There was a time when Jim McBride was considered one of the most important filmmakers in America. While 1967 was a breakthrough year for American film, with titles like Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, and The Graduate changing the landscape of film in the U.S, one often overlooked but highly influential release from that year was McBride's David Holzman's Diary. It's an experimental fake documentary in which a fictional filmmaker, David Holzman (L. M. Kit Carson) decides to document his life, much to the chagrin of those around him. The comedy comes in the way Holzman's destruction of his own life reflects his ignorance and self-obsession, while the film's more complex elements are related to the nature of documentary filmmaking in general. One of the big questions it asks is to what extent is even a documentary a performance, only without a fictional narrative and characters? The movie was and remains a big hit with cinefiles (and filmmakers-apparently DePalma's a big fan)-McBride however, has faded from scene. After David Holzman's Diary, he made a few more small personal independent projects before venturing into Hollywood and remaking Breathless, and collaborating with Dennis Quaid on the police thriller The Big Easy and the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire. He did a little bit of television work afterwards, but for the most part he's become obsolete over the last 25 years.
And yet he was a pretty great filmmaker for a while, American in name but more French in spirit (David Holzman's Diary is very French New Wave in its style, while also directly referencing Godard; the remake of Breathless speaks for itself). Even The Big Easy, which on paper looks like a standard 80s cop movie, is an anomaly in its genre. McBride has a wonderful way of sidestepping the plot in order to hone in on the characters, and the New Orleans setting, which rather than being just the backdrop for the film, becomes almost a character itself.
Quaid plays Remy McSwain, a police lieutenant, who, when the movie opens, is investigating a dead body found in the river. When he returns to the police station, he finds a beautiful blonde in his office, but rather than being that femme fatale one would expect from seeing so many classic noirs, she turns out to be a DA seeking information about the case (with a secret agenda to expose corruption in the police department). Her name is Anne (played by Ellen Barkin) and right from the get go her chemistry with Quaid is pretty amazing-like something out of a 40s screwball comedy. Remy is the ultimate ladies man and he uses the information that Anne wants to get her to go to dinner with him. Anne is all business and loves playing hard-to-get, yet one feels it's almost because she gets a kick out of seeing how far Remy will go to get her to spend time with him. It's clear from the beginning that she likes him, only she's reluctant because her task to find dirty cops might actually include exposing Remy.
The movie makes it pretty clear early on that Remy is indeed on the take, only rather than feeling too guilty about it, he sees it as part of the easy-going, anything-flies New Orleans culture. It's a culture where loose scruples are justified by hospitality and generosity, the fellowship of man and the interaction of the community through dancing, music, and delicious food. In a way, The Big Easy is about this very notion, and then how ultimately it's undermined by the fact that such a rationale allows people to do things that are ultimately beyond justification. And sure enough, Remy makes sure that some of the extra dough he's taking in is going towards his brother's college tuition, and yet this doesn't matter to Anne, who sees the New Orleans Way as a poor excuse for immoral and even criminal behavior.
So The Big Easy is a serious movie, and yet its tone never entirely reflects its deeper implications precisely because New Orleans itself is such an easy-going, fun-loving place. Yet it takes morality as seriously as any cop movie ever made. In merely dealing with the idea of rationalizing immorality, the movie does not reach the depths of something like Mystic River, yet the very fact that it cares deeply about morality, and doesn't sidestep ethics for the sake of car chases or loud shootouts, bespeaks McBride's intelligence as a filmmaker. He's made a cop movie unlike any other: a realistic murder story fueled by screwball antics and deep need to deconstruct a problematic culture without erasing it altogether.
Obviously McBride has made a true American original (having Remy cuddle up at night with an alligator stuffed animal would normally be corny, yet McBride's embracing of New Orleans lightheartedness makes it one of the movie's most enduring jokes), but the movie would lack much of its power if not for the presence of Quaid and Barkin. The more I see of Quaid and his massive grin in his early roles the more I appreciate him as an actor. He has a great way of playing up both his goofball persona and his more serious sensibility such that he creates characters that provide not just comic relief but sincere dramatic potency. He did it in Dreamscape, Breaking Away, InnerSpace, and he does it especially here (with a damn fine New Orleans accent to boot). Barkin of course made a career out playing sultry blondes, and yet here she goes against type by playing someone who, while confident in her professional life, is shy and sensitive and uneasy when it comes to personal connections (she's an outsider, the very opposite of New Orleans natives). There's a love scene early in the movie that, for an 80s film, shockingly is not gratuitous. It's handled in such a way as to actually develop the characters rather than exploit their bodies. And that's what the movie does as a whole: it takes genre trappings and explores something that really matters to real people.