Wednesday, April 11, 2012

90. LOCAL HERO (1983)

This comic marginal fantasy from Scot director Bill Forsyth is one of my favorite films of the 1980s, and I'm hardly alone in this. Since its mooted theatrical release, its reputation has grown well beyond traditional cult status via home video. Understated yet eloquent, realist yet magical, political but easygoing, and woven to accomodate countless viewings, LOCAL HERO follows a Texas oil rep named McIntyre (Peter Riegert) to a stretch of four fairly isolated miles of beach in Scotland with orders to acquire the whole territory for Knox Oil & Gas. He's given his traveling orders by the company president, Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster), who attempts to keep his ego in place with abusive therapy while also looking for new ways to win nominal immortality, of which opening a new oil refinery in Scotland is one.

In the manner of a select group of films about people who fall under the spell of an unfamiliar place untouched by so-called "progress," notably Powell & Pressburger's I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING!, LOCAL HERO attends to the period of negotiations between McIntyre and the local village's amiable combination lawyer-innkeeper-bartender, Gordon Urquhart (Denis Lawson) -- during which he falls progressively in love with the scenery and, in a sweetly underplayed sidecar to the events, infatuated with Gordon's wife Stella (Jennifer Black). Meanwhile, McIntyre's local handler Danny Oldsen (Peter Capaldi) stands by, watching the enchanting sea waters for return visits from a web-toed oceanographer named Marina (Jenny Seagrove).

Everyone in the little village is an exquisite miniature: a motorcyclist always threatening to run people over, the token punk girl, the middle-aged storekeeper who lives for the return visits of a married Russian seaman (who may well be the father of a baby no other local man can seem to take credit for), the sign painter, the roof hammerer, the phone box monitor, the black African pastor named Macpherson, the movie star impressionist, and most of all, eccentric Ben (Fulton Mackay) who lives in a beach hut though he owns more land than any other villager. With the exceptions of Lancaster and John Gordon Sinclair (the GREGORY'S GIRL lead, who plays the cyclist), everyone else gives the performances of their careers. By the end of the film, when "Mac" has to return home to his cramped apartment in Houston, the viewer shares his feelings of having made new friends in a faraway place -- to the extent that a fairly oblique closing shot requires no explanation. As the years continue to go by, I can never watch this film without wondering what these dear people are doing now, which of them have prospered, which have died. Few films are more deserving of a sequel -- Forsyth made one for GREGORY'S GIRL, so I haven't completely given up hope.

Seeing LOCAL HERO again for the first time in probably a decade or so, I was surprised by how ill-planned and slapped-together the early Houston scenes felt; I didn't remember the film this way, but perhaps this is part of the reason why the Scottish locations feel so seductive and liberating. The lyrical score by Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler is Celtic without being cloying about it, and justly celebrated. Warner Home Video's 1999 DVD of the film features a stale-looking transfer that is nowadays looking in serious need of some freshening-up and a Blu-ray release. Next year will be its 30th anniversary. I can hear Mr. Happer saying, "Might be just the time for it."

Viewed on Warner Home Video DVD.

3 comments:

  1. Count me solidly amongst those who are totally in thrall to this film. It is, I think, genuinely unique.
    I often thought, that in the olden days of video stores, when the customers would ask the hopeful-Tarantino behind the counter for suggestions, that the most often asked question was "Do you have anything like LOCAL HERO?" Of course, and unfortunately, they didn't.
    I once rode 30 floors on an elevator with Peter Riegert, just the two of us. I wanted to thank him for LOCAL HERO, but didn't want to bother him. As I struggled with the situation, the elevator arrived at the ground floor and we exited, no words spoken between us. I can't tell you how much I regret that.
    Thanks for the great words on a great film.

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  2. You should have spoken to him -- it might have made his day. At least you could have said "Why did you call it Trudy?" or "Slainte!" as he left the elevator. ; )

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  3. I also continue to be interested in the fates of the film's characters.

    If a possible LOCAL HERO follow-up ends up being anything like the GREGORY'S GIRL follow-up, I hope Bill resists the temptation.

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