Crimes of Passion (1984)

Directed by Ken Russell. Written by Barry Sandler.

Puritan suburbia collides with downtown Sodom in Crimes of Passion, Ken Russell’s MTV-ified smutty thriller about love, lust and power.

John Laughlin is Bobby Grady: family man, devoted husband, small business owner. Out in the burbs, he works hard to provide, be it the necessities, life’s big and small luxuries, or pleasure in the bedroom. His wife, however, has been an unenthusiastic partner to his growing consternation, but he’s committed to being the devoted husband. So when she says the house needs a jacuzzi, he takes on some night work doing surveillance. 

Downtown, China Blue is the hottest lover for hire. With a wardrobe full of costumes, she satisfies a range of desires as she becomes a new person every time she opens the door to another visitor. It’s clear she gets a kick out of the constant self-invention and the thrill of power she holds over these men, much more of a motivational factor than the sticky money they hand her. But a self-proclaimed preacher who’s an obsessive and frequent customer swears he’ll save her, whatever it takes…

Bobby’s surveillance mission soon sees him cross paths with China Blue and the intersection of her fantasy-fulfilling passion and his wholesome affection sparks something in them both. Is it love or is it lust? Can such opposites coexist? Will the preacher get in the way?

Crimes of Passion is high camp and frenetic filmmaking. Russell’s film has all the sweaty sleaze you want and garish set design that’ll make your eyeballs feel dirty for watching. Streets are covered in filth, and inside is no better, with one peep show obscene enough to give King of Camp John Waters the ick. Russell’s fast cuts and playful filmmaking gives everything the feel of twisted nightmare, with obscene illustrations replacing live action in order to save Crimes from being denounced as pornographic. 

While suburban existence is a quiet one broken up by fraught conversation, life downtown is revelry set to music. It feels as if Russell spent the past three years before making Crimes just binging MTV, because there aren’t many moments he doesn’t just set to pop music and let it do the talking for him and his characters. One scene even has Bobby and his wife Amy (a quiet, demure performance by Annie Potts) plop down on the sofa, surrounded by their domestic accumulations, to watch a music video that’s a barely disguised critique of the bourgeois folly of material fascination. 

Kathleen Turner is splendid as China Blue. She gets the assignment, hamming it up and having as much fun acting as we do watching. It’s a much more outsized performance compared to her stunning debut in Body Heat but there’s the same underlying indomitability. Matty was nobody’s fool, and neither is China, only Turner lets herself be vulnerable here, if only for a brief moment. It’s not a chink in the armor as much as it is a moment that lets you further appreciate the fortitude of her character. 

Laughlin doesn’t hold his own opposite her, somehow not quite on the same page, and playing Bobby with too much of a straight edge. It’s naive almost, and while his character Bobby certainly is a boy playing at being a man, Laughlin doesn’t seem in on the joke, every bit the trick to Turner’s lady of the night.  

Not subdued is Anthony Perkins as the preacher with an obsessive eye for China Blue. Reaching his hands up to god (while wielding a sharp metallic vibrator) as his tongue lashes out at the sinners around him, Perkins gets into it with fervor and throws his body in along with it. He jaws out his lines, his body twitches and convulses with repressed and frustrated lust, but Perkins allows for enough sensibility to elevate it from thuggish creep to man of obvious danger. 

Crimes of Passion is deranged, sordid, gaudy, strangely tender for one delirious moment, and altogether an aggressive piece of pop culture filmmaking where everything is taken up a notch beyond what polite society deems necessary. That’s always fun, don’t let moralists tell you otherwise. 

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