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Gorky Park Rewatch

I watched Gorky Park, for no reason other than it was on and I wanted to see it again. I remembered enjoying it, and wanting to hear the James Horner score in context.

It still holds up thanks to the great concept: a detective murder mystery, but inside the Soviet Union (with Helsinki substituting for Moscow). Good direction, good cast, and an intriguing look into a closed and corrupt society. Although, if I was directing, I like to think I would have taken Brian Dennehy aside and found a diplomatic way to ask, could you please take it down a notch?

William Hurt was at his heyday as a leading man and I’ve always liked him. With his perfect features and ramrod posture, he seems, physically, perpetually at odds with his halting, cerebral delivery, and it creates the most interesting vulnerability. He is missed. His performance in Gorky Park even survives whatever the heck that accent was.

I remembered liking but not loving the film, and upon a rewatch think I have a sense why. Polish actress Joanna Pacula is a stunning beauty as Irina, but there seems to be no real reason for Renko (Hurt) to fall in love with her, other than that she’s gorgeous.

Strangely, watching her character, I was reminded of Emmanuelle Seigner as Michelle in Roman Polanski’s Frantic. They even sort of look alike—though Michelle was a far more interesting character. I was amused to learn that Pacula had been recommended to the Gorky Park filmmakers by Polanski—her boyfriend at the time (natch).

Alas, the plot doesn’t quite nail what it has to nail in putting Renko inside the story. I don’t mean making him a part of the murder plot, but—and this is always the challenge with detective thrillers—having the investigation unfold so that he becomes more active and integral.

There seem to be a few moments (particularly towards act three) where major developments happen off-screen and just get summarized in dialogue. The audience is like, “Oh, okay, I guess so.”

An example of how to do it would be, again, to consult Mr. Polanski: Chinatown, only one of the greatest movies ever made. There, Jake finds himself smack in the middle of two interlocking mysteries—and he drives the action because he hires himself out to competing factions of the conspiracy. And then he falls in love with the leading lady.

Star Wars fans, check out the early appearance by young Ian McDiarmid as the morbid professor who reconstructs the faces of the mutilated victims:

It was only years later that I learned that McDiarmid was last-minute casting as the Emperor in Return of the Jedi. It was going to be British actor Alan Webb, who was age-appropriate for the ancient ruler—so much so that he had to bow out due to illness, and died not long thereafter. Star Wars got lucky in that McDiarmid was then the exact right age to play Palpatine as middle-aged in the prequels—and elderly in The Rise of Skywalker.

So, Gorky Park, the score—it’s great. An eclectic mix of a beautiful Eastern European melody for Irina and a lot of Horner’s early “crime pop” (a la 48 Hrs.), it has just the right amount of Russian shadings for the setting. It fits the film perfectly.

Holy crap, Horner was such a gifted composer—and filmmaker. He had the perfect, instinctual sense of how to do the single most difficult thing in film composition: be bold and subtle at the same time.

Those two things sound contradictory (and are), but if the composer lands on the exact right colors and notes and textures, he or she can really hit the audience in the face with them—and the audience will love it, for the clarity.

But if the choices are just the tiniest shade off, or wrong—it’s utter disaster.

This, I think, more than anything else, is why film music today just isn’t what it was. There are so few artists who have this gift of both simplicity and boldness. The rest tend to overwrite the textures and underwrite the melody (or, you could say, the concept)and the result is a ton of utterly forgettable scores.

I am tremendously attached to early 1980s Horner because I discovered his work at such a formative time. In fact, Gorky Park is an important score for me. We all know that the real moment you become a soundtrack collector is when you buy an album to a film you haven’t seen—just based on the composer.

For me, that might have been Gorky Park. In the late 1980s, when I started buying CDs (or sometimes cassettes or LPs), I sought out Horner because I loved his Star Trek scores so much. As a sci-fi kid, it was logical I would buy Aliens, Willow, Brainstorm, Krull—even Battle Beyond the Stars.

But there was no reason for me to mail-order an LP to Gorky Park, as a 15-year-old, unless I wanted to hear every note James Horner had ever written.

I remember, at the time, liking the Goldsmith-flavored love theme, but not quite appreciating the “crime pop”—which now I quite enjoy.

And boy, Horner got a ton of mileage out of Goldsmith’s “stalking motif” for the alien in Alien, didn’t he?

Wherever it came from, and whatever influences he had, Horner was operating on another level cinematically, and I never fail to be inspired by revisiting his earliest works.

I do not yet have La-La Land’s new 2CD set of Gorky Park but it’s on my list!

You know, as we say more and more these days, “fourth time’s the charm.”

Update: An in-depth look at Hurt’s accent, which was maybe so good it sounded bad? Also a look at Horner’s accent!

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