Those of you still pondering Dustin’s posts on the Schreiber Theory (screenwriters are the authors of the film, not directors, as the auteur theory posits) would do yourselves a great service in watching Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey (1999) and listening to the filmmaker’s infamous commentary track with screenwriter Lem Dobbs (Kafka, Dark City). Dobbs, a crotchety screenwriter if there ever was one, takes Soderbergh to task for taking his character-driven noir and turning it into an exercise in stylistically driven minimalism. The screenwriter quips, and I strongly recommend Scott Tobias’s breakdown of the commentary for anyone interested in the Cliff Notes version, “People ask me, ‘Do you like this movie?’ And as a disinterested, objective filmgoer who had nothing to do with it, I’d say it’s a good movie. I’d recommend it to my friends. But as a screenwriter, I think it’s crippled.” The message of the overall commentary, at least in my opinion, is that film production is a system of checks and balances. In this case, Dobbs provided Soderbergh with a well-written but typical revenge flick that the director turned into something unique.
On that note, let’s start with the typical. The Limey tells the story of an aging British hood named Wilson (Terence Stamp) who has recently been released from prison for armed robbery. Upon his release, Wilson ventures to Los Angeles to investigate the death of his daughter Jenny (Melissa George), suspecting foul play in the form of her ex-boyfriend, wealthy record producer Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda). Thanks to the assistance of two of Jenny’s acquaintances (Luis Guzmán and Leslie Ann Warren), Wilson plots his revenge on Terry, who is well protected by his chief of security (Barry Newman) and a pair of hit men (Joe Dallesandro and Nicky Katt). C’est tout; for a revenge/mystery flick, The Limey is cut and dry.
That is not, of course, a criticism of the film. The minimalism of the plot provides Soderbergh with the opportunity to experiment with certain stylistic devices that add characterization without much use of the spoken word, not an easy feat. First, Soderbergh relies on our knowledge of other Stamp/Fonda/Newman films to elaborate on the characters. Via his mobilization of intertextuality, linking Stamp to Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967) Soderbergh forces us to associate Wilson of The Limey with his thieving character in Loach’s film, filling in the characterization for the filmmaker. Similarly, Newman is associated with Vanishing Point (1971) and Fonda is linked to Easy Rider (1969), the latter chiefly through monologues about motorcycles and the 1960s. As Valentine notes, “Did you ever dream about a place you never really recall being to before? A place that maybe only exists in your imagination? Some place far away, half remembered when you wake up. When you were there, though, you knew the language. You knew your way around. That was the sixties.” Valentine’s read of the 1960s is how this film feels to the viewer: somewhat familiar thanks to plot and the narrative shorthand, but still unique enough to stand on its own.
The second tool Soderbergh mobilizes in order to force us into an active headspace, connecting the dots for him in an economic fashion, is subjective editing. We are thrust into Wilson’s state of mind thanks to non-linear editing as dialogues begin in restaurants and continue on oceanside piers without so much as an establishing shot or temporal break in the content of the discussion and potential realities play out through Wilson’s head (shooting Valentine at his house or just staring him down for instance). In doing so, Soderbergh evokes our empathy for Wilson and his mission without the use of dialogue or stacking the deck against the film’s villain, who is more weak than evil. Essentially, the characters are fleshed out cinematically rather than literarily.
This could (and probably did) rub some viewers the wrong way. The subjective editing and intertextual relationships Soderbergh draws upon give us ideas about these characters, not concrete facts. Moreover, almost every generic characteristic of the thriller/mystery is dialed back. Action sequences are either not disclosed to us directly (as when Wilson enters a warehouse to gain information on Valentine but we and the camera are left outside) or de-emphasized (the encounter where Wilson throws a thug to his death, relayed in a long shot). Yet, this posturing of the majority of the film’s “action sequences” does have several payoffs. First, a chase sequence mid-film becomes a surprise. Secondly, despite an anti-climactic climax from a generic point of view, we are provided with enriched character arcs that might not have otherwise existed. Soderbergh has altered the form, not the essence of the neo-noir.
Whether or not you agree with Dobbs’s sentiment that Soderbergh ruined his movie depends on why you’re watching The Limey. If you’re looking for a by-the-numbers thriller with all the payoffs of the genre (a dramatic reveal, some fisticuffs), then you’ll think the film is a failure. If you’re watching the film because you’re well-versed in the characteristics of the genre and you want a refreshing experience, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. While it may not rise to the level of his previous film, Out of Sight (1998, which has already unfortunately been reviewed for the site), with regard to balancing form and content, The Limey is a taut, rewarding, piece of film.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Senses of Cinema, and Mediascape. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.