Monday, June 14, 2021

“You Have Personally Seen this Toupee?” - The Jigsaw Murders (1989) - Film #206

After his first American film, Open House (1987), and his second American film, Hack-O-Lantern (1988), Indian director Jag Mundhra moved away from horror to begin a long and successful run of erotic thrillers, beginning with 1989's The Jigsaw Murders.

Some of your universe's critics are not sufficiently kind to The Jigsaw Murders. For example, reviewer BA_Harrison writes, "It's banal, unexciting, tedious, and trite." And reviewer Michael_Elliott writes, "we're pretty much left with a film that doesn't have any thrills and in most ways is pretty forgettable."

Read on for a proper appreciation of Jag Mundhra's The Jigsaw Murders...

The film opens with helicopter shots of Hollywood, including the Hollywood sign, the Hollywood Bowl, and a shoe store. Outside the shoe store, a homeless woman mumbling to herself finds a severed human leg in a dumpster.

Elsewhere, policeman Chad Everett and his partner Elliott kick down an apartment door attempting to capture a be-muletted suspect who jumps out the window and falls into another dumpster. As policemen tend to do, Mr. Everett’s partner jumps on top of the suspect’s van but is soon thrown off the van, only to be rescued by Mr. Everett as the van drives away. When Elliott leaves, Mr. Everett drops his rifle and takes a long swig from a flask, subtly indicating he might be an alcoholic policeman.

Back at police headquarters, Mr. Everett and Elliott are called into their commanding officer’s office. Shockingly, they are not yelled at, but rather congratulated because their muletted suspect was picked up by other policemen. Mr. Everett thanks his superiors, and he and Elliott grin and fist-bump each other. They are then assigned to the case of the missing leg—or rather legs, as both were found in different locations. After the captain informs Mr. Everett that he was passed over for promotions twice in five years due to using alcohol on the job (clearly not an offense warranting disciplinary action), Mr. Everett, still smiling, leaves the office.

At the morgue, coroner Yaphet Kotto tells Mr. Everett and Elliott that whoever owned the legs was killed in the desert. “Maybe it’s your typical, pathetic cry for attention,” Mr. Kotto says.

“Sort of makes you wonder why they don’t just rent a billboard,” Mr. Everett quips.

Mr. Kotto then says, “The lady appreciated fine art,” indicating what appears to be a tattoo of a gray snake on one leg.

Somewhere else in Hollywood, Michelle Johnson, wearing a baggy blue jumpsuit, auditions for a role in a film called Red September. Humorously, the casting director gives her character a lengthy backstory, though she is only auditioning to be murdered. “Make it more Godard, less De Palma,” the casting director tells her after she screams and falls down.

The filmmakers show us the continuing police investigation as Elliott drops off a check at his travel agency (prominently placed in the film, real phone number and all) in advance of his honeymoon. Mr. Everett uses the errand to ditch Elliott and have lunch with Ms. Johnson on Sunset Boulevard, revealed to be his daughter. In more subtle character-building, Ms. Johnson berates her father about ordering a Heineken. “My dear, do you have any idea how much beer it takes to get a man of my physical stature drunk?”

“No, but I’m sure you do,” she replies.

In turn, he berates her about her modeling career, which she defends by saying, “Erotica is not pornography. Besides, I’m not doing that anymore. I’m a real actress now.” She says she will perform at a showcase in Burbank, and Mr. Everette says he’s looking forward to it.

Back at police headquarters, Mr. Everett and Elliott have another friendly, cordial meeting with their captain. “The chief’s getting heat from the mayor’s office. Now I need progress and I need it quickly,” the captain says quietly.

“We’re doing our best, Captain,” Elliott says.

“Well, I appreciate that, Detective Greenfield,” the captain says before the detectives stroll out of the office.

Elliott phones his fiancé, who seems just slightly more pushy than the captain when he tells her some police work came up. They walk past a holding cell where a man howls like a wolf, prompting Elliott to call him “Teen Wolf” and tell him to “put a lid on it.”

The “police work” turns out to be Elliott’s bachelor party at a dive bar.  For some reason, the filmmakers decide to include the entire party, which includes a stripper posing as an undercover detective. After the party takes up what feels like half the film’s run-time, Mr. Everett discovers a clue: the box cover of one of Elliott’s bachelor party gifts (a nude jigsaw puzzle) shows a model with the same snake tattoo found on the severed leg. “It’s a two-sided puzzle,” Mr. Everett explains, “and it can give us her face.”

The situation leads to one of the best scenes in the film, in which a group of police officers puts together a nudie jigsaw puzzle in a bar.

They find out what the model looks like, and they also find the jigsaw puzzle manufacturer, conveniently located in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, a postal worker finds part of an arm in a mailbox.

Mr. Everette and Elliott visit the jigsaw company’s headquarters, where they are given a tour of the factory, which only puts out pornographic puzzles. The owner (an actor clearly aiming to be the next Wayne Knight) looks through his files to identify who photographed the model in question, but he comes up empty. “We changed our filing system about three months ago and ever since then I haven’t been able to find squat, if you’ll pardon by French.”

At a police lecture in the squad room by a psychologist specializing in sociopaths (played by an actress clearly aiming to be the next Julia Duffy), Mr. Everette gets a call from the pornographic jigsaw impresario, who tells him the photographer of the jigsaw model is named Ace Mosley. The detectives find Ace in a run-down apartment building, where he is of course photographing two semi-nude models, instructing them by throwing in the phrase “tongue action” every two or three words. He sends the models home and Mr. Everett shows him a print of the model with the snake tattoo. Elliott says, perhaps a little too brightly, “Somebody chopped her into pieces.”

While Ace finds his records, identifying the model as Cynthia James, Mr. Everett flips through a binder of nude photos that includes a tasteful shot of his daughter. He steals the photo, a fact that Ace discovers almost immediately, possibly targeting Ms. Johnson.

Meanwhile, the detectives find Cynthia James’s address, where the landlady tells them she lived there but under a different name. “Said she was an actress. Actress! You know what that means. Hooker!”

When Elliott asks the landlady about Ace Mosley, she replies, “Listen, kid. All cucarachas look alike, you know.”

Back at the station, Mr. Everett gets a mysterious phone call from “Our friend, the Greek one...Mr. Anonymous” who wants to meet to tell the detective the identity of the murderer. Elliott jokes that it’s just a setup for another bachelor party, but Mr. Everett agrees to meet the mysterious man alone. At night, he drives to the correct address (oddly, a castle fronting a miniature golf course), but the mysterious man starts shooting at him. This leads to a thrilling chase through the miniature golf course that “spills over” onto a water slide, at the top of which a fist fight between Mr. Everett and the masked attacker ends when the attacker karate-kicks Mr. Everett down a water slide.

After Ms. Johnson’s acting showcase in Burbank, to which Mr. Everett shows up late (“Sorry I’m late. I heard the applause, you must have been...wonderful.”), Mr. Everett explains he suspects Ace Mosley of being the killer. Mr. Everett does some first-rate eyebrow acting when he tells his daughter to stay away from Mosley and all photographers.

At Ace’s studio, the photographer has changed into a robe. He flips through images on a slide projector while fingering his remote (not a euphemism). The camera circles him to reveal he is looking at topless photos of Ms. Johnson, then cuts back to his face as he presumably pleasures himself, though this appears less than pleasurable.

Back at Mr. Everett’s house, a TV anchorman reads breaking news: “LAPD is asking anyone with the knowledge of the missing whereabouts of Hollywood model Cindy Jakulski.” The scene culminates in a drunk Mr. Everett throwing his remote at the TV, smashing it in an explosion of sparks—cleverly intercut with what is likely to be Ace Mosley’s orgasm.

The next day, Ace acts in a ridiculously flamboyant manner to show his prints to a gay gallery manager, cementing his status as a prime suspect. Later, he phones a modeling agency to hire Ms. Johnson again.

The detectives gain a clue when coroner Yaphet Kotto, apparently still working on the model’s body days later, finds traces of Indian food throughout her digestive system, prompting a visit to the Indian restaurant near the woman’s apartment. There they find her roommate, to whom they clumsily explain Cindy is probably dead. The roommate tells them Cindy was spending time with a photographer named “Ace something.” The detectives immediately break into Ace’s studio. “I hope this is kosher,” Elliott says.

“I’m Italian,” Mr. Everett replies before ogling photographic slides and then stealing the slide carousel. At headquarters, the squad of detectives embarrasses themselves by staring at the slides, which show the murdered model in a desert setting. One of the detectives identifies the location as near Joshua Tree (note: the location is clearly Vasquez Rocks, which is nowhere near Joshua Tree) so the detectives fly a helicopter to the desert, apparently to search for clues left behind at the hypothesized murder scene. They succeed in finding some trash and, in a suspenseful scene that might have been inspired by the finest Saturday morning cartoons, Mr. Everette reaches into a cave and bulls out a beehive, though nobody is stung.

Back at headquarters, the detectives interview Ace. Mr. Everett asks him where he was when the murder took place and he responds he was in his darkroom. “Can you prove it?” Mr. Everett asks.

“No. I don’t have to. You have to prove I wasn’t. That’s the beauty of this American criminal justice system.” He adds, in a highly incriminating manner, that the killer “has already shown he’s smarter than you. Before this entire city, he’s proven that his mind, his talent is far superior. This man is an artist.” He also says he’s not the kind of man who would cut up someone he loved with a chainsaw, which Mr. Everett considers important because nobody was ever told the body was dismembered by chainsaw.

After just about convicting Ace, Elliott marries his fiancée at City Hall with two witnesses in a quick ceremony. After the wedding, Mr. Everett provides some sage (and hopefully tongue-in-cheek) advice: “Make sure she knows her place. I mean, you’re a cop. Demand a hot meal on the table no matter what time you get home. Make her account for every red cent she spends. And if she ever weighs more than three pounds more than she does right now, threaten her with physical violence. And spend at least, and I repeat at least, four nights a week out whoring around with your old pals. Now, you stick to that formula and I guarantee you’ll be a two-time loser just like me.”

Mr. Everett then has a meeting with the police captain and the assistant district attorney assigned to the case (whom Mr. Everett calls “turkey”), during which we learn the case will probably be thrown out because the detectives broke into the photography studio, obtaining evidence illegally—and because Mr. Everett has a history of alcoholism. When Ace is freed, Mr. Everett nearly attacks him. Then Mr. Everett drinks some more whisky,  drives to Ms. Johnson’s apartment, and slaps her. He drives to the hotel where Elliott and his wife are honeymooning to whine about his life and the fact that Ace was let free. When Elliott allows Mr. Everett to sleep on the sofa in the honeymoon suite, Mr. Everett says to his bride, in a moment both comical and existentially tragic, “I know it appears as though I am lousing up what should be a very special evening for the two of you, but in reality I’m doing you a phenomenal favor. Do you know what happens in nine months after the human gestation period is completed? Kids. And you don’t want kids. Ever. Know why? Cause you give them everything, then they break your heart. Good night.”

Instead of sleeping on the couch, Mr. Everett stumbles into the bedroom and falls onto the bed, fully preventing Elliott’s wedding night.

In the morning, Mr. Everett wakes up and immediately explains why he drinks to Elliott (something about seeing too many 13-year-old hookers). Elliott has ordered room service, and when the breakfast arrives, the filmmakers zoom in on it meaningfully, accompanying the visual with an ominous musical sting, though the breakfast looks quite appetizing.

Cut to Ace’s studio, where the flamboyant gallery owner arrives to reject Ace’s photographs. Ace reveals his true personality as he gets angry at the gallery owner and then kills the man with a metal stand that looks as if it weighs less than half a pound. The film has cleverly shown the identity of the killer — the only suspect that was ever introduced.

Meanwhile, coroner Yaphet Kotto has come up with yet another new clue despite  having completed the autopsy on the victim weeks ago. He has found brown nylon fibers underneath the victim’s fingernails. “Meaning you match these to, say, the rug in Mosley’s car, and you might have yourself a new case.”

Mr. Everett and Elliott rush to a judge to get a new warrant, explaining that the fibers are probably actually from Ace’s toupee. The judge asks, “You have personally seen this toupee?” to which Mr. Everett responds soberly, “I have, your honor.” Elliott adds, “So have I, sir. It’s embarrassing.” The existence of the toupee is sufficient for the judge to sign a search warrant on the spot.

Unfortunately, Ace arrives at Ms. Johnson’s apartment, telling her he has a job for her and they must leave immediately. Though she is rightfully hesitant, he pulls out a tiny knife and says he’ll have to insist. She backs down immediately.

Ace forces her at tiny knifepoint to his car, but they pass Ms. Johnson’s roommate. Ms. Johnson cries out but the roommate ignores her. Ace threatens, “If you make one more sound, it’ll be the last one you ever hear.”

Mr. Everett phones and the roommate answers, telling him they were probably going to the beach because Ms. Johnson was dressed in a swimsuit and carrying a beach towel. However, Ace knifes the roommate unexpectedly, then returns to his car, where Ms. Johnson is tied up in the trunk.

Mr. Everett and Elliott search Ace’s studio and see a picture of a beach. They assume it must be where Ace is taking Ms. Johnson. Then, in a sequence too complex to describe that plays out over five seconds, Elliott ends up being shot in a convenience store by a robber with a shotgun after being separated from Mr. Everett due to their car’s police radio having been stolen. Mr. Everett drives as quickly as he can to the beach, causing various accidents and running over a fire hydrant along the way. In another complex sequence that plays out over five seconds, Mr. Everett drives his car up a ramp and through a loaded flatbed truck on a movie location (somehow on the way to the beach) where the director whines, “Your hair is too symmetrical for the political statement I’m trying to make.”

Meanwhile, at a waterfall miles from the beach, Ace reveals his plan: to photograph Ms. Johnson topless at knifepoint. “Look at yourself. You’re an animal. A piece of meat, like all the other whores.”

Mr. Everett arrives just in time, rescuing his daughters, though Ace nearly kills him with a rock until Ms. Johnson shoots him with her father’s gun. The sequence allows Mr. Everett to do some stunts, including one in which he is pushed toward the waterfall and gets wet. Happy that his daughter saved his life, Mr. Everett tosses his flask of alcohol into the water.

In the end, Elliott survives his shotgun wound, and Mr. Everett introduces him to Ms. Johnson in the hospital. The film ends as Mr. Everett and Ms. Johnson walk through a curved hospital hallway, closing with the immortal lines, “Are you all right, Daddy?” and “I am now, darling.”

Perhaps The Jigsaw Murders's biggest twist is that the killer turns out to be exactly who everyone thought it would be throughout the entire film (it shares this twist with the recent miniseries The Undoing - possibly a spoiler). The filmmakers thus dispensed with any subplots about red herrings to focus on Chad Everett's alcoholism, his relationship with his daughter, and his penchants for interrupting bachelor parties to assemble jigsaw puzzles and for sliding down water slides in the middle of the night. (Clearly, the filmmakers made the best of all possible choices.) In addition to Mr. Everett's performance, the film benefits from cameos by actresses Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer, and especially by an end credits song called "Lost in Illusions" sung by the great actor Dorian Harewood. Jag Mundhra can be proud of The Jigsaw Murders, as he can be proud of his previous classics Open House and Hack-O-Lantern, early films in a long, illustrious directorial career that spanned from 1982 to his unfortunate death in 2011.