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Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Sunburn (1979)

My notes on Sunburn (1979

Continuing my brief tour through films adapted from novels by Stanley Ellin, I caught up with this comedy thriller which I skipped on initial release.  A vehicle for TV star Farrah Fawcett-Majors, it didn’t make her click as a big-screen leading lady and I tend to get her films mixed up with a run of similar duds built around Bo Derek – the blonde who got through this period and went on to succeed was Goldie Hawn, and this film would have been much more entertaining if Charles Grodin had Goldie to play off rather than a smiling hairdo in fab outfits.

Based on Ellin’s The Bind, it’s sort of a fusion of What’s Up Doc and The Long Goodbye as insurance investigator Jake Decker (Grodin) needs a woman to pose as his wife while he delves into a suspect death in a colony of rich folks in Acapulco – and gets stuck with Ellie (FFM), a ditz who meets cute with him on a plane by spilling a cocktail on his white trousers so it looks like he’s pissed himself.  Given that the script – by Stephen Oliver, actor James Booth (who isn’t in it) and produce John Daly (the non-David Hemmings half of Hemdale) – is built around giving Farrah a star turn, her character is still a void.  At one point she says she’s just come out of a violently abusive marriage, which is a solemn note for a romp and doesn’t turn out to have any thematic tie with the rest of the plot … and while she flounders whenever pressed into doing undercover stuff (both her big spy-type missions involve changing into bathing suits) she also spots a few clues that the trained PI misses.  I wondered whether there was a draft in which the clumsiness was a feint and Ellie turned out to be a rival detective out to break the case first.  When she gets behind the wheel of a car near the climax, she suddenly develops the sort of stunt driving skills associated with Carey Loftin and evades pursuit bikers and bad guy cars (driving through a corrida in mid-bullfight at one point) in a manner that at least gives director Richard C. Sarafian a chance to freshen up his old Vanishing Point action skills.  But, no, Ellie’s just a lucky idiot who gets handed wins by the film without her needing to put in every effort.

The rest of the detection is mostly handled by Decker’s local leg-man Marcus (Art Carney), who unpicks the reasons why a dead man was being blackmailed by some of his neighbours and the mob.  Joan Collins has a prominent bit as a local nymphomaniac who has fantasies of being ravaged by Spider-Man or the Incredible Hulk (both on TV in the ‘70s) and is rather nastily treated by the film and its heroine (Ellie has a catty speech about the Collins character’s age).  The rest of the cast runs to solid character people like William Daniels, John Hillerman, Seymour Cassel, Eleanor Parker, Keenan Wynn, Jack Kruschen and Alejandro Rey – all of whom get so little to do that I suspect there was a much longer cut that got hacked down to this before it got shoved out to cinemas.  After a run of flops which included Somebody Killed Her Husband and Saturn 3, Fawcett suprisingly turned into a decent character actress in a few tough ‘issue’ movies (the DV drama The Burning Bed, the rape-revenge film Extremities).

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