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For, Friday, Aug. 18, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Shout! Factory continues to upgrade terrific little cult favorites to Blu-ray, the latest being this exceptional jet-black comedy, which earned little notice at the time of its initial release but which found an audience on VHS and then DVD. Here’s my Deseret News review, published on May 1, 1990.

Michael Caine is a remarkable actor. He's played dozens of good guys and several bad guys — both types with equal aplomb. So it seems only natural that in his latest movie he plays a good guy who also happens to be the bad guy. Sort of.

"A Shock to the System" is a very funny, very black comedy-suspense thriller with loads of unexpected twists and turns. And though screenwriter Andrew Klavan should be credited with the wickedly clever dialogue and the sinister corners that abound in the plotting, it is Caine's performance that adds layers to the character and story.

He plays an aging New York ad executive in line for an important promotion. But the company has just been the victim of a hostile takeover and Caine's boss and friend (John McMartin) is being edged out. Everyone thinks Caine will replace him, but the opening instead goes to a slimy co-worker (Peter Riegert).

If that's not enough, Caine goes home each evening to a nagging shrew (Swoosie Kurtz). Even when she's at her most sympathetic his wife has a way of twisting the knife. As he leaves for work one morning she says, "I forgive you for being a failure."

Naturally, Caine is not happy with his life. And, naturally, murder seems like a logical solution.


Michael Caine, Elizabeth McGovern, 'A Shock to the System'

This is a Hitchockian thriller about a man who thinks he can commit the perfect murder, and about how the little mistakes he makes along the way trip him up. Or do they?

The story is interesting enough in its own right, but it is the ring of truth coming through the characterizations that makes it all work.

And director Jan Egleson creates an effective mood in the way he uses his camera, his actors — even his sets. There are lots of window blinds, creating sinister shadows and a sense of voyeurism as people peer into other people's lives. There are knowing little jokes, and Egleson is hip enough to let the audience in on things without spelling everything out in too much detail.

And Caine always seems to have something lurking beneath the surface with this character. There's a sense of outrage and a feeling of gradual madness that he squeezes for all they are worth, though most of the way with deep subtlety. His character is both darkly amusing and quite frightening, right up to the film's last moments. And it's a real tribute to Caine as an actor that he makes the audience feel both sympathy for him and repulsion toward his actions.


The supporting players are also well cast, with Elizabeth McGovern very effective as a co-worker who is tender and attentive, naive about Caine's sins but, as evidence mounts, smart enough to keep looking over her shoulder. And Kurtz and Riegert, while far from sympathetic, are still human enough that we care about what happens to them. Even Will Patton, in a minor role as an investigating police detective, creates a memorable character.

"A Shock to the System" is yet another modern-day thriller that proves the spirit of Hitchcock is alive and well in modern moviemaking. And this one is better than most.

It is rated a fairly soft R, primarily for profanity, with some violence and sex.