Oeuvre: Demme: Married to the Mob

Oeuvre: Demme: Married to the Mob

Married to the Mob is the second in Demme’s trilogy of underestimated women.

Jonathan Demme’s follow-up to Something Wild was a modest hit that gave him the sort of name recognition that few directors ever get to enjoy. No matter what the genre, Demme became a brand name, and with it came an expectation of quality that he would consistently meet.

Angela De Marco (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a mob wife tired of the life. She’s married to hit man “Cucumber” Frank De Marco (a young, magnetic Alec Baldwin), who dismisses mention of divorce or a career change. As fate would have it, Angela gets her wish, becoming a widow after Frank, who got caught schtupping his boss’s mistress, gets whacked by Tony “The Tiger” Russo (Dean Stockwell). As Tony needs a new mistress and Angela would appear to be available, the mob boss pursues the beautiful widow, who leaves the mob behind to start anew in Manhattan.

FBI agents keeping an eye on Tony are witness to his overtures: the film’s male lead, Agent Mike Downey (Matthew Modine) is a JC Penny amalgamation of James Bond and Q, a white man so nodescript that he can orbit his target disguised in just a hat or moustache. When Angela somehow notices Mike in her apartment building, she asks him out, complicating both the investigation and the agent’s feelings for his target.

After star turns in Vision Quest and Full Metal Jacket, Modine had become a leading man, and he uses his tall, lanky body to great comic effect, alternately smooth and clumsy like a latter day Jimmy Stewart. Pfeiffer’s star was likewise on the rise, about to fully break out in The Fabulous Baker Boys. The pair’s chemistry and star power fuel the movie and, thanks to Demme’s humanistic eye, makes it more than just a story of stock mob characters.

The movie begins with its cartoon logo ripped apart in a hail of bullets over Rosemary Clooney’s “Mambo Italiano,” setting s broad comic tone. The performances follow suit, Modine straight-laced and quirky with as little subtlety as possible, Stockwell and other mob actors playing their parts so big that the proverbial back row couldn’t miss a thing. Long Island accents run as thick as the milkshakes at the Johnny Rockets at Roosevelt Field Mall, and coifs stand so high that a significant amount of the budget must have gone to Aqua Net.

The film really belongs to two women. Mercedes Ruehl, playing Tony’s wife, Connie, gives life to a character that is the only think that Stockwell’s normally cool Tony fears. Connie rules her world of mob wives much the way Tony rules his own, demanding ultimate loyalty and flying into a rage when betrayed. Ruehl benefits most from the film’s broad tone, embracing that cartoonishness during Connie’s psychotic break. She is the only force in the film that can stop Tony, and has to leap over that edge to do it.

Pfeiffer is the presence that holds the film together. She foregoes her signature blond locks for short brown curls and drops her perfect diction for an unpleasant Long Island warble. Her Angela is a woman absorbed by the bad taste that dominates Tony and Connie’s world. Her home is garish and tawdry. Her designer clothes are ostentatious. Her hair is tinted and feathered. She suffers from the low expectations of the men around her, whether it be Frank, Tony or, eventually, Mike. They see her as a bimbo and treat her accordingly.

Once free of that world, Angela dresses differently, changes her hairstyle and takes control of her circumstances. A beauty school dropout, she finds a job at a hair salon. She is the agent of her own change, asking Mike on a date instead of waiting for him to get around to doing so. Pfeiffer portrays Angela with inexhaustible fortitude. She takes every blow life sends her and is on the verge of changing her circumstances until one last obstacle presents itself: Agent Mike Downey. She would have been free of the mob if the FBI hadn’t forced her back in.

Married to the Mob is the second in Demme’s trilogy of underestimated women, which includes Something Wild and The Silence of the Lambs. Demme has said that watching a heroic journey is more satisfying when achieved by a woman because of the societal obstacles they face. Pfeiffer believed there was a simpler reason for Demme’s predilection toward heroines: “Jonathan likes women. He’s not threatened by them. And he’d probably disagree with me, but I think he understands them.”

Pfeiffer’s Angela De Marco, Melanie Griffith’s Audrey Hankel and Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling share a kinship through Demme, but only Angela gets to deal with patriarchy and sexism with a light touch. Married to the Mob ends with a kiss and a wink, as if the eclectic director knows he’s about to find mainstream success.

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