It turns out that there is a lengthy and interesting backstory to the Steven Soderbergh-directed film The Limey. The numerous flashback sequences do not, in fact, carefully disguise Terrence Stamp’s age and recreate a 1960s London environment as it might at first appear. Soderbergh purchased the rights to Ken Loach’s 1967 film Poor Cow, in which Terrence Stamp starred as the much younger man that he was at the time. The inclusion of this footage creates an explicit intertextual element to a film (The Limey) that already is heavily referential to the 1960s in various other ways. There is the casting, perhaps most obviously: Stamp (Wilson), Peter Fonda (Valentine), Lesley Anne Warren, and Barry Newman. Within the film, these actors play characters whose heydays have passed, and who reminisce about happier times back in that notorious decade. The fact that the actors portraying these characters had famous roles that have since associated them with the sixties, too, makes the characters all the more believable.
In fact, attempts by these characters to live in the present – the nineties – come across as pathetic. Valentine’s key scene occurs in his bathroom. He picks his teeth in the mirror, reflecting the vanity of one who sees himself not as he is but as he once was. As he talks overtly about the sixties, about how they had their “own language” in which he was fluent, his much younger girlfriend sits nearby in a bathtub. She cannot relate to his memories whatsoever, as he speaks a language about a language, both of which go over her head. This girl relates about as well to Valentine as the young girl in Broken Flowers relates to Bill Murray’s character. The contrasting fact that Wilson is seeking out his daughter in the film’s narrative makes Valentine’s love life especially disturbing. Wilson at least recognizes the age difference in himself and young women; Valentine’s young girlfriend reminds Wilson of his dead daughter. Still, youth is an essential quality that eludes these men but that defines characters close to them. Wilson can no more revive his daughter than Valentine can make his girlfriend relate to him in any meaningful way.
Arguably the most important scene that sums up Wilson’s failure to belong in this new, post-sixties era, takes place in the driveway at Valentine’s residence in the L.A. hills. As Wilson and his friend Eduardo pull up, they see uniformed men lined up outside. They are valets, a fact that Wilson fails to comprehend. Eduardo is forced to explain in some detail what valets are. Wilson’s ignorance about this seems to have something to do with the fact that he has been in prison for much of the past thirty years and also the cultural disconnect: he is British and Valentine is an American – specifically, a southern Californian.
This brings up another very interesting aspect of The Limey: its depiction of the Los Angeles area. For as interesting as is Soderbergh’s cinematography, editing, and integration of feature film footage into the narrative, The Limey sticks to fairly commonplace tropes of the city, of L.A. in particular. This isn’t to denigrate the film, but to observe how its success is, in part, due to its connection with familiar motifs defining Los Angeles and its intrinsic connection with film history. Valentine is a dirty, once-was record producer living in one of those pretentious overlooks near Mulholland Drive. Eduardo, standing on a balcony with Wilson, says something like, “You could see the ocean from here, if you could see i.,” L.A.’s characteristic smog blocks the literal view and signifies a kind of man-made noetic fog clouding the vision and understanding of this space’s inhabitants. Houses like Valentine’s have always been associated in film history, from the Golden Age til now, with the nefarious, the sinister, the immoral. (See Twilight , Mulholland Drive, Where the Truth Lies, Chinatown, Point Blank, Blade Runner, The Big Lebowski, Species, and so many others.) L.A.’s own morally dubious history of urban development spills over into morally dubious histories of its inhabitants. Cities have traditionally taken on the characteristics of their dwellers (think Sodom and Gomorrah), but L.A.’s own genesis as an urban environment forced onto a non-urban space, while depleting the resources (most notably, water) of towns and environs hundreds of miles away from itself reverses the pattern.
A kind of hereditary tendency falls upon L.A. inhabitants, birthed by the city itself, to be L.A., to embody it in themselves as persons, or more specifically, as a people. This is the traditional space of film noir, that most pessimistic of all cinematic genres, in which individuals are pawns in a chess game played by the fates and “choices” are the cynical comedy corresponding to the plot’s inevitable tragedy. In The Limey, Stamp plays the outsider, the titular foreigner who invades the space of L.A. with the pretense to think he can fulfill his mission despite having to carry it out in such an unknown place. He is able to do so, more or less, precisely because L.A. is L.A., and its inhabitants, too, are L.A. The film mocks Los Angeles and all who dwell in it, from the warehouse thugs in the early scene to the Hollywood figures who funded the film itself, and who make an appearance during a film shoot within the film. (Surely it’s no accident that this film was shot by Steven Soderbergh, the notorious indie director who only dabbles in mainstream Hollywood fare in order to fund his own projects.)
Wilson seems to have very little trouble at all both overcoming opposition from Los Angeleans as well as persuading them to let him go about his business. Even a confrontation with a higher-up narcotics officer ends with the cop looking the other way as Wilson points out that their interests are temporarily aligned: to take down Valentine. This is all quite curious, since no matter how adept Wilson might seem to us as we observe him on his L.A. mission, the fact remains that he has been a resident in British prison for much of the past thirty years. He’s not know for being that good at what he does, but somehow in L.A., he has much less trouble. As Wilson goes on to apply the slightest bit of force on Valentine (whose name itself connotes softness, and a surely-ironic angelic nature), Valentine crumbles completely under the pressure. He desperately clings to his young girlfriend, whose sheltered affluence makes her even less prepared than Valentine to respond to Wilson’s vengeance. The fact that, in the penultimate scene, it is Valentine’s ankle (read: Achilles’ heel) that snaps in half as Wilson catches up to him on the rocky beach illustrates that Valentine’s main weakness (which defines him completely – he hides behind his wealth) is, precisely, his weakness. This is no typo; Valentine is unable even to run away from a threatening force without his own bones breaking in the process. At least Achilles’ heel was compromised by the enemy and not by himself.