Jonathan Demme’s neo-noir thriller has been somewhat off the grid for decades; it resurfaces some years past its prime, but it’s an extremely kooky slice of occult melodrama that provides an entertaining night-in. Roy Scheider was something of a go-to guy for action in the 70’s, via The French Connection, The 7 Ups, Jaws, Marathon Man and Sorcerer and even if Last Embrace was at the tail end of that hot streak, he serves up yet another of his signature ‘taciturn hero’ roles. Last Embrace is based on the novel The 13th Man by Murray Teigh Bloom, and even if it wasn’t as widely seen as Scheider’s other hits, there’s a growing cult following to consider…
But what is Last Embrace about? According to Wikipedia, it’s ‘the story of a woman who takes the role similar to the biblical avenger Goel and kills the descendants of the Zwi Migdal, who enslaved her grandmother.’ Even after the credits roll, it’s tricky to make that synopsis stick. Back in the actual film, Scheider plays a government agent (of course he does) named Harry Hannan, we see Hannan unsuccessfully defend his wife from some assassins in the opening sequence. Now widowed, Hannan spends some time in a sanatorium before returning to his New York City home. Hannan’s supervisor Echkart (Chris Walken, turned up to 11) cautions him against an early return to the field, but Hannan has no choice. His residence is now occupied by Ellie Fabian (Janet Margolin) who shows him some weird Hebrew notes which have been stuck under his door during his absence. Hannan decides to turn the tables on his hunter, and the trail leads to a memorable show-down at the Niagara Falls.
With Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot, coming out in 76, the market was still there for someone to turn in a good-old suspense thriller, and Last Embrace ticks most of the boxes, with threats in public places, mysterious enemies, and a hero unsure of his own sanity. The twist is that Ellie is his real tormentor, and although details are sketchy, there’s a whole backstory to unfold about how and why she’s seeking revenge for wrongs done to her ancestors due to slavery. That’s actually a great idea for a 2022 thriller, although some of the cheesy handling here would be better left behind.
With support from John Glover, Joe Spinell, Charles Napier and even a glimpse of Mandy Patinkin, there’s tonnes for retro-cinema fans to lap up, and Demme graduates with aplomb from low-budget Roger Corman fodder to something much fancier. Last Embrace is a rather random movie, aping Hollywood but on a low budget, but the unusual underlying themes are rich enough to make this worth seeking out for jaded cineastes.