China Moon (1994): Bailey’s Film Noir Starring Ed Harris and Madeleine Stowe

Palm Springs Film Fest 1994–Ed Harris’s performance as the fall guy in China Moon elevates John Bailey’s noir mystery to a cut or two above the usual Hollywood thriller.

Despite some plot holes, the thematic mixture of passion and danger and the pleasure of visual style should make this genre item (which was shot in 1992) more popular with audiences than the recent slate of Orion films.

On the surface, China Moon seems too explicitly conscious of its genre’s themes, signs, and visual strategy. Set in a small-town Florida, it immediately recalls Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat as well as Victor Nunez’s Florida tale of greed and corruption, Flash of Green, which also starred Ed Harris. And the triangle of Kyle Bodine (Ed Harris), a lonely homicide detective, who falls for Rachel Munroe (Madeleine Stowe), a beautifully seductive, married woman, bears resemblance to such noir classics as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

In this film, however, the appealing, mysterious lady is not married to an old or a crippled man, but rather to a young and successful banker (Charles Dance). This is just the first of a number of alterations and twists that cast fresh light on the time-honored genre. Indeed, in this version, Stowe’s femme fatale is humanized by making her husband physically abusive and himself engaged in an adulterous affair.

The tension in Roy Carlson’s efficient, pared-down narrative derives from the complex relationship between Harris and the ambitious rookie detective, Lamar Dickey (Benicio De Toro), once Harris gets drawn to a murder scheme of Stowe’s husband. The well-developed characters, with which the audience feels an immediate, emphatic connection, are distinctively pungent, the way they were in noir thrillers of the 1940s.

Helmer Bailey, who makes his feature debut, knows that it’s not plot but characterization that carries viewers through the best thrillers–the bits of personality as filtered through the story’s turns. He therefore takes his time in establishing the specific context of each of the four major figures.

Like other good thrillers, China Moon depends on long silent moments and acute observation of physical milieu. To make the story more gripping, Bailey relies on the emotional pull of such forces as psychological obsession and domination rather than graphic violence. And he’s at best in scenes where the characters reveal some quirks and hide others in an intriguing web of steamy sex and ominous evil. However, some viewers may be bothered by the tale’s underlying cynicism, which is reflected in the conduct of its law officers.

Ed Harris brings his customary quiet though focused intensity to a tailor-made role, one that calls for equal measure of virility and vulnerability. Endowed with the glamorous looks of the old movie queens, Stowe is also well cast as a dreamy femme fatale with an active imagination and feelings. Stowe’s part in this movie, as well as her work in the psychological thriller Blink, may finally establish her as a leading lady of the first rank.

There is a moody, evocative cinematography by veteran French lenser Willy Kurant of the Lakeland-Oscala-Tampa area, a region that reportedly has not been used in film before. With the expert editing of Jill Savitt and Carol Littleton (who’s married to Bailey), China Moon moves along smoothly, setting up the situations and delivering the pay-offs.

Shrewd viewers may be able to detect at least one major plot development that telegraphs itself well before it arrives. And the final 15 minutes are weak–a concession to the genre’s current requirements for desperate violence and quick resolutions. Nonetheless, unlike thrillers that target the guts and viscera, China Moon avoids slick montage and the cheap thrills of shock cuts and instead aims for the eyes–and heart.

Cast

Kyle Bodine………..Ed Harris
Rachel Munro….Madeleine Stowe
Lamar Dickey…Benicio Del Toro
Rupert Munro……Charles Dance
Adele…………Patricia Healy
Fraker……………Tim Powell
Pinola……..Rob Edward Morris

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