Married to the Mob (1988) Directed by Jonathan Demme.  Michelle Pfeiffer, Matthew Modine, Dean Stockwell (104 min).

Angela DeMarco wants out—out from the mob family she’s married into, and she gets her chance when her husband is wacked.  But just when she thinks she is out, something pulls her back in, Tony the Tiger, a crime boss who is infatuated with her, played by Oscar-nominated Dean Stockwell.  She’s pursued by him, but also by a righteous FBI agent played by Matthew Modine creating a comic yet menacing romantic triangle.  The score is supplied by David Byrne, fresh off Demme’s Talking Head doc, Stop Making Sense. There are so many BAD gangster comedies, but not this one it’s “Godfather kitsch… Hold on to your kneecaps — it’s a Cosa Nostra Moonstruck” (Rita Kemply in Washington Post).

Jonathan Demme professed a love for gangster movies, but when he took his turn at directing one, he decided on a comedy rather than a violent drama.  And, while there is a lot of carnage in this film, it is relatively bloodless.  Screenwriters Barry Strugatz and Mark R. Burns attended mafia trials in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and discovered that present-day gangsters tended to live discreetly in suburbia.   One of the ongoing jokes in the film is that while the Mob may be murderers, the scariest person is Connie, Tony the Tiger’s wife, played by Mercedes Ruel.  Her love for Tony can turn immediately into blistering hate, and her fury will bring everything crashing down.  Connie is the one who is truly married to the mob.

Demme does have one trait that set him apart from many of his Hollywood peers of the day–a willingness to make movies about unpredictable, independent women, a character rarely seen at the time in American films. “I’ve always been a sucker for a story where someone sets a reasonably heroic task for themselves and eventually achieves their goal,” he said. “I admire it whether it’s a man or woman who does it, though I guess it’s more appealing when a woman does it because it’s so much tougher for women to achieve things in a male world” (LA Times).

“Having learned his trade making low-budget quickies for Roger Corman, Demme has always celebrated American junk culture. It must run in the family–Demme’s father did publicity for the Fontainebleau, Miami Beach’s gaudiest luxury hotel” (LA Times).

Part of the appeal of organized crime films is the gangster swagger.  Dating back to the earliest days of the movie genre, sartorial style has always been an important, attractive element of the gangster lifestyle.  “I’ve always wondered why we’re so fascinated by the mob—and the bottom line may be that gangsters just wear great outfits.  Their style is so fantastic that you almost forget about what the people are like inside those clothes” said Demme.  The sleek tailored suits of the men are one thing, but the over-the-top haute 80s style of the women in something else, shoulder padded and bedazzled, with our modern eye it’s almost impossible to tell which of Colleen Atwood’s hilarious costumes are a joke, and which are simply the style of the day. David Denby in his New York Magazine review calls Demme’s mob, with their rococo taste in interior decoration, and silky leopard skin print attire “aristocrats of American junk.”

One of the themes of the film is that everyone deserves a second chance.  Angela DeMarco yearns for a start outside of the confines of the Mafia environment in which she is entangled.  “I could identify with Angela.  I think a great many women can.  She’s taking control of her life, which is both exciting and terrifying” said Pfieffer.  She had read the script and thought Demme was not interested in casting her, after a misunderstanding they hit it off; “Within 10 minutes we were talking about how my character should do her hair.”  Her character has echoes of the 1930s screwball heroine, unconventional but determined, beautiful but funny.  She’s honest in her aspirations to leave her former life behind, but nobody believes her, not the mob, and not the FBI either.

The LA Times celebrated Demme’s directorial style. “But for Jonathan, the process of making movies is just as important as the end result. He wants you to enjoy yourself. I’ve worked for some directors who treat above-the-line people (the actors) like royalty, but below-the-line people (crew members) like peasants. But Jonathan treats everybody the same.”

Dean Stockwell, who plays amorous mafia don Tony Russo has had a diverse career, from his MGM career as a child star after which he abandoned Hollywood for a time, to Blue Velvet.  “Originally I had a completely different actor in mind,” Demme said. “But then I saw Dean’s picture in a trade ad and I thought, ‘Who the hell is this? Dean Stockwell’

“He’s such a chameleon that I didn’t even recognize him. That’s what makes him special–he has such mercurial presence as an actor…Stockwell relished the notion of playing a mobster so much that once he fell into character, he rarely came out. “Whenever he’d come to the set, we’d treat him as Tony the Tiger, bowing and scraping, paying homage to him,” said Demme. “Dean was completely in character–talking like a gangster, walking like a gangster, always rolling his neck around like he was ready for a massage. “Then he’d look around the set–very imperially–and say, ‘It’s so nice to see how you people operate in the movie business.’ ” LA Times.

Demme mused on the attractiveness of the milieu, “They’re like figures who’ve made a deal with the Devil–they’ve abandoned any sense of conscience and have been rewarded with immortality.  That’s why we treat them as heroic characters in the movies. Because they’re not subject to the same fears and insecurities that we are. They get to celebrate their lives. They live with such freedom–freedom from conscience, from responsibility. . . .” LA Times.

The film was shot on location in Manhattan, Long Island and Miami Beach.  Only one set was constructed for the film—I’m guessing Angela’s apartment.  I just recently learned why some New York kitchens have bathtubs in them.  When the city’s new tenement laws demanded a tub in every apartment, in many cases the largest room in the house was the kitchen, and it was the only space that could accommodate one.

Vulture celebrated Married to the Mob as perhaps Demme’s best film, “even if it usually gets mentioned behind titles like Melvin and Howard, Philadelphia, Stop Making Sense, Silence of the Lambs, and Married to the Mob’s 1986 companion piece Something Wild in discussions of his best films. It’s loose and breezy and fun and packed with colorful characters (some of whom just wander in to steal a scene before departing), a light tale of crime and misadventure. But it balances all that against a soulfulness to match its protagonist’s yearning for something more. Demme delivered on the promise of the assignment, then he delivered even more. Just like he always did.”

Summer 1988 was a great one for the movies.  Your movie-going choices would have included Die Hard, Coming to America, Big, Bull Durham, and Midnight Run.

“It’s a gangster picture,” he said. “But it’s an escapist film, not a film about organized crime. When you start talking about real mob activities—illegal dumping of toxic wastes, drug peddling . . . I bet if I’d thought about it too much, I could never have made a comedy.” LA Times.

DVD liner notes, New York Magazine August 15 1988, p. 59 review by David Denby,