'Memphis' is sexy, violent, stylish and lyrical

January 27, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

How's this for big-name talent? Cybill Shepherd in a movie written by Larry McMurtry based on a book by Shelby Foote?

That's part of the lineup in "Memphis," a made-for-TV movie that premieres at 8 tonight on cable channel TNT. And the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts. This is one of the most stylish, lyrical and finely crafted TV movies of the year. You'll feel the sweat, sex and desperation of the main characters while the film plays. Images of violence and tenderness will rattle around in your head long after the final credits roll. Ms. Shepherd hasn't been this good in a long, long time.

Based on the novel "September, September," written by Foote, "Memphis" is the story of three drifters who roll into Memphis with a plan to get rich quick. The year is 1957, and the story is set against a backdrop of the early civil rights struggle.

The trio of whites -- a prostitute, a gambler and a rowdy young tough -- plan to kidnap the grandson of the richest black man in Memphis. Their thinking is that a black man will be afraid to go to the police and, even if he does go to the police, they will not be inclined to help him. Ms. Shepherd plays Reeny Perdew, the prostitute. The gambler, Podjo Harris, is played by J.E. Freeman, while John Laughlin is Rufus Hutton, the young tough. Moses Gunn plays the grandfather and Richard Brooks the father of the kidnapped child (Martin Gardner).

The kidnapping, ransom negotiations and rescue attempt make for top-of-the line TV suspense on one level. But that's not the level that makes this such an impressive little film. The writing, direction and acting combine for a sensibility tuned into frequencies of the heart normally sounded only by the best and most sensitive of our Southern writers.

The strange and scary area where sex becomes violence is explored. Hot, very hot, encounters between Rufus and Reeny move from kiss-kiss to hit-hit, and no one is quite sure when the line was crossed. Later, hit-hit becomes bang-bang, as Rufus picks up a gun, and the relationship between frustrated male sexuality and a quick trigger finger is skillfully depicted.

The movie's most profound exploration of the human heart and its power to embrace and unite what the mind might think of as opposites, though, is in the relationship between Reeny and the kidnapped boy, Teddy. The white woman falls in love with the black child. And the kidnapper-prostitute finds a kind of redemption or regeneration, at least, in that love.

The film was shot in Memphis, and French-Canadian director Yves Simoneau celebrates its neon night and dusty, deco daytime look like it has never been done on TV. He also casts the clear eye of an outsider on these American types and their con man mentality.

In addition to her acting, Shepherd co-wrote and produced the film. She deserves Emmy nominations for all three efforts. "Memphis" is not a perfect film, but it has moments that are pure made-for-TV poetry.

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