The Big Easy (1986)
Starring Dennis Quaid, Ellen Barkin, Ned Beatty, John Goodman, Lisa Jane Persky, Grace Zabriskie, Marc Lawrence, Solomon Burke and Jim Garrison. Directed by Jim McBride. From Kings Road Entertainment/Columbia Pictures.
Its 2am in N’Awlins – “the Big Easy” – and mobster Freddie Angelo lies face down in the Piazza d’Italia, dead as Kelsey’s nuts. Lt. Remy McSwain (Quaid) rolls up on the scene, radio blasting. Remy confers with fellow officer McCabe (Persky) and his superior Capt. Jack Kellom (Beatty) – who also happens to be dating his mama (Zabriskie). Everyone agrees that this hit on Angelo looks like part of a war between rival gangs. Well, not everyone.
Next morning, District Attorney Anne Osborne (Barkin) is waiting in Remy’s office (“Nice neck”, Remy says). The cops in Remy’s division – especially DeSoto (Goodman) and Dodge (Ebbe Roe Smith) – are not happy with the intrusion as it seems the DA’s office has a police corruption angle on the Angelo murder. Anne watches as Remy questions mob boss Vinnie “The Cannon” DiMotti (Lawrence) about Freddie’s murder and afterwards, when McSwain lets the Cannon go, she challenges him on his methods.
Remy tries to explain that this is New Orleans, darlin’, the Big Easy, and things are done differently here. To make his point, Remy takes Anne to Tipitina’s, running red lights, skipping the long line to get in and making it plain that the restaurant receives favours from the police force. Anne – though she finds Remy somewhat charming – expresses her disgust and tells him their relationship will be strictly business due in part to an obvious conflict of interest. However…
Working together late one night, Remy makes a heavy play for the less experienced Anne and she melts under his ministering. Mid-romp, Remy’s beeper goes off and he’s called away to a triple murder in Storyville. He apologizes but Anne says it’s par for the course for her. “I never did have much luck with sex, anyway”, she explains. Remy takes her in his arms before he leaves and tells her “Your luck’s about to change, cher“.
The dead guys in Storyville worked for Daddy Mention (Burke), another crime boss and voodoo priest. Drugs are found on the premises and McSwain and Kellom agree that it is looking more and more like rival gangs at war. But there is still a nagging suspicion, fostered by the crowd gathered outside, that police are involved in these shootings.
Remy and Anne have a lunch date at Antoine’s but Remy doesn’t show. He’s been arrested for apparently taking a bribe from the owner of the Sho Bar on Bourbon. Anne is disappointed – but not very much surprised. The would-be lovers are now on opposite sides and Anne is put in charge of prosecuting McSwain. Through his tried and tested methods of chicanery, Remy squirms out of the charges against him.
But Anne has challenged Remy to take a hard look at himself and he is now asking if he is really one of the good guys. After both Daddy Mention and Remy’s own brother are shot, Remy is convinced something is amiss and he begins to see his fellow officers – including his soon-to-be stepfather, Jack – in a different light.
This movie and I go way back. Back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I was a prolific tape-renter from my local Jumbo Video. The Big Easy became, among the many movies I rented at that time, one of my absolute favourites and today it remains among my Top 25 favourite films. It is the reason I still love and respect Dennis Quaid today and his work in this film made Remy McSwain one of my favourite characters. But the main appeal for my young self came from this movie’s authentic depiction of life in the city of New Orleans. The Big Easy and its soundtrack impacted me greatly and made me a fan and student of the culture of the Crescent City.
Daniel Mannix Petrie, Jr. is the son of – you guessed it – Daniel Petrie, Sr. Petrie the Elder was born in Nova Scotia and was a noted film director who made his name with only his second feature, 1961’s A Raisin in the Sun. He is notable here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure for having directed the 1969 TV movie Silent Night, Lonely Night, a SoulRide movie pick of 2020 and he would also go on to direct the coming out party for my girl, Sally Field, Sybil (1976). But it’s the son we’re interested in here and Petrie, Jr. got his start with the screenplay for Beverly Hills Cop (1984), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. The Big Easy was his second film and he would go on to write, produce and/or direct a handful of middling films over the course of the next 30 years. His brother, Donald, has directed Grumpy Old Men (1993) and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003). The Petrie family was given a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 2001. Director Jim McBride I touched on in my review of his other film with Dennis Quaid, Great Balls of Fire!
I likewise gave my thoughts on Dennis in my look at the biopic of The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis. I will reiterate here though that Quaid has always had a certain flair and this may have never been more evident than it was in The Big Easy. He spent a month working with the officers of the New Orleans Police Department and no doubt the time was spent analyzing them professionally but also personally. I have always thought that Quaid embodies a New Orleanian well. He employs an accent and turns a phrase in a way that makes you believe its authenticity. I notice myself still to this day adopting a lot of his hand gestures such as pointing with not only my index finger but also my little finger. And I have always used the phrase “dead as Kelsey’s nuts”. Quaid’s wardrobe is outstanding. Costume designer Tracy Tynan outfitted Remy McSwain in trim suits and fantastic shoes and would later provide the same service for Quaid and McBride on the Jerry Lee Lewis film. And let’s not forget; “Remy McSwain” may be the coolest character name ever.
Ellen Barkin is one of my favourite actresses mostly due to her appearances in a lot of films that are notable to me. Her film debut was an uncredited appearance in the Cheech and Chong opus Up in Smoke (1978) before being tapped for a starring role in my second-favourite film of all-time. She is what amounts to the female lead in Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982) and the same could be said for her work in Eddie and the Cruisers – another from my Top 25 – from the following year. Ellen Barkin, then, should technically be my number one favourite actress as she appears in three of my Top 25 favourite movies. Add in her inclusion in the Ocean’s Eleven Remake universe – in Thirteen – another great film with her Diner co-star, Mickey Rourke, Johnny Handsome (1989) and another neo-noir Sea of Love with Pacino that same year and I can count Ellen Barkin as a cool chick who turns up in a lot of excellent films.
The Big Easy has a good cast. Prolific Ned Beatty appeared in over 150 movies – including Deliverance (1972), White Lightning (1973) and Stroker Ace (1983), all with Burt Reynolds. Ned from Louisville passed in 2021, aged 83. John Goodman was just starting his career when he appeared in our film and he would go on to a notable film and television career. He also appeared in the aforementioned Sea of Love with Barkin. Starting with The Big Easy, Lisa Jane Persky appeared in three consecutive films that I love. After our film, she followed Quaid and McBride into Great Balls of Fire! and then made When Harry Met Sally…, yet another of my Top 25. Ebbe Roe Smith had only a minor acting career but he did write the screenplay for Falling Down (1993), a compelling film starring Michael Douglas. New Orleans native Grace Zabriskie is perfect casting as the matriarch of the McSwain clan. She is perhaps best known for her work on TV’s Twin Peaks and Seinfeld.
Marc Lawrence had a prolific career in Hollywood, from film noir to James Bond. He is notable enough to have earned his own entry here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure. Read about him here. Legendary soul singer Solomon Burke made his film debut in The Big Easy and would appear in only two more small films. Burke lead a remarkable life and passed away at an Amsterdam airport while still on a plane that had just landed from Dulles Airport in Washington. He was 70 or 74. More inspired casting saw Judge Jim Garrison portray Judge Jim Garrison. Garrison had been the District Attorney of Orleans Parish in Louisiana from 1962 to 1973 – when he was succeeded by Harry Connick, Sr. Garrison is best known for his investigations into the assassination of John F. Kennedy and for having been portrayed by Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone’s stunning JFK.
Robert Redford has said that The Big Easy was the first film to be “sold” at the Sundance Film Festival. Redford tells of dragging the head of Columbia Pictures to a screening of the film which was then picked up by the studio for distribution. The film was a success and was heralded by the likes of Roger Ebert who praised the many original characterizations in the movie. It also gained a notoriety of sorts due to the love scene between Quaid and Barkin – “What, that? Or that?” – and it spawned a short-lived TV series starring no one of any note.
The soundtrack I talked about in my Playlist article for Fat Tuesday, Take Me to the Mardi Gras!!. Each song on the soundtrack is excellent and worth noting. The opening credits are well executed and feature the energetic “Zydeco Gris Gris” by legendary cajun band BeauSoleil, formed in 1975 by Michael Doucet, a renowned figure in this idiom. The speeding aerial shot over the bayou is accented nicely by duelling fiddles. Another prominent N’Awlins musician is Professor Longhair. His rolling, barrelhouse style of piano is well displayed in his recording of “Tipitina”, a song that is in the US National Registry due to its cultural significance. The famous music venue in NoLa took its name from this song. Ya’ll need to understand Buckwheat Zydeco and perhaps the best example of what this group’s music can give you can be heard in “Ma ‘Tit Fille”, a song that is Zydeco 101.
I’ve built a strangely intense love for the mellow “Colinda” by Zachary Richard who is also a published poet. Richard was made an honourary Member of the Order of Canada in 2009 “for his contributions as an author, composer, singer and poet, and for his important role in defending and promoting the French language and the “Cadian” and Acadian identity”. Grammy winners for Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album Terrance Simien & The Mallet Playboys work it out at Tipitina’s in The Big Easy and The Wild Tchoupitoulas provide the groovy “Hey Hey (Indians Comin’)” while the gospel group the Swan Silvertones add a reverent touch.
A musician himself, Dennis Quaid co-wrote – with Simien – the romantic “Closer to You”. When I was a co-op student at a community radio station, I was given the 3pm jazz hour. Not yet being hip to true jazz, I often played records by artists that I knew but that weren’t pure jazz; Tom Waits from Big Time, Steve Miller’s jazz album Born to Be Blue, the Honeydrippers and I played Quaid’s “Closer to You” from The Big Easy soundtrack. And dig a stellar, latter-day version of Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is” by all the Neville Brothers. Take a minute and make a list of truly classic cajun and zydeco music; much of what you’ll come up with is here on this great soundtrack.
Back in the day, I taped many movies off TV. As I began to replace them with DVDs, I noticed that some were missing scenes I knew from my VHS collection. Steve Martin’s ridiculously unique Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) was missing a scene showing Rigby Reardon – dressed as a woman – getting choked by Marlowe who didn’t realize it was a man he was strangling. Rigby chides Marlowe for not noticing his large Adam’s apple. Rumble Fish (1983) omitted a scene wherein Rusty James’ teacher asks him to beat up a fellow student. The aforementioned Sea of Love was the weirdest. Pacino and his character’s estranged wife – played by Lorraine Bracco – have a scene in an alley. It does not feature on the DVD and, being Bracco’s only scene, she’s technically not even in the movie.
The DVD version of The Big Easy I own is a poor print. Additionally, it is missing a scene I recall from my taped-off-TV version. At the end of the DVD version, Remy and Anne (actually painfully obvious stunt performers) leap to avoid getting blown up. There’s a quick cut and the two are dancing around Annie’s hotel room while the credits roll. They have apparently married but their attire does not immediately suggest this. It seems very abrupt. The more sensible “complete” version goes from the explosion to Remy laid up in the hospital. He’s taken some shrapnel in his glutes and is harnessed in a compromising position in bed. Annie comes in and makes a crack about his wounds and asks what he’s doing. Remy explains he’s typing up his resignation. Anne – remember she was very critical of McSwain’s methods – gently convinces him that he has what it takes to be a good and a straight cop. During the scene the two obviously cement their feelings for each other and Remy proposes – and cut to the credits and the two are married. Much better. I’ve learned that this scene features in the UK video release. Why it’s gone from home video prints in North America I don’t know. But I do know I wish I had kept my video tapes with these films on them.
The Big Easy has style and flair – like the city in which it is set. It has enough mystery to keep you interested but its strength is in the characterizations and in the location shoot. Freddie Angelo really is laying face down in the Piazza d’Italia, a monument to Italian immigrants to New Orleans located downtown at Lafayette and Commerce. We really see Tipitina’s and Antoine’s in the French Quarter. And take for instance the party at Mama’s after Remy beats the rap. You’d swear those were local people – and likely many were – and that this was a real party that the filmmakers stumbled upon, quickly setting up their cameras to shoot. And that really is the legendary Dewey Balfa on the porch singing. It helps to hear that both Quaid and Barkin consider this the most fun they ever had making a movie. That feeling is apparent – and contagious.