When the idea of this series was first pitched, my brain initially locked up. Talking about a full-scale Freejack-montage of imagery overload type of lock-up. Isolating a key scene from cinema that had an especially potent effect erupted a flush of images that played out like some paralytic-bleeding-into-spasmolytic montage. How in the hell is this even going to be possible? But, suddenly, it hit me.
A man, handsome but clearly far from being in a good place, sits at a bar. His entire gait is weighed down, like a beautiful exoskeleton robbed of its once-thriving form and spirit. Liquor is a poor anchor for what is going down in his life, but its amber waves can at least cloud the pain and emotional ashes of loss. Fallen angels may try to take over the kingdom of Heaven, but fallen businessmen got nowhere to go but down.
Ladies & gentlemen, before I introduce you to Lee Balcourt, let me first introduce you to the fallacy of our own memory and minds.
The above passage is exactly how I remembered that scene, all Chandler squalor and the drunken poptones of The Sporting Bachelors song, “Stuck in Babylon.” Revisiting the source, Cecil Howard’s third entry in his powerful Firestorm trilogy, I realized that my memory was only about eighty percent accurate. (This is why the truth is dead, people. Our own brains will haze things out, even when our hearts and intentions ring true.)
Before I get too deep in the weeds of why I need to start taking Gingko Biloba, let me present to you the story of these amazing films and one of its many anti-heroes, in the form of Lee, who was portrayed to unforgettable perfection by the late John Leslie. Cecil Howard’s Firestorm trilogy centers on a world of grifting, heartbreak, and dysfunctional characters who have all but damned themselves to a spinning groove of bad decisions and the lingering refrain of love once possessed.
The first entry focuses on Kenny (one of many great performances by legend Eric Edwards), a writer who supplements his meager income with the occasional gigolo gig. Kenny’s a likable character in spite of his actions. This is a recurring theme throughout the series, both for Ken and many others. He nets a ghostwriting gig for Lee’s wife, the rich and ruthless Magda (Kay Parker). This opens up a world of adultery, sketchy financial dealings, and in the midst of this human cesspool, a lamb born amongst wolves, their blind adult daughter, Claire (Joanna Storm.) The latter becomes part of a pseudo-sexual-family unit with Ken and his old flame Liza (Tina Marie), but in a world full of opportunism and cyclical-dysfunction, Claire’s life is wrecked with devastating results.
This is a groundbreakingly great film that has as much mal-hearted intrigue that one can hope for. Its two follow-ups, while not as wholesale solid as the first, are still strong and peel back even more riveting and emotionally twisted layers. Lee has gone from the penthouse to the pavement, with his finances in dire straits between Ken running off with the bulk of his fortunes and being hunted down by shady men tied to his own even shadier dealings with the “international fuel market.” Equally bad news bears, Magda has committed (offscreen) suicide and Claire has estranged herself from both her biological and pseudo families and has voluntarily disappeared off the map. There is further intrigue when a different woman (Renee Summers) shows up, claiming to be Claire. (Spoiler alert: She’s not but the twist of the reveal of who she turns out to be strangely poetic.)
In the midst of Lee’s downward spiral, he hires a fantastically seedy private detective, Jack Fortune (Michael Gaunt) to track down Claire. Gaunt is so good here, playing Fortune like a Dashiell Hammett character painted by the back pages of Nugget magazine. Speaking of Nugget and other notorious magazines, there’s a disturbing scene in the second film, involving Lee going to a sex worker and mentally mixing up a beautiful/wraith-like woman, that is being graphically serviced by Ron Jeremy (in leather gear), with his daughter.
But again, this isn’t the scene I am delving into today and thank god since there’s only so much Silkwood showering my brain can take.
It’s night time. Loneliness and bad vibes vibrate in the air. Lee is being actively followed by ominous men in dark suits, including one wearing a keffiyeh. (No doubt some former “colleagues” from Lee’s bad business dealings are coming to collect.) He dodges into a bar, that is nearly barren save for a beautiful blonde looking far too young to be this hunched over and sad in a well-worn place. Both are desolate of love. This is Caroline (Ali Moore), whom we had seen earlier with Ken. After their rather passionate love scene, she gets emotionally cold on Ken post-climax. Confused and pissed, he tells her to “go to hell,” in which Caroline responds with something akin to, “No problem. I’m already there.” Jesus. What the hell happened to this girl along the way? (A question you could ask about 99% of the characters within the Firestorm universe.)
Lee chats her up immediately, flirting heavily. Out of the purest strain of desperation, the wolf is charming the girl. Desperate for human touch. Desperate to evade the ever-looming fate of torture and fatality at the hands of his shady ex-business partners and desperate to escape a reality of soured dreams, a dead wife, and an estranged daughter. If you knew that you might not live to see the dawn, wouldn’t you want to spend the last night of your life in the arms of a beautiful, down-on-their-luck stranger?
It is this moment that sticks with me the most. A simple scene with two characters who both have the vibe-shuffle of twin veterans of the psychic wars. Lee is older and has the weight of someone who once tasted the fruit of a better life, but had it go rancid due to greed, lust, and being part of a highly damaged marriage. Caroline is still young and if the information on IMDB is to be believed (your mileage will forever vary), actress Ali Moore was around only 23 when this film was made. Caroline seems a bit older than that as a character, but not by much. The glimpses we get of her paints an insecure and deeply unhappy young woman. She’s physically beautiful but there’s something hurting inside, which can be an annoying and dumb cliche in clumsier and more obvious hands. Thank the gods we got Howard and the glorious Anne Randall, whose work as a writer of many of his films never ever gets praised enough, at the helm of this series.
Sorrow and need are the lovers meeting as the pavement-meets-Schlitz-garage-pop of The Sporting Bachelors plays on. Instead of “Stuck in Babylon” though, it’s “Lovers But Not Friends,” appropriately enough, playing. Even more appropriately? Both are from the band’s sole LP, Love Letters to Joanna, their titular ode to our OG Claire, the inimitable Ms. Joanna Storm. Also, that whole album is fantastic and should be sought out. Garage rock with piss and a broken heart till the cows and our lost fathers finally come home.
The Firestorm trilogy is a landmark one, not just in the realms of adult cinema, but in film as a whole. Great art is great art, whether it leans on elements of drama, horror, comedy, or sexuality. Brimming with great performances (ie. Edwards, Leslie, Storm, Kay Parker, Gaunt, Sharon Kane, Moore, etc), intelligent writing, fantastic music, and the kind of streaks of gray morality that riddle so much of life itself, these are films that will always be a close part of my heart.
There are few true devils in this world and even fewer angels, but there are plenty of those of us who are mottled in-between.
Stuck in Babylon, indeed.