It would probably be impossible to make a genuinely anti-American film; as with rock and roll, the USA has contributed so much to the history of the art form that any political stance has to be tempered by the sheer cultural debt. Mike Figgis’s debut film Stormy Monday, now reissued on DVD and Blu-Ray by Arrow, wisely tries to make this pitfall into a virtue. In the spirit of the Situationists, it tries to subvert a uniquely American art form – film noir – into a critique of American influence in Thatcher’s Britain.
Whatever else Figgis’s film says about America, its attitude towards film noir and jazz is purely affectionate. Both are, after all, American art forms that are implicitly critical of America’s self-image, showing the country from the perspective of criminals, minorities, addicts and the working poor. Stylistically it’s easy to see how Figgis got proper Hollywood gigs like Internal Affairs and Leaving Las Vegas off the back of this. Musically, the closest comparison point in Figgis’s back catalogue might be Red, White and Blues, his contribution to Martin Scorsese’s PBS anthology series The Blues. In both those films, Figgis views the British adoption of American musical idioms as a pure pleasure, allowing a little of the American genius into a grey former empire.
It’s the only uncomplicated pleasure in Stormy Monday. The film stars a young Sean Bean as Brendan, a club attendant who wakes up next to a stack of Melody Makers before going off to work for someone who might well be in them – his boss Finney, played by Sting. Here, the swaggering, brashly sexual Bean looks far more like a rock star than Sting, who underplays surprisingly effectively as a well-meaning man with some unpleasant skeletons in his closet. These make him easy prey for Tommy Lee Jones’s Cosmo, a mysterious visiting American businessman determined to strike a deal by any means necessary.
The relationship between Finney and Cosmo is obviously meant to be analogous to the Special Relationship, a phrase minted around the time Stormy Monday was released to describe the Anglo-American partnership Thatcher and Reagan forged. At times the political commentary is a hair away from Oliver Stone levels of subtlety, such as a scene where Brendan passes through a mall full of stars and stripes listening to a DJ offer prizes to anyone wearing an “I Love America” t-shirt. But then Figgis cuts to Melanie Griffith as Kate, the mysterious American woman Brendan falls for, neatly encapsulating the love-hate attitude the film has towards the US.
In truth, the political aspect of the film works better than the thriller narrative. Kate isn’t really mysterious or merciless enough to be a true femme fatale, and Jones’s typically intense presence masks a certain void where Cosmo’s motivations should be. A few years earlier Alan Clarke had tried to tackle American influence in the wider world with his TV film Beloved Enemy, in which he actually went to the trouble of creating a dummy script that contained all the genre elements and human interest angles the BBC wanted, but which he had no intention of filming. For better or worse, this was never an option for Figgis. The politics and the genre elements play off against each other, a hymn to American soft power to balance the critique of American hard power.
The new high definition transfer shows off one of the film’s most delectable assets: the cinematography by a young Roger Deakins, which finds the same kind of moody noirish glamour in a Hopper-esque diner and a fire-belching steelworks. The extras aren’t as fulsome as a lot of Arrow releases but they’re of a high standard, including an overview of Figgis’s diverse career by Mark Cunliffe of this parish. Another trip through Figgis’s career comes in the form of the director’s commentary, which stretches all the way back to his pre-directorial work in performance art.