Criminal Passion (1994): Deitch’ing the Rulebook

Dave nods approvingly at Donna Deitch’s gender-bending neo-noir.

Donna Deitch is a trailblazer.

With Desert Hearts (1985), her adaptation of Jane Rule’s 1964 novel Desert of the Heart, Deitch depicted a romance between two women that came with a happy ending — something she felt had been sorely underrepresented in the history of queer cinema. Critically, praise for the film was near universal (The Washington Post called it “astonishingly polished and nuanced” [1]) — and following a 2014 readers’ poll, IndieWire determined that Desert Hearts was one of ‘The 25 Most Important LGBT Films’ of all time [2].

The success of Desert Hearts attracted the attention of Oprah Winfrey. The talk show queen hired Deitch to oversee the Emmy-nominated miniseries, The Women of Brewster Place, which then segued into tackling a handful of television pilots — notably Veronica Clare, a short-lived show about a female jazz club owner who moonlights as a detective. ABC’s impressive harassment-themed telepic Sexual Advances (1992) was Deitch’s sophomore feature, although it’s her third film, CRIMINAL PASSION, that jostles for pole position as one of the more engaging chapters of her non-factual work.

“I don’t think there are a lot of women like me,” begins the voiceover of Melanie Hudson (Joan Severance). A fascinating character, Mel is an LAPD officer and the epitome of a voyeuristic loner. “It’s an old habit,” she reflects in her monologue. “An endless thirst. Driving the streets at night. And I’m not sure what I’m looking for.”

Partial to a pair of two-tone Oxford’s and sporting an iconic wardrobe that favours pant suits with braces and an oversized jacket, Mel is eye-catching for all the right reasons. A strong, independent female who isn’t shy to call out sexism on the force with a steely-eyed tug of a chauvinist’s bollocks, Mel is a progressive cop with an inclusive attitude, as witnessed by her desire to integrate a gay recruit, Jordan (Wolfgang Bodison), with her peers. “When are you gonna tell the rest of the guys?” she asks.

It’s a radical script for the early ‘90s, penned by the regular screenwriting twosome of Max Strom and John Allen Nelson (Midnight Heat (1992), American Yakuza (1993)), although you feel that Deitch played a vocal role in the collaborative process. After all, on the face of it, this Donald P. Borchers production is calculably generic. The plot: a serial killer is stalking the streets of Los Angeles and leaving a trail of victims in his wake — but when the police begin to suspect Connor Ashcroft (co-scripter Nelson), an acclaimed architect and the son of a powerful senator, Mel finds herself drawn into his seductive web of duplicity and danger.

Criminal Passion fights hard to fend off the trappings of soporific, shelf-filling fodder, and, for the most part, it does so. Far from being your standard steamy video store smut-fest, Deitch brings an indie quirk to the party, most impressively by subverting the conventions of the nudity on show. It’s Nelson who first struts out in the buff here, and he’s seen again full frontal in a swimming pool as a fully-clothed Severance watches on. A small adjustment, but a big statement — and one that ensures that, despite the occasional contrivance and a final reel that doesn’t quite deliver, Criminal Passion remains a really interesting piece of work.

Also known as ‘Angel of Desire’.

USA ● 1994 ● Erotic Thriller ● 90mins

Joan Severance, Tony Denison (as ‘Anthony John Denison’), John Allen Nelson, David Labiosa, Wolfgang Bodison ● Dir. Donna Deitch ● Wri. Max Strom & John Allen Nelson

[1] Desert Devotion: A Polished, Well Cast Affair of the Heart by Paul Attanasio, The Washington Post, 18th April 1986.
[2] Reader’s Poll: The 25 Most Important LGBT Films, IndieWire, 6th June 2014.

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