The Limey

Modernism Meets Classicism

by Donato Totaro Volume 6, Issue 4 / April 2002 16 minutes (3974 words)

DVD Features

  • 5.1 Dolby Digital
  • 1.85, enhanced for 16:9 widescreen television
  • Commentary track with director Steven Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs
  • 1960’s “docu-commentary” by members of the cast, Soderbergh, and Dobbs
  • Technical Information -3 Trailers (one theatrical, two television spots)
  • Detailed cast & crew filmography/biography
  • Isolated music score

In his book Cinema and Modernity John Orr has this to say about modernist cinema: “In the cinema the modern is already history…this is a paradox which confronts us in looking at film over the last fifty years. The reasons are complex. We can begin to understand them only if we view modern artworks…as processes which come into being in a Nietzschean sense by coming back into being, which move forward by echoing the past” 1

Of the many recent Hollywood produced films perhaps none fits this description as well as Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey, a film which is at once a classic, standard genre piece and an incredibly fresh, vibrant, and exciting neo-modernist film. The Limey is a film which “looks back” in several different ways. As a gangster film it recalls such films as Point Blank (1967), Get Carter (1970), and, as I will elaborate later, Performance (1970). Although it is an American film, the presence of iconic British actor Terence Stamp aligns it with the resurgence of the British gangster film, beginning with the 1980 Long Good Friday, and continuing with recent films lock, stock and two smoking barrels (1998), Snatch (2001), Gangster No. 1, and Sexy Beast (2000). Plus, the film’s casting is a conscious decision to recall the 1960’s. The figureheads are two of the most representative actors of 1960’s youth counterculture, Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda. Stamp built his iconic status by selecting odd roles that went against the grain of his stunning leading man looks and the traditional map to stardom (Billy Budd 1962, The Collector 1965, Modesty Blaise 1966, Spirits of the Dead 1968). Stamp cemented his outsider image when in 1969, on the cusp of superstardom, he took a five-year hiatus from acting to go to India to recharge his spiritual batteries. In fact, I would imagine that a great deal of his character’s internal calm stems from this Eastern philosophic experience. Alongside Stamp is Peter Fonda, who established himself as the quintessential counter culture icon with his anti-establishment trilogy Wild Angels 1966, The Trip 1967, and Easy Rider 1969. Filling in the allusion to the 1960’s are Barry Newman, principally for his starring role in the midnight cult classic Vanishing Point, 1971, Andy Warhol Factory regular Joe Dallesandro (Flesh, Lonesome Cowboys 1968, Trash 1970, Heat 1972), and Leslie Ann Warren, who made her debut in the 1960’s but without the above cult-iconic pedigree.

In large measure The Limey’s classicism/modernism sensibility is a result of Soderbergh’s complex fusion of his European art house influences, specifically Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard, with the classic gangster/vendetta model. This stylistic duality is echoed in a setting clash that the film clearly sets up between the 1960’s, complete with its cultural baggage of changing values, and eventual disillusionment and loss of hope for political and social change, and the 1990’s, represented here by Los Angeles, California, Hollywood. The two central figures are Terence Stamp as Wilson, a British ex-con bent on avenging the death of his daughter Jenny, and Peter Fonda as Terry Valentine, an American record producer who, to quote the Leslie Ann Warren character Elaine, “took the whole 60’s southern California zeitgeist and ran with it.” As a young, budding actress/entertainer Wilson’s daughter Jenny moved from London to Los Angeles and became one of Valentine’s trophy girls. Through fragmented flashbacks we learn that she caught on to Valentine’s illegal activity and that her ‘accidental’ death by car crash may have been an indirect result of this knowledge. Soderbergh creates an historical symmetry between past/present and Valentine/Wilson with identical scenes of Jenny as a young girl threatening to expose her father’s criminal activity and the older Jenny in a similar situation with Valentine (holding a telephone in both cases). The closer Wilson gets to the truth the more he comes to realize his own complicity as an absent father in her daughter’s death.

Jenny: circa 1967

Jenny: circa 1997

Wilson, with his Cockney accent and gunslinger black, hides nothing. He is what he appears to be: a man with a criminal past out to avenge his daughter’s death. In contrast, Valentine serves as a metaphor for Los Angeles, all sunny and beautiful on the outside, but shady and deceitful on the inside. Soderbergh introduces this about his two characters directly and concisely with their respective signature songs. During the credit sequence as Wilson exits the airport, we hear The Who’s “The Seeker”: “They call me the seeker. I’ve been searching low and high. I won’t get to get what I’m after, til the day I die.” For Valentine’s introductory scene we hear The Hollies singing “King Midas in Reverse”: “If you can only see me. I know exactly where I am. You wouldn’t want to be me. Oh I can assure you of that. I’m not the guy to run with, cause I’ll throw you off the line. I’ll break you and destroy you, given time. He’s King Midas with a curse. He’s King Midas in reverse.” To quote actor Peter Fonda from the DVD’s production notes, “The joke on the set was that Terence played the Limey and I played the Slimey.”

While Wilson is upfront about what he is after, Valentine supplements his music revenue by his involvement in illegal capital venture with local criminals. Serving as his go-between and bodyguard is Avery (Barry Newman). The collected failures of Wilson and Valentine, moral, paternal, and otherwise, are meant to represent the failure of the 1960’s. But while Valentine has made the adjustment to corporatism extremely well, Wilson is unsettled about the past. By clinging to his memories and in searching for the truth to his daughter’s death, Wilson provides the film’s moral center (while Valentine remains beyond redemption). As Orr (and others) has defined, the modernist movement grew out of two world wars at a time where absolute truth, value, and the certainty of knowledge became a vague uncertainty. This uncertainty of knowledge and truth was reflected in the films which have a claim to modernism by positing a certain ambiguity in perception itself. The act of looking and seeing, whether of the camera or the character, became frail and uncertain (Last Year at Marienbad being the locus classicus). In extreme cases, like Last Year at Marienbad, audiences may all ‘see’ the same thing, but come away with differing responses. Knowledge and certainty are clouded through character subjectivity, non-linear fragmentation, and stylistic hyperbole. Confronted with this post-war social and moral doubt, many of the classic modernist films ask the question, what, if anything, will or can replace absolute value or truth? (And the search continues from Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Alan Resnais to Andrei Tarkovsky, Béla Tarr, and Tsai Ming-liang.)

In narrative cinema the result was often the quest narrative, especially in neo-modernism (1958-78). Critics may define or describe it differently, Gilles Deleuze for example calls this mode of modernism the “time-image,” but what remains common across most modernist films is that a character’s search for meaning becomes prioritized over action and plot. We may be living in the postmodern, but artists don’t always play by the rules. The Limey is a modernist (rather than postmodernist) film in both its theme and style. While postmodern art is ‘relative’ and infinitely open, The Limey clings to questions of meaning. Wilson’s journey may be morally flawed, but at least the desire for the quest remains. By the end of the film (or beginning if you read the film backwards), Wilson has come to terms with his failures and shortcomings. Wilson’s journey from uncertainty to acceptance is formally rendered in the film’s uncertain gaze (questioning of perception) which comes to us through (mainly) Wilson’s refraction of character subjectivity, memory, and stylized authorial narration. As in the formal design of the neo-modernist films, the doubt and uncertainty is instated through montage and fragmentation, the latter being one of the hallmarks of modernism across all arts. Hence Soderbergh sticks to a certain classicism by choosing to make this a genre film, but makes it modernist in the use of montage to fragment the narrative linearity.

This plays itself out as an uncertainty of tense. The film begins with Wilson exiting from an airport and making his way to a hotel (subjective shots from Wilson’s POV are immediately established at the airport). Once in the hotel the film cuts from a close-up shot of an envelope address Wilson is holding in his hands (Ed Roel), to a close-up of Wilson in another location speaking to the person whose name we saw on the envelope, Roel (Luis Guzman), to a close-up of Roel, responding by correcting Wilson’s pronunciation of his name, “Eduardo Roel.” What is interesting to note of this scene is that we will see it again later in the film, only the second time Roel acts differently by reacting with more sarcasm to the mispronunciation of his name, hence demonstrating the frailty and changeability of memory. The shot then cuts back to a close up of the envelope and then to a shot of Wilson seated in an airplane. Given that we have already seen Wilson arrive at an airport, our first impression is to see this airplane shot as a flashback to the moment before he arrived. However, the fact that his meeting of Roel occurs in the future couches those shots as flash forwards, and would encourage one to read the airplane shot in the same way. This image of Wilson seated on the airplane in deep thought becomes a recurring visual motif. By the end of the film what may have been perceived as a movement back in time appears as the present, and renders the earlier instances of this shot a flash-forward tenseness. Some critics have called these shots flashbacks and some flash forwards; one viewer went as far as to say that perhaps Wilson never even got off the plane! As I will demonstrate, however, the art house/classicism dualism is such that it makes it impossible to say with certainty what tense those recurring shots are in relation to the adjoining shots. And in fact that they have an altogether different or more important purpose. Rather than situating the film in a past/present idiom, this recurring image of Wilson in deep thought, in mid air, functions to transmit Wilson’s contemplative inner intensity and single-minded desire for truth and redemption. The shots of Wilson in the airplane, whether in expectation of the events or in reminiscence of them, do not function any differently than the many other shots we see of him sitting alone in a reclusive space (usually in an hotel room).

To read that first airplane image as a flashforward and the film a flashback makes sense of most of the film, but not all because there are several scenes in which Wilson could not have been present. The film comes to us in different layers of subjectivity, or different levels of subjective ‘filtration.’ These different levels can be explained by the art film/classic genre dualism. All the scenes that are clearly coded as being Wilson’s memory, the art film half, are stylized by non-linear narrative fragmentation, Cliff Martinez’ minimalist, plaintive piano score, and varying film stock texture. For example, the genius inclusion of extracts from the 1967 Ken Loach film Poor Cow, starring a young Terence Stamp as a small time crook named, yes Wilson, goes a long way in establishing the film as Wilson’s subjectivity. These extracts include images of Stamp with his wife and images of his daughter as a girl.


Wilson as a Young Man

These grainy images from Poor Cow are visually different from the shots of Wilson’s daughter Jenny as an older woman, at the age she was before she died; which are also visually stylized by a bluish patina, unsteady camera, and vertical foreground light streaks (see photo below). These latter images are in a sense doubly filtered, since they are Roel’s memories, or Wilson’s reconstruction of Roel’s memories. In contrast to these highly stylized moments are the scenes which are filmed in a more classical/realist style. These include the scenes between Terry Valentine and his bodyguard Avery and those involving Avery and the hired hit men, and those between the hit men themselves. A common element to these scenes is that neither Wilson nor Roel could have been physically present at them, hence the less stylized form equates with their being, relatively speaking, of a greater objectivity.

Visual Stylization as Subjective “Filtration”

To complicate matters, Soderbergh goes one step further by fusing elements of the modernist and classical in the same scene. There are two extended dialogue scenes between Roel and Wilson, and Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren), Jenny’s acting teacher, and Wilson, where Wilson learns about the circumstances surrounding his daughter’s death, and where we learn about his relationship with his daughter. From one shot to the next the setting changes from interior to exterior, from day to night, from one location to another, clearly disrupting classical notions of dialogue scene construction. In the scene with Elaine their conversation crosscuts between Elaine’s apartment and a dinner evening at a seaside restaurant. The fascinating aspect of these scenes is that their fragmentation by jump cuts in/across time and space does not produce the audience disorientation of similar gestures in earlier modernist films such as Point Blank, Last Year in Marienbad, or Muriel. The reason for this is that the dialogue and soundtrack remains continuous across the discontinuous time/space. The effect is the victory of continuous hearing over discontinuous seeing. Although the aural continuity is also sometimes subtly underscored by graphic similarity between discontinuous shots. Such as, for example, the pattern of sunlight light on Wilson’s face in the airplane shot, on his face as he drives in the car, on young Jenny’s face in the flashback beach shot, and on the older Jenny’s face in her car shot. Soderbergh has taken the classical dialogue convention of shot counter-shot and ‘modernized’ it by making it space counter-space. The effect is that the modernist (discontinuous time/space) is attenuated by the classical (shot counter-shot, continuous dialogue).

Space Counter-Space

Another filter through which we can understand the film’s heightened temporal fragmentation and moments of meditative calm is to remember that Wilson has just spent nine years in prison, where time no doubt moves and is experienced at a different pace. Coming out of prison after nine years also makes Wilson a man out of time, and we clearly sense this as he makes his way through sun-baked, late 20th century Los Angeles. With his heavy Cockney accent and machismo-driven single-mindedness, Wilson may just as well have stepped out of a 1960’s British gangster film into 1990’s Los Angeles. This is where Performance makes an interesting companion piece to The Limey. While most critics have made the connection to Point Blank, which is undoubtedly relevant, no one seems to have mentioned the equally important touchstone of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s 1970 art house gangster film Performance. Like The Limey, the Cammell/Roeg film revamps a genre formula film, the gangster film, with its jagged temporal structure and quest narrative. In the earlier film James Fox plays a Cockney gangster enforcer named Chas, whose mixing of business with pleasure gets him in hot water with the gang leader Flowers. Like Stamp’s Wilson, Chas is a walking time bomb, cool on the surface but violent and dangerous when need be. Chas bides his time by taking up lodging with a reclusive rock star, played by Mick Jagger, and his two eccentric female companions. Also linking the two films is the marriage of rock music to gangsterism/crime. In The Limey the figure of Terry Valentine represents the corruption of the music industry by way of his illegal money laundering, while in Performance rock music and gangsterism evolves according to the film’s döppelganger theme. At first the rock/crime element is fragmented across the two characters, Chas and Jagger, but then fuses in one, first with Jagger donning the role of gang leader Flowers in a fantasy scene, and then at the end when Chas’ identity merges with Jagger’s. All told there are several small and major concurrences between the two films. Both films are ‘quest’ films that modernize the gangster film, feature narrative fragmentation, make important thematic and narrative use of rock music, have character doppelganger’s (Chas/Jagger, Wilson/Valentine), contain a black & white flashback to childhood, begin with images of an airplane, and contain scenes that feature bluish, florescent lighting.

Performance meets The Limey

The relation between narrative order and temporal order which exists in both The Limey and Performance raises the question of tense in cinema. How can we think of past, present, future in cinema when everything that passes us on the screen does so in the immediate present? Many theorists have reasoned that because of this incredible sense of immediacy, cinema is always in the present. The nouveau Romanist Alain Robbe-Grillet, who scripted Last Year at Marienbad, believed this when he said that cinema can only represent the present. However, these claims of presentness presuppose that viewers are not able to differentiate between the unrolling of screen-time (physical time) and the delicate and sometimes oblique artistic rendering of narrative-time (action-time or story-time). Granted this artistic rendering becomes relative, so that in some cases the point is precisely to foreground the difficult nature of tense in cinema. So with some films it becomes an interpretive case of working out the tense that makes the most sense out of the most narrative events. While in some cases interpretation gives way to equivocation. At the most basic level, if the claims of presentness holds true, how would audiences make sense of flashbacks if some form of distinction between tenses (or before’s and after’s) is not possible? And, as theorist Gregory Currie notes of these claims of presentness, this would mean that audiences believe that the events that are represented are actually happening right there and then. When in fact we know that they did not. Theorist Currie works out the many arguments for/against claims of presentness, but the fact that we can argue this and that complex stories are indeed told in cinema leaves this as a theoretical/philosophical dilemma rather than experiential one. In other words, viewers do make sense of events that may be happening across linear time, simultaneously, or in disorder. The Limey is a good example of a film which does this without causing too much incoherence. As opposed to a film such as Last Year at Marienbad or Muriel, where incoherence, or more properly speaking disorientation, is the aesthetic intent. 2

I have yet to touch on another aspect of The Limey: its political subtext. Orr writes, “From 1910 onwards modernist revolt had targeted the romantic world-view of the artwork as a form of creative human struggle towards cosmic harmony….The cinema uses both the narrative fragment and the play with the camera to break with the organic structure of the romantic world-view.” 3 The entrance of the Wilson character, who symbolizes old school ‘traditional’ individualism to Valentine’s ‘modern,’ über-capitalist individualism clearly represents a disruption of Valentine’s “romantic world-view.” It says quite enough about the film’s political baggage to see the Valentine character, the once representative of anti-establishment America, living the decadent life of a corrupt, jaded rock music producer/promoter. But before the appearance of Wilson, Valentine is safely cocooned in his palatial Big Sur mansion, with his character introduced to us, as was Wilson in the credit sequence, through song, with The Hollies’ “King Midas in Reverse.” But everything crumbles with the unexpected arrival of Wilson. This is suggested from the get go with The Who’s “The Seeker” introducing us to the Wilson character during the credit sequence, with Roger Daltry’s voice bellowing, “They call me the seeker…. And more forcefully later during the factory visit scene, where an enraged, gun toting Wilson carries his blood-soaked face right up to camera and yells, “You tell him. You tell him I’m coming. Tell him I’m fucking coming.” The words are repeated in voice-over on the image of Wilson’s enraged face by Valentine in an appropriately worried tone, “Tell him I’m coming?” The noted film’s formal fragmentation aligns with the disruption of Valentine’s convenient, self-serving capitalist world. Although there is at one level a critique of individualism in the way Wilson, in the end, admits his responsibility, the film also reaffirms Wilson as an anti-hero.

“Tell him I’m fucking coming.”

In this one respect, gender politics, The Limey relies on the machismo conventions of the gangster (and western) film (strong male hero with unique strengths and resolve, the moral use of violence, justified vengeance, etc.). This is a far cry from, quoting Orr once again, the importance of women in the post-Simone de Beauvoir era modernist films of Resnais, Godard, Bergman and Antonioni (Jeanne Moreau, Anna Karina, Monica Vitti, Harriet Anderson). The three female characters in The Limey, Elaine (Warren), Jenny (Melissa George), and Adhara (Amelia Heinle) serve secondary roles. Elaine sizes up the film’s male terrain in the following exchange where she queries Wilson about his intentions:

Elaine: What’s the deal. You and Terry Valentine at 40 paces. Come on, is that it?

Wilson: I don’t see why not.

Elaine: Are you serious?

Wilson: Have you ever known me not to be?

Elaine: (raising her arms in disgust) Oh you fucking guys and your dicks man!

In conclusion, a few words on the “Artisan” DVD release of The Limey. In short, this is one of the best overall DVD’s you can experience. I remember vividly seeing the theatrical release, and the DVD transfer, taken from a 35mm interpositive supervised by Steven Soderbergh and cinematographer Ed Lachman, impeccably captures the film’s expansive color and texture range from orangish, sun-baked Los Angeles to harsh florescent interiors. The 5.1 Dolby digital sound is also central to the film’s thematic and formal design, because so much is invested in the songs, Cliff Martinez’ great, ambient score (which you can isolate), and the intricate shot to shot sound design. The running commentary track by Soderbergh and Dobbs is both insightful and funny. Soderbergh and Dobbs engage in so many artistic disagreements that they must be great friends, otherwise they would not have made it through to the end without one strangling the other! The 1960’s docu-commentary bears little direct reference to the film but provides a broad social-political context to the 1960’s which can only help enrich the film. At times it meanders and repeats itself, and it is not intended to accompany the film, but serve as a contextual foundation. Also of interest is the Technical Specifications feature, which gives extra information on the audio and video transfer, and includes a brief excerpt of the film in both the 16:9 anamorphic widescreen version and the 4:3 letterbox version to test which format looks best on your particular television set.


  1. John Orr. Cinema and Modernity. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press. 1993, p. 1.
  2. For an in-depth analysis of tense in cinema I refer the reader to two key texts: Alexander Sesonske’s “Time and Tense in Cinema,” “ in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism Vol. 38/No. 4, Summer 1980, 419-426, and Currie, Gregory. Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy and Cognitive Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 198-222.
  3. Orr, 3 & 4.

<i>The Limey</i>

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 6, Issue 4 / April 2002 Film Reviews   film theory   gangster   modernism   montage   steven soderbergh  

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