The Florida setting brings to mind another exercise in neo-noir, the Kathleen Turner-William Hurt sizzler Body Heat. But Herr Schlondorff owes as much to the first generation of noirists--Dassin, Rossen, Ray and Wilder, just for a start--as he does to latter-day practitioners like the admirable John Dahl (The Last Seduction). If you love masterpieces of unalloyed Forties cynicism like Double Indemnity and Out of the Past, Schlondorff's effort just might get under your skin and stay awhile.
For one thing, it's got Elisabeth Shue (brilliant as the hooker in Leaving Las Vegas) playing the requisite femme fatale, and she's as profoundly seductive as Barbara Stanwyck or Lizabeth Scott with their schemes at full steam. It's also got Woody Harrelson, an actor who never quite gets his due, as the inevitable dupe, an ex-newspaper reporter who's just gotten out of the joint (he was innocent as all get-out) and soon finds himself in deeper trouble than he ever imagined. In deep with three women, too close to the cops, not far enough away from murder.
That's right. Everybody thinks they could write these things. All you gotta do is combine a dying millionaire, his gorgeous young wife (Shue), a precocious teenage stepdaughter (Chloe Sevigny) and a phony kidnapping complete with a big ransom, wrap the whole business in betrayal and--bingo--you've got the pot boiling, right? Just ask E. Max Frye how easy it is. He adapted James Hadley Chase's novel Just Another Sucker.
Ah, but cinematic style is another thing altogether, isn't it? To that end, Schlondorff's camera virtually undresses Shue every time the vixen Rhea Malroux slinks into a room. It never misses a bead of sweat on the forehead of Harrelson's Harry Barber, who thinks he's being clever and careful when he agrees to make a couple of threatening phone calls for a quick $50,000. It shamelessly ogles young Sevigny in her motel room and fairly wades through the murk of double-cross at posh Cranley Key, where the Malrouxs live.
Schlondorff, in fact, grasps all the details--the way a pounding rainstorm darkens the Atlantic surf, the suspicious look in an assistant DA's eye when an alibi doesn't add up, the mystical power an untouched quart of Wild Turkey holds over a man who no longer drinks. And when this director fills a washtub with sulfuric acid, you can almost feel the stuff eating at your spine.
Best of all, Schlondorff understands how the heat of helpless passion collides with single-minded connivance--the essential encounter of film noir since time immemorial. Rhea and Harry, Harry and Rhea. Who's your money on? Not so fast, though. As in the day of Tourneur and Wilder, expect a delicious twist or two. And never mind that blurry line between cliche and classic: Film noir is a genre that's been as brutally worked over as any in moviedom, but Palmetto is the kind of movie--precisely crafted and beautifully played--that can make you fall in love with the night all over again.
Screenplay by E. Max Frye, from the novel Just Another Sucker, by James Hadley Chase. Directed by Volker Schlondorff. With Woody Harrelson, Elisabeth Shue, Gina Gershon, Chloe Sevigny and Michael Rapaport.