Barbet Schroeder's films feature unfamiliar -- The Director's camera settles on spots others miss in ''Kiss of Death,'' ''Barfly,'' ''Reversal of Fortune,'' and ''Single White Female''

By Glenn Kenny
Updated August 25, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Barbet Schroeder’s films feature unfamiliar

As an elevated New York City subway train rattles past, the camera pans down to survey an enormous auto junkyard in the shadow of Shea Stadium. Director Barbet Schroeder’s camera barely registers the landmark; here among these metal husks, he seems to be saying, is the real New York — and, in Kiss of Death, he sets out to investigate it. Though the Iranian-born Schroeder has taken his cameras all over the world in the course of his 26-year directing career, his wandering eye often settles on spots others wouldn’t notice or might be too afraid to explore. His best films delineate the quirks and kinks of various classes and chronicle what occurs when the denizens of one world try to move into another.

In Kiss of Death, for example, small-time hood Jimmy Kilmartin (David Caruso) is lured by a whiny cousin into working on a truck heist that goes horribly wrong. Jimmy takes the fall and, upon learning in prison of his wife’s death, turns undercover informer, ostensibly to revenge himself on those he holds responsible for her demise. He’s then taught a lesson in the dubious ethics of the lawmen he’s working for. Though the movie is based on the 1947 noir of the same name (starring Richard Widmark), Schroeder and screenwriter Richard Price enrich their scenario with eccentric characterizations — most notably that of the brainless hood Little Junior (Nicolas Cage), whom we first see bench-pressing a stripper — and insistent empathy.

This knack for tuning into unlikely and often unsavory characters while maintaining a wry detachment from them is a Schroeder hallmark, apparent in his French-made films as well as his Hollywood features. Witness Barfly, based on the life and writings of lowlife poet laureate Charles Bukowski. The movie’s hero, Henry Chinaski, is a filthy, shambling drunk (Mickey Rourke) who also happens to be a talented writer. The movie’s peculiar love triangle puts him between a similarly booze-addled floozy (Faye Dunaway) and a chic, slumming editor who wants to catapult him into the literary world. In its depiction of the friendship between its seemingly hopeless characters, Barfly acknowledges how the willfully reckless can form a fiercely loyal community.

The communities contrasted in Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune are the subtle social-register set and the feverishly competitive world of top law students. Said students are being led by Harvard Law prof Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver) in an effort to free socialite Claus von Bulow (Jeremy Irons), who may or may not have induced his wife Sunny’s coma with a dose of insulin. Funny and scary, Reversal is a tour de force for Schroeder, who examines the idle rich, the intricacies of the legal system, and the imperatives of morality concisely but with unmatched brio.

The director employs his favorite theme with similar verve in Single White Female, but unfortunately the material isn’t as rich. SWF‘s painfully shy Hedy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wants in on the life of her roommate, Allie (Bridget Fonda), who seems to have it all — handsome boyfriend, terrific career, good looks, outgoing personality. All Hedy’s got is a puppy. So Hedy sets out to become Allie, sort of. SWF surpasses most recent roommate/tenant-from-hell thrillers, but its reliance on such tired genre staples as the is-she-dead-yet climax is dispiriting.

By contrast, Kiss of Death belongs to a more time-honored genre, the urban noir, and it’s one that Schroeder knows how to tinker with, without diminishing the film’s suspense or integrity. Should he ever want to make an optimistic picture about his pet theme, he could do worse than to adapt the story of his own career: an outsider who makes good in Hollywood without selling his artistic soul.

Kiss of Death: B+
Barfly: A
Reversal of Fortune: A
Single White Female: B-