The source novel, The 13th Man becomes an homage to Hitchcock in the hands of Jonathan Demme during the mystery that unravels for star player Roy Scheider. A thriller featuring the likes of Janet Margolin, Christopher Walken, John Glover and of course Charles Napier who frequently appeared in Demme films. A nice group of thespians to be sure.
A tense performance from Scheider is highlighted throughout this film that morphs from an espionage thriller into much more. The film begins with Roy and his wife enjoying a vacation when his past will come to haunt him. While in a café, three men enter, one of which is Joe Spinell. Guns are drawn and fire exchanged leaving Roy’s wife dead. The time line then moves ahead three months with Roy being released from what we will learn is a hospital where he has been under care for a mental breakdown over the loss of his wife.
Planning to move on with his life and get back into the espionage game proves a trying process. No sooner is he released and heading back to pick up the pieces of his life when an attempt is made upon his life at a train station.
Or so he believes.
Returning to his rented apartment, he’ll find his employer is subletting his apartment to a bookish student played by Janet Margolin. Time to check in with “The Agency” and look for a new assignment from a crazed looking Christopher Walken who also proves to be a hard ass, clearly not a fan of Scheider’s and vice versa. When a message in Hebrew mysteriously arrives for Scheider and what appear to be attempts upon his life only increasing, he’ll become more unnerved while enlisting his much younger roommate to assist in unravelling the mystery surrounding the threat leveled at him in the ancient language. For that she’ll take him to another crazed looking character in university professor John Glover.
Fellow agency employee Charles Napier is shadowing Scheider on trains, through graveyards and high church towers that bring to mind Vertigo. In short, Roy doesn’t know where to turn until long time character actor Sam Levene who starred in classics going back to 1946’s The Killers, 47’s Crossfire and others turns up offering help in deciphering the mystery of the Hebrew message and a set of initials that keep turning up in Roy’s hunt for an answer.
I won’t play spoiler but at about a third of the way through, answers will present themselves to the viewer allowing us to watch Roy get to the heart of the mystery and just who wants him dead and the reasons why.
I’m so used to seeing Brian DePalma pay respects to the films and style of Hitchcock that had someone told me he directed this film, I wouldn’t even bother to question it. De Palma had Obsession, Dressed to Kill and Blow Out released during this era of filmmaking while Demme was coming off drive in fare like Fighting Mad and Crazy Mama. These thrillers seemed to be in vogue at the time and to a certain extent, are very similar to the Giallo thrillers that were popular during the decade.
While Walken only has one scene, he makes it memorable with his wide eyed performance and looking directly into the camera as if you’ve become Roy Scheider. Glover is wonderfully creepy as the university prof who has a thing for Miss Margolin and isn’t exactly thrilled that she seems to be caught up in Scheider’s search for the truth. Glover would play another unsavory character opposite Roy in the shower inducing 52 Pick Up in 1986. When we come to Roy Scheider, hey, what can I say. The man is forever “one cool dude” in my books. Such is the power of his role as Chief Martin Brody in a movie I certainly shouldn’t have to call by name.
Not a great thriller but captivating enough to draw you in and worth checking out for the cast and it’s Hitchcockian overtones. Watch it with some friends and point them all out to each other or look like a pro and drive some newbie crazy with your knowledge of all things Hitch. Of course you need an appropriate soundtrack if you’re going to do a Hitch styled thriller and Miklos Rozsa serves up a solid accompaniment to the thrills on screen.
Canadian hockey fans who probably know the movie Slap Shot by heart should recognize character actor Andrew Duncan turning up here as a murder victim that unleashes a good portion of the plot to come. In Slap Shot he memorably played sportscaster Jim Carr who had one terrible toupee. Funny thing is, he’s sporting another one this time out.
“There’s a carnival like atmosphere here tonight.”
Last Embrace was thankfully released on blu ray by Kino Lorber for those looking to check it out.