‘Sea of Love’ has all the makings of an accomplished neo- noir: a bitter detective, a captivating femme fatale, and a series of cleverly interlocked murders played out to a bluesy jazz score.
With New York as the smoky city backdrop for this tale, it tells a story of cat and mouse, as Homicide Detective, Keller (Al Pacino), attempts to track a serial killer whose left three men dead, all seemingly linked by rhyming ads they’ve placed in a lonely hearts magazine.
In an effort to find the killer, he places a similar ad, the response rate of which leads to a hilarious speed dating scenario in which Keller and Partner, Sherman (John Goodman) schmooze their way through an assembly line of desperate somethings in a shabby down-town diner, retaining finger prints from wine glasses as part of their enquiry. Of the women that arrive, it is Helen (Ellen Barkin) who bears the closest resemblance to what they are looking for- an alluring blonde haired tigress capable of weakening a man with the slightest show of flesh. Quickly drawn to each other, Helen remarks of her steadfast belief in animal attraction to which Keller adds, “I happen to be hell on wheels once you get know me”. Avoiding any attempt at clasping her wine glass, she leaves little in the way of concrete evidence in her stride initially, yet all arrows continue to point in her direction, with Keller willingly surrendering himself to her charms, aware of the dangers it might bring.
What follows is an eruption of steamy love scenes, as voyeuristic tracking shots intimately follow the contours of bodies entwined. Mounting Keller like a wild animal, the predator in Helen quickly surfaces as she digs her claws into the back of his neck and wraps her legs around him. But it isn’t mere physical passion that links these two; they are inexplicably drawn to each other by shared feelings of vulnerability of suspicion: Keller, in knowing that this put might be his last night of passion; Helen, at the knowledge that Keller is a cop and might turn her in.
Tell-tale signs of Helen being the killer include the gun she packs in her bag; the notes on her fridge containing the names of the victims; and the less obvious ‘ Sea of Love’ vinyl in her record collection, which was seen to play through the death of each of the man who passed. But don’t be fooled into thinking the story will run a predictable course- red herrings are aplenty in this film.
While the film is let down by a largely premature ending, it harnesses its strength through some exceptional acting on part of Pacino and Barkin who show infectious on-screen chemistry throughout. Very much a film of its time, it acutely captures the revival of the noir genre which was taking place throughout the 80’s and early 90’s. Fans of the genre will relish in Price’s story which borrows both the sexually potent femme fatale of ‘Body Heat’ and the self-destructive detective of Bogart years gone by, while echoing ‘Blue Velvet’ in it’s use of an eerie minor-key soundtrack.