Magill's Cinema Annual

William Johnson
Magill's Cinema Annual, 1989

Traditionally, the British Film Noir dealt almost entirely with an isolated criminal or suspect: only in rare exceptions such as Odd Man Out (1947), Brighton Rock (1947) and Tiger in the Smoke (1956) did any kind of organization appear. Later films, however, such as The Long Good Friday (1980), The Hit (1984), and Mona Lisa (1986) have brought organized crime into the spotlight, while such televised miniseries as Edge of Darkness (1985) and Charlie (1987) have focused on the corrupt and violent underside of British politics. Stormy Monday unites both organized crime and political corruption. At the same time, it resurrects the sentiment of much 1940's film noir, such as They Drive by Night (1940) or Laura (1944), while it also draws entirely on different genres, above all by using the kind of deadpan nonsequiturs found in such recent American films as Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law (1986) and Jonathan Demme's Something Wild (1986).

The film's mixed parentage is reflected in the construction of the plot, which relies heavily on coincidence. In the northern English city of Newcastle-on-Tyne, Brendan (Sean Bean) is hired as a handyman by nightclub owner Finney (Sting), whose property is wanted by crooked American entrepreneur Cosmo (Tommy Lee Jones) as part of a redevelopment deal that involves the bribery and corruption of city officials. That same day, Brendan literally bumps into Kate (Melanie Griffith), a waitress whom Cosmo, her recent lover, plans to use as an instrument of sexual bribery and corruption.

Eating at the restaurant where Kate serves, Brendan happens to overhear two of Cosmo's hired guns mention that they plan to kill Finney. Forewarned, Finney has his own hired guns disarm the attackers, and then forces one of them to "sell" his Jaguar to Brendan for the nominal price of one pound sterling. When two more of Cosmo's henchmen ambush Brendan and Kate in the Jaguar, its glove compartment conveniently provides a handgun for their defense. Eventually Cosmo admits defeat, but not before the Jaguar has been rigged with a time bomb; however to ensure that sentiment survives the noir ending, it happens to be an acquaintance of Kate and Brendan who borrows the car at explosion time.

The obvious disjointedness of style and plot are offset by several other aspects of Stormy Monday. The Newcastle settings help to give the film not only novelty but also unity, especially as many of the exteriors are shot at dusk or after dark. Using an Agfa film stock that records shadows more richly than does Eastmancolor, cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose earlier credits include Sid and Nancy (1986) and the remake of Nineteen Eighty-four (1984), creates a visual atmosphere that reminds one of the lurid menace with which Roger Pratt endowed London in Mona Lisa (1986). The interiors of both Finney's nightclub and Cosmo's offices are imbued with deep shadows that match the nocturnal exteriors.

Paradoxically, the Ango-American casting helps rather than hinders the unity of the film. The accents of Griffith and Jones are closer to standard English than is the broad Geordie accent of Newcastle, let alone the Polish accents of members of the Krakow Jazz Ensemble, which plays at Finney's club, or the actual Polish of an immigrant community that Kate and Brendan visit. Like most large provincial cities in the Western world, Newscastle has the trappings of cosmopolitanism: its bars, restaurants and clubs would be as much (or as little) at home in New York or San Francisco.

The four leads all, in different ways, act with restraint. Griffith gives little hint of the brash kookiness and sudden mood shifts that defined her role in Something Wild; Jones uses an executive's brisk, superficial politeness to convey authority and merely suggest the ruthlessness behind it. Sting, even when dealing with hit men, behaves like a harried businessman with no time for a shave or a change of clothes, and Sean Bean - whose first screen role, as Ranuccio in Carvaggio (1986), combined sullenness and swift violence - maintains the quiet firmness of innocence.

Even the non sequiturs - the scenes irrelevant to the plot - play their part in holding Stormy Monday together. The film opens with the two hired guns driving into Newcastle, and they have to slow down to pass an automobile accident attended by police and ambulance crew. Although the accident has no connection with the plot, it suggests the kind of violence that threatens to explode throughout the film. So does a later brief incident, as Brendan walks past a bookstore that a man is vandalizing on account of some unexplained grudge. Other irrelevant scenes have no violence but suggest an unexpectedness bordering on the grotesque, as if the characters are always vulnerable to surprise (even though the plot may be somewhat predictable to the audience). When Kate and Brendan go to a bar at night, the bartender proudly recites a long list of the malt whiskeys he can offer. At the opening ceremonies of Newcastle's America week, masterminded by Cosmo, the Krakow Jazz Ensemble fills in for the regular band that has failed to appear and gives a hilariously funky rendering of "The Star-Spangled Banner". When Brendan goes to warn Finney about the hired guns, the bright, airy interiors of Finney's middle-class home form an amusing contrast with the somewhat disreputable shadows of his nightclub building; furthermore, his wife (Prunella Gee) treats Brendan with persistent and unexplained suspicion. The only unsuccessful non sequitur, and the longest, consists of a visit by Brendan and Polish-American Kate to a party held by Newcastle's Polish community. Probably the warm sentiment of this sequence was intended as a contrast to the cold-blooded machinations that pervade the rest of the film, but the sequence is prolonged beyond the point of effectiveness.

Although Stormy Monday is Mike Figgis' first feature, he has worked extensively in the theater and made a short film based on one of his stage productions. An experienced musician (among other things, he once played in a rock group in Newcastle), he composed the score for Stormy Monday. It is therefore not surprising that the film's sound track is both varied and effective. Some scenes hold the viewer's attention by means of near silence: Kate rising in the morning, or Cosmo beside a model of his proposed development in an almost deserted office tower late at night. In two tense sequences, naturalistic sounds are turned into a menacing background hiss: the blowtorch with which Cosmo's hired guns threaten Finney by slowly burning the desk photograph of his family, and the heavy rainfall in which the two other henchmen ambush Kate and Brendan.

As a first feature, Stormy Monday is a respectable achievement. Figgis the screenwriter has provided a stimulating but not overambitious script for Figgis the director: the film is technically impressive and never less than competently directed. The main weakness lurks in the script, which relies on an offbeat setting, transatlantic cast, and modern flourishes to disguise its derivative formulas - the innocent protagonist caught up in shady and perilous adventures, as in Dangerously They Live (1942), The Lady from Shanghai (1948), and Marathon Man (1976); the villain who appears to be a figure of respect and influence, as in The Big Clock (1948), Midnight Lace (1960), and The Ipcress File (1965); and the woman who crosses from villainy to virtue, as in Born Yesterday (1950), The Big Heat (1953), and North by Northwest (1959). Still, Stormy Monday can stand, a little shakily, as an enjoyable film in its own right; depending on Figgis' subsequent achievements, it may also acquire historical interest.

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