The man in A Shock to the System relates to his surroundings with weariness and frustration. He lives in a pricey suburb with his pushy wife, and has worked for many years as part of a large Manhattan advertising agency. He’s part of the old guard, watching carefully as his much younger colleagues 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). This may seem like a non-issue as we’re now living in a different era, but in the late 1980s there was a dread that vapid yuppies were slowly taking over the country. In A Shock to the System, Michael Caine 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 an actor of Caine’s range could appear vulnerable enough to worry about his future, and hard enough to start murdering those who stood in his way.
Caine plays Graham Marshall, a company man who 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 prime. He’d gone from being the handsome rogue of Alfie (1966) to a sort of bloated, bitter character player, and he seemed more dazzling each year. He gave a beautiful performance as the drunken professor in Educating Rita (1983), played a conniving Broadway playwright in Deathtrap (1982) and an oily pimp in Mona Lisa (1986). He’d even won an Oscar for his role in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (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 feels little 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 root for him.
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 by Paul Goldsmith in a kind of dayglow postcard color scheme, 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. 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 Times Square looked like a scene from Blade Runner.
Marshall seems unwelcome in 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. A place to start anew, it seems, a place where he might entertain the pretty young woman at the office who appears to like 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 includes 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 Boston University. 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. 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 AIDS 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 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 Marshall is hiding something. Peter Riegert is a scene stealer as the snotty coworker 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. 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.