A review requested by John Taylor, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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My God, is it possible I've been at this reviewing thing for more than 12 years, and I'm only just getting around to reviewing a Ken Russell film? Well then, here we are, with the director's third and final film during his brief sojourn in the United States: Crimes of Passion, a 1984 erotic thriller that places a whole hell of a lot more emphasis on the "erotic" part than any other American-made film in that genre I've seen. Probably for that reason, coupled with Russell's fairly unhidden disinterest in modulating himself even a tiny bit to fit into Hollywood's schema, the film was a controversial financial failure (Americans might claim to like sex, but we tend to freak the fuck out when we actually get it in our art).

And eroticism there is by the bushel, and plenty of human sexuality anatomised and critiqued, and Kathleen Turner goes topless, but of course what we're all really interested in talking about is the long-dead Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. I'm only mostly serious. Russell's films tend to include three things, though rarely in the same ratio: frank depictions of human sex, wholly deranged visuals that feel more authentically capital-S Surrealist than just about anything else made in the English language since the dawn of sound, an extremely present musical soundtrack. The last of these is perhaps the most persistent; I can think of Russell films mostly without sex (nobody going into the '20s musical throwback The Boy Friend looking to get their rocks off is coming out happy), and Russell films mostly without surrealism (his Oscar-winning breakthrough film Women in Love is a perfectly normal costume drama; a perfectly normal costume drama with the first onscreen penis in mainstream English-language cinema, admittedly). But I can think of no Russell films that don't use music in a striking, deliberate, and largely noticeable way.

Even then, it's particularly noticeable in Crimes of Passion, a film whose soundtrack consists of what feel like dozens of variations on Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World", arranged for synthesizer by Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman. I declare, few things I've heard in a movie have knocked me more immediately for a loop than hearing the enormously familiar motifs from one of the most famous symphonies in world history buzzing and bleeping with the electronic frenzy of a Berlin nightclub. There's some possibility that this is a dumb in-joke - New World Pictures produced Crimes of Passion - and some that it's all meant to be the British-born Russell's sardonic joke at the expense of America in this, his second and final film made west of the Atlantic Ocean. I don't know that it matters either way; the effect is what matters, and the effect is sublime and strange, mixing the high-brow connotations of the music with the ultra-modern textures of the instrumentation into some unclassifiable third thing that feels deeply alien, rousing but also tacky, beautiful in its sheer metallic ugliness.

Really, if Crimes of Passion had nothing else going for it, I'd be ready to give it a recommendation based just on the music, but it has quite a lot else in its favor, actually. The film is a portrayal of various kinds of sexual obsession and game-playing: the tale of a frustrated husband of 11 years, father of two children, and general boring pill, Bobby Grady (John Laughlin), who takes on a shady job tailing suspected fashion industry spy Joanna Crane (Turner) to see if she's actually committing espionage or not. Who knows, who cares. She's definitely spending her off-hours as a prostitute, wearing a platinum blonde wig and working under the name "China Blue", busily enacting the corny and sometimes sad fantasies of a litany of johns. And tired of his unimaginative, prudish wife Amy (Annie Potts), Bobby falls madly in love with this China Blue, the sheer life-force of her even more than the sexual magnetism. And it's a lot of sexual magnetism, too - one doesn't cast 1984-edition Kathleen Turner in the hopes that she will bring a sense of dainty, virginal sweetness to a role. Meanwhile, she deftly handles all of her clients, giving them what they want while taking what she herself wants; the one problem is a fellow named Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins), a street preacher and peep show addict who can't seem to make up his mind whether his constant hurling of religious-themed verbal abuse at China is part of his sexual fetish or just part of his maniacal repressive morality.

There comes a point, almost exactly halfway through the film, where all of this roiling sexuality comes to a head, and the message that it is, all things being equal, better to be honest about one's sexual appetites and to embrace that honesty from other starts to grow rather tediously explicit. Honestly, just about the only things that saves the end of Crimes of Passion are the extraordinary performances of Turner and Perkins (the latter of whom is so obviously cast as a sexual obsessive whose hatred of his own libido transforms into something punishing and violent that it's kind of cheating; and yet, it's quite possibly the best work of his career, sweatier and more desperate and angry and terrifying even than Psycho). Otherwise, it's practically a god-damned message movie, and what is less sexy than a message movie? Especially one about sex.

That being said, the first hour or so is so great that it's really not much of a bother. To capture the feverish, horny energy of all the principles (except Amy, though it's a stretch to call her a "principle"), Russell films this as a whirlwind of visual stimulation, all bright colors, and fragmentary editing that shatters sex acts and domestic moments alike into little conceptual flashes of this or that moment - there's an opening blowjob scene that's not explicit at all, and yet the way it focuses on individual moments captures something so heady and intense about how intimate moments proceed, it had to be severely truncated for the film to get released in the U.S. (in fact, the 112-minute film was sliced down to 100 minutes for its theatrical run; thankfully, the director's cut is as readily available as the bowdlerised version these days).

Turner's performance is ideally attuned to this cutting pattern, providing several small reactions, including some magnificent "oh you idiot horndog boys" eye-rolls, that seem tailor-made for the practically experimental way that Russell and editor Brian Tagg assemble the material. If Perkins gives the most openly impressive, showy performance, it's nevertheless Turner who provides the rock upon which the film is founded; I can imagine a less-good version of the movie without him, but I can only imagine crappy films without Turner, one of the few mainstream actors of her own or any generation of Hollywood able to foreground mature female sexual desire in her performances and have it come across as honest and positive, rather than destructive in the manner of a film noir femme fatale (just compare her work in Body Heat, her screen debut, to its obvious, uncredited source, Double Indemnity - I love Barbara Stanwyck very much in all things at all times, but a healthy representation of feminine sexuality it ain't). Meanwhile, Laughlin is mostly harmless to the movie around him.

Anyway, the first half of Crimes of Passion is an extraordinary sensory experience, overloading our eyes and ears with so much constant stimulation that it becomes more like an Expressionist depiction of sex than a straightforward realist narrative. It's not that it lacks any straightforward elements - the film opens with dialogue over black, bluntly and violently describing the sexual attitudes of several people in a therapeutic support group, and from that moment on, moments where characters flatly discuss how they feel about sex are never terribly far away - but its stylistic elements so thoroughly overwhelm the material that it feels more tenuous and complicated than it actually is. Nothing about this is as dauntingly challenging or inventive as Russell's previous American picture, Altered States, and there's something too aggressive for the film to share the dazzling and playful cinematic energy of his best '70s films. But before it collapses, this is pretty astounding stuff. Alas that it does collapse, quite hard and quite suddenly, but Crimes of Passion is good much more than it's bad, and that's ultimately all that matters.