Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

THE LAST SEDUCTION *** 1/4 (1994). Directed by John Dahl. Screenplay, Steve Barancik. Producer, Jonathan Shestack. Photography, Jeffrey Jur. Production design, Linda Pearl. Editor, Eric L. Beason. Music, Joseph Vitarelli. Costumes, Terry Dresbach. Cast: Linda Fiorentino, Peter Berg, J.T. Walsh, Bill Nunn, Bill Pullman, et al. An October Films release. 110 min. Not rated (violence, raunchy sex and language)

In "The Last Seduction" Linda Fiorentino plays New Yorker femme fatale Bridget Gregory who works in telemarketing and goes for the jugular. Her husband Clay (Pullman) is a disreputable MD who sells illegal prescriptions. Urged on by Bridget, he has just expanded his activities with a major drug deal. Bridget runs away with the stash and leaves Clay to face the underworld that financed him and now expects its share.

On her way to Chicago, Bridget decides to hole up some 85 miles from Buffalo, in Beston -- the kind of small town where people on the street say "hello" to strangers.In a bar, she picks up a rather nice fellow, Mike (Berg), a local who has his own (very vague) ambitions to do better than a provincial life.

Bridget and Mike engage in repeated sex. Mike, dazzled by Bridget and confusedly hoping that her worldliness might lead him to better things, soon also wants a commitment. But those two are not a real couple. Bridget explicitly tells Mike that she only wants sex -- without, however, adding that he is also to be her patsy and is to be used for her nefarious schemes.

Bridget, now as "Wendy Kroy," gets a job in an insurance company whose databases she taps. She also tries to divorce by remote-control so as to keep all the money. And, when spotted by the investigator her husband employs, she must get rid of both the private eye and of Clay,

Director John Dahl, 39, is one of the new figures in independent cinema. Born in Billings, Montana, he studied art at the University of Montana and film at Montana State where one of his instructors was Bill Pullman.

With "The Death Mutants," a horror/sci-fi spoof feature made in school, and his next three features, Dahl is the current cult-figure of film noir- with-a-difference. He keeps the basics but breaks the conventions. Instead of the big city with dark and rainy streets, the staccato dialogue, the moody photography, the dead seriousness and other standard features of the noir genre, Dahl has set "Kill me Again" and "Red Rock West" in cowboy country - or, in the case of "The Last Seduction," in a pretty town, not too unlike Alfred Hitchcock's Santa Rosa in "Shadow of a Doubt." And although Dahl has retained the femme fatale, he has incorporated black humor in his dark vision, in ways that, by sheer coincidence, remind me of writer Roald Dahl --no kin.

"Kill Me Again" was little seen, and then mostly on video. "Red Rock West" was first successfully released in some European countries and only later "premiered" on a North America big screen, at the Toronto Film Festival. In spite of critical praise, still finding no American distributor it had to go to video and to cable TV. Later, well-attended screenings in a San Francisco theater got things moving and since April 1994 the film has opened in several houses across the country.

"The Last Seduction" had its debut on television, which made it ineligible for the Oscars, in spite of a futile law-suit by its distributors against the Academy. Linda Fiorentino however was voted Best Actress by the New York Film Critics.

You can see why. Totally cool, she is used in the film in so complete a reversal of sex-roles that it could send feminists either objecting or rejoicing. Now it is man who becomes the sex object. " No involvements, please." It is the stud who is at the disposal of the female's whims. It is the woman who manipulates her bed mate as well as all the other men. Bridget is the Spider Woman who, to quote an old film title, is "Deadlier than the Male." And she brings a new, graphic dimension to the expression "men are like putty in her hands."

Dahl, an admirer of thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, has placed Barbara Stanwyck's mantle (from "Double Indemnity") on Fiorentino. Petite, slim and not particularly striking Fiorentino wears it with style and convinces us that she is a bigger-than-life vamp. But departing from the "Double Indemnity" scheme of sweaty-handed Fred MacMurray, Dahl and his writer have made of Clay (the husband) an original, nervous-yet-cool-and-smiling type, and of Mike an innocent with flashes of reason.

Dahl also retains the Hitchcock and Wilder wit and sharpness. Clay says to Bridget on the phone "I borrowed from men whose first and last names end in vowels." When his investigator gets to Beston, the receptionist at Bridget's firm tells her breathlessly "There's a black man here to see you," which is segued by another employee asking the receptionist "Did you tell her about the black man?" Just two sentences make a perfect satire of a mostly-white small town.

Not everything is new in this movie, but much has new twists. As when chain-smoker Fiorentino stubs out her cigarette in a pie, reprising Jessie Royce Landis doing this to a sunny-side-up egg in Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief," but adding the symbolic injury to Mother and Apple Pie values.

Bridget is totally amoral and immoral. Whether or not she is also a true sociopath is hard to say. But the way she thinks on her feet and plans defenses or attacks with the speed of light is so attention-getting that you forget she is a monster. Brains like hers could wipe out our national debt in record time.

This fascination may be somewhat undermined by the lack of even minimal explanations about all the characters and their past -- if, that is, you have a mind that needs its curiosity and logic satisfied. At the other extreme, if you accept the WYSIWYG ("what you see is what you get" in computerese) principle, this strategy has post-modern appeal.

Even then, however, in terms of the plot before your eyes, much of the time you are in the dark about what exactly is going on. Multiple holes and loose ends make the level of unbelievability high, far more so than in "Red Rock West. "

Still, its breathless rhythm camouflages much of this and, above all, those question marks are a small price to pay for a product as fresh as this neo-noir, tongue-in-cheek movie that plays successfully the card of non-identification with the protagonist. It is quite a shift from Nicolas Cage's simpatico loner in "Red Rock."

Fiorentino's role and performance, and those of the rest of the cast (all constructed with striking economy) keep you going to the very end -- a cynical, crime-does-pay conclusion whose reality is not in question, as "60 Minutes" reminds us every Sunday.