It’s not Twin Peaks, but Storyville is a remarkable underrated film

“The past isn’t dead.”

Revisiting well-remembered films in this Neglected Cinema series is like a crapshoot. Sometimes movies I loved on first viewing I find merely likeable, and other times I discover old favorites are, with the passage of time, barely watchable.

Then there are movies like Storyville.

It’s been twenty years since Storyville’s release, and when it came out many viewers were expecting the same quirky darkness that director Mark Frost had given us on his TV series Twin Peaks (ironically, the sequel/prequel to the series, Fire Walk With Me, came out around the same time). I was one of those people, a rabid Peaks fan, and when I first saw Storyville in the fall of 1992 I thought it was good, not great.

I was wrong. It’s fantastic.

Storyville is a revelation, a solid piece of entertainment and a remarkable character study that deserves a lot more attention and praise from movie fans.

James Spader (who looks oh-so-very-young here) stars as a candidate running for Congress, a lawyer from a powerful New Orleans family who’s in politics because he “doesn’t know how to do anything else.” When he gets a note to meet a beautiful woman in a red-light district dance club named Storyville, his life and political aspirations get… complicated. VERY complicated. Spader does some great work with some challenging material here.

In Storyville, the filmmakers bring forward a remarkable supporting cast, and many of the featured players are actors Frost had previously worked with on Hill Street Blues and Twin Peaks. Michael Warren, Charles Haid, and Piper Laurie all provide canny turns and take full advantage of some of the great dialogue Frost provides. Also providing great performances are Chuck McCann, Jason Robards, and Charlotte Lewis.

I’ve never been to New Orleans (I drove through it once) and visiting there is on my “bucket list.” Watching Storyville makes me want to go there all the more, as Frost takes full advantage of shooting on location. There’s some beautiful shots here.

Also worth noting is a fantastic score by Carter Burnwell, one of the best he’s ever done (and he’s done some great ones).

I wish I could be completely glowing in my praise, but I did have some issues with the movie. As a viewer I never really felt much sympathy for Spader’s character, and his (very human) reaction when he learns he was videotaped making love doesn’t help matters. Joanne Whalley-Kilmer is billed as the co-star, and she’s absolutely beautiful (I have a thing for brunettes), but… her performance just doesn’t work for me. Finally, as the drama moves to the courtroom some of the classic tropes of that genre, unfortunately, pop up.

But that last courtroom scene… Ooh, boy. What a scene.

I now find myself in the surprising position as a Twin Peaks fan who now likes Storyville more than Fire Walk With Me. A surprising and odd position indeed.

Storyville is out of print but copies are still available from many used DVD sellers. If you like smart films with great performances, seek out a copy. You’ll be glad you did.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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