Screenplay by Richard Price
The novel Clockers is probably Richard Price’s most emblematic work, the one most commonly associated with his identity as a writer. The Wire looms large on his resume as well and is certainly his most highly-regarded TV gig, as it will probably remain for everyone who was ever involved with it. But when people talk about Richard Price’s career writing feature films, the credit they most often bring up is the 1989 romantic thriller Sea of Love. It was his first full-length original script to be produced (not counting The Color of Money, which was sort of based on Walter Tevis’s novel), it was a box office hit, and it set the template for the kind of neo-noir movies he’d be working on for the next decade and beyond.
The film follows a series of murders in which men are shot to death in bed after having hooked up with someone through the personals section of their local paper, the titular song found playing on a turntable in each of their apartments. The case is assigned to sad-sack New York cop Frank Keller (Al Pacino), who decides to flush the killer out by placing his own ad and speed-dating the women who respond to it. But he then ends up falling for one of the suspects, no-nonsense single mom Helen (Ellen Barkin), who may or may not have a dangerous dark side.
The central murder-mystery premise is, of course, kind of hokey, fit for late-night Cinemax programming or a supermarket’s paperback racks. What makes Sea of Love special is how capably and intelligently it’s executed on pretty much every level, starting with Price’s script.
Take one of the opening scenes, for example: A bunch of guys show up at a banquet hall for an event billed as a New York Yankees meet-and-greet, but which turns out to be a sting operation set up by the cops (including Frank), who have issued invites exclusively to criminals with outstanding warrants. It’s an idea so absurd that it seems like it must have been drawn from real life (which, according to director Harold Becker’s DVD commentary, it was), and it makes for a fascinating introduction to the protagonist and his world. Many of the film’s scenes have that feel to them: Real, but in a way that’s vibrant and captivating, and often funny, rather than drab and banal. The characters are the same way. They could easily be stock cliches–the world-weary cop, the bad-news dame–but their dialogue and mannerisms make them seem like genuine individuals. When Frank and a fellow cop played by John Goodman get into an impromptu singalong at an NYPD function, you feel like you’re there laughing along with them.
Credit for that is also owed to Sea of Love‘s excellently curated cast. (Nice work, Mary Colquhoun!) In addition to the actors I’ve already mentioned, the film features Richard Jenkins, Michael Rooker and even a pre-fame Samuel L. Jackson, who would go on to headline Price films like Shaft and Freedomland but appears here in a role so small it’s simply billed as “Black Guy.”
Pacino is, of course, the cast’s crown jewel, and he perfectly captures Frank’s haggard likability and choppy New York chatter. Dustin Hoffman was originally lined up for the role, and it’s tempting to speculate about the more nebbishy energy he might’ve brought to it, but Pacino fits into the part so naturally that it feels like the pairing was always meant to be. (As it happened, Sea of Love was as important to him as he was to it; it marked his return to the screen after a four-year hiatus, and its commercial success re-established his bankability as a star.)
Becker keeps all the other elements of the production aesthetically consistent as well. Ronnie Taylor’s cinematography makes good use of shadows and darkness to create an atmosphere that expresses the film’s mix of romance and menace:
The conclusion of the mystery–and I’ll try not to give too much away here, but maybe skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen the movie–isn’t go-back-and-watch-the-whole-thing-again-to-see-what-you-missed stunning, but it does have some subtly interesting implications. The bulk of the story positions Helen as potentially representing an archetypal film noir villain, the black widow femme fatale who uses sex to lure men to their deaths, but the ending upends that in a way that could or could not be considered feminist, depending on how you look at it. Which is more empowering, being good or being evil? Being portrayed as a victim or as a villain?
Anyway, Sea of Love was successful both commercially and critically, and despite screenwriters’ usual status as red-headed stepchildren, Richard Price actually got a fair amount of credit for it: New York Magazine’s David Denby said it “confirms… that the novelist Richard Price has become the best screenwriter in the country.” Price himself never seemed entirely happy with it, though. He originally conceived of it as a sort-of adaptation of his 1978 novel Ladies’ Man–“I know how to get Ladies’ Man made into a movie. I’ll give the guy a gun”–and although even his first draft of the script (as published in the collection 3 Screenplays) bears little resemblance to that book, he still meant it to be “two hours of High Mopery” rather than a straightforward thriller. That first draft already had the film’s central premise and is very close to the first half of the finished movie, but it didn’t introduce Helen until two-thirds of the way through, leaving little time for the is-she/isn’t-she dynamic which Price was forced to flesh out in rewrites and which became the focus of the film. Price seems to have reconciled himself to the experience (“Comedy is Tragedy plus Time,” he says, an expression he also uses in reference to his work on Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video), but he still feels distanced from the project: “When people come up and say, Oh! You wrote Sea of Love? That was my favorite movie, I feel like they’re talking to somebody standing between me and them.”
But while the film isn’t as impressive or affecting as pretty much any of his novels, it’s a treat partly because his style is still evident throughout, from the snappy rhythms of the dialogue to the realistically absurd premises of some of the scenes. And there are even a bunch of textual links to his other works for Price geeks who are interested in such stuff, i.e. me: Frank and Goodman’s character, Det. Touhey, share last names with the protagonist from The Breaks and a supporting character in Clockers, respectively, and one of Pacino’s most famous lines–”Come the wet-ass hour, I’m everybody’s daddy!”–seems to be a re-working of a line from Bloodbrothers: “Baby, this afternoon, I’m everybody’s mama!” The script’s first draft has even more of this kind of thing: Frank does sit-ups à la Kenny in Ladies’ Man, the sting-op dates are run out of a restaurant with the same name as a bar from The Breaks (“Stanley and Livingstone’s”), and there’s a monologue about how cops witness a “cycle of shit” in the communities they police that would later wind up in Clockers.
Speaking of bits that didn’t make the film’s final cut, the deleted scenes included on the Sea of Love DVD are well worth checking out. For one thing, they feature what would have been the Obligatory Richard Price Cameo, in which Price plays a peevish dog-walker who tries to keep Frank from seeing a roach he’s smoking.
More importantly, the deleted scenes also include an extended sequence in which Frank and a few other cops visit a housing project to track down a potential suspect. You can see why this part was left out of the finished film, as it’s a distraction from the main story and themes, but it gives you a good sense of where Price’s interests were heading. A big part of his research for this film involved hanging out with actual New York and New Jersey cops (some of whom, such as Gene Canfield and Larry Mullane, got minor cameos of their own), and that experience would spark a fascination with police and what Price often calls their “backstage pass to the greatest show on earth.” Cops see people during their most vulnerable and tragic moments, and the attraction of such a job to a writer known for his precise observation of human behavior should be obvious. Price got a lot of mileage out of the police mystique in Sea of Love, but he’d delve even deeper into it, and get an even more captivating story out of it, with his next novel.
Next week: Price returns to bookshelves with arguably the best work of his career, the 1992 novel Clockers.