Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Into the Night   John Landis, 1985, US

Throughout the late 1970s and early 80s, director John Landis had great commercial and cult success with The Blues Brothers, Trading Places and An American Werewolf in London; by the mid-80s, however, his career was in the doldrums and he was facing personal ruin as a result of litigation surrounding the tragic Twilight Zone - The Movie accident, in which actor Vic Morrow and two Asian child extras were killed during filming of a helicopter stunt for Landis’s segment of the film.

Landis was eventually cleared of any blame for the incident, but continued to be the victim of off-stage whispers and felt personally devastated by it.

As a result, his 1985 feature Into the Night, ostensibly a late entry into the ‘innocent abroad’ comedy thriller sub-genre, was transformed into something far deeper and darker - a blackly-comic, at times vicious satire on the excesses of the 80s Hollywood system with which Landis was so familiar and which had almost consumed him, and a film which deserves to be ranked among the best that the decade has to offer.

The plot is straightforward: insomniac, cuckolded aerospace engineer Ed Okin (Jeff Goldblum) takes his friend’s advice and drives to LAX to liven up his evening, where terrified jewel thief and goodtime girl Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer) crashes onto his car bonnet on the run from a quartet of swarthy Iranian secret policemen. Okin helps Diana escape from her immediate predicament and reluctantly accompanies her on a bizarre few days and nights across Los Angeles towards a denouement involving the FBI (possibly), the Iranians (definitely) and some diamonds.

That’s it, essentially, but that simple thread of exposition is coloured in by an extraordinary concoction of brilliantly witty scripting, cameos and superb locations that make the film densely textured and highly rewarding to watch.

It has often been said that it takes a foreigner’s eye to make any city look good, but Landis’s experiences there have obviously not dulled his visual sense, since LA has rarely been so intriguing, with arresting shots of the airport and other locations looking fresh and interesting.

More than a dozen directors make cameos in the film, from a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance from Jim Henson to a major role as a French gangster for Roger Vadim. This use of friends was heavily criticised as vanity gone mad, but in truth it adds immensely to the viewer’s enjoyment, as they recognise the players for who they are. Other roles in an eclectic case are played by the likes of singer Carl Perkins as a bodyguard, Hollywood fitness guru Jake as a brainless hunk, legendary stuntman Richard Farnsworth as Diana’s millionaire sugar daddy and, brilliantly, David Bowie as the charming but seriously scary English hitman Colin Morris. Landis himself plays one of the hitmen.

All this is wrapped up in an outstanding score which relies mainly on blues master B.B. King’s powerful renditions of three new songs written for the film, including the sumptuous the title track.

Foremost among the acting talent, of course, are the film’s two leads.

This is without question Jeff Goldblum’s finest hour - he is perfect as the baffled amateur caught up in something well beyond his experience, and delivers a charming, restrained, believable performance, far away from the excesses of The Fly and Jurassic Park. It is, however, Michelle Pfeiffer’s film, and she is superb as the gorgeous, sexy and complicated Diana, who is not quite the innocent bimbo she might appear. This was one of three films in the early 1980s which really got Pfeiffer noticed, the others being Ladyhawke and Scarface, and she has seldom looked better before or since.

Into the Night is superb entertainment, on many levels, and apart from the occasional broad slapstick of the pursuing Iranians which grates a little, is a triumph for Landis and his team. And anyone who still thinks that he was unaffected by the Twilight Zone incident should note the fate he reserves for his character: gunned down in the film’s messy penultimate scene, adopting a suitably repentant Christ-like pose as he sprawls against the newsstand shelves with blood spurting from his wounds. Dark, indeed.

Intothenight poster

Rare image of the original US and UK theatrical release poster; from eatbrie.com

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