Save Me (1994)

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A memorable femme fatale!
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US / 93 minutes / color / Spark, Vision International Dir: Alan Roberts Pr: Alan Amiel Scr: Neil Ronco Cine: Ilan Rosenberg Cast: Harry Hamlin, Lysette Anthony, Michael Ironside, Olivia Hussey, Bill Nunn, Steve Railsback, Neil Ronco, Sigal Diamant, Joseph Campanella, Reilly Murphy, Christine Mitges, Kristine Rose, Carrie Vanston, Dee Booher, Stan Yale.

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It’s been said by various critics that the direct-to-video erotic thriller can be regarded as the modern equivalent of the classic-era film noir. Yes, there were some A-feature noirs back in the 1940s and 1950s, but the vast majority of what we think of as films noirs—including many that have attained “classic” status—were B-movies in which the studio bosses had little interest beyond making sure they came in under their (usually minuscule) budgets. The way was thus open for directors like Fritz Lang and Robert Siodmak to do more or less what they wanted without the heavy hand of the studio bosses on their shoulder. Similarly, all that the movie companies responsible for modern erotic thrillers care about is that there’s enough sex and nudity to keep the punters happy and that the project comes in under budget. This allows enormous latitude to directors and scripters to create the movies they actually want to create . . . just so long as the other parameters are met.

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Ellie (Lysette Anthony) sends frantic eye signals to Jim as she hugs Oliver (Michael Ironside).

Save Me is a very good case in point. Here we have, if not a first-rate, then certainly a perfectly creditable neonoir/psychological thriller that contains quite a few sex scenes; unlike the seedier erotic thrillers featuring the likes of Shannon Tweed or Pamela Anderson, the movie does not interminably protract them—it might perhaps be ten or twelve minutes shorter without them, but then you could say the same of more mainstream neonoirs like BODY HEAT (1981) and BASIC INSTINCT (1992). Another big difference between this and the average sweaty erotic thriller is that the only characters who engage in (simulated) sex are the two principals.

Jim Stevens (Hamlin) is a bonds trader for the LA-based company Barton–Richards. He’s a bit distracted right now because his wife Gail (Hussey) is departing with their son Kenny (Murphy) for a few months’ trial separation. His colleague and best bud Matthew (Ronco) suggests he should make the most of the hiatus and even supplies the requisite condoms, but Jim’s not so convinced.

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Jim watches videos of happier days in the Stevens family — Gail (Olivia Hussey) and Kenny (Reilly Murphy).

That’s until he sees Ellie (Anthony) in the street. Essentially he stalks her for a while—until he gets thrown out of a lingerie store by floorwalker Laurel (Diamant) for undue ogling of a customer. Soon after, back on the sidewalk, Jim sees Ellie with an imposing man who’s obviously her boyfriend. She leaves a Post-It on a nearby wall with the message “SAVE ME” and a phone number. It’s almost like something out of Harlan Coben.

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You can almost hear Jim’s (Harry Hamlin) mouth dry when he first claps eyes on Ellie.

Things progress as you’d imagine. They meet, Ellie comes on strong (aided by a one-way mirror at the lingerie store), they have semi-public sex in his car, go full marathon bonkerama back at his house despite the photo of the wife and kiddie on the bedside table, and . . . okay, I didn’t follow all of the sex scenes, jolly though the first two or three were, because I used them as an opportunity to quickly check my email. The key word here is “quickly”; as noted, they tended to last no longer than those in mainstream movies.

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Michael Ironside as Oliver.

The screenplay is far from witless. After Jim and Ellie have spent their first full night together, there’s one of those exchanges that every romantic couple must have had:

Jim: “What’s for breakfast?”
Ellie: “Dinner.”

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Ellie (Lysette Anthony) sleeps like a babe after her first night with Jim.

Details emerge of Ellie’s life. She has a mother who suffers dementia and who’s currently being treated in the clinic of psychiatrist Oliver Moran (Ironside). Oliver is her present boyfriend—the imposing man Jim saw her with the other day. Ellie met him while visiting her mom in his clinic. Now Oliver is trying to control her in everything she does.

There emerge, too, some crossovers between Jim’s life and Ellie’s. Jim’s abhorred colleague, total scumbag and recently appointed boss Michael Robbins (Railsback) is responsible for having lost Oliver some $250,000 through excessive trading (called “churning,” apparently) and is now doing the best he can to fudge the records to cover his rear; unfortunately for him, Jim’s buddy Matthew has unearthed the incriminating evidence.

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The noxious Robbins (Steve Railsback) thinks he’s finally won out over the born loser Jim.

Matthew has also discovered that Oliver lost his license to practice psychiatry a year ago, and thus has no clinic in which Ellie’s mom might be being treated . . .

What stops us for a long time from realizing that Ellie is a fantasist and an entirely corrupting femme fatale—”paranoid schizophrenia,” according to Oliver’s diagnosis, but at the time we’re still clinging to the illusion that he’s a bad guy—is the persona of actress Lysette Anthony. When we first see her, blonde and youthfully lovely, baby-blue eyes an’ all, she looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Even after she’s demonstrated copiously that she’s no sweet little homegirl, it’s still difficult to reconcile the outward appearance with the murderous activities that are eventually exposed.

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Jim discovers the real Ellie (Lysette Anthony).

Apparently the seeming dichotomy between her appearance as a maidenly English rose and her career preferences troubled Anthony in real life. Soon after arriving in Hollywood she posed for a naked set in Playboy Magazine, on the basis that otherwise directors might give her the wrong typecasting—to think, she might have been doomed to playing the good girl in a million Hallmark movies.

Nunn delivers his usual expert performance as a cop, in this instance Detective Vincent, investigating the various crimes that Jim might have committed.

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Detective Vincent (Bill Nunn) tells Jim there’s as yet little he can do.

The real acting kudos in Save Me goes, however, to Ironside, even though his part is relatively small. Most of the movies in which Ironside has appeared are such as to fly below the Oscar radar, but it’s difficult not to notice the man’s style. Clearly we can’t differentiate between Ronco’s screenplay and any lines that Ironside might have improvised, but there are a couple so prototypically Ironside that it’s hard to imagine they weren’t his own.

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Matthew (Neil Ronco) offers Jim romantic advice.

Winged by Jim, who thinks Oliver is reaching for a gun when in fact he’s just reaching for his cigarettes, Oliver responds, clutching his bleeding arm, with

“Does smoking really bother you that much, Stevens?”

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Oliver reaches for his cigarettes . . .

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. . . with unfortunate consequences.

A few moments later, as Jim’s off to find the first-aid kit, Oliver debates with himself which of the liquors in his liquor cabinet best goes with his current predicament.

Style.

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Someone’s shooting at Jim (Harry Hamlin) and he doesn’t know who.

The movie has its share of continuity errors. As Ellie and Jim lie in bed in the morning after their first ecstatic night together, the sheet is low enough on Ellie that her breast is exposed. Moments later, neither sleeper having moved, she’s chastely covered to the neck. Again, at a late stage, Jim is told that the key to Oliver’s door is hidden on a ledge above it; he seems to have found the key as he enters the house . . . but the door is about 12–15ft tall.

Every now and then there’s a quick exterior of Jim’s house, usually his bedroom window. The moviemakers seem to be saying: “These are the things that go on, if only you knew, within the privacy of other people’s four walls.” Very Peyton Place.

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There’s one last plea of “Save me” from Ellie (Lysette Anthony) but . . .

 

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