Theme Song: Joe Jackson did an entire soundtrack to this movie and amid the chaos over reediting the story after bad test screens, his soundtrack somehow got the axe and John Barry was hired on to do a new score. Oddly, the Joe Jackson album was still released and I think maybe one song was left intact in the movie.
Interesting Dated References: Couriering drugs from a bus stop locker to some big wig drug dealer; Men having perms; Men being into tennis.
Best Line: I wasn’t really focused on witty dialogue for this one. I think there may have been some funny cocaine-speak, but overall nothing really stood out.
Social Context: The fact Mike’s Murder was a bomb serves as a testament to what the early 80s movie-going crowd was in the mood for. The trend of the successful, quiet, character study from the mid-/late-70s was long gone by the time Mike’s Murder came along. As a result, it got lost amid action blockbusters and Purple Rain.
Summary: It’s hard to talk about Mike’s Murder without first talking about what happened to Mike’s Murder after it was completed. Apparently director James Bridges wrote Mike’s Murder as a non-linear mystery told with many flashbacks, the crux of which was a very graphic murder scene. After a disastrous screening, Warner panicked, Bridges panicked, and Mike’s Murder was given a major overhaul. The violent murder was cut, things were made more linear, and Joe Jackson got the boot. We’ll touch a bit more on this later. The film that eventually got released to the theaters and on home video, although flawed and not the director’s original vision, still managed to be a quiet, linear, murder mystery that at times borders on 70s-style character study.
Mike’s Murder opens with a scene of Debra Winger (Betsy) getting tennis lessons from a permed young man named Mike. They are cuddly and close, and so naturally (because it was 1984, and because he has a perm) they go make love over the opening credits.
Then partway through the opening credits we switch to an incredibly well done scene inside a Tommy’s Hamburgers in Los Angeles. I’m not sure if that’s the same Tommy’s chain around L.A., but both seem to feature large globs of a chili-like substance on top of their burgers, so let’s assume. Hopefully they’ve updated their interior decor because this looks like the most depressing place to eat in the whole of the world. So from this scene we learn Mike and his blonde friend, Pete, are trying to peddle cocaine on someone else’s turf. Their rivals confront them and Mike and Pete split up and flee the area.
Apparently this is big deal because Mike goes to lay low with an old man named Sam who serves him what appears to be warm milk with mint Schnapps.
So the next day Mike is wandering in front of some apartments and flags down Betsy (who happens to be passing by in her VW Rabbit). He proceeds to be really paranoid and tells her he’s in big trouble. She doesn’t seem to be all that bothered about it and they agree to go on another date, but not before she drops him off at the end of a long, mysterious driveway. It’s hard to tell how much time has passed since the opening credit lovemaking, but it sure seems like a few months. In the next scene we’re again supposed to assume months pass by because Betsy is with a different tennis trainer. Mike shows up and announces the heat has died down and that he intends to call her soon.
Then her new tennis instructor, Richard, takes her out to for some dangerously gray-looking sushi. Look at this guy. He’s talking about avant-garde performance art and has some type of spaceship patch sewed on his jacket.
1980s answering machine set-up. Phone, phonebook, notepad, pen, the machine. It all needed its own fucking workstation. You had to dedicate an entire area of your house to the recording and transcribing of messages. So Betsy takes a bath, drinks tea, and waits for Mike to call her.
While waiting for Mike to call her back, she plays this game for an eternity. Then Mike calls her from a bar to say he can’t make the date. It’s really hard to tell why Betsy would even be bothering with Mike. It’s made apparent that she has a boring job, so perhaps she’s looking for an escape, but Mike is super sporadic with his contact, and if she was an office girl, she probably wouldn’t put up with that even if she did have low self-esteem. Case in point, Mike cancels on Betsy because he has decided to tag along with Pete to transport some drugs so they can earn $3,000.00 (USD).
Mike and Pete’s simple task is to pick up a bag of cocaine at a bus stop locker and bring it to some weird drug dealer who has a bunch of old lady assistants. Remember bus stop lockers? After weighing up some of the coke, the dealer and his elderly assistants leave the room to check on a burglar alarm that has been triggered. Because they are lowlifes, Mike and Pete decide to steal a small amount of cocaine.
It’s seriously not even that much. I mean, if you’re going to blatantly steal cocaine from people who just paid you to assist them, you should take a lot of cocaine, like a big, “fuck you,” to the person. To be really suspicious, Pete and Mike leave immediately. Later that night, Pete drops Mike off at his apartment and sees two other guys follow him into the building. Instead of being a friend and checking things out, he speeds off.
The next day, Betsy gets a call from the older Sam telling her that, yes, just like the title states, Mike’s murder has taken place. She goes to visit Sam, who we discover is a lovable, old, drunken, homosexual photographer. Sam seems obsessed with Mike and alludes to Betsy that they were lovers.
Meanwhile, Pete is still hiding in an old building, doing key bumps and staring out of a window. Way to lay low, Pete. When he finally stops hiding, he finds his car all smashed to shit, and everyone has turned their backs on him for stealing the pile of cocaine from the dealer. Eventually Betsy’s curiosity gets the best of her, so she heads to the mysterious driveway where she dropped Mike off so many months ago.
This scene is where things really pick up for Mike’s Murder. Betsy approaches and is admitted entrance to a fancy mansion by Randy (who is wearing only a Speedo and is played awesomely by William Ostrander). He acts suspicious, she acts afraid, and eventually Paul Winfield comes downstairs to chat with her.
Winfield plays a wealthy record producer who found Mike on the roadside, hitchhiking many years ago. They were friends, lovers, and mainly Mike was a financial burden on Winfield. He and Betsy quietly reflect about Mike for a bit. Winfield is great in this scene, and all the tension that was built up from Betsy not knowing what or who was in this mansion is great. And he’s wearing one of those robes, like he’s acting in some Christian church play.
In the meantime, Pete continues running around showing people the bag of cocaine, trying to get in contact with those he stole it from to explain that it was no big deal, and is generally an all-around irritable low-life.
Then Betsy goes to the murder scene, which is wide open for public viewing despite being in a private apartment and being an active crime scene. That’s a lot of blood.
First off, the detectives are just standing around on blood-soaked carpet. Secondly, props to Mike (RIP) for sleeping on a mattress on the floor, and still getting laid.
So Pete finds Betsy’s number and address and decides she’s the solution to his problems. Before Pete can break into Betsy’s house, she goes out to eat with a friend, and then to her tennis instructor’s weirdo performance art opening.
Featuring Spazz Attack and lots of other New Wave/LA Punk/Devo-era scenesters from 1984, which you may or may not care about. Spazz Attack was the spazzy dancer from the Devo “Satisfaction” video.
After the weirdo art opening, Betsy gets dropped off, only to have Pete accost her and force her into her house. He’s out of his gourd on cocaine. And again, the answering machine keeps getting screen time. Pete explains he’s just trying to hide from the people who are after him, but then falls into full-on coke delusions about earthquakes, and whatever the fuck else.
Betsy barricades herself in the back room, and just as Pete is breaking the door down to (presumably) kill her, a pair of black-gloved hands grabs Pete and pulls him away into the night. Her house falls quiet, and the next scene is Pete’s body getting dumped at a gravel yard. Mike’s Murder closes with Betsy sitting alone, playing her piano plaintively, looking off into her bedroom.
Mike’s Murder is a good movie. A lot of people have said things like, “Oh, this sucks, release the director’s cut!” Just from reading a few other online reviews, a lot of people claim the movie’s story was to be totally in reverse and that Warner shelved it and reedited it against Bridges’ will. But Bridges himself has said (in this book by Peter Tongue I found on Google Books), “I think this is a better picture than it was, and I never would have allowed it to be released otherwise.” Regarding the edits, he notes, “The scenes that were really in question were the flashbacks and the murder. On those we did a completely different approach.” So there you have it, for the most part (although, I’m sure Joe Jackson would have some bad things to say). Mike’s Murder is a great film as-is, though, and everyone should either check it out and enjoy, or quit complaining about wanting to see a director’s cut.
Poster and Box Art: Debra Winger, side profile, quiet type treatment. Pretty uneventful, but fitting for the movie. The Joe Jackson soundtrack cover is pretty nice:
Availability: Released through the Warner Archives, which are technically just DVR’s burned by some Warner intern. I think it looks mildly cleaned up, though, and it’s only $14.95, so maybe you should take the gamble.
What the fuck are you looking at, man?