Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Big Easy (Kings Road Entertainment/Columbia Pictures, 1986)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched the other movie on the 30-year-old VHS tape I’d just transferred to DVD from the long-ago days when John Gabrish and I had HBO: The Big Easy, the 1986 film that is almost unclassifiable: a drama about endemic police corruption in New Orleans that’s also a comedy and a sex film. It’s contributed its name to the common lexicon, not only as a nickname for New Orleans but as a term for any environment for which a certain level of corruption has become just the accepted order of the day, and anyone who tries to blow the whistle on it is going to be in bi-i-i-i-ig trouble. (One can see this in the Trump administration today, in which two of the people he’s currently maddest at, attorney general Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III — I like to use his full name because he’s a living Confederate war memorial — and former campaign manager and strategy chair Steve Bannon, have angered him because of the one bit of conscience they’ve shown: Sessions in recusing himself from the investigation of alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign and Bannon in calling the June 2016 “Miss V from Moscow” meeting between Russian attorney Natalya Veselnitskaya and Trump’s son, son-in-law and then-campaign manager “treasonous.”) 

The plot deals with a series of murders that rocks New Orleans’ drug trade and seemingly involves Mafiosi (or “wiseguys,” as they’re called by the cops who want to make sure no one thinks that New Orleans actually has a branch of the Mafia), Mexican smugglers, Black gangsters (the great soul singer Solomon Burke has a marvelous cameo as the head of the Black gangs in New Orleans, “Daddy Mention”), and — it’s hinted throughout the movie but not firmly established until about halfway through, corrupt cops. The lead characters are police lieutenant Remy McSwain (a young and surprisingly sexy Dennis Quaid — he later made Great Balls of Fire!, a biopic of Jerry Lee Lewis, but judging from his looks here a biopic of Elvis would have been better casting), a cop who gets his share of the proceeds from the institutionalized corruption but is also genuinely concerned about putting at least some of the bad guys — the ones that can’t bribe or sabotage their way out of the charges against them — away. He’s confronted by an assistant district attorney named Anne Osborne (Ellen Barkin) who’s been brought in by the feds to investigate New Orleans’ police corruption, and gets an office in the same station house McSwain operates from. Remy tries to neutralize the threat Anne poses to him by seducing her, and he persuades her to go out on a date with him at Tipitina’s (the famous — and real — New Orleans restaurant named after Professor Longhair’s great song, which is actually heard on the soundtrack — the performance is credited to “Professor Longhair” but the songwriting credit is to his real name, Henry Roeland Byrd), where the waiter solemnly informs him — much to Anne’s disgust — that “your money is no good here” (i.e, that one of the perks of being on the NOPD is being comped at places like that). Anne insists that if Remy doesn’t fork over money for their meal and drinks, she will — and ultimately he does so. 

Then he gets a call to see a strip club owner about collecting for the “Widows’ and Orphans’ Fund” — the 1930’s-ish cover for the outright bribes owners of legally chancy businesses like strip clubs pay the NOPD to stay open. The owner pleads with Remy to make it easy on him by giving him only one officer he needs to pay bribes to in order to stay open, instead of being hit on by cops from various squads. Remy agrees to be the one person who’ll take his bribe money and receives an envelope with eight $50 bills in it — only it’s a trap: Anne Osborne (whom we’ve previously seen him giving head to, though they were interrupted by a phone call about a triple murder before they could actually complete the sex act) and a Federal agent are there, they arrest Remy and put him on trial. They tell him they have a videotape of him accepting the bribe and then, when he realized he was being caught in a sting, throwing the bills out so the bar patrons would grab them and eating the envelope they had come in, thereby destroying the evidence. When he’s put on trial he testifies and Anne, who’s handling the prosecution herself, announces that the next day the state will show a videotape that shows Remy accepting the bribe and then destroying evidence by eating the envelope. What’s a casually corrupt but basically decent officer to do? In the next scene we see Remy, wearing a preposterous makeup — including a bushy-haired wig and a false moustache — that ought to have got at least a nomination for Worst Movie Disguises of All Time. He buys a super-powerful magnet and throws it through the window of a bank, and at first it’s not clear what he’s up to but eventually it turns out he did it so the magnet would end up in the police evidence room, and one of his confederates on the force puts it next to the videotape, erasing it. (One wonders why Anne didn’t have a backup copy made.) 

The next day, in court, Anne has to admit that something has gone wrong, their key piece of evidence has been destroyed, and therefore she has no alternative but to move that the case be dismissed, so Remy gets reinstated to the police force and returns to investigating the spate of drug-related murders that have been plaguing his district. (The judge in the courtroom sequence is not only named “Jim Garrison” but is played by the real Jim Garrison, who in 1967 started an investigation into the conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy; he ultimately indicted Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessperson who in his private life was into S/M, and lost the case when the jury decided they’d proven to their satisfaction that a conspiracy existed but not that Shaw was part of it. Garrison survived his 1969 re-election bid but was then defeated in 1973 by Harry Connick, Sr., whose son Harry Connick, Jr. would become a popular singer of jazz songs and standards — and would briefly play an assistant district attorney on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.) But the experience has chastened Remy enough that he decides he no longer wants any part of the proceeds from the “Widows’ and Orphans’ Fund” — “The widows and orphans can do without me,” he laconically says — and when his brother Bobby (Tom O’Brien, who doesn’t have Quaid’s beautiful face but has a hotter bod which we get to see a lot of shirtless — yum) is shot by the bad guys (just like in a 1930’s movie, though in the 1930’s it was as likely to be a reluctant female witness’s sister who got shot and convinced the survivor to talk as it was to be the brother of a dirty cop), and this convinces Remy that the killers are cops — especially when he recognizes the car the shooter gets away in as one of the impounded cars cops use on undercover assignments. 

Remy’s new-found conscience is complicated by the fact that virtually his entire family has been New Orleans cops (they ironically refer to one cousin who became a firefighter instead as “the black sheep of the family”) — and, like him before he was nearly convicted and his brother was nearly killed, they were basically decent cops but helped themselves to their share of the dirty money. It turns out that the mastermind of the plot to steal 28 kilos of Mexican heroin and kill everyone else with any claim to it — the Mexicans who smuggled it into “The Big Easy” in the first place, the Mafia and the Blacks — is veteran NOPD officer Jack Kellom (Ned Beatty), who was about to retire and marry Remy’s widowed mother (Grace Zabriskie) but wanted more money to live the rest of his life than what was available on his NOPD pension. His main enforcers were two other cops on Remy’s squad, Detective André DeSoto (John Goodman — and yes, seeing the man whose most famous credit is as Roseanne Barr’s hapless husband on her legendary sitcom playing a black-hearted villain is a shocker) and Ed Dodge (Ebbe Roe Smith), who when he isn’t killing people is so obstreperously fiddling around with his bad toupée (did he get it from the same store where Remy got the bushy-haired wig he wore in his disguise?), and there’s an exciting final shootout on a boat between the two killer cops on one side and Remy and Anne, who in the tradition of post-Princess Leia movie heroines actually gets to wield a gun and show she knows what to do with it, which ends with an explosion that blows up the bad guys and the drugs. 

The film ends with a charming sequence of Remy and Anne, just married, dancing to a zydeco song (though the British cut includes the scene of Remy proposing to her between the explosion and the ending) as the final credits roll over them. In fact, zydeco and other bits of New Orleans funk punctuate virtually the entire movie; though Brad Fiedel gets a credit for scoring the film about the only time conventional movie background music is heard is towards the start of the shootout at the end. The rest of it is accompanied by the good-time R&B of the “second wave” of New Orleans musicians, the ones who occupied Cosimo Matassa’s studio and formed his band (one of the three greatest studio groups of the era, along with the Funk Brothers that backed the Motown artists in Detroit and the Wrecking Crew from L.A. — Fats Domino made all his records at Cosimo’s studio with this great band, which makes sense because he was a New Orleanian; but Little Richard also insisted on making his records there even though he was from Macon, Georgia and his record label, Specialty, was based in L.A. — and the way these players were able to adapt and back both Domino’s fat, rolling piano chords and Richard’s jabbing triplets was a testament to their skill and versatility), and the local zydeco musicians who came into prominence after that. Among the zydeco players we see are Terrence Simien and the Mallet Playboys, who play the house band at Tipitina’s, as well as another group that play a party at the McSwaim home to which Remy has Anne literally kidnapped while she’s jogging — and which she leaves in a cab, indignant at her treatment by Remy and his clan.  

The Big Easy could easily have been a neo-noir exercise in grimness and darkness, but that seemed to have been the farthest thing from the minds of director Jim McBride and his co-writers, Daniel Petrie, Jr. (son of the director of some almost painfully earnest social-problem films in the 1960’s — Petrie, Sr.’s best credit is the adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which seemed to get dragged out during my high-school days every time there was racial tension, but which is a movie I quite like if only because it gave Sidney Poitier a rare opportunity to play an unsympathetic character, and he rose to the challenge magnificently) and Jack Baran, couldn’t have been less interested in neo-noir. Instead they were going after the look and feel of The Thin Man and the other movies of the 1930’s (including a particular favorite of mine, Stephen Roberts’ The Ex-Mrs. Bradford from 1936, in which Thin Man star William Powell and Jean Arthur play a divorced couple who investigate a murder together and reconcile as a result), which played for comedy even though they involved murder and other nasty sorts of crime. The Big Easy is an easygoing thriller, dark when it needs to be but mostly a rollicking action piece with an overlay of sexual politics; the sort of dark humor on which this film was based is summed up in the names of the two boats in the final sequence, the Faux Pas (French for “mistake”) and La Mordida (Mexican slang for the routine corruption their country’s cops routinely expect from illegal enterprises in exchange for leaving them alone). According to, McBride’s use of fast-paced dialogue was inspired by the films of Howard Hawks — and there’s a lot of Hawks influence here, not only in the mix of crime thriller and screwball comedy but in the character of Anne Osborne, who’s just as butch as Remy and willing at any point to take him on “man to man.”  

The Big Easy was a film I liked when it was new and I still do; it’s one of those movies that manages to take advantage of the greater sexual freedom of the post-Code era (it was rated R) while still keeping some of the sophisticated thrill movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s had to have to imply what the directors and writers dared not come out and say. The Big Easy is also remarkable for its bright, highly saturated colors — the overall atmosphere “sells” New Orleans as a really fun place to visit, which is probably why the New Orleans Film Commission green-lighted it for a tax subsidy and permission to film at some of the city’s iconic locations and didn’t seem to look askance at the way it depicted the Big Easy as a den of corruption (though, according to, several Film Commission members were indicted in a kickback scandal shortly after the film was finished — talk about life imitating art!) — and its morally complicated characters; like Richard Widmark’s role in Don Siegel’s 1968 thriller Madigan (the far superior prototype for Eddie Murphy’s ghastly vehicle Beverly Hills Cop — or, as John Gabrisn and I called it, Beverly Hills Crap), Remy is “on the take” in small ways but that doesn’t stop him from genuinely caring about seeing that a rough sort of justice is done on the streets of New Orleans and the bad guys he can get successfully arrested and prosecuted are taken off them. Dennis Quaid plays this character brilliantly, and Ellen Barkin meets him all the way, especially in the way she’s torn between her physical attraction to Remy, her genuine respect for him as a cop and her hatred of the system that has at least partially corrupted him. Characterizations this sophisticated are a rarity in any movie and quite welcome whenever they appear!