There are films in your life that resist criticism. They’re too much wedded to the process of falling in love with the possibility of movies. For most of us, they’re rather obvious signposts, experiences that we all shared: The Godfather, Star Wars, Raiders, Ghostbusters, E.T, Pretty Woman, what have you. But one of my ur-texts, for sure, is a film that largely has been forgotten, 1986’s The Big Easy.
It would, at first glance, appear to be nothing all that special, a potboiler set in New Orleans to a killer soundtrack of regional music and featuring two charismatic leads that were just entering the hottest phase of their careers: Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin. If Annie Hall was a foundational document on how relationships ebb and flow, The Big Easy taught my young self something else: that love–and sex, for that matter–is better when it’s a pairing of equals and that talking, in its own way, is as seductive as anything. (It’s a lesson I haven’t always remembered.)
That’s a lot to lay on a discount thriller that came out 30 years ago, but now the reasons why I so embraced the film back then appear clearer than ever. I can see what writer Daniel Petrie and director Jim McBride were trying to do. While the title is most obviously derived from NOLA’s long-standing nickname, it’s also an homage, of course, to The Big Sleep, the 1946 work by Howard Hawks, and the movie contains echoes of another classic Hawks film, His Girl Friday, as well.
The Big Sleep attempted to capitalize on the hit pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (also by Hawks; he was okay)–and, in fact, extra scenes were shot with the two stars after filming had wrapped because there wasn’t enough sizzle. The plot was famously labyrinthine—but nobody, then and now, cared about the story.
What drove the picture was the dialogue, the wit and style of the thing. Hawks often directed what would later be known as “hang-out” movies, where audiences simply wanted to spend time with the characters and were content to let the story take its time.[i] Talking in those days was practically the only representation of sexual desire allowed. (Well, that, and cigarettes, which this movie makes explicit. By the 1980s, things had changed and the charged sex scene in The Big Easy (envelope-pushing for its day) proves it.
Where the exchanges in The Big Sleep are jousts that take place almost to the rhythm of slow jazz, His Girl Friday, released six years earlier, is a different animal. There, talking isn’t jousting; it’s fencing. The film is a battle of the sexes between editor Cary Grant and reporter Rosalind Russell that’s fought at a breathless pace and where it’s never clear is if the goal is sex, revenge, or simply piercing the heart of the enemy. (If they had been in Bogart and Bacall’s roles in The Big Sleep, that movie would be 30 minutes shorter.)
That brings us back to 1980s New Orleans, where Quaid, playing a slightly corrupt police officer, and Barkin, playing an ambitious assistant district attorney, collide personally, professionally, and sexually. Quaid is every bit as loose, cocky, and manipulative as Grant is in Friday, and in a favorite early scene, falls back into his office chair while grabbing a dictionary to look up the word “obsequious” after Barkin criticizes him on his conduct with a local mafia figure. Her vocabulary arouses him even as she’s smashing him over the head with it. To him, she’s different, something new. (Barkin then even looked a little like a modern-day Carole Lombard.)
His attempts to charm her go nowhere until he shows her the one thing that really attracts her: His competence at his job. That’s a familiar Hawks theme, updated for modern times. In classic films, it would be the woman’s challenge to prove her mettle to the male lead; The Big Easy flips the dynamic, as Quaid’s character falls in and out of favor. He’s the roguish man-child who has to show he’s capable of something serious.
The dialogue isn’t up to the level of the movie’s influences, but it still crackles in parts. “New Orleans is a marvelous environment for coincidence,” oily defense lawyer Lamar snarks at one point. This is a movie that never takes itself too seriously; there are moments for singing and dancing, like classic Hollywood films did in the day.
And if it’s not quite a hang-out movie at a Hawksian level, it has a rich, authentic atmosphere, terrific music, and is populated by a bevy of great character actors, including Grace Zabriskie (who would go on to Twin Peaks and Seinfeld), John Goodman, Ned Beatty, and Lisa Jane Persky, who, as Quaid’s deputy, looks and sounds like she’s straight out of 1930s screwball comedy like Friday. Their scenes together have the same kind of manic energy.
Yes, the film has its flaws, with Quaid’s “Cajun” accent at the top of the list. (He apparently was doing Scarface-levels of coke at the time.) The third act feels a bit too much like a TV movie-of-the-week, but that’s a common problem with films that are largely about enjoying the ride. Eventually you have to get to your destination, and somehow, that’s never as fun as the build-up.
Romance can be like that too. If all the energy goes into the ping-pong of courting, reality can sometimes be a letdown. Films have the luxury of fading to black. Life doesn’t. Still, it’s reassuring to know that even back in the 1980s, I had a good sense of what I was looking for. –– James Oliphant
[i] Part of The Big Sleep’s appeal in this way was of course rooted in rhythms of the Raymond Chandler novel. I would argue that two derivatives of the film version of The Big Sleep, 1972’s The Long Goodbye by Robert Altman and 1997’s The Big Lebowski by the Coen brothers, succeed not because they are send-ups or deconstructions of Chandler and Hawks, but are instead fairly faithful and even slavish tributes to them, adjusted for modern times.