Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Top 10 Films of the Year, #10 --- The Limey (Steven Soderbergh)

Steven Soderbergh’s neo noir-revenge tale The Limey is about as ordinary a story as you will likely see. You have a man named Wilson (Terrence Stamp) fresh out of prison and seeking revenge on the man who was responsible for his daughters death, a hipster 60’s record producer Valentine (played by Peter Fonda, in a bit of perfect casting) who “tapped into the 60’s zeitgeist and ran with it.” Along the way Wilson gathers information from new-found friends who aide him in finding out the truth about his daughter (great supporting roles by Luis Guzman and Leslie Ann Warren). All of this sounds rather ordinary and banal, however, Soderbergh and his editor Sarah Flack dice up the films events in a way that makes it feel fresh, and surprisingly, free from all contrivances.

The aesthetic isn’t simply a distraction from Lem Dobbs’ rather ho-hum attempt at neo-noir; it serves as a perfect coda for these icons of 60’s cinema. The film plays out like the long awaited final showdown between two aging gunslingers. Wilson is a machine in the way he goes about getting information, and Valentine is a man who is content hiring out for people to do his dirty work. Valentine still (like Fonda) evokes that certain quality about the 60’s that makes him almost likable – he just can’t seem to separate himself from the era that made him so much money (and yes we’re talking about Valentine the character and Fonda the actor, here).

I also like how Soderbergh splices in footage from Stamp’s films from the 60’s (especially a beautiful piece of footage that ends the film in a poetic, elegiac way) to act his memories of his daughter when she was younger. Soderbergh also appropriately opens the film with The Who’s “The Seeker” – the perfect song to be playing in the background as Wilson begins his search for the truth. All of the elements are here, presented in a way that gives a fitting send off to these recognizable stars from the 60’s. The film even feels free from all hindrances associated with modern filmmaking…it has that 60’s “free and easy” attitude about filmmaking – the vibe found in the films that made Fonda a star of that decade.

At a brusque 88 minutes there’s nothing superlative in The Limey. It’s one of Soderbergh’s best films, and the one film where he shows the most restraint. There’s a great scene where Wilson is approached by a bodyguard at Valentine’s place, and in a botched attempt to throw Wilson out of the party the bodyguard ends up getting head-butted and tossed over the railing. The scene is made all the more interesting by the fact that the action doesn’t appear in the foreground. Instead the viewer is listening to Valentine talk about the horrible parking situation on Venice Beach, and in the background we see Wilson toss the bodyguard over the rail. It’s a perfectly executed scene because of Soderbergh’s restraint.

Another great scene sees Wilson entering a garage of sorts where a bunch of toughs work. He’s looking for some information about his daughter but gets beat up for his troubles and thrown out on the pavement. Soderbergh keeps his camera at bay, as we watch Wilson walk back into the garage and the next thing we hear are gunshots and men screaming. Then a man comes running out past the camera. The static camera begins to move in to get a closer look at a bloodied Wilson as he screams: “You tell him I’m coming!” The fact that Soderbergh shot the scene in long shot makes it much funnier and a better effect as opposed to if he would have followed Wilson in and shot all of the bloody action. The scene reminded me of the end of William Wellman’s brilliant noir The Public Enemies where the viewer is deprived of the final shoot-out as the camera sits outside in the rain and all we hear are gunshots from inside a building.

There’s no doubt that the editing is the star of the film here, but Terrence Stamp is pretty damn brilliant, too. He plays Wilson with a head-to-the-ground intensity that reminded me of the robot from Westworld. Soderbergh trusts his audiences to know why the characters – Stamp playing an ex-con and Fonda playing a man who profited off the 60’s zeitgeist – need no fleshing out. It allows him to pace his film effectively at 88 minuets, a perfect time for the audience to be swept away by the interesting editing technique (obviously influenced by one of Soderbergh’s favorite movements The French New Wave) and great performances before realizing that this story is old hat.

Today filmmakers employ all kinds of editing trickery to try and make their films appear like they are saying something, when in reality they are just annoying attempts at distracting the viewer from what’s really going on: no storytelling ability. Soderbergh is seemingly doing the same thing here, but by showing scenes out of order, and context – mixing in dialogue from one scene with multiple locations – he is giving us the recollection of events through Wilson’s memory as he thinks back on his trip to the States while aboard a plane.

In addition to the editing, Soderbergh really shows his chops in the way he wisely uses the hand-held format. Any filmmaker who wants to know how to effectively use the hand-held format should watch this film (and others by Soderbergh) because Soderbergh is a master at it. Nothing feels shaky for the sake of being shaky – every camera bump or unsteady movement is the perfect accompaniment to what is going on in Wilson’s quest for answers about his dead daughter.

This film was kind of the jumping off point for Soderbergh’s recent success. Sure he made it big with his Sundance smash Sex, Lies, and Videotape; but, The Limey, and the film that came out the year before Out of Sight, reaffirmed his skill (in the public eye...I've always loved his work...even his failures are interesting failures) as a director after a few flops: Kafka was an experimental failure (even though I quite like the film), King of the Hill was a brilliant film but failed to get him recognized by a wider audience, The Underneath was a filed attempt at noir, and Schizopolis was clearly a personal film with no intention of making money. All of these films failed to get him the same recognition his debut Sundance hit did.

However, after the critical success of Out of Sight and The Limey Soderbergh made financial headlines with his underdog film Erin Brokavich, and in the same year his interpolated masterpiece Traffic – which kind of set the trend for the hyper-link films that would follow (Syriana, Babel, Crash, et al). Since Soderbergh has gone the Frank Capra route: one personal film and one for the studio. In between the Ocean movies Soderbergh has made the brilliant Bubble, the not-so-brilliant Full Frontal, the criminally underrated Solaris, Che, and The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh is a director of astonishing talent, and lost in his oeuvre is this small classic from 1999. The Limey may not be the sexiest film on Soderbergh’s resume, but there’s no denying that it’s one of his most interesting and successful experiments.

A special shout-out to one of my favorite character actors Bill Duke who has a small role as a DEA agent. Hence the picture of him below. Hehe.


  1. I haven't seen this before but your description (and those screengrabs) are making my mouth water.

  2. Krauthammer:

    Thanks! I hope you watch it soon. It's one of my favorite Soderbergh movies.

  3. Nice shout out to Bill Duke! I love that guy. He always turns in interesting performances in the film's he pops up in and I really love one of his directorial efforts, DEEP COVER, which is an underrated crime film.

    This is a fantastic post on one of my fave Soderbergh films. I really can't expand on all the excellent observations and analysis since you did such a good job! Soderbergh is one of my fave filmmakers and I find that even his failures are interesting to watch.

    Have you ever taken a listen to the audio commentary on the DVD? It a surprisingly argumentative track with screenwriter Lem Dobbs and Soderbergh. Dobbs grumbles about all the changes that Soderbergh made to his script. It's quite funny and a fascinating listen.

  4. Great writeup and great screencaps. It's been ages since I've seen this film but I remember it being as good as you say. I should definitely revisit it. I especially like the interpolation of footage from old Stamp films; I love that meta connection to the cinematic past, very similar to what Claire Denis would do with Michel Subor in L'intrus.

  5. Great writeup Kevin.

    I think The Limey is Soderbergh's best film (or at the very least, my favorite). It's not until you just pointed it out that I realized how perfectly he used the known archetypes of Stamp and Fonda to get around having to take the time to flesh out their characters. That, along with the use of old footage are both very fun meta touches for film lovers.

    As your screencaps show, Soderbergh has a great eye for the look of a scene -- his use of lighting and digital camerawork are great throughout the film.

    Also wanted to agree with you on A) The greatness of the scene on the patio and B) the greatness of Bill Duke.

  6. J.D.:

    I'm glad you like bill Duke as much as my brother and I do! Hehe. He is awesome. And I agree with you about Deep Cover.

    I agree too with the fact that Soderbergh's failures are fun to watch. I remember thinking that as I was writing the list of experimental films in this review. Kafka, Full Frontal, The Underneath all are at least interesting aren't they? Only a handful of directors can make interesting failures and Soderbergh is one of them.

    And yes, I have listened to the audio commentary. Dobbs comes off sounding like a tool. It's a funny thing to listen to, though.

    Thanks for the kind words, J.D. I always enjoy hearing from ya. I'm still trying to get caught up with everyone's I'll be over to yours soon.

  7. Ed:

    Thanks! I think I am leaning more and more towards the screencaps doing a lot of the talking for me, hehe. It's just so much fun to go through some of these scenes a shot at a time and grab the images.

    I'm glad you liked this write-up...I haven't seen the Denis movie you speak of. I will add it to the Netflix queue, though. Thanks for the DVD idea! Hehe. That's why I love doing this.

    Thanks again for the kind words. Like I told J.D., I'm still trying to get settled in and I haven't had a lot of time to read my favorite blogs (at least not all of them yet...I have a lot of catching up to do) but I plan on heading over to your place soon and catching up on a lot of French films I'm sure I haven't seen :)

  8. Troy:

    You and Ed both bring up the meta touches -- which is something I allude to without using the word meta -- and I feel silly for not pointing that out more. But yes...that is one of the elements that Soderbergh employs that really freshens up Dobbs' script.

    And how could I not mention Bill Duke? I think we may have a blog post for our new blog? Hehe.

  9. Ahhh, a discussion on the films of Bill Duke -- finally an excuse to unleash my treatise on race relationships and gender roles as experienced through Sister Act 2.

    I feel like we need to ask Ed permission for the new blog, since we are essentially taking he and Jason Bellamy's "discussions" concept and using it to lessen the discourse by goofing on bad movies.

  10. Haha. Yes...that might be a good idea. Or we could just post something on Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2. Hehe.

  11. Hah! Jason and I hardly have a copyright on discussions about film, especially since it wasn't even our idea to begin with, it was Keith Uhlich's. So go for it. Goofing on bad movies? I'm there.

  12. Haha! There we go...we have Ed's blessing. Hehe.

  13. Kevin J. Olson:

    As for Soderbergh's lesser films, I really dig KAFKA which seems to get little to no love, even from the Soderbergh faithful but visually it is a gorgeous film to behold. I've heard rumblings in various interviews the director that he is re-editing the film for a release on DVD. Man, if there were ever one for the folks at Criterion...

  14. I agree. Kafka is one of his most interesting films. I really don't think it's bad at all. When I was discussing his "failures" I was strictly speaking in terms of what the populace thinks of his films. In fact most people probably won't have any idea as the plunk down ten bucks to see The Informant that it was directed by the guy who made Kafka, The Limey, or even more recent experiments like Che and The Girlfriend Experience. I love that Soderbergh is one of few directors who can please both cinephiles and the casual moviegoer.

  15. I worked with the DP of this, Ed Lachman. One of the nicest guys I've worked with. Every day, he came to the set dressed in a white t-shirt with usually a black leather vest and a panama type hat.

    After we worked with him, we were cutting our work and just coincidentally, the editor decided to edit it much like The Limey. I had not seen the film at the time, but immediately had to since my commercials were cut like it and I had worked with the DP.

    About 1/2 way through when they're on the TV set, the camera pans the TV crew and while I was watching it, I wondered if Ed might be in the shot. And there he was, dressed in his usual garb.

    Anyway, it's a fantastic film. And you hit it on the head that on the surface, it's not much. But because all of the elements work so well, the film works as a whole.

    I am no fan of Peter Fonda, but he was masterfully cast in this film. And it's brilliant storytelling that we get to experience the generation gap between Fonda and his young girlfriend. Fonda's description of the 60s is excellent.

    But mostly I love this film because plain and simple, it's a revenge film. And I do love them so.

  16. Oh, and I've got to see Kafka and Schizopolis. I've been leery, but everyone seems to say that they're both interesting to watch.

  17. PIPER:

    Thanks for stopping by! What a great story! I agree with you that revenge pictures are extremely entertaining, and Soderbergh (like Tarantino) understands that you don't need a lot of unnecessary plot development in these kinds of films. Just show us what we know we're supposed to be seeing. And I love the way Soderbergh shows me his take on the revenge picture.

    You should see Kafka...oddly enough the other Soderbergh film penned by's a good film. Flawed, but good.

  18. My favorite Soderbergh film of them all is also generally regarded as a "lesser" film - KING OF THE HILL, about two kids set in the Depression era. But it's fair to say that THE LIMEY would be next up. Fine, comprehensive consideration of teh film. It's fair to say that Terrence Stamp delivered the most towering performance in any Soderbergh film, at the risk of alienating the Julia Roberts fans. Ha!

  19. Ha! Alienate those Roberts fans, I say! Haha. You're right about King of the Hill. I only refer to it as a "lesser" film in terms of audience reception. I love it. Out of Sight remains my favorite Soderbergh closely followed by Traffic and The Limey. Thanks for stopping by.

  20. "...the interesting editing technique (obviously influenced by one of Soderbergh’s favorite movements The French New Wave)..."

    Though I think it may tangentially owe the French New Wave some credit, in truth, I think there are some more direct influences. One would be Boorman's Point Blank, and the other would be the cut-up technique by way of Nicolas Roeg's films.

    Specifically speaking of Point Blank there seems to be a sort of lineage that even Soderbergh acknowledges through denial in his commentary for The Limey. I recently spoke of it in a post for The House Next Door that tracks that lineage all the way up to Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, an odd movie I think you'd like.

    PS: I think many of us are in agreement here that Kafka, and Out of Sight, are also among Soderbergh's best films, along with The Limey.

  21. Tony:

    I thought of Point Blank, too. Boorman's film using editing brilliantly to show characters putting the pieces together. There's that great scene where Carrol O' Conner knows who is in his office before he even turns around and sees that it's Lee Marvin's character.

    I also like what you say about the cut-up technique, also. I'm aware of it...but lazily didn't mention it in my post about Soderbergh's film. Thanks for pointing that out.

    I think the reason I mention the French New Wave is because a lot of what Soderbergh does stylistically is very much indebted to the French New Wave. He talks about that a lot on the commentary track for Out of Sight...which is obviously inspired by Truffaut with its brief freeze frames.

    I do want to see The Limits of Control...but it hasn't even reached Portland yet. I'm eagerly awaiting its arrival.

    Thanks for stopping by and for commenting with those great links. I've read your piece at The House and I love what you say about the "affinity" that The Limey and Point Blank share...especially since they are, as you so aptly state, both films about "one named protagonists, their stories viewed though the prism of the minds eye."

    Great stuff. Thanks again for stopping by.

  22. Ah, my favorite Soderbergh. Just watched Superman II (Donner cut) with a friend, and told him we'd have to watch The Limey next. Yes, one of Bill Duke's more memorable recent roles; he had a nice one in The Go-Getter with Zooey Deschanel & Lou Taylor Pucci last year.

    Also one of the times Luis Guzman really gets to shine; I think Soderbergh gave him two of his best breakouts, with Out of Sight and this.

  23. Tommy:

    Great to hear that you're a fan of this film, too. I agree with what you have to say about Luis Guzman. He was great in Traffic, too.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  24. Great Information ! I enjoyed reading of it. You are looking to be great fan of this film. I haven't seen it but I love watching it.