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Abra Kadabra. Shalakazam. Bye-bye, baby. Boom.

Movie

A Shock to the System
(1990)

 

A Shock to the System might have arrived a few years too late, even though it’s as sharp as ever. Based on Simon Brett’s 1984 novel and relocated across the Pond – one can’t help thinking it would have been more effective, not least on Michael Caine’s never-entirely-effective transatlantic vowels, to stay put – it reputedly got the greenlight off the back of Wall Street’s success. By the time it, and The Bonfire of the Vanities for that matter, appeared, the zeitgeist appeal had dispersed. If it had waited another few years, it might have garnered the era-retrospective credit awarded American Psycho. Nevertheless, this ranks as one of Caine’s best from that period, a chance for him to flourish the full lizard-eyelids psycho that had made his Mona Lisa cameo so memorable.

Christopher Bray, in A Class Act, compared A Shock to the System to Kind Hearts and Coronets. Except that Dennis Price is not required to undergo humiliation to get us on his side. You might as well call the movie a sociopath’s How to Succeed at Business at Business Without Really Trying (albeit, Caine’s Graham Marshall is already an executive at his ad company). Certainly, the final shot, suggesting his boss’s plane is about to experience a mishap, echoes that picture’s “only way is up” corporate methodology.

A Shock to the System was variably received when it came out. I remember the pleasant surprise struck by the tone of some reviews, but Harlan Kennedy in the Film Yearbook Volume 9 demolished it, finishing with “Is there another film playing in the next cinema?” Still, Time Out’s Brian Case commented “Seldom have Caine’s cobra eyes been used to better effect; it’s a chilling tale, cleanly directed”.

Director Jan Egleson would spend most of the next decade supervising TV movies, and he’s certainly more the safe pair of hands than a showman; he throws in the occasional Dutch angle, but it’s left to Caine’s confidential, engagingly third-person voiceover to strike the movie’s tone, Caine and voiceovers go well together (AlfieHannah and Her Sisters), offering an intimacy of motivation. Gary Chang’s playful score also helps set the tone (Chang struck a similarly wry note with the same year’s Miami Blues). Ideally, I could have seen someone like Danny De Vito (in director mode) making the most of the screenplay’s heightened milieu.

Andrew Klavan penned the adaptation (several of his novels, including White of the EyeTrue Crime and Don’t Say a Word have become movies). If there’s a fault to the picture (running at a very lean ninety minutes), it’s that it doesn’t spend enough time allowing Graham to enjoy the fruits of his crimes, focussing instead on the Hitchcockian device of his potentially being found out due to an incriminating lighter.

Graham, passed over for promotion and pilloried by insensitive wife Swoozie Kurtz, experiences a moment of existential clarity when, during an argument, he pushes a beggar in front of an ongoing subway train. He’s delighted to discover he feels no remorse – to the extent that he has to check himself that he actually did it – and his narration elevates this sense of a sociopath discovering the rarefied area of action without fear of a pricking conscience. He refers to himself as a sorcerer, invested in the perceived magic he is able to weave on the physical world in order to get his own way. Caine delivers this with conviction and an infectious sense of humour, particularly in his Cinderella-quoting “spells” (“Bibety bobety boom”).

The key to A Shock to the System’s black comedy is that those who are on the receiving end of Graham’s murderous acts are “deserving” of their fate, mostly through being insensitive or manipulative or just plain rude. Leslie (Kurtz) has the effrontery to tell him, “Graham, I forgive you for failing” (to get his promotion), so it’s only a short step from there to her planned electrocution.

Bob Benham (an oily Peter Riegert) is promoted over Graham and actively begins to undermine him, since Graham is too senior to be fired for anything other gross insubordination (“So, you’ve decided to have me removed piece by piece. A privilege here, a responsibility there. Never enough to fight over. Just a subtle drain of power, right?”) Consequentlly, Bob expects Graham to light his cigars, invites him over for the weekend so Graham can hear him have sex with wife Haviland Morris (Gremlins 2: The New Batch), and forces him to share an office (with Philip Moon’s lackey). It’s thus no surprise when Bob’s boat blows up in a terrible mishap (and takes Moon with it).

Graham’s career prospects are overtly equated with emasculation and libido, such that he invites Elizabeth McGovern out for dinner no sooner than he has dispersed Leslie’s ashes (over himself): “He felt like one of those gods who appeared to maidens in human form”.

As noted, the picture perhaps gets a little preoccupied with standard suspenser tropes during the third act, when McGovern deduces she has been manipulated (Graham drugged her to create an alibi). This is thanks, in no small part, to Will Patton’s persistent – but persistently outclassed – cop. Graham efforts, meanwhile, are focussed on securing his mislaid lighter from Jenny Wright’s receptionist. But even under stress, the coolness with which he responds to threats (“Whoa, let’s not all panic. You, you and you panic. The rest of you stay calm”), enervated rather than stressed, shows him up as the model of the well-observed sociopath.

Caine called A Shock to the System “a lovely little film… But at the time, it just got lost in the system”. I’d agree with that take. Egleson and Klavan don’t spend their time expanding on the white-collar rat race. It’s all there in Caine’s (middle-)aging male attempting to rejuvenate his prospects. And often the best way to do that is to have some fun with it.

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