Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For February, we’re celebrating acclaimed genre-bender Jonathan Demme. Read the rest of our coverage here.
So there’s this girl, okay? And she was bad for a long time and now she’s trying to be good. And there’s this boy, and he’s good too. Like, an officer of the law, good. He’s a real straight shooter and she’s a lady with a past but they meet and they spark and soon they’re in love. But there’s a problem – he needs her to go back to her old life and pretend she’s still bad to help catch some of the bad guys she used to run with; and if she doesn’t, she might get busted herself. That’s the plot to Jonathan Demme’s 1988 Married to the Mob. It’s also the plot to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 Notorious, but told from the woman’s perspective, and a comedy. The result is a sweet, oddball movie that works more than it doesn’t, but is a little at odds with itself. Demme’s desire to make a charming, screwball comedy about a bunch of wacky larger-than-life characters doesn’t always mix with his desire to subvert a cinema classic and show a woman trying to survive in a man’s world.
Michelle Pfeiffer stars as Angela de Marco, a dissatisfied mob wife who uses the death of her husband Frank (Alec Baldwin, maximum greasy) to leave the insular world of organized crime to start fresh. Her pampered life may have been suffocating but it was also very comfortable, and when the movie focuses on her struggle as a single mom in Manhattan it is funny and well observed. Her one room studio apartment with a toilet in the kitchen doesn’t impress her son and there’s not much work available for a former mob-wife with no employment history. But Angie is scrappy and doesn’t take any shit; so when she applies for a job at a chicken joint and catches the manager spying on her as she’s changing into her uniform, she storms out. Eventually, she’s hired at a local salon, run by a Jamaican immigrant named Rita (played by reggae singer and actress Sister Carol East).
Angie’s world is driven by the desires of men. She’s the wife of a chauvinistic mobster, until he’s killed by his boss Tony (Dean Stockwell, in an Oscar nominated performance) because he’s sleeping with Tony’s mistress. Then her flight to the city is driven in part by the faithless Tony’s advances. Then comes the lecherous manager at the chicken joint and later the pressure of the masculine F.B.I. to go back and pretend to be interested in Tony in order to inform and help the feds build a case against him. If she refuses, they threaten to deport Rita. Angie spends the movie with her back against the wall, but she’s smart and resourceful and knows how to think on her feet.
The result is a sweet, oddball movie that works more than it doesn’t, but is a little at odds with itself.
Married to the Mob gives Pfeifer her first real lead and she shines. She gets to be angry and scared and sexy and funny and everything in between and she pulls it off. Angie is a woman who hated her old life, but it was also all she knew; now she’s on her own for the first time and it scares her. But it’s also kind of exciting too, you know? She’s left the homogeny of Long Island and jumped into the exotic melting pot of Lower East Side Manhattan (note to the kids: in 1988 you could be a funky weirdo and afford to live in Manhattan). Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto creates a vibrant and exciting neighborhood for Angie and the soundtrack featuring New Order, Ziggy Marley, Chris Isaak, and Voodoo Corporation enhances that feeling. Demme also uses Q. Lazzarus’s “Goodbye Horses,” a song he would famously put in Silence of the Lambs; so, with hindsight, a date scene intended to be seductive fun takes on unintentionally terrifying undertones.
And then there’s Matthew Modine as Mike Downey, an FBI agent bent on taking down the mob. He starts surveilling Angie because she’s a person of interest in his case, but she runs into him, thinks he’s cute and asks him out. They begin a tentative romance; she’s shy because she’s starting a new life and he’s shy because he’s lying to her and having trouble keeping his feelings professional. Modine is fine, but he’s no match for Pfeiffer, as an actor or a character. You can tell that Demme is sort of lukewarm on the character too because he gives Modine some clever business that doesn’t really amount to anything. Angie is a flesh and blood character with real problems and Mike literally has a Wallace and Gromit-style contraption that raises his bed every morning and slides him into his suit.
But maybe that’s part of the point – Notorious is interested in men and Married to the Mob focuses on women. The FBI are ineffectual klutzes and the mob isn’t much better. Even Dean Stockwell plays more a cartoon of a dangerous man than an actual one; he’s fun, but he’s a far cry from the menacing figures from Compulsion and Blue Velvet. Much more intimidating is Mercedes Ruehl as Connie, Tony’s violently jealous wife. She’s a fierce and powerful presence in the film and you really feel like she could stand toe to toe with Angie. She neither wants to fuck or fuck with Angie, she just wants her gone. But while her weight and menace give Angie a worthy antagonist, her presence runs counter to the overall theme of the men as dangerous threats to Angie.
And, again, maybe that’s all part of the point. Maybe Demme wanted to make a layered story to argue that the world of men is dangerous which makes individual men silly? That the inherent threat makes men soft while women have to be creative and tough? It’s possible. But more likely it’s just a movie with two competing themes that don’t quite gel in the end. Three years later, Demme would tackle the this woman-surviving-man’s-world theme again, but by then he would have (mostly) abandoned the romantic-comedy angle and pivoted to full-on horror with Silence of the Lambs. Married to the Mob doesn’t reach the delirious heights of Lambs (or Notorious) but it’s a super fun, weird little movie with a great heart you can trace back to one classic and that looks directly ahead to another.