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February 7th, 2010 · 3 Comments

The Limey 1999 poster The Limey DVD

The Limey (1999)
Written by Lem Dobbs
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Produced by John Hardy, Scott Kramer
Running time: 89 minutes

Should I Care?
Taking a look at a movie, stepping back and taking a look at it again benefits few films as thoroughly as The Limey, the fractured, hard boiled egg that director Steven Soderbergh whipped up on break between two studio assignments near the end of the first decade of his career. Pocketing some well earned critical cache for thrusting two stars of the 1960s — Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda — back into the limelight with screen roles they could sink their chops into, a non-linear timeline that reduces the story and characters to sketches could be described as an acquired taste at best. But like the director’s glacially paced remake of Solaris (2002) and the eccentric double feature Che (2008), The Limey is a movie whose suggested usage recommends time to chew it over. That’s the ideal approach for a film about time. Focusing on a British career criminal past his expiration date whose trip to L.A. conjures memories — and finally regrets — of what his life might have been, this is intricately well made, poignant and exciting filmmaking.

Screenwriter Lem Dobbs — who had Richard Stark paperback novels like The Hunter on his brain when he initially wrote the script in his early 20s — has reason to snipe about what Soderbergh came out of the editing room with. Supporting characters perfectly cast in Lesley Ann Warren, Nicky Katt and Barry Newman are shouldered out of the movie, while Ann-Margret’s entire performance hit the cutting room floor. At 89 minutes, it’s hard to see how restoring 10 minutes to the running time would have lost anybody. Entire layers of the story feel unexposed: contrasts between L.A. and London, upper and working class, the ‘60s and the ‘90s. Soderbergh seems after a little less conversation and instead juxtaposes moving images, moving adroitly through a man’s memory to examine all these subjects and more. Employing footage of a 27-year-old Stamp from the film Poor Cow (1967) for flashbacks was an inspired choice, while the low key piano score by Cliff Martinez haunts the action beautifully.

The Limey 1999 Terence Stamp

So, What’s This About?
A taciturn stranger (Terence Stamp) who speaks at times in rhyming Cockney slang and gives the name of “Wilson” exits Los Angeles International Airport. He seeks out Eduardo Roel (Luis Guzman), an acting class friend of his daughter Jenny (Melissa George) and sender of the letter notifying Wilson that his daughter has died. Refusing to believe that her neck was broken in a car accident on Mulholland Drive, Wilson pays a visit to the drug traffickers Jenny confronted when she discovered her boyfriend was doing business with them. Unaware that Wilson has spent half of his life in British prisons for armed robbery, the petty thieves pay dearly for their rudeness. Word reaches Jenny’s ex, Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), a music producer who built a fortune capturing the allure of Southern California on vinyl records in the late 1960s. Valentine now lives in a house suspended over the Hollywood Hills with his current baby-faced flame Adhara (Amelia Heinle).

Spending time with Jenny’s best friend and acting instructor Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren), Wilson reveals that his daughter often threatened to dial the police on him during his wilder days in London. This was her way to showing her love for him. Wilson believes a similar occurrence with her ex-boyfriend led to Jenny’s death. Crashing a party at Valentine’s, Wilson throws one of the record producer’s muscle men into the canyon and narrowly evades a loaded for bear security consultant named Jim Avery (Barry Newman) who protects Valentine. Avery outsources the hit on Wilson to a pool hall punk (Nicky Katt) who blows his assignment when the narcs monitoring Valentine intervene. Unable to prove Valentine is involved in drug smuggling, a DEA agent (Bill Duke) instead provides Wilson with the location of their quarry. Wilson, Eduardo and Elaine head up the coast to Big Sur, where Valentine is hiding out and Wilson seeks the truth about his daughter’s death.

The Limey 1999 Peter Fonda

Who Made It?
The son of American painter R.B. Kitaj, Anton Lemuel Kitaj was born in Oxford and grew up in London in the 1960s. He settled in Los Angeles toward the end of the 1970s, adopted the pen name Lem Dobbs (a nod to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, one of his favorite films) and started cranking out screenplays. One in particular was influenced by the pulp fiction of Donald Westlake, whose novel The Hunter (written under the non de plume Richard Stark) and its vengeance wrecking anti-hero would coincidentally inspire at least two movies with fractured timelines: Point Blank (1967) and later Payback (1999). Titled The Limey, nothing much became of Dobbs’ script, but a decade later, the screenwriter found a fan in director Steven Soderbergh, who filmed a screenplay Dobbs had written as homage to German horror movies of the 1920s. Dobbs became a vocal critic of Kafka (1991), but was approached by Soderbergh with the prospect of making The Limey as soon as the director finished his third film, King of the Hill (1993).

Wrapping an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s crime novel Out of Sight (1998) for Universal Pictures, Soderbergh wanted to go back to work, as well as experiment with techniques he was tempted to workshop on his $48 million studio assignment. Dobbs was game to help remodel The Limey less in the style of a straightforward crime thriller and into something deeper. At a much earlier stage, Dobbs had Michael Caine in mind for the role of Wilson, but Terence Stamp was chosen as the ‘60s screen icon they wanted to build the film around. Basking in the warmest reviews of his career for Out of Sight, Soderbergh approached upstart, filmmaker friendly Artisan Entertainment in June 1998 with a script and a cast for The Limey. The mini-studio agreed to finance a roughly $9 million budget and nine months later, the dexterous filmmaker would turn in his cut of the film. Shunned by audiences, the fragmented film noir would come to be regarded by many critics and filmgoers as a career best for both Dobbs and Soderbergh.

The Limey 1999 Luis Guzman Terence Stamp

How’d They Do It?
Emigrating from London to Los Angeles permanently at the age of 18, one of the earliest scripts Lem Dobbs finished was The Limey. “I remember when I first wrote this script, and I was living in my little apartment in Hollywood, a block from Paramount Studios. Around the corner there was an office building on Larchmont and I was walking by and I looked at the directory outside and it said, ‘Aldrich and Associates’. And the minute this script — the original, naïve, adolescent version — was hot off the Xerox machine I took a copy around to Robert Aldrich’s office and gave it to his secretary and said, ‘This is for Mr. Aldrich’ and I’d written a letter or something and I still think to this day if one thing had led to another and he’d read it and liked it and called me and somehow the movie had gotten made it would have added years to his life, it would have resurrected his critical reputation.” Dobbs added, “But it shows you how long it can be before a movie comes together and it’s strange to think that I’m saying now that you brought a script to Robert Aldrich. You might as well be invoking the name of D.W. Griffith.”

Leaning heavily on the novels of Richard Stark and action movies directed by Walter Hill, as well as British film noir  — Dobbs cites Michael Caine in Get Carter (1971) and the TV mini-series Out (1978) starring Tom Bell as influences — the script made its way to Steven Soderbergh, whose debut film sex, lies and videotape (1989) won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival when the director was 26 years old. Soderbergh recalled, “This is the script he had for a while, and that we talked about doing after King of the Hill. But we sort of let it drop. After Out Of Sight, I called him up again: I really wanted to go back to work immediately, but I wanted to do something small where I could continue to experiment a little with narrative. There were things I thought of during Out of Sight where I remember thinking, ‘Wow, you could go a lot further with some of these ideas if you had a piece of material that could withstand it.’ So I called Lem. I said, ‘Look, let’s think about this again, but I want to come at it a different way. I want to make it more of a mosaic and sort of deconstruct it a little bit, and let’s figure out now who the actor is that we’re going to design this around, because there aren’t a lot of choices.’”

The Limey 1999 Terence Stamp Lesley Ann Warren

Promoting The Limey in 1999, Soderbergh revealed, “I thought, I would love to see a movie in which Terence Stamp is the lead character, so that’s what I was thinking. But I also knew that we had a movie in which 95 percent of the dialogue was spoken by characters 50 and older, and that’s not exactly where the core demographic is lately. One of the things that I liked about the script was that Terence Stamp’s daughter, Jenny, had a really close friend who was not her age. Lem Dobbs, the writer and I were talking about that and he was saying, ‘You know, I have friends of all different ages, but I feel like when I go to see a movie, everybody’s friend is exactly the same age.’ We became very enamored of the idea of Jenny’s closest friend being a woman who was much older than her, because that seemed absolutely right for it.” Dobbs and Soderbergh considered Susan Clark, Lauren Hutton, Sally Field, Goldie Hawn, Blair Brown, Jill Clayburgh, Susan Blakely, Linda Pearl, Brooke Adams, Mackenzie Phillips, Katharine Ross, Adrienne Barbeau, Peggy Lipton, Glynnis O’Connor, Kathleen Quinlan, Annette O’Toole and Kay Lenz before Lesley Ann Warren was cast.

The Limey was pitched to Santa Monica based film financier Artisan Entertainment in June 1998. Cameras were rolling in locations around Los Angeles by October 1998. John Hardy — collaborator with Soderbergh on six of his seven previous films — was producing with Scott Kramer. To serve as director of photography, the director tapped Ed Lachman, who’d finished shooting The Virgin Suicides for Sofia Coppola only weeks previous. As for what Soderbergh had in mind in terms of influences and intent, he revealed, “For this film especially, I’d say Petulia and Point Blank, but I love the early Alain Resnais films. Those had a huge impact on me when I saw them. Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad are both still astonishing to me to this day. There are more ideas in the first fifteen minutes of Hiroshima, Mon Amour than in the last ten movies you’ve seen. And he was, like, the first guy to do this stuff. You look at what he was doing and it’s just jaw-dropping. I haven’t done anything nearly that adventurous yet.” He added, “I kept saying, ‘Look, if we do this right, it’s Alain Resnais makes Get Carter.”

The Limey 1999 Terence Stamp Luis Guzman

One innovation by Soderbergh was to sneak in archive footage of his lead actor from a much older film. Lem Dobbs gave Soderbergh his bootleg copy of a 1967 crime drama starring Terrence Stamp and Carol White titled Poor Cow, Ken Loach’s debut feature film as director. Dobbs enthused, “The thing about Poor Cow is that it’s a Ken Loach film, so it had the famous Ken Loach grainy, documentary look to it, so it’s almost as if it’s not clips from another film. It’s almost as if it is memories or home movies of an actual past. It’s also the only film where Terence Stamp looks normal in. So many of the films from his heyday he has kind of strange dyed blonde hair or he’s got a period moustache or there’s something odd or it’s Modesty Blaise — it’s some wacky film. Poor Cow is the one film where Terence Stamp looks like he probably looked at that time. Like himself.” Soderbergh met Ken Loach and received the director’s blessing to poach Poor Cow, but negotiating legal clearances with two separate copyright holders stretched well into post-production.

With help from editor Sarah Flack, Soderbergh experimented with a disjointed editing style. A scene between Wilson and Elaine jumps between her apartment, a boardwalk and a diner, but unfolds as one conversation, making it unclear whose point of view we’re experiencing and how reliable it is. Soderbergh explained, “Editing is a very intensive and collaborative period. It’s where the film is finally being made, in a way. And in this case, there was a lot of experimentation. Some of our early versions went too far and resulted in something that was almost incoherent to people who had worked on the film. And we ended up backing off a little bit, and finding a better balance between the sort of abstract impressionistic side of the movie and the straightforward narrative side. That just required a bit of trial and error. That’s normal, but there was more in this film than a lot of other films I’ve made. But editing was really fun.”

The Limey 1999 Terence Stamp

One casualty in the editing of The Limey became Ann-Margret. Soderbergh explained, “She had a scene as Peter Fonda’s ex-wife when he shows up at the house in Big Sur. It was a scene that culminated in a lengthy monologue that I really liked, that I had asked Lem to write. I remember one day, I told him I had recently seen Network. And I said, ‘Gosh, you know, people used to have monologues in movies. I don’t feel like they have monologues any more.’ And Lem wrote this scene with Peter Fonda’s ex-wife doing a lengthy tirade about Peter and his lifestyle. And it all turned out very well. The problem is it had to be all or nothing. It was an eight-minute sequence. If it’s Ann-Margret, you can’t just have it be a minute. I decided, based on the rhythm of the movie and my sense that Peter’s character didn’t really need much more backstory than it had, that I just had to pull the whole thing out. That was a difficult call to make. But I felt that an eight-minute sequence right there really brought the film to a halt. And I decided to keep it going.”

Instead of screening The Limey to a test audience recruited at a mall, Soderbergh took an alternate approach. “In this case, the only screenings I had were for friends. I had called Artisan and said that in my opinion, we would be throwing our money away to do formal previews on this movie, because it’s never going to score very well. It’s the type of film that will not benefit from having these screenings. What I preferred to do was screen it for the most intelligent group of friends I could put together, and get ideas that way. They agreed. So I did just three or four screenings where I invited a different group of friends each time. It was writers, directors, actors, some other friends who are not in the film business, people who are reasonably intelligent and have a relationship with me that allows them to speak very frankly. Sometimes it would be brand new people, and sometimes it would be people who had seen it before, so I could get a balance of opinions from people who were watching the film change. I think in this case, that was a good thing to do.”

The Limey 1999 Amelia Heinle

Screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May and the Toronto Film Festival in September, The Limey opened October 1999 in the United States to very favorable reviews.  Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times: “Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey is the story of two older guys who hire their killers, and another who is a do-it-yourselfer. In its quiet and murderous way, it is like the delayed final act of an old movie about drugs, guns and revenge.” Charles Taylor, “Like Point Blank, The Limey is an art noir that courts pretension but just manages to keep from succumbing to it.” Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle: “Above all, Soderbergh is a master of narrative economy, stripping down images and information to their essential components, always searching for the most efficient and visually frugal means of telling his stories. The Limey continues in the vein he established with his previous film Out of Sight — straightforward genre pieces that he treats as anything but straightforward.”

The Limey was ignored in theaters, but $3.2 million at the U.S. box office did little to erase Soderbergh’s experimental streak. “I respect my audience, and I assume they come to the theater with a certain level of intelligence, but I don’t pander to them. I feel like, ‘Look, I’m going to take you somewhere, you can go or not go, but here is where we’re going’. I like that attitude when I see movies. We’re doing our thing. When we tested Out of Sight, it didn’t score very well. People wrote down, ‘I hate stories that are told this way’. There are people that just can’t stand a narrative that doesn’t go A-B-C-D. Do I think the average moviegoer today is a little less discerning than they were thirty years ago? Yeah, maybe. Back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in the U.S., people seemed more willing to go to a movie to have an unexpected experience. Today, people tend to want to know what they’re going to experience before they go, and they get upset if they don’t get what they wanted.” One year later, Soderbergh would win an Academy Award for Best Director with Traffic (2000), a fragmented exploration of the war on drugs that ran away with grosses of $207.5 million worldwide.

The Limey 1999 Terence Stamp William Lucking

Where’d You Get All of This?
The Limey. DVD audio commentary with Steven Soderbergh & Lem Dobbs. Artisan Home Entertainment (1999)

“Independent Means: Getting Closer — With The Limey, Steven Soderbergh continues to break down the barriers between actor and director” By Jamie Painter. Back Stage West, 7 October 1999

“Soderbergh Finds Success Is No Sellout” By Rene Rodriguez. The Miami Herald, 10 October 1999

“Steven Soderbergh Interview” By Keith Phipps. The Onion

“Soderbergh Brings Past, Present Together in The Limey By Elif Cercel. Directors World, 15 November 15, 1999

“Dan Schneider Interview 21: Lem Dobbs” By Dan Schneider. Cosmetica, 25 January 2009

Tags: Bathtub scene · Crooked officer · Cult favorite · Dreams and visions · Gangsters and hoodlums · Hitman · Interrogation · Murder mystery · Road trip · Shootout

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 J.D. // Feb 9, 2010 at 9:18 am

    What an excellent review for one of Soderbergh’s best film. What I like most about this film is how the editing and pacing try to replicate the way Wilson’s mind is working as he tries to sort out and come to grips with his daughter’s death.

    While the absence of Ann-Margret’s scene is regrettable, I think Soderbergh did the right thing keep the film as lean as it is.

    I’m glad you included the link to that epic interview with Dobbs at Cosmetica. Wow, was that a helluva read! Amazing stuff. I am really looking forward to Dobbs’ new collaboration with Soderbergh in a big way.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Feb 9, 2010 at 11:54 am

    J.D.: Thanks so much for commenting. The interview Dan Schneider conducted with Lem Dobbs is a must-read. I also found the DVD audio commentary tremendously insightful. Soderbergh is one of the few directors willing to share the mic with the screenwriter. Dobbs pays him back by making no bones about what he finds lacking in the movie and in Soderbergh as a director. At one point, Soderbergh shoots back, “So, when are you going to direct?” Great stuff and I’m looking forward to the next Soderbergh/Dobbs collaboration myself.

  • 3 J.D. // Feb 9, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Yeah, that commentary is one for the ages. I also like the one he does with Scott Frank for the OUT OF SIGHT DVD… full of wonderful dry humor as is Soderbergh’s trademark.

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