Sea of Love (1989)

Director: Harold Becker

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Do you remember
When we met
That’s the day
I knew you were my pet

Female serial killers are few and far between in the movies, but when they hit theatres, they usually create a sensation. Friday the 13th (1980) trafficked in the usual revenge-seeking psychokiller conception of a female serial killer; I Spit on Your Grave (1978) took the psycho part out of the equation, but still gave revenge as the main motive, as did 1983’s Sudden Impact. Basic Instinct (1992) blasted Sharon Stone and her crotch onto the Hollywood map, while enraging feminists, in general, and lesbians, in particular, for perpetuating the stereotype of the man-hating lesbian. Monster (2003), which tells the story of real-life killer Aileen Wournos, garnered Charlize Theron an Oscar for both a riveting performance and her willingness to hide her loveliness under piles of make-up; again, revenge and lesbianism are linked explicitly and implicitly to her murderous ways.

Then we have Sea of Love, a genuine oddity in the history of movie-making. Coming as a reverberating ripple from the tidal wave of second-wave feminism, it plays unironically with the possibility that a straight female is killing men.

Al Pacino plays Frank Keller, a 20-year veteran of the New York Police Department who is facing a lonely, alcoholic retirement as a divorced and very unattached man. He is investigating a murder in a Manhattan apartment; a man has been found lying naked, face down on his own bed with a bullet in his head. He was discovered by his next-door neighbor who had come to complain about a recording of “Sea of Love” that had been playing in an endless loop on his old-fashioned turntable.

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Keller and Det. Gruber (Richard Jenkins)—husband of Keller’s ex-wife—have no real leads until Det. Sherman Touhey (John Goodman) comes to them with a similar case in Queens. They link the killings to a singles magazine and the fact that the men used poems to attract responses. Keller and Touhey become partners on the case and theorize that a woman is the “doer,” imagining anger/revenge scenarios to explain her crimes. They decide to place their own ad, have drinks with the women who answer it, take fingerprints off their cocktail glasses, and eventually find a match to the prints at the crime scenes. The set-up works fine until Helen Cruger (Ellen Barkin) takes the seat in front of Keller, sizes him up quickly, decides they have no chemistry, and leaves without even picking up her wine glass.

The investigation continues fruitlessly, briefly detouring to a black grocery delivery boy, until Frank runs into Helen at a convenience store. When she accuses him of not writing the poem he placed as his ad, he tells her he used a poem his father (William Hickey) gave him, one Frank’s mother had written in high school during his parents’ courtship. Impressed, Helen decides to give Frank another chance, and Frank plots to fingerprint her. He ends up falling for her instead. On the verge of asking her to move in with him, he becomes convinced she is the killer, and the film moves rapidly to its climax and denouement.

This sounds like an exciting thriller—and it is—but director Becker and Richard Price, one of the smartest screenwriters around, have something more substantial on their minds than giving audiences a roller coaster ride. Much like Frank’s adoption of a false front to catch a killer, they use the cover story of the murder investigation to explore the state of heterosexual relationships that second-wave feminism had shaken to the core.

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As the film begins, Becker takes us to the old Times Square teeming with strip joints and hookers. This is an interesting way to signal not only the noirish aspects of the cover story, but also the squalor that characterized traditional male-female relationships—the unveiled picture of Dorian Gray, so to speak. It is also smart to feature a man in full midlife crisis as the protagonist. Stripped of his place at the head of a household and a loss of career identity looming, Frank represents Man at his most vulnerable. The men around him in the squad room and among those he questions carry on as though nothing has changed—telling dirty jokes, Sherman celebrating his daughter’s marriage with extended family and friends dancing the night away; it seems only Frank knows that the world has turned upside down. When he and Helen share a sweet moment in bed, he says, “Neither of us lives for our jobs.” Helen answers, “I guess I live for love. What else is there?” Although this may seem like a traditionally female answer, it’s clear that this lesson is something Frank is meant to learn, and learn the hard way. When Frank questions how a guy he barely spoke to in six years on the job could have stolen his wife, Gruber says, “Maybe you weren’t giving her what she wanted.” Disparagement of the emo or sensitive man is nothing but whistling in the wind for a traditional masculine culture that cannot accept that men need to find what is soft and vulnerable within themselves, not locate it externally among their women.

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The film also allows us to see women in a fresh light. We get to see Helen at the shoe store she manages, serving her customers with smooth confidence. She has a daughter, conceived during her bad first marriage; she left her husband as soon as she knew she was pregnant and made a life for them on her own, a move Frank finds incredibly gutsy. She is aggressively carnal; when she and Frank have sex for the first time, she looks as though she is going to devour him. Frank doesn’t even use a crude term to refer to their physical relationship, preferring to say “making love” when he tells Sherman how bad he feels about spying on her.

Perhaps the ultimate recognition of women as they really might be is the fact that nobody at the NYPD questions the idea that a heterosexual woman could be the serial killer. Certainly this is not an equality women might want to accept, but it does recognize that women are capable of the full range of emotions and of acting on those emotions. Tellingly, Sherman and Frank don’t think their shooter was motivated by a hatred of men or really even revenge; they posit that she might not have liked the men’s performance in bed or the fact that they sleep around. That’s a reverse on why men traditionally ditch or kill their wives and girlfriends.

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The performances are quite interesting in this film. Ellen Barkin is at her sexiest; while she does not abandon vulnerability, her embrace of assertiveness ensures that she will not be considered mere window dressing by any but the most obtuse moviegoer. John Goodman is a sympathetic partner, recognizing Frank’s plight and understanding the weaknesses that flesh is heir to.

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But this film really belongs to Al Pacino. He contains his tendency to go too big, while using it appropriately to convey Frank’s confusion, such as when he is about to bed Helen and sees a gun in her purse. Panicked that he almost literally has been caught with his pants down with the killer, he locks her in a closet and must stammer his way to an apology when he realizes that the gun is a starter’s pistol that she carries to scare off would-be muggers. “What this city does to a person,” is all Frank can say in a supremely human moment. More impressive is the undercurrent of mixed messages and motives behind Frank’s actions. Frank betrays himself in a drunken moment when he chides Helen for dating through the personals and reveals that for him it was part of his job. Later, he lies about the sting as a way to reveal a deeper truth—that he got scared when he realized how attached he was to Helen and tried to foul up their relationship. This performance of duality—distrust of Helen as both a woman and a suspect—adds a complex layer to an already intricately constructed film.

The most telling moment of all—a beautiful scene that seems almost like a throwaway—occurs when Frank spies Helen’s collection of 45s and finds a recording of “Sea of Love” among them. He pulls the record out of its case, only to have Helen surprise him in the act. Shaken by this marker toward her guilt, he asks her about it. She says she hasn’t looked at those records in years. “I kept them to leave to my daughter,” she says. “They might be worth something some day.” Although 50s-style romance with women as pets was dead to these characters, this tidy scene sounds the film’s hope that love might once again be so simple, sweet, and precious.

  • Mykal Banta spoke:
    5th/09/2009 to 7:35 pm

    Marilyn: I never thought I would see this film posted anywhere, but here it is. I guess these little gems found in the cracks is why I like your posts so much.
    You’ve said it all here – what makes this film special, and which you highlight so well, is the underused and teetering-on-forgotten Ellen Barkin; with her harsh, angular sexuality – still holding out for the innocence of love. I think for me it is the inherent toughness of her manner and face juxtaposed with a very sweet yearning that made the film work. Very moving.
    Great post. – Mykal

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/09/2009 to 7:54 pm

    Thanks, Mykal, for the wonderful compliment. The hubby had never seen this, and it gave me a chance to really look at it from all angles. It’s so much more than people give it credit for, and Pacino and Barkin really make this work.

  • Rod spoke:
    5th/09/2009 to 9:22 pm

    This is a great piece, Mare. Ole Sea of Love‘s been an institution in my house virtually since it came out. Yes, Pacino’s at his absolute finest here, and god I wish someone had given him an Oscar for this so he wouldn’t have been encouraged by Scent of a Woman to throw out the last vestiges of dignity; and Barkin never got a better role. I also really love the supporting performances – Goodman, Jenkins, Hickey, and Michael Rooker whom you haven’t mentioned, who always looks like he can break any star you throw at him in half.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/09/2009 to 10:14 pm

    Thanks, Rod. I wanted to mention everyone in this film – loved Christine Estabrook as the “balloon” lady and I always adore John Spencer in anything. Rooker certainly is a wonderful actor and the few clues left about him “corn-ho” instead of “cornrow” as a clue about his state of mind. I read Ebert’s review that the solution was out of left field, but it wasn’t really.

  • Greg F spoke:
    6th/09/2009 to 12:08 am

    I want to call you “Mare” too but don’t think I can pull it off like that dashing Aussie that shares your site here. That said, Marilyn, I have to see this again because I don’t remember any of this. I remember liking it but not much more. I do remember, unfortunately, who the killer is so the movie will hold no surprises for me there but the rest is just a “cop movie” blur in my mind. Remember, it was twenty years ago when I saw this. I’m sure having read this that it’s much more than I remember, I just wish I’d forgotten who the killer is.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/09/2009 to 10:01 am

    Me, too, Greg. I told Shane I envied him that he was coming to it fresh. That said, it is much easier to appreciate all the small, but precise details and the parallels between Frank’s cop behavior and his personal behavior and how confused he is. The distance of 20 years also helps put the sociological aspects of this film into perspective. It’s an incredibly smart and compassionate film.

  • Yann spoke:
    7th/09/2009 to 8:04 am

    Wow, thanks a lot, Marilyn, for this entry – I’ve always loved this film, but have never attempted to analyse why. Then I come across your review today and you have captured much of what has been lingering in the preverbal regions of my brain and put it into writing.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/09/2009 to 10:27 am

    My pleasure, Yann. I’m not at all surprised by the general love for this film. Sometimes we ned to be reminded of such things. My love life wasn’t far from this film’s depiction at the time it came out – I’m glad I don’t live there anymore, but this film really put things in perspective for me, particularly when Sherman wonders in bewilderment why so many accomplished women are single. I read a comment in another review that this was the last film Price the novelist wrote; after this, it was Price the screenwriter. I like that, because the film does have the layers a good novel does.

  • J.D. spoke:
    8th/09/2009 to 12:49 pm

    Excellent post! Wow, I haven’t thought about this film in years but it is a potent reminder of all kinds of great films that slipped through the cracks in the ’80s that seem to have been forgotten when people slam it as a weak decade for films.
    Ellen Barkin was so good and beautiful in this film. I just watched her in EDDIE & THE CRUISERS awhile ago and she looks so young in that one! But I always thought that this film and THE BIG EASY were career high points for her.
    I wonder if Steven Soderbergh is a fan of this film seeing as how he teamed up Pacino and Barkin again in OCEAN’S THIRTEEN? Hmm…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/09/2009 to 12:56 pm

    Thanks, J.D. I can never forget about Ellen Barkin because the hubby has a persistent crush on her.

  • Rick spoke:
    8th/09/2009 to 10:38 pm

    I like this piece, Marilyn, and like Greg, I don’t dare call you “Mare.” This was, I recall, something of a come-back for Pacino, after some substance abuse issues. Don’t remember the feminist subtext, though, but at the time I saw it I wouldn’t have.

  • bill r. spoke:
    9th/09/2009 to 12:50 pm

    It’s hard for me to believe that I still have never seen this movie, despite the fact that it was written by Price, one of America’s great living novelists (it’s true!) I’ve gotten the impression that Price has never taken screenwriting all that seriously (he’s more or less said as much), and what I have seen of his forays into that realm are generally just a shadow of his novels. But I should really give Sea of Love a look-see. It’s probably about time.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/09/2009 to 12:53 pm

    Rick – I don’t think people see subtext when they’re in the middle of a change as easily as when they’re a few years out. I know I didn’t. I’m glad you like the review. It was actually a very intense experience to write it.
    Bill – I think you would like this film. It’s got a few holes here and there (see Joe Valdez’s write-up at This Distracted Globe for production notes), but they don’t detract from the smartness of this script and its execution.

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