No. 47: Gorky Park

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Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

One thing I love about the bottom half of this list I’m slowly working my way through (sorry about that) is the movies that were clearly at least minor hits in their day but that no one remembers today. In a man-on-the-street poll, I’d be willing to bet very few people could tell you anything about Michael Apted’s Gorky Park, a police procedural thriller with a Soviet twist. As a murder mystery, it’s nothing out of the ordinary from what you’d see on any of the fifty primetime crime procedurals on network TV today. Three bodies are found in Moscow’s Gorky Park with any and all forms of identification removed – that includes faces, fingertips and teeth. Soviet police detective Arkady Renko, played by William Hurt, draws the assignment and as you might expect, the more he learns the more complex the case appears to be with connections being drawn to the KGB, a shady NYPD cop (Brian Dennehy in a really fun, broad bit of character acting), and a highly suspicious American business tycoon played by a wonderfully aged Lee Marvin.

26 years removed from 1983, I’m sure a lot of the oomph of certain details and scenes are a little lost on me. For instance, a major plot point involves Lee Marvin‘s character attempting to break the Russian monopoly on sable fur. This would, apparently, have struck a tremendous blow to the Soviet economy but I’m not sure today’s audience would appreciate something of this subtlety without an explanation.

One thing that is clear in the film, even to a post-Cold War audience, is that this is most definitely an American-made film about life in Russia in 1983…the KGB is unequivocally evil and obstructive, life is brutal and cold and harsh for everyone other than a small class of government leaders, and most importantly – everyone wants to get out. Now I’m sure there were a lot of people that wanted to get out of the Soviet Union and I’m sure it was a dangerous proposition but I’m not sure it was quite the universal hope of all Russians, as is portrayed in Gorky Park. The film’s closing shot involves caged sables being set free into the woods…subtle.

Regardless of the political undertones, Gorky Park works really well as a taught crime thriller with plenty of fascinating characters popping up in unexpected places. My personal favorite minor performance comes from Ian McDiarmid, whom true FilmNerds will know as the evil and ever-disappointed Emperor Palpatine. In Gorky Park, McDiarmid is wonderful as a super-creepy scientist who has developed a method of recreating a dead person’s face based solely on the shape of their skull (which I’m pretty sure is impossible even today, by the way). He treats the decapitated heads of the murder victim’s as if they were his house pets…in fact, it would even be creepy if they were his house pets. Really nice little treat of a performance.

If this movie is remembered by anyone for anything today, it seems to be for the performance of Joanna Pacula, the tragic and tortured friend of the murder victims who of course becomes Hurt’s love interest. Premiere called her performance one of the 100 Greatest Performances of All Time as recently as 2006, a fact I was aware of going into my screening of the film. Frankly, I never saw a scene that I felt really warranted that honor but it’s certainly on par with the rest of the very solid work by the entire cast. Her thick Russian accent was a bit distracting at first, particularly since the filmmakers made a choice to make all the Russian characters in the film speak with a British accent, which helps us distinguish them from the American characters that show up later. Pacula’s face and accent do seem to highlight her desperation as an oppressed Soviet citizen but it seems odd at times, particularly in scenes where she and Hurt are meant to be identifying with one another as fellow oppressed Russians.

This one is definitely worth renting if you’re a fan of William Hurt, human taxidermy, WAY better than average crime procedurals or Cold War propaganda. Or, once again, synthesizer-heavy scores.