Taking stock as it were at the tail end of his first decade in dirty movies, with production credits stretching all the way back to 1970, master movie maker "Cecil" Howard Winters further explores the twin themes of middle-aged male angst and fear of abandonment he first touched upon with SCOUNDRELS, dropping the whimsical humor that apparently divided audiences. Cementing the argument that an artist is rarely the best judge of his own achievements, he also believes this to be his best film in a body of work that includes the likes of PLATINUM PARADISE, NEON NIGHTS and FIRESTORM ! SNAKE EYES does have its merits in the fields for which the director has rightfully earned his critically acknowledged degree of excellence with its sophisticated if unnecessarily fragmented narrative, elegantly pared down production values and superior thespian turns.
Whacking the viewer across the face with heavy-handed symbolism right out of the gate, Howard pulls out all the stops with a stylized and immediately headache-inducing nightmare sequence full of strobe lighting and the deafening sounds of agitated wildlife as cages are pulled shut time and again in teeth-grinding aural detail. As he explains over the phone to longtime frenemy Jason (Paul Thomas), this is the recurring dream of successful advertising exec Tom Blaine, portrayed with searing intensity that garnered him a deserved Best Actor nod at the AFAA Awards by Jerry Butler. Having reached the top in his profession, he's faced with the familiar frustration of the Peggy Lee Syndrome : Is That All There Is ? In a story structure seemingly swiped from Bob Fosse's auto-reflective ALL THAT JAZZ, Tom looks back upon his life, recounting his fears and doubts to sympathetic graphic designer Ava (petite Cassandra Leigh with hair as long as Sharon Kane's when she entered the industry) in an attempt to analyze where it all went wrong. Fortunately, such self-dissection comes regularly interspersed with the director's trademark bursts of imaginative sex, including Butler's bout with an uncharacteristically animated Leigh, his Girl Friday from Larry Revene's incisive RAW TALENT.
His first marriage on the skids through a combination of spousal neglect and his wife's subsequent search for sanctuary with a lesbian lover (mixed breed NY starlet Nicole Bernard, the sad solitary dancer from Roger Watkins's superlative CORRUPTION), Tom helplessly watches his current relationship go the same route, pining for the one that got away. Wed too young and an easy prey for her husband's unusually predatory circle of friends, poor Lois (frizzy-haired Blair Castle a/k/a "Brooke Fields") never stood a chance. With precious little evidence to back up his spreading paranoia, Tom's becoming increasingly convinced that second wife Gloria (leggy Laurie Smith, always a bright spot even under the most dire of circumstances) played an instrumental part in alienating his first love's affection, spurred on by slutty best friend Dawn (Joanna Storm) and sleazy lover Les (George Payne, enthusiastically entering the seedier stage of his expansive erotic trajectory) whose confessed one night stand status grows to exaggerated proportions in our anti-hero's fevered mind. Ricocheting back and forth between beginning and end of each relationship, Tom tries to determine the moment his bubble burst while the audience struggles to keep up with the movie's shattered chronology, courtesy of an occasionally insightful if frequently bewildering screenplay by Howard's customary scribe Anne "Randall" Wolff. Blissful romantic fade out hearkening back to the couple's carefree early days oddly predates such art-house favorites of backwards plot progress like François Ozon's 5 x 2 or Gaspard Noë's IRREVERSIBLE.
As a director, Howard's renowned for getting grade A acting performances from less than promising sources. SNAKE EYES proves a mixed bag in this respect, perversely casting starlets whom - to paraphrase Serena in Gerard Damiano's riotously funny NEVER SO DEEP - although they had made plenty of movies no one would ever accuse of being an actress, in parts that are all too obviously several sizes too big, while wasting the tried 'n' true talents like Storm and Sharon Mitchell (latter appearing as a wordless biker chick in one of Tom's impromptu imaginings) on roles that could have been played by lab rats. Castle's bland as usual in the purportedly pivotal part of Lois, her veritable non-starter of a carnal career necessitating an eleventh hour retooling of Ron Sullivan's BROOKE DOES MANHATTAN by expanding comeback queen Vanessa Del Rio's participation and releasing the mongrel as VANESSA, MAID IN MANHATTAN instead ! Still, her extra-curricular escapade at the hands of PT does show a glimpse of wantonness.
German-born Rikki Harte stole box cover rights from worthier competition throughout the entire filmography Howard supplied her with, even though she provided subordinate support at best, the others being FIRESTORM and SPITFIRE with cutting room left-overs padding out several sequels. As a model Tom trysts with (watch for legendary NY underground gay porn "auteur" Christopher Rage cameoing as a photographer), adding guilt to his psycho-analytical stew, she at least looks her absolute best, also showing signs of actually enjoying the experience. Rarely called upon to act in a seemingly endless string of ditzy best friend roles (a personal favorite being the one she played in Phil Gem's otherwise underwhelming Jesie St. James vehicle INDECENT PLEASURES), Laurie Smith exhibits surprising sensitivity and range as Gloria however, still throwing it down like a demented banshee when the mood calls for it. Along with the solid work provided by the guys, above and beyond the call of duty in Butler's case, and DoP Steve "Sven Nuvo" Kaman's carefully lit composition of sparsely furnished stylized sets, Smith's the standout singlehandedly excusing my otherwise perhaps contradictory high rating. Bottom line, this is a fine film that fails to make good on its lofty ambitions, a feat that a more modest movie maker might be easily forgiven for. But there you have it, for better or worse, Howard's impressive track record has defensibly bestowed upon him that fabled "class of his own" epithet that publicitary hype rarely resists to emphasize.
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