyncrasy, there are no minor details, even as it all feels like minor detail– Monday commences by bouncing around from a highway car accident outside Newcastle that two armed hoods drive past (which does relate to later plot developments), to Griffith’s waitress who is also apparently “kept” by steely American businessman Jones receiving a cryptic phone call, to the handsome “tough innocent’ Bean who earns the “dubious honor” of being a porter in Sting’s jazz club and ends up picking up a Polish free jazz band that is stuck at the airport. The film doesn’t play its cards early, and in fact Albert Finney passed on the role of the jazz club owner as he felt the script was “a little bit cutty to me” (Figgis ultimately named the character Finney!), but it does provide early on interesting, attractive faces, stunning cinematography and a sharp sense of malevolent humor and foreboding. To quote filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, “I hate to know what’s happening, I hate to know what kind of picture it is right away”; Figgis certainly has made a career out of designing films that expect you to stew, unsure what is going on, only with Monday you stew with a smile.

Figgis grew up as a jazz musician, and cites in the Arrow commentary as really being influenced by Quincy Jones’ score for In Cold Blood. As a filmmaker with Monday, he thought in terms of music and in avant-garde imagery — he admits on the commentary he didn’t know what a three-act structure was when he wrote Monday, or what coverage was, or where he planned to cut a scene (much of his “film-school learning” of these practicalities came at the hand of the difficult, unforgiving Jones on set, who nevertheless delivered the perfect gesture with a cigar for Figgis to indeed cut a scene on).

“Some Women are Trouble. This One is Worth It.” — from the trailer of Stormy Monday

Figgis had his hands full with his American leads on his first feature.  As he relays on the commentary, Griffith and Kim Cattrall were both considered for the lead; Griffith was not a slam dunk despite her excellent work in Brian De Palma’s Body Double, but as they were casting Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild came out and the people at Atlantic Releasing (an American company providing a good deal of the money) came around to the idea. Figgis discusses how Griffith was “a bit of a delicate flower and requires some nurturing…certain Americans just have this talent. She could be completely devastated about something [in her personal life] and then you turn the camera on and she does something magical”

As Figgis also said in the film’s press materials, “her performance as a romantic lead compares with the great American comediennes like Monroe. Her relationship with the camera and her understanding of film are certainly comparable with Monroe, it’s a very personalized style.”  Griffith is perfect casting as Kate, an expatriate American trapped in a life of luxuriant despair, working as a waitress trying to convince herself she isn’t a kept woman. Griffith can play deceptively smart, a woman both quietly and brazenly attractive at the same time, but also miserably starved of genuine affection. Because of her looks and somewhat uninhibited sexuality, she was underrated as an actress even when people seemed to recognize she was the best thing in movies such as Body Double and Cherry 2000. If she proved a bit emotional on set, well, sometimes high-strung thoroughbreds are worth the complications.

“We can’t be shooting people around here. We’re supposed to be improving the quality of life and create jobs. And make a LOT of money.” — Cosmo (Tommy Lee Jones)

Tommy Lee Jones, who provides the narcissistic malevolent reasonableness necessary for his part to come off, was cast after Figgis considered Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken, and, as he shared on the commentary, “Tommy Lee Jones was a tricky guy to work with. But he’s an amazing actor.” As Figgis puts it, “[Jones] flew into Newcastle airport to start shooting, just as in the film he flies in, and he emerged through the doors and there was Cosmo. The part I’d previously only read on paper was standing before me. It’s a very difficult part, Cosmo must be frightening but attractive enough for Kate to find it hard to break away from him, and Tommy Lee made it work.”

“Sting was very receptive to the idea of doing a part set in Newcastle and in his own accent.” Mike Figgis on casting Sting in Stormy Monday

Sting, himself from Newcastle, understood the project immediately, playing with dry humor a kind of aspirational thug with taste who wears disheveled Armani and doesn’t always shave, but who loves quality jazz and will walk away from millions of dollars if he feels his friends have been disrespected. “Sting is the biggest revelation in the film,” Figgis explained in the film’s press materials. “The idea to cast him came to me out of the blue, originally we had been thinking of much older actors…[with Sting] a younger and more contemporary Finney suddenly suggested itself and the character came alive in a very human and interesting way.”

As the press materials explain, producer Nigel Stafford-Clark, who had produced Figgis’ 1984 television project “The House,” “wanted to make something in the style of films I admired such as Chinatown and Body Heat, films which have a great texture and eye for detail.”  Figgis thought back to his earlier days as a jazz musician and a particular street, The Side, in the dockside district of Newcastle. “It was a case of the physical location suggesting a theme and idea. For me to enjoy a film, it has to operate on about three or four different levels.”

“Newcastle was a unique opportunity which provided possibilities that would be unthinkable in a city like London.” — Mike Figgis on Newcastle

“Maybe I have a rather over-romanticized affection for Newcastle but first and foremost I find it a cinematically stunning city. It’s visual values…are inestimable…Newcastle has a strong American industrial feel to it not unlike Brooklyn or Chicago, largely due to the immense proportions of the old 19th Century architecture.…it’s also a city with a great musical tradition that has produced great rock stars such as Bryan Ferry, the Animals, and of course Sting.”

Newcastle was undergoing extensive redevelopment and the production was able to use vast dockland areas of the city – Figgis recounts on the commentary showing Griffith around on her first day on set and realizing it felt like he had their own Hollywood studio backlot as the sets were all so close to each other.

Stormy Monday is a film of stunning color, production designer Andrew McAlpine explaining “the emotion of that color was bruised – bruised purples, blues and greys.”  Variety gave the film an unfortunate early bad review, calling Figgis a “video director” although he had never shot a music video in his life; however Monday‘s prospects brightened when Janet Maslin gave it a justified rave in the New York Times (“[Figgis’] direction, which is intensely stylish without any effort or strain, has a way of prompting rather than forcing the audience’s interest, and a gift for arousing the viewer’s curiosity”).  Parts of Monday will spill over into your mind years after you see it – for me it’s Sting’s dry, surprising delivery of the line “Are you setting me up, Brandon?”; Prunella Gee’s one-scene performance as Sting’s wife; the Cracow Jazz Quartet’s earnest but inappropriate efforts to play the Star-Spangled Banner at an event where the local Margaret Thatcher stand-in celebrates America as “the most benevolent superpower in history”; Jones’ instant transformations from malevolent darkness to agreeable businessman and back without fuss or actor’s tricks.

Stormy Monday is an off-the-elbow success filled with quirky elements that stick with you—little elements of a scene steal it from previous little elements that have already captured your fancy. Monday is a film that will put you in a good mood, and you’ll stay in it for a fair while after it’s over. It’s a friendly, light, yet nasty piece of work that never once gets sentimental, despite the premium it places on friendship. Jones’ biggest flaw isn’t that he’s a criminal (the film suggests he and Sting are cut from the same cloth), it’s that he’s ultimately not friends with anybody, which Sting won’t abide.  Stormy Monday is not a deep work, it doesn’t have big set pieces, but everything in it works alongside everything else in it. Making a little less than two million dollars worldwide upon release, there’s fair chance you haven’t seen Stormy Monday. Seek it out.

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