Steven Soderbergh was in a quandary.
He adored the post-coital confessional he’d shot between his film’s unlikely lovers, bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney) and US Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). But he fretted it dulled the pace, killed the mood. “I know more fucked-up bank robbers than ones who know what they’re doing,” Foley insists.
The sentiment had to resonate with Soderbergh, himself serving time as a Hollywood outcast. The wunderkind who dazzled Cannes with sex, lies and videotape (1989) had filled his subsequent CV with obtuse, uncommercial experiments. Out Of Sight was his get-out-of-jail card.
It was based on a book by veteran Elmore Leonard, riding the crest of ’90s cool after Quentin Tarantino had popularised flip violence and whip smart dialogue.
The stampede to film Leonard had already brought Get Shorty (1995) and Tarantino’s recent Jackie Brown (1997). For Out Of Sight, producers gambled on the original indie kid.
On one level Soderbergh played it safe, raiding the Tarantino template wholesale: fractured storytelling, slangy dialogue, cool tunes and, seemingly, half his cast.
Three Pulp Fiction (1994) alumni (Ving Rhames, Paul Calderon and an uncredited Samuel L Jackson) are joined by Michael Keaton’s Ray Nicolette, gamely crossing over from Jackie Brown in a cute stitching-together of Leonard’s underworld.
Even Clooney’s flinty charisma owes as much to From Dusk Till Dawn’s (1996) Seth Gecko as ER’s Dr Doug Ross.
Putting the boot in
But being a hack-for-hire didn’t suit Soderbergh. Friends finally convinced him to keep Foley’s pillow talk by appealing to his maverick streak: most directors would cut the scene, so why not marry heat with heart? It’s remarkably relaxed, motored by Soderbergh’s eye for environment and character.
Locations are colour-coded for mood (Florida’s pastel warmth; Detroit’s icy gun-metal blue) and the cast bloated with premier indie talent (Don Cheadle, Catherine Keener, a scene-stealing Steve Zahn).
But the film’s electric co-existence between surface cool and soulful substance is captured best in Foley and Sisco’s sizzling encounters – and here Soderbergh lucked out on Scott Frank’s screenplay, a model of adaptation that actually improves on Leonard’s original.
The novel is a crime saga complicated by Sisco’s arrival; Frank’s version is a love story under threat from Foley’s inability to go straight. Leonard’s sparkling dialogue is lifted virtually verbatim, but Frank promotes Albert Brooks’ crook Ripley – only a name in the novel – to on-screen antagonist to provide the psychological goad for Foley’s actions.
Prioritising the romance didn’t come easy, though. With editing a tightrope act between plot and texture, when it came to the pivotal scene Soderbergh lost his balance.
Somewhat ambitiously, he had shot Foley and Sisco’s famous car-boot flirtation in a single take, but the scene played disastrously at previews, the punters alienated by its formality.
Crucially, Soderbergh relented, realising it didn’t fit the otherwise “jagged and funky” rhythm of the film. He re-shot, bringing the camera closer, cutting to Clooney’s casual caress of Lopez’s rump, igniting the desire.
By the time the lovers are reunited, Soderbergh has earned the right to get arty. Freely borrowing from Don’t Look Now (1973), the director cross-cuts between hotel bar pick-up and bedroom foreplay, letting Lopez and Clooney melt the screen with nothing more than smouldering glances and cheeky stripteases.
It’s sexy as hell, but also justified thematically – in a film of flashbacks, Foley is finally looking forward, the film itself frisky with impatience.
Lopez is the tragedy here. Her Sisco is the real deal: a tough, intelligent pragmatist with a weak spot for rogues. Alas, she caught the re-branding bug, and J-Lo’s subsequent career has been in thrall to the singing, celeb boyfriends and terrible movie choices.
Off-screen, it was all about the bromance.
Soderbergh was impressed by Clooney’s commitment in shaving his hairline to look older; Clooney appreciated a director who listened to his ideas. Burned by Batman & Robin (1997), Clooney invested in Soderbergh as both director and production partner, and never looked back.
For Soderbergh, Out Of Sight was a rebirth. Its mix of smart entertainment and sophisticated technique kept him in work for years, the director stealthily cannibalising his own comeback.
Into Ocean’s Eleven (2001) went gorgeous George and David Holmes’ catchy, Lalo Schifrininflected funk soundtrack. Into Traffic (2000) went the colour-coded multi-strand narrative, earning Soderbergh a Best Director Oscar.
Inevitably, the guy who made Schizopolis (1996) hasn’t lost the urge to experiment – recent films have been as bold as they are box-office-poison: The Good German (2006), Che (2008) and The Girlfriend Experience (2009). Out Of Sight – the moment everything coalesced – looks even more remarkable in retrospect.
So it’s a shame this Blu-ray spurns the chance for hindsight. The recycled extras are fine, but whither the star and director reuniting to discuss the film that (re)made their reputations?
On this evidence, sadly Out Of Sight really is out of mind.
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