What I’ve Been Watching: Into the Night (1985).
Who’s Responsible: John Landis (director), Ron Koslow (screenwriter), Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Richard Farnsworth (stars).
Why I Watched It: Underdog favorite.
Seen It Before? Many times.
Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10): 10.
Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10): 5.
Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10): 8.
And? I periodically revisit Trading Places (1983) and Coming to America (1988) as a reminder that both Landis and Eddie Murphy once made excellent (and successful, which is not the same thing) movies; this was among the mixed bag of projects Landis worked on in between those hits. It was his first feature after the debacle of Twilight Zone—The Movie (1983), which may have contributed to what I believe was its commercial failure. Right from Ira Newborn’s main-title theme—sung by B.B. King, whose spirited rendition of “In the Midnight Hour” over the closing credits brackets the movie—this has a funky, bluesy vibe aptly suited to its offbeat, underused leading man, whom I’ve always loved.
Ed Okin (Goldblum) has a boring job in the aerospace industry and chronic insomnia—even before learning that his wife is cheating on him—which he offsets with late-night visits to the airport. During one such visit, a screaming woman, Diana (Pfeiffer), lands on the hood of his car, fleeing the four Iranian thugs who have just killed her companion, and after she climbs inside, Ed sensibly beats a hasty retreat. This sets in motion a series of chases and confrontations that need not be enumerated in specific detail but display the Hitchcockian devices of an ordinary guy whose life is threatened when he is caught up in extraordinary events and an obligatory MacGuffin: six priceless and smuggled emeralds.
Aptly, Landis gives himself a non-English-speaking role as one of the thugs, but also, in the spirit of ’80s excess, casts an amazing number of fellow filmmakers in parts ranging from cameos to full-fledged supporting roles. These include Jack Arnold, Rick Baker, Paul Bartel, David Cronenberg (who directed Goldblum in The Fly), Jonathan Demme, the dreaded Carl Gottlieb (who, per Richard Matheson, ruined his script for Jaws 3-D), Jim Henson, Lawrence Kasdan (who directed Goldblum in The Big Chill), Paul Mazursky, Daniel Petrie, Waldo Salt, Don Siegel, and Roger Vadim. Ed and Diana also encounter David Bowie, Irene Papas, Carl Perkins (in his only film), and various federal agents, many of whom manage to wipe one another out by the film’s sanguinary climax.
The other vein the story taps into is The Maltese Falcon, because the dialogue repeatedly implies that, like Dashiell Hammett’s Brigid O’Shaugnessy, Diana is a femme fatale who will bed and manipulate any man who can be of use to her, with Ed ready to follow in the fatal footsteps of his predecessor at the airport. But Pfeiffer, in one of her earliest leading roles, is luminous and loopy and endearing enough that we’re relieved, if not surprised, to find out that she’s a bit better than that. She spends much of the movie trying to contact a friend and possible Sugar Daddy with the improbable name of Jack Caper (the ever-great Farnsworth), from whom she is now being blocked by his greedy wife, Joan (Vera Miles).
It’s a mystery to me why this film didn’t do better, and when Madame BOF watched the second half with me the other night after we finished an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (her new favorite viewing ritual), she agreed with me. I hadn’t seen it for a while, after watching it repeatedly as cinematic comfort food back in the day, but it held up as well as ever; Goldblum’s non sequiturs are hilarious, and Pfeiffer is utterly disarming in moments like the stray shot of her apparently inserting her diaphragm (?!). The film also contains one of my all-time favorite lines when Ed asks Fed Clu Gulager, “Are we under arrest, or what?,” and he gruffly responds, “I’d say you fall into the ‘or what’ category.”