Jonathan Demme is one of the always fascinating but often frustrating American directors to come out of the ’70s boom of New Hollywood. He worked for Roger Corman for most of the ’70s directing stuff like Caged Heat and Crazy Mama. Last Embrace is really the last film of him trying to make it as a Hollywood director, his next film would be much more independently minded Melvin and Howard. Demme would have huge success with The Silence of the Lambs and throughout the ’90s and early ’00s struggle with being fundamentally an independent filmmaker but pricing himself out making more interesting work. His documentary work blossomed in this time which started back in the ’80s with his legendary Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. Demme in more recent years has moved back to more independently minded feature work.
Last Embrace is very much an homage or rip-off (whatever you want to call it) of the films of Alfred Hitchcock who for any director is one of those directors who just seeps into your cinematic DNA no matter how much you want to suppress his influence. Roy Schneider plays the government agent Harry Hannan whose wife was killed during an assignment. He suffers a breakdown and is released back to his life in New York but soon finds out they don’t have any assignments for him. To confuse him more his house has been sublet to medical student Ellie Fabian (Janet Margolin). He soon becomes paranoid that he is the target of agency and go complicate matters even more so when he receives a letter in an ancient form of Hebrew.
The Hitchcock connection does one step forward with the score by Miklós Rózsa who’s score is total rip-off of Bernard Hermann’s scores for the master of suspense, Rózsa did however score one of Hitchcock’s best films Spellbound. Like Hitchocck’s North by Northwest it features a massive set piece on an American landmark. Hithcock never shot on Niagara Falls shockingly so that cinematic landmark is used for the big set piece at the end. Last Embrace marks an early collaboration between Demme and Tak Fujimoto who shot Badlands but also lots of Demme’s best films suchMarried to the Mob and Something Wild.
Roy Schneider is one of those rare actors who just by looking at his face it tells a story, he had an extraordinary range from All That Jazz to The French Connection to Naked Lunch. Schneider played a ton of morally ambiguous anti-heroes during the ’70s and naturally excels in the role here naturally. Christopher Walken shows up in a fantastic cameo as one of the government higher-ups. Janet Margolin’s career never really took off and would only make two more films till her premature death at 50 but tries her best here.
In closing, Demme crafts a tension filled thriller pulling on Hitchcock but also the on-screen persona of Schneider during the ’70s. It’s fascinating to watch the more mainstream direction Demme’s career could have went if Last Embrace was a success but it wasn’t with audiences or critics but over the years it’s reputation has grown enormously. Signal One Entertaiment’s disc is barer than usual but it includes a commentary with David Thompson and the theatrical trailer.