That Same Old Song: Sea of Love’s Old School Seduction

Pacino’s comeback picture reminds us how much fun sex and endings can be, at a time when we seem allergic to both

Pop culture ages, and most ages like milk. This should be obvious, but for today’s clickbait artists nothing, and I mean nothing, beats slagging old hits for not meeting today’s pristine moral and aesthetic standards. Breathlessly, they rattle off all the problematic tropes, the abusive behaviour of the makers, the pacing, which is somehow always “too slow,” stopping just shy of bitching about the bad clothes and gas-guzzlers onscreen. Casting themselves as the next generation of Ellsbergs, they’re risking it all to warn the world that stuff made in the Bad Old Days, is shockingly, Bad and Old, when the reality is it’s a goddamn miracle that anything ages well, or even plays better now than when it was initially produced.

Even works that were pushing the culture forward, often when the stakes for doing so were far higher than they are now, can get mouldy. We don’t need to pretend they haven’t lost their lustre, but we can stop pretending there’s anything groundbreaking or brave in targeting the dead or washed up. But there are books, television, and movies that hold up, and not just because they refrain from stepping on cultural landmines. Some older works thrill us now, maybe more than they did before, merely as an act of counterprogramming. They aren’t masterpieces, merely well-made artefacts offering pleasures in short supply right now, and Sea of Love does this very thing.

Director Harold Becker’s middlebrow hit works as well as it does now because Hollywood has largely abandoned the telling of self-contained mysteries aimed at adults capable, dare I say eager, to watch movie stars bone for fun. Popular wisdom argues that TV took up the slack when the plot of something like Sea of Love is now stretched to forty hours of TV. But that means packing these mysteries with endless subplots and recasting every character as a suspect, often requiring behaviours that strain credibility or sense. Fine, okay, the lead detective’s great aunt makes dioramas of all those dead girls, using their actual hair from evidence bags, but only because she escaped a serial killer herself. And there are sex scenes, but as a rule, with few exceptions, they must be sad or unsatisfying. No one gets off without tears, people. This is how we know we’re watching prestige “content.”

Sea of Love was never designed to score Oscars or stand the test of time. The basic concept was already tired: a detective falls for a woman who may or may not be the killer he’s hunting. Richard Price wrote the first draft of the script in 1985 when the hotshot novelist was recast as a hotshot screenwriter after writing the impossible: a critically acclaimed, financially successful sequel to The Hustler. The Color of Money finally earned Paul Newman an Oscar and Martin Scorsese the juice to make The Last Temptation of Christ. Price wrote the first draft of Sea of Love with Dustin Hoffman in mind as the cop, and the early draft published in his collection of screenplays feels utterly foreign to the draft that was eventually shot in 1989. This version was a delicately crafted character study of a cop circling the drain, treating the hunt for the killer almost as an afterthought. Any actor would be thrilled to dive into this star vehicle, which amounted to Jerry Schatzberg’s Dirty Harry. Smart and low-key, it shambled along with little to no interest in the stakes and plotting of a traditional thriller.

Come the wet ass hour, I’m EVERYBODY’S DADDY!

Frank Keller

That script made its way around town, but Price’s ties to Hoffman got frayed during an unsuccessful rewrite of Rain Man. Having rewired the mentor and student relationship into a pitch-black power struggle for Color, one can only imagine what damage Price did to that pat redemption arc. This left the script for Sea of Love bouncing around town through multiple rewrites, which left it walking and talking like a traditional thriller, albeit with most of the superb character notes of the early drafts still intact. Eventually, it landed in the lap of Al Pacino, who liked it and brought it to Martin Bregman, who had produced his biggest hits in the seventies not named The GodfatherDog Day Afternoon, Serpico, And Justice For All. At the time, Pacino was making his way back to the big screen after his last picture Revolution flopped so hard that he escaped to the stage. Sea of Love would be his first picture in four years, with all the pressure that entailed.

They had a star and a script, and now they needed a director. One of Price’s primary gifts as a writer, regardless of the medium, is his sense of place, and specifically New York, capturing a city where people live, as opposed to one people only dream of living. This project was no exception, a fact that led Bregman to tap Harold Becker to helm it. A born and bred New Yorker, Becker also proved his noir chops with The Onion Field. Becker’s roots did their job, inspiring him to fight for the budget to shoot the exteriors and most of the street-level interiors on location rather than save cash by shooting almost everything in Toronto. The fight was worth it, as from the opening images onward, it hearkens back to the seventies when cameras were finally light enough and film stock fast enough to let crews of all means capture what the finest sets rarely do.

In fact, Becker’s approach owes plenty to Sidney Lumet’s best work, choosing autumnal colours, bustling streets of regular folks, and cramped locations to dim the city’s clichés, without draining its energy. And like Lumet, he had the good sense to know with a script this solid, and actors this gifted, he doesn’t need to showboat but showcase what’s on hand. He doesn’t have Lumet’s gifts in blocking, framing, or editing, but not many do, and most days, simple good sense can beat flashy incompetence.

The movie opens with establishing shots of pre-Giuliani sleaze and hustle, and predictably, a murder. The title song, that Doo Wop classic, plays while a man grinds away in bed until we see a gun blow away the back of his skull. Then we’re off to meet Pacino as cop Frank Keller, hosting an elaborate sting operation of his own design. The NYPD invites dozens of folks with outstanding warrants to meet the Yankees, only to whip out their badges and load them into vans. It’s a big, rowdy scene, the kind that gets cut nowadays to save money on all those extras. Part of the movie’s charm is the scale of so humble a thriller. The cop parties are crowded. There’s a wedding in a space too small for all the guests. It’s not just filming on location, but understanding how New York feels, right down to the restaurant where the patrons’ elbows are always threatening to touch.

These scenes are teeming with life, which serves as a lovely counterpoint to all the times Keller, nearing his twenty years on the force, is alone in his room, dialling his ex-wife or pouring a nightcap by himself. It would be hard to feel the same absence in those scenes if the rest of his life were as sparsely populated, as they usually are in streamers today. Crowds amplify loneliness in ways mere solitude can’t. But the movie’s greatest assets beyond its scripts are its two leads. Pacino is between eras here. The eighties were a strange time for him, with the likes of Scarface operating serving as a shrill renunciation of Michael Corleone’s entire ethos. And his Frank Keller here serves as a similar renunciation to an earlier role.

Serpico, that countercultural, whistle-blowing cop who never quite fit in with the great blue tribe is replaced by Keller, a cop’s cop, the kind who would pull Serpico aside to gently urge him to get with the program. He hadn’t yet graduated to his supercop persona established by his role as Vincent Hanna in Heat, but Keller shows the initial stirrings of his 90s boilerplate performance, eyes bulging like a tick, voice raised in Walken-esque rhythms, his finger jabbing down as if to indicate a Foundational Truth is being shared. But Al was still slightly built here, his shoulders not yet wide as a tank, his hair mussed, vulnerable enough to recall Dog Day’s Sonny. It’s a fascinating balance between his 70s heyday and what would come next.

Keller soon learns of another murder with the “Sea of Love” running on the turntable, from a cop in Queens, played by a young John Goodman, with his own movie star charm in full bloom. They find a link in their cases: the victims all posted poems in the singles pages, a kind of precursor to online dating, dismissed here as a space for the unfaithful, desperate or deviant. With lipstick on the cigarettes at the crime scene, they assume the shooter is a woman. Keller and Goodman post their own poem and then proceed to meet the respondents/suspects at a local restaurant, looking to test their fingerprints off their cocktail glasses. And naturally one of them is the movie’s co-star, Ellen Barkin, who nearly walks away with the movie in her first scene in a red leather jacket Becker had made for her because nothing else quite captured her energy.

Barkin more than matches Pacino’s fine work here, levelling up from her breezy, tomboy hotness in The Big Easy, which still boasts one of the sexiest phone calls ever made. The only wrong note in the casting is that she’s supposed to be a recent transplant to the city, when everything about her screams New York native- the swagger, the blunt force of both her sensuality and her pride, and the sense of history she carries with her, of hangovers, disappointments, and the drip, drip of daily misogyny. Such movies are made on the female star’s ability to play innocent and guilty in the same breath, and she’s born for such feats. We can picture her with rage enough to pull the trigger, and with decency enough to feel that such an assumption is insulting. She’s a second-wave feminist icon, pressing onward through a minefield of dicks to raise her kid on her own terms, work full-time, and get properly laid, with no time for self-pity or to be honest, a chance to exhale.

The movie’s real magic is that most elusive of all special effects: on-screen chemistry. I swear we used to go to the movies to get turned on, and it was so refreshing to watch Al and Ellen fumble their way into bed, hungry, raw and present, in a scene stunningly well-choreographed by Becker. That erotic sloppiness is nearly impossible to pull off as there’s a few miles between sloppy “because we want to fuck so bad,” and sloppy “because we’re trying to figure out where to put our hands and mouths while we pretend to hump in front of a dozen or so crew.” More than anything, these are two people enjoying the hell of each other, with sex that is playful and intoxicating. That mutual intoxication sells everything the script lays out. It explains Al’s tendency to give her the benefit of the doubt, right down to refusing to test her fingerprints. Even though he’s still a cop and looking for clues that she might actually be the killer, and maybe that’s merely avoiding a relationship that matters, meaning one that can actually wound him.

The heat between them also explains Barkin’s eagerness to trust him, even after he keeps telling half-truths about how they met and who he thinks she may be. Price is a master of these emotional dances, building characters that are as likely to come together as fall apart. The stakes are not high because she may kill him (countless mediocre B flicks are proof that this doesn’t amount to much) but because she may love him. And that love and connection scare him more than any of her homicidal tendencies. Those, those he can handle. Price’s script also boasts a feature that is considered a bug now. This story is built to end in under two hours. He only has a handful of clues to constantly recalibrate Barkin’s possible guilt and innocence. Her owning the album with the title song, the gun in her purse that proves to be a starter pistol, or the list of personal ads with the names of every victim circled on her fridge.

What’s she gonna do, shoot me? We’re in a restaurant!

Frank Keller

The shooting script centers on their relationship, rather than Pacino’s character, and because it may be a relationship with the killer, every beat of the romance plot forwards the thriller plot. I’d argue this is far more potent than the early draft Price prefers. Much is made of his dialogue with the blue-collar beauty of lines like Pacino’s “I’m a big cat in a small cage,” but these are not nearly as hard to find elsewhere, as seeing them deployed in such a way to mount tension all the while revealing more about who these people are. He’d do similar feats writing for a little show called The Wire and more recently The Night Of.

The other thing that lets Sea of Love age so beautifully is the reveal of the killer, one of the best of its kind, again because it’s so grounded in who Barkin’s character is. She may be tough, but there’s a live wire of fear running through her, something that she winds into a near-invisible bracelet she never takes off. There was so much fear of ball-busting feminists looking to castrate men (see the era’s work of Douglas, Michael), so Barkin turning out to be the killer would fit with that well-worn trope like Divine in leopard print. Instead, the killer proves to be Ellen’s crazy ex-husband who was killing the men she was dating, linking her to each victim, without making her responsible for the murders. It plays like a touching acknowledgment of spousal intimidation and the lengths women must go to be freed of men who abuse them because they “put a ring on it.” Contemporary viewers might not be so shocked that Michael Rooker was the culprit but the movie’s old enough that one tends to disregard him as insufficiently well-known to be the central fiend.

In discussing the film, Price cringes at Pacino and Barkin’s reunion at the end, but it’s a studio picture, in an era where sex could be celebrated, but melancholy was out of fashion. It seemed earned, once again by the sheer exuberance of Al begging for another chance, with a smirk that communicates he knows exactly what an ass he’s been, and we, like Barkin, are helpless in the wake of such star power to do anything but swoon. The credits roll over Tom Waits’ cover of the title song, his craggy voice recontextualizing it as a lullaby for lovers running out of time.

Upon its release, Sea of Love had the highest opening weekend of any movie released in September, eventually earning $110,000,000 at the box office. It would be most remembered for bringing Al back to the big screen, and as further proof of Richard Price’s gifts as a screenwriter. I didn’t even imagine it all that fondly, but coming across it once again, it made me miss all the programmers of its kind. Sure, Sea of Love is that same old song, but since we can’t hear anything like it now, we get to fall for it all over again.

Director: Harold Becker
Screenplay: Richard Price
Cinematography: Ronnie Taylor
Music: Trevor Jones
Editing: David Bretherton

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