There are great movie stars and there are great actors. It’s probably arguable as to whether the late Linda Manz was either; she never had the body of work to be a star, making just eleven films in her career, and in her best known roles she seems mostly to play a version of herself, for directors who wanted to harness something they saw in her. What Manz inarguably was is an extraordinary screen presence. That’s something that comes through in almost every frame of Dennis Hopper’s long unavailable, now fully restored, Out of the Blue.
The film that Out of the Blue is now probably shouldn’t exist. It began life as Cebe; apparently a family friendly drama about a young girl (Manz), and her fractured relationship with her troubled parents (Hopper and Sharon Farrell), narrated by her psychiatrist (Raymond Burr). After two weeks had been shot and the footage was considered unusable, the original director was fired and Hopper took a few days to rewrite the film and to recast all the roles save for Manz, Farrell, Burr and himself. The resulting film has a peculiar energy; much of it appearing improvised and, when Hopper is on screen, sometimes dangerous feeling.
In Hopper’s version, Cebe is a punk-loving, hard edged, girl of about 15. For the last five years her father Don has been in prison, following an incident in which, distracted by Cebe, he crashed his truck into a school bus, killing several children. While waiting for him to come home Cebe’s mother Kathy has fallen into a relationship with her boss and into a heroin habit. When Don finally arrives home, things aren’t as good as Cebe might have imagined they would be.
For the first half of the film, before Don gets out of prison, Out of the Blue is almost entirely Linda Manz’ show. She simply leaps off the screen. What she brings most vividly to Cebe is a sense of insouciance; an utterly authentic don’t give a fuck energy that radiates from her every pore. One especially naturalistic example of this comes when she and a couple of friends pass some older boys hanging out by a car. Cebe flirts for a moment, before blowing them off with “Nice car, nice pants, nice ass, we’ll think about it”. This is a shining example of what’s truly great about Manz, both in this film and in her other major roles; she seems entirely herself within the character. There’s no hint of artificiality about her. It seems that this moment or the one of Cebe, having run away, falling in with a punk band (The Pointed Sticks) for part of a night and ending up playing the drums for a bit of one song, would have happened just the same if Hopper simply followed her around with a camera.
Things are bleak from the start. Cebe’s life with her mother doesn’t feel especially stable, and she and the other girls her age often seem surrounded by pervy older men. In one especially troubling sequence, Don’s ‘best friend’ Charlie tries to pick up first Cebe and then Kathy at a bowling alley. This becomes a theme that will recur both when Cebe runs away (at a party when she lies down, thumb in mouth, on a bed, apparently to sleep) and in the film’s last ten minutes, which bring home, perhaps in a slightly too on the nose way, that this is nothing new to Cebe. These moments of vulnerability are felt throughout Manz’ performance, in her need to find closeness with her Dad, felt powerfully in a prison visit, and when he is first back, both occasions on which she dresses much more like a little girl, and especially in the recurring gesture of sucking her thumb. It’s in these moments that we realise that for all her bravado, Cebe is still a somewhat confused kid at heart.
In the second half of the film, Don returns from prison, and a little more structure appears, briefly in the family and subsequently in the narrative. Hopper is fantastic as Don, all his real life drug and alcohol issues appear to play into the performance, making him an unpredictable force, but as the film runs on we start to see the need to get where it’s going, and while the ending is somewhat inevitable (and, in keeping with the film, bleak as all hell) the last ten minutes in particular does come across more staged, as Sharon Farrell especially pushes the boat out a little far into melodrama.
Films fall by the wayside all the time, but more than most, Out of the Blue is ripe for rediscovery. The whole film crackles with the same unpredictable energy that Manz and Hopper bring to their individual performances and to the relationship between their characters. It may stumble slightly in the end, but the rest of the film is so striking that it still comes as an unequivocal recommendation.
The package put together by BFI is stunning in its breadth. The film is fully restored in 4K and looks astonishing, while retaining the grain that gives it much of its authentic grit. Extras include three commentaries: one from 2000 with Hopper, one of the producers and the film’s distributor and two new tracks, from academic Kate Rennebohm and critic Kat Ellinger. If that’s not enough, an exhastive second disc adds a screen talk with Hopper and four and a half hours of interviews over two features; one focusing solely on Out of the Blue and the other on Hopper.
Need more? There is also an appreciation of Out of the Blue by filmmaker Alex Cox, a video essay on Linda Manz and a selection of themed short films. You’re going to spend weeks working through this. It is surely the definitive release of the film.