The palmetto bug is capable when alarmed of ejecting a foul-smelling spray that will knock you over. Also known as the Florida skunk roach, humans should be cautious not to upset these darling little creatures. Its scent has been known to repel dangerous enemies. For Harry Barber, our anti-hero, he will discover the palmetto bug is his only true friend.
In Volker Schlondorff’s sweaty neo-noir Harry Barber, nicely portrayed by Woody Harrelson, should have known better, but he didn’t. Harry was a reporter for a local newspaper. While investigating a story, Harry uncovered a tale of widespread corruption in the local government. Those involved attempt to silence him with a payoff, but Harry is too honest a guy. Rejecting the bribe does not stop the criminal elements from silencing Harry though. A significant amount of money is discovered recently deposited in Harry’s bank account. He’s quickly arrested and found guilty. After two years in prison, Harry’s released after an ex-cop’s testimony clears him of any wrongdoing. The presiding Judge informing Harry of his release is seen only on a closed circuit TV monitor. When Harry begins to scream and yell about how is he going to get his two years back that he lost, the judge loses his patience and cuts him off by shutting down the connection. Bitter, Harry’s first thought is to split, head down south to Miami and start a new life. However, he soon finds himself back in Palmetto shacking up with his former girlfriend, and artist, Nina (Gina Gershon).
Out of work, Harry spends his time at a local bar drinking bourbon. One afternoon, in saunters Rhea Malroux (Elizabeth Shue). She makes her way over to the phone booth, makes a call and then quickly departs leaving her bag in the booth. Harry’s been eyeing her and enters the phone booth relieving the pocketbook of two hundred dollars in cash. Rhea comes back into the bar looking for her bag and the two fall into a conversation over drinks and a smoke. Rhea, we find out is married to the wealthiest man in town, an old coot who is dying, but not quick enough for Rhea. After a little friendly foreplay, Rhea offers Harry a job: help her and her step-daughter Odette (Chloe Sevigny), who old Dad wants to ship off to a boarding school in Switzerland, scam the old man out of a half million bucks with a bogus kidnapping scheme of his daughter. For his trouble, she offers Harry ten percent of the take. Lured by both Rhea’s seductive appeal and the temptation of making quick cash, Harry goes along with the plan. But when Odette winds up dead in a shack he rented, all indications point to Harry as the killer with no way out.
Like most noir saps, Harry’s judgment of a woman’s character is based purely on sexual desire and greed. Besides, Harry is not a very good kidnapper. He leaves clues all over, fingerprints, cigarettes stubs. He even misjudges the depth of a river where he tosses his typewriter that he used to write the ransom note. It lands in shallow water visible for all to see. Harry has to go into the river, retrieve the typewriter and toss it a second time into deeper waters.
Palmetto was shot in many parts of Florida: Fort Myers, Sarasota and Venice. Very little was shot in the real town of Palmetto, a small town of 13,000 located on the state west coast, north of Sarasota and south of Tampa. Directed by Volker Schondorff (The Tin Drum) with a screenplay by E. Max Frye, based on the 1961 book, Just Another Sucker, by British suspense author James Hadley Chase. Chase was the author of more than 70 novels, many of which were turned into films, mostly European. His first book, No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) reached the screen twice. First under its original title and again in 1971 under the title The Grissom Gang. (1)
Palmetto, unfortunately, is not a good noir. It has many of the elements, but the tone set by the filmmakers seems unsure. It’s like the director, and the screenwriter do not know whether they wanted to do a straight noir or a satirical takeoff. It comes off at times unsatisfyingly as a little bit of both. Another problem is the casting. Woody Harrelson is excellent as the not too bright loser suckered into the cunning plan. But the two leading female roles are miscast. Most so with Elizabeth Shue who never comes off convincingly as a femme fatale. She’s not dark enough. There’s no feeling of cynicism (think Stanwyck in Double Indemnity). Gina Gershon who plays Harry’s girlfriend is fine but would have been a better fit for the wife. She has a more sensual, devilish look just right for the role that Shue entirely omits.
Palmetto is not a bad film, it’s just not as good as it had the potential to have been. There are plot holes that in a better movie, you wouldn’t think of or mind. Here those questions arise, one example is Harry’s leaving of cigarette butts all over. Haven’t the police ever heard of DNA? That said, there are some nice touches. The throwing away of Harry’s typewriter is one, and the hiring of Harry by the D.A. a former journalist before his incarceration, to handle the press on the case is another. Palmetto is a decent enough film as long as you don’t expect too much.
1) In 1978, there was a French made for TV version called Pas d’orchidees pour Miss Blandish. It starred Robert Hossein, Candice Patou and Jean-Marie Proslier. The film is based on author/playwright/Director Frederic Dard’s stage play adaptation of James Hadley Chase’s novel. Dard was one of France’s most successful crime authors with over 300 novels to his credit.