Setting Yourself Up: The Big Fall (1997)

Bungeeing with Bogey. Dave speaks to screenwriter William Applegate about the time PM Entertainment made a neo-noir. Not that they knew much about it…

In the hundred plus movie legacy of PM Entertainment, it’s fair to say that there’s nothing quite like THE BIG FALL (1997). A disarming blend of Raymond Chandler, bungee-jumping adrenalin junkies, and surprisingly subtle action, it really shouldn’t have been made.

“I don’t know how we got away with it!” laughs its writer, William Applegate.

By the time C. Thomas Howell yelled ‘action!’ on The Big Fall, his third film as director, Applegate had chalked up two years as part of the Richard Pepin and Joseph Merhi movie machine.

“That time translated into seven movies,” remarks the scripter, who now works in television news. “Tiger Heart (1996) was first, and they paired me with a Lebanese guy, [the director] Georges Chamchoum, and we were stuck in a shitty office in a warehouse. They gave me elements of direction, albeit to the degree they wanted to rip off The Karate Kid (1984). But that’s where they made their money. Their business plan was essentially what you see today with The Asylum.”

“I had a little bit of freedom. For The Silencers (1996), they put me with Joseph John Barmettler, and while we wrote simultaneously, whoever got the best idea pretty much got the whole movie. The expectation was ten pages a day. I was on cloud nine, though, because I was getting movies made. For a stretch I had a feature in pre-production, production and post-production.”

“We did Pure Danger (1996), which was a collaboration between me and Joe, although with that one, I ended up writing the script. It was right in the heart of the Pulp Fiction (1994) aftermath, so I was ripping Quentin Tarantino off a little, like with the ‘diamonds in the ass’ thing. Somehow that got left in, but Merhi lost his shit! He was SO pissed off. Joe was mercurial. He could be explosively angry, and then he could be very quiet. But, you know, he gave me the opportunity so I can’t knock him. They could have maybe taken a little less money for themselves and reinvested more, but, hey, it’s their company. Anyway, Pure Danger does well, and he bites his tongue and gives me another movie – The Big Fall.”

“Tommy Howell and I hung out at my parents’ place, and we came up with the noir angle with a modern twist. However, I wrote a second dummy script simultaneously to The Big Fall, so when Joe Merhi wanted to see pages, I’d give him the other script [laughs]. By the end of it, well, Joe was livid!”

Howell plays Blaise Rybeck, a Los Angeles private detective who sports a wide-brimmed fedora and broad-shouldered suit. He hangs around in bars that have posters on the wall for This Gun for Hire (1942); places where cigarettes are smoked with long drags and even longer glances, and where ‘swell’ is still part of the daily vernacular. He’s hired by the voluptuous Emma Roussell (Sophie Ward, channelling Veronica Lake) to investigate the disappearance of her brother, Kenny, a flight instructor whose plane went down but whose body was never found. Rybeck takes the case and heads undercover, attempting to pick apart the duplicity in a double-crossing, bungee-jumping criminal underworld that will prove difficult to crack.

Debuting on HBO in April 1997 before hitting video stores the following October, The Big Fall will be a tough sell to most Pepin and Merhi aficionados. Exchanging cartoonish action for rain-soaked streets and a flash of neon, it does retain an explosive edge, but it’s a slightly awkward one. Fusing the sax-laden stoicism of film noir with a rooftop foot chase and a freeway demolition derby was never going to be easy, but Howell, along with cinematographer Jurgen Baum (Hard to Die (1990)), mute the west coast technicolour and soften the L.A sunshine to make the contrast less clumsy.

Props to Howell though. After lensing the excellent Hourglass (1995) and the aforementioned Pure Danger, he really hits his directorial stride here in terms of mood and ‘tude. Frustratingly, it would be a decade before he’d wield the megaphone again, when he returned to the director’s chair for a quickfire threesome for the aforementioned Asylum: War of the Worlds 2 (2008), The Day the Earth Stopped (2008), and The Land that Time Forgot (2009).

Featuring in the film as Agent Wilcox, Applegate, meanwhile, signs off his PM Entertainment residency with aplomb. His rat-a-tat dialogue is delightful and well worth the trouble it caused him.

“Ultimately, The Big Fall is the one that got me fired. I’d probably gotten away with so much over my time there, but The Big Fall definitely contributed to them finally getting rid of me [laughs]. Or perhaps I was just too expensive at $650 a week?!”

U.S. video art courtesy of VHS Collector

Revised and updated with additional information 3/7/22

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