Philip Concannon lets himself get taken for a ride by Linda Fiorentino, as he rewatches The Last Seduction.
It doesn’t take long for The Last Seduction to give us a sense of the kind of person Bridget Gregory is. The film opens in a telemarketing office, where Bridget (Linda Fiorentino) strides purposefully around a team of men who are making calls and trying to offload some commemorative coins. If they fail, Bridget admonishes and humiliates them; ‘A minute and fifty seconds, Bernie?’ she tells one as he hangs up the phone, ‘You expect these leads to grow on fucking trees?’ When one of her employees does make a sale she gives him a $100 bonus, after he has declined her offer of some of the supposedly rare coin that they are in the business of selling. ‘Wise man’ she says, sounding disappointed.
There aren’t a lot of wise men in The Last Seduction, and that’s just the way Bridget Gregory likes it. She’s a woman who knows what she wants and will use her power over men to obtain it. Her first victim is her husband Clay (Bill Pullman), an aspiring doctor who has a sideline selling drugs and has just scored $700,000 with a case full of pharmaceutical cocaine. When he’s in the shower, she disappears with the cash in her bag, fleeing New York and leaving him to face some insistent loan sharks empty-handed. She ends up in Beston, a small town near Buffalo, and decides to lie low here, adopting the identity Wendy Kroy and plotting her next move. If the men of New York are no match for Bridget Gregory, then what chance do the men of this quaint little town have?
The Last Seduction was the second neo-noir directed by John Dahl in the space of a year. His first, Red Rock West starred Nicolas Cage as an ordinary guy who takes the opportunity to get his hands on a large amount of money and quickly finds himself in over his head. In The Last Seduction, Dahl and screenwriter Steve Barancik shift the focus to that other noir staple, the femme fatale, and they’ve clearly tried to create the ultimate example of this archetype, making no attempt to soften or mitigate her amoral character. In fact, by making her the focus of the film rather than having a male protagonist who is drawn into her web, they align us with her point-of-view and encourage us to enjoy her cruel manipulation of those around her. Buoyed along by the jazzy score and Barancik’s economical, witty screenplay, there’s no denying that The Last Seduction is an enormously enjoyable film.
A lot of the film’s success has to do with getting the most important casting choice right. Linda Fiorentino had been acting for almost a decade by 1994 and had a handful of mostly unmemorable roles to her name, with perhaps the standout being her supporting turn in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. There was little evidence to suggest that she could carry a film as confidently as she does here, but The Last Seduction is one of those perfect meetings of actor and character that instantly ensures it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the same role. There’s a great contrast between Fiorentino’s severe demeanour and the gullible openness of Peter Berg as Mike, the Beston local who falls head-over-heels for this city girl and can’t understand why she doesn’t want anything more from their relationship than a ‘designated fuck’. At one point, after pestering her to stay and talk instead of just grabbing her clothes and disappearing into the night, it almost looks like Mike has finally reached her. ‘I guess it’s because I’ve been hurt before, I don’t want to get close to anyone right now’ she tells him, her features softening and a wounded quality appearing in her eyes. ‘You’re different from the others, Mike…I feel like maybe I could love you’. Just as Mike is about to savour his breakthrough, Bridget’s face hardens again and she sarcastically drawls, ‘Will that do?’
So much of what makes The Last Seduction tick centres on what Fiorentino does with her face. Aside from those few brief occasions when she needs to appear meek and submissive, her expression barely changes, but you can always see the calculation and focus in her eyes. There’s a great shot of her sitting at a bar listening to Mike talk about his job and working out how she can utilise this information, and the camera slowly pans forward on her face in a way that reminded me of De Niro at the bar in Goodfellas deciding who to have killed. Dahl’s direction is a masterclass in tight, economical storytelling and Barancik’s debut screenplay is superbly constructed, balancing a genuinely clever and involving plot with a heavy dose of black comedy and plenty of sharp dialogue. Fiorentino is often talked about as one of the great Oscar omissions, with the film’s appearance on television making it ineligible for the 1995 Academy Awards, and it’s true that she would have been a welcome addition to the Best Actress field, but I’d like to think that Barancik would have given Quentin Tarantino a run for his money in the Best Original Screenplay category too.
The Last Seduction was a career peak for many of those involved. Barancik wrote a straight-to-video sequel, Dahl directed a couple of moderately entertaining films (Rounders and Joy Ride) before turning to television, and Fiorentino never again found a showcase for her particular talents (one wonders how her career would have developed if the Last Seduction had been made in 1944 instead of 1994). She has only taken on one acting role since 2002 and doesn’t look likely to return, but she has left an indelible mark on cinema with one of the screen’s great wicked women. We’ll always have Bridget Gregory, or should I say, she’ll always have us.
The Last Seduction is out on Blu-ray on Monday.