Any movie that opens with James Cagney clips gets a film buff/movie geek’s attention. You wonder what line is that from? When you recognize the voice, you try to identify the film before they show something iconic. It’s like trying to yell out the answers before the contestants on Jeopardy. It might sound smart for a minute, but it marks you as a film geek. The kind of geek who can recite scripts, spot future stars in bit parts and knows who was cranking the camera. Trivia can make you crazy. It feeds itself and it is unquenchable. I recognized the character of Eric Binford immediately. Watching old movies late at night, the only time you could catch them in the days before cable, on the little black and white TV by his bed.
Fade to Black is a coming-of-age movie for psychotic film geeks. It stars Dennis Christopher, a quintessential coming-of-age actor who came of age on the classic coming-of-age-on-a-bike film Breaking Away. BAFTA gave him an award for most promising newcomer. He would go on to huff an asthma inhaler in Stephen King’s It and play Borta on a Star Trek deep dish pizza spinoff. In Fade to Black, plays Eric Binford, a movie geek who’s blossoming into a young sociopath with a bright murderous future with a little help from his celluloid heroes. Movie trivia infests Binford’s world history. What does he remember about Hitler? That Broadway Melody was his favorite movie. The JFK assassination? Oswald was watching the double feature Cry of Battle and War is Hell when he was busted. Movie geeks make good impressionists, even if they can’t do the voice, they can usually capture a character. This geek lives in a nostalgic neverland. His mother was a big time, old-time Hollywood starlet who got knocked up by some no good bum and died giving birth to Binford. At least that’s what his Aunt Stella tells him. She’s trying to keep him alive past thirty.
The director Vernon Zimmerman, builds an increasingly annoying world around the little fuckup creep Binford. His home life. His job. His abusive aunt. His obnoxious boss. His bullying coworkers. His skinny tie. It’s enough to drive you out of you mind. His Aunt Stella (Eve Brent Ashe, who was the twelfth Jane in the Tarzan movie series), charges Binford vig on any money he borrows. His boss, Marty Berger, played by Norman Burton, who was the IADC boss Joe Atkinson on the series Wonder Woman, at the film distribution warehouse where Binford works, takes everything out of his paycheck that he can think of.
Dr. Jerry Moriarty is an Irish shrink with a hard head. He’s set up in the old basement drunk tank at the precinct. Tim Thomerson, a comedian who started on Bill Cosby’s variety series Cos and who played Jack Deth in the Trancers movies, blows harp, snorts coke and plays Moriarty with a downhome affability that you rarely see in a police precinct. What you usually see are the cops that pop at Binford when he’s taking a bow in his Cody moment. But Moriarty gets to say the line “I never fucked a cop before” after hooking up with Gwynne Gilford as Officer Anne Oshenbull.
I didn’t know who Mickey Rourke was when I first saw this at the movies. He would become one of my favorite actors after his performance as Boogie in Diner. He was instantly cool. You could hear it the way he talked to his counselor in Body Heat. Maybe he was too cool to play the asshole in this movie. You want him to get the fifty off the creep just for making him answer a stupid ass question from the most watched movie of all time, Casablanca. He’s too cool to run. He gets down on his knees. Both knees. He asks for an explanation. It’s not very movie logical, which makes it a little more real. The kid Joey (Peter Horton) running down the alley is more real. This was one of Rourke’s first roles, seven years before he rapped on David Bowie’s “Shining Star (Makin’ My Love).” He plays Richie, the asshole that every coming-of-ager has to endure in his first shitty jobs.
Marilyn O’Connor looks like Marilyn Monroe. She grew up in the outback of Australia, where a guy on a truck showed the same two movies all her life: Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. That sounds like a good premise for horror movie to me. She works at the United Skates of America and when you think about it, she’s as delusional as Binford. Linda Kerridge, who plays Marilyn O’Connor, also looks like Marilyn Monroe. She’d played her twice, in 1980 in Switzerland in Go West, Young Man and on the 1978 French TV series Une femme, une époque. Kerridge was born in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia. That’s not really relevant, but I like typing Wagga Wagga. You get the feeling, that if only she’d gotten to the date on time, Binford would still be a creep who is growing into mature psychosis.
The movie references in Fade to Black come fast and furious. Movie clips take the place of Binford’s inner dialogue. The clips supply some giggles as Binford slips back and forth between his real and celluloid perceptions, blurring his realities. Binford spends a lot of time in a movie poster shop. Enough that the owner knows which paraphernalia the geek’s already bought. In New York we have Jerry Ohlinger’s Movie Material Store, where you can flip through movies stills, contact sheets and posters. He gets all spiffed up and waits for his Marilyn under the movie theater marquis for All that Jazz and Kramer vs. Kramer. Numbnuts gets inadvertently stood up and can’t even score with a roadside whore for cat food money.
Aunt Stella tips over his projector leaving Richard Widmark’s cool grin shimmering off a chair. You don’t just know Binford’s gonna snap, you’re waiting for it, you’re rooting for it. You want him to pull a Tommy Udo on that bitch. You ache for him to push her down the stairs. Who cares if she’s your mother, your aunt, your mother? Whoever she is. You’re rooting for this little psycho to fullfill his psycho potential. That sets some horror movies apart. Some monsters you care about. The Frankenstein monster. King Kong (I cried when that big ape died). Most popcorn eaters weren’t rooting for Freddie. I was, but most people got some relief at the ends of the Nightmare movies.
In Breaking Away, Dennis Christopher’s Dave Stoller affected an Italian accent. Here, he wears makeup. He makes himself up to look like he just stepped out of a black and white movie. He goes out to see Night of the Living Dead as a film still from Dracula. I remember this was a very cool effect on the big screen, but it was somewhat diminished on my second or fifth generation bootleg copy. Vernon Zimmerman takes a page out of the Mel Brooks handbook of Hitchcock homage by directing an equally hilarious shot-by-shot recreation of the shower scene that’s only marred by the fact that you can see the vampire approaching in a mirror. As Dracula, Binford drinks the blood of the hooker who wouldn’t give him a tumble but takes a stumble. This begs a line from Roman Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers, “the blood of these whores is killing me.”
Binford’s trivia comes spilling out of control. He painstakingly transforms himself into William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy to call out Richie, who’s been stealing stuffed animals and trying to get laid, to a gunfight. The ever-cool Richie can’t help but admire the little shit’s big gun, but maybe he thinks the kid’s overcompensating, “Some toy you got there, Hoppy.” When Binford pops Richie and disappears into the backlit haze, he’s finally graduated to his second real kill. He is becoming a man. His spree is more than a popped cherry.
It looks like Gary Bially (Morgan Paull), a movie producer whose big film is The Big Rip-Off, might offer Binford some redemption for his lifelong film obsession and even a way out of his continuing confusion. He hears the pitch to Binford’s movie idea, Alabama and the Forty Thieves, over a loosely rolled (west coast) joint in a classic car. He likes it. He acknowledges that the hitch-hiking crackpot has an eye for the pictures and sees good things in his future. Like Matt Dillon in the coming-of-age-by-the-pool film Flamingo Kid, the very thing that gets him in trouble is his real calling. This is a crossroads moment, and is referenced by a quote about a devilish director, “Kenneth Anger would love the boulevard today. ‘Hollywood Boulevard’ on parade.”
Binford has a wondrous revelatory moment when he excitedly tries to share his good news with his Aunt Stella and realizes how far he’s come and crumples back into psychosis. He gets more aggressive and has an angry jerkoff session. I think this was the first time I ever saw someone masturbate in a movie. I’d seen it implied, Alex in Clockwork Orange comes to mind, but this was full under-the-pants action. It takes a brave actor to show off pillow case stains. Binford wraps himself up as the mummy to give his boss a heart attack, kicks away his pills and giggles.
Binford’s go-to movie sociopath is Cagney’s Cody Jarrett from White Heat. When Bially rips off his movie idea, which he really should have seen coming considering the name of the sleazy producer’s last movie, he gets a full machine gun magazine in payment. The impact of the bullets spins him around on a barber chair. Binford uses the insurance money from his aunt’s death to rent and set up a bogus photo studio just to reenact a scene from The Prince and the Showgirl with his Marilyn. Eric Binford pounds the concrete at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where the scene changes to a cross between the finales of King Kong and White Heat. The bright lights hit him just as he’s getting ready for his close-up. He takes his bow, but never gets to say his line.
The only thing this movie could have benefited from is better film stock and sound. It is a low-budget wonder with very real sounding dialogue. The answer is Blaine, by the way. Watch the movie and you’ll know the question.