Direct Line to Murder: Escape Clause (1996)

Dave looks back at an underrated classic from Brian Trenchard-Smith.

During an online interview, screenwriter Danilo Bach was asked about whether it’s possible to craft ‘real art’ in Hollywood.

“I think so,” mused the Beverly Hills Cop (1984) creator. “Because there’s the art of the melodrama, which is the traditional Hollywood film that’s just well made, well written, and tells you a story with involving characters.” [1]

All of Bach’s films certainly have that quality, be it clever slasher April Fool’s Day (1986) or textured thriller Someone to Watch Over Me (1987). Nestled within Bach’s all-too-brief resume, though, is ESCAPE CLAUSE (1996): a wonderful made-for-cable programmer that, perhaps, defines the scripter’s belief in ‘the art of the melodrama’.

Now, melodrama as a construct tends to come in for a little bit of stick – but when it’s done right, hyperbole whacked up to eleven, few genres are as satisfying. For Escape Clause, Bach, who also produced, needed a director confident with sensationalistic material.

Enter Brian Trenchard-Smith.

“I have no regrets about how my career turned out,” says the Ozploitation auteur with genuine sincerity. “Forty-two crimes against cinema is no mean feat. I have no complaints, and I feel very lucky. I think I arrived at a time that was the last golden age of cinema and movies. I was in the right place at the right time in Australia, and then I fitted a niche when I came to America. Now I’m considered too old. There are far too many well accredited younger directors, so why should they choose a geezer when they have young people with sizzle and a recent hit? That’s the way the old lions get kicked out by the young lions. It’s the nature of things. So while I don’t regret anything, I must say that, through either my own fault or through poor representation, I’m Hollywood’s best kept secret. There’s a certain standard in films like Escape Clause – and, for that matter, in Happy Face Murders (1999), Time of Crisis (2005), and even Sightings: Heartland Ghost (2002). A standard that I think is well up to the mark for making a film interesting. My films are never dull. They may be silly, but they’re never dull.”

That’s certainly the perfect way to summarise Escape Clause. In it, high-flying insurance adjuster Richard Ramsey (Andrew McCarthy) encounters a hitman, Belson (John Evans), who tells him that he’s on a $10,000 retainer from Ramsey’s wife, Sarah (Kate McNeil), to bump him off. However, if Ramsey doubles the fee, Belson might just forget that the job ever came in – but before the corporate trailblazer has a moment to consider, the dishevelled assassin turns up dead; Sarah’s strangled body is discovered by the police; and Ramsey is pegged as the prime suspect…

This is an aspect of Escape Clause that Bach develops with moreish ambiguity as virtually every character falls under suspicion of the kindly detective leading the case (Paul Sorvino). From Sarah’s father (Kenneth Welsh) to one of her ex-lovers (Scott Wickware) – the list of suspects is teasingly long. Delivered at a pace that barely gives you time to consider the logic of each potential felon, Trenchard-Smith brings the best out of an appealing ensemble. McCarthy carries a panicked desperation that’s impossible not to show empathy for, while McNeil, despite her early demise, sheds her wholesome image and layers the story with its foundation of incertitude. It’s a role the took the actress to the extremes of her comfort zone, but the story was central to her accepting the role.

“I was so grateful for the opportunity,” stated McNeil prior to Escape Clause‘s premiere. “This is a genre that really interests me, and I haven’t done a whole lot of this kind of thing. It was very challenging. The filmmakers wanted there to be some suspicion as to what Sarah’s role is in the story. Whether she’s good or evil. That was fun to play.” [2]

Making its bow on Showtime on 14th July 1996, Tony Scott of Variety commented on Escape Clause‘s excellent technical credentials and praised the film’s “atmosphere and purpose” [3]. Not quite the notice it deserves but, as the man himself alluded to, if Trenchard-Smith is Hollywood’s best kept secret, then it stands to reason that his movies are just that too.

[1] Danilo Bach, Oscar Nominee for Beverly Hills Cop: An Interview with the American Screenwriter and Producer by Milo Radonjic,, 21st October 2017.
[2] A Murder Plot Has an ‘Escape Clause’ in Showtime Drama by Jay Bobbin, Tribune Media Services, 13th July 1996.
[3] Review: Escape Clause by Tony Scott, Variety, 12th July 1996.

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