The man in A Shock to the System relates to his surroundings with weariness and frustration. He lives in an expensive suburb with his pushy wife, and has worked for many years as part of a large but faceless Manhattan advertising agency. He’s part of the old guard, watching carefully as his much younger colleagues seem too willing to stab and scratch their way to corporate success.
When A Shock to the System was first released in 1990, it felt like a standard statement about the selfish attitudes of the era. (It was, after all, only a year before the publication of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho). It may seem like a non-issue as we approach 2016, but in the late 1980s there was a dread that vapid yuppies were slowly taking over the country like pod people. Michael Cain was a stand-in for all of those who felt this fear, smiling grimly as all around him the city was awash in artifice. Only Cain could appear vulnerable enough to worry about his future, and hard enough to start murdering those who stood in his way.
Cain plays Graham Marshall, a company man who has too much seniority to be fired outright, but feels he’s being marginalized by his more youthful associates. He shows up to work one day and finds he has to share his office with a younger man, a computer expert hired to bring the company into the tech age. Marshall has a fit, turning red and cursing. What his co-workers don’t know is that he’s already begun to exhibit some ghastly behavior outside the office.
Audiences of the time were seeing Caine in his unabashed prime. He’d gone from being the handsome rogue of Alfie (1966) to a sort of frumpy character player, and he seemed more dazzling each year. He’d won an Oscar just a few years earlier for his role in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. He gave a beautiful performance as the drunken professor in Educating Rita (1983), played a conniving Broadway playwright in Deathtrap (1982) and went against type as an oily pimp in Mona Lisa (1986). Unfortunately, it was also a period when Caine seemed to be acting in 10 movies per year, and not all of them were worth watching. “You get paid the same for a bad film as you do for a good one,” Caine once said, which sounded appropriately mercenary for the actor who would play Graham Marshall. Here, when Marshall fails to get a promotion he’s been expecting, he blows his stack on the subway and shoves a panhandler onto the tracks to his death. He leaves the scene unnoticed, and doesn’t feel much remorse. Next step: kill wifey.
He’s diabolical when it comes to his wife’s death, taking advantage of his home’s faulty wiring. Hey, the suburban life slowly kills everybody; Marshall simply assisted the process. He occasionally narrates the story, referring to himself as a genie or Merlin, someone with magical powers, which makes one wonder if he’s in charge of his mental faculties. Yet, when he starts tampering with the boat belonging to the young creep who beat him out for the corner office, we can’t help but root him on, whether he’s crazy or not.
If it all seems a bit cruel and heartless, that’s because it is. Marshall blames an incident that occurs early in the movie, a zap from a faulty switch in his home that sends him flying across his basement and apparently loosened up his morals; from there, it doesn’t take long for him to start stacking up the bodies. It’s as if lurking under the façade of every browbeaten suburban husband is a cunning killer.
The movie, shot in a kind of dayglow postcard color scheme by Paul Goldsmith, makes Madison Avenue, Times Square, and various other New York locales look like one big 1980s party scene. Restaurants look like disco ballrooms, the streets like the grubby ruins of an all-night bash, and the clothes seem to have been yanked from a Bananarama video. Yet, it’s all delicious, the way a movie can be when its makers are inspired and pour everything into it. Yes, this is a New York that I remember, before it turned into the Disneyland of the northeast, a place that used to be so filled with garbage and so bright with neon that one walked through Times Square as if it were a scene from Blade Runner.
Marshall doesn’t seem to be a denizen of the city, slouching through its streets and nightclubs the way a tired dog might enter a library. Yet, once he liberates himself from his nagging wife, he sets himself up in a swanky downtown loft. The place is huge, with no furniture. A place to start anew, it seems, a place where he might entertain the pretty young woman at the office who appears to have a thing for him, and where he might shed a few more of his skins.
The other characters in the film look unaffected by the city. Manhattan is only of use to them because it’s where they can work to make the sort of money needed to pay for their BMWs and their trophy wives. The city’s culture is virtually invisible, since these characters are virtually cultureless. The subways, of course, are for grinding up bodies.
The screenplay by Andrew Klavan (based on a novel by British author Simon Brett) has a casual feel to it, as if he wrote it while nursing a martini. Klavan and Brett are both known for writing suspense novels and ‘whodunits’. Klavan’s work include such novels-turned-films as Clint Eastwood’s True Crime (1999), and Don’t Say A Word (2001), which starred Michael Douglas. Director Jan Egleson spent the next several years directing television movies. He hasn’t directed anything since 2003, devoting his time to teaching at the Boston University College of Communication. Education’s gain was Hollywood’s loss.
The movie is brilliant at capturing the time and place just before the New York of that era disappeared, just as the 1980s would be violently overpowered by the 1990s. Women were still wearing their hair impossibly big and high, and men still dressed as if even the dumpiest of them wanted a guest spot on Miami Vice. It was a time when money spoke louder than ever. Ugly little men everywhere were trying to get rich, because the philosophy was that any woman could be yours if you had the money. You see, it wasn’t all John Hughes movies and MTV. It was an ugly time, with a killer epidemic filling our hospitals and graveyards, a rising drug culture, and constant threats of nuclear war. When we look back, we think of the music and the clothing, which was there to distract us from the murkier stuff.
Egleson and Klavan didn’t make a great or classic movie, but they created a snappy little suspense flick that to works as a time capsule for an era, a vibrant, gorgeous film that upends our usual expectations of a crime movie. Because we’re invited to identify with a killer, some might even call it a “dark comedy.” Caine has a nice supporting cast, including Elizabeth McGovern as his young girlfriend, Swoosie Kurtz as his wife, and John McMartin as a friend from the office. Will Patton is also effective as a nosy investigator who thinks something about Marshall isn’t right. Peter Riegert is a scene stealer as the snotty co-worker who gets the promotion. Like J.J. Hunsecker in The Sweet Smell of Success, Riegert gets a kick out of having Marshall light his cigars. He doesn't say "Match me," but he's plenty obnoxious. Still, it’s Caine’s show, and it’s a joy to watch him sweat out the film’s climax. As the movie’s tagline said, killing is easy, but getting away with it is murder.
So many film characters in the late eighties and early nineties were insipid, upwardly mobile asses, like the one Riegert plays here, that viewers watching them now must wonder if people were actually like that. I suppose there were some, and that Riegert’s character is only a slight exaggeration. Still, it couldn’t have been all bad in those days, not when you could still go out to the cinema and see a movie like A Shock to the System.