Yesterday, I said that Dance or Die was the most obscure film that I would be reviewing for this series of melodramatic film reviews. Well, I may have spoken too soon. Originally, I was not planning on reviewing the 1989 film High Stakes for this series. Until a few nights ago, I had never even heard of it. However, I watched it late last night and I realized immediately that I had to include it in this series.
High Stakes is one of those odd, older films that occasionally pops up as filler on Encore, playing in between showings of movies that people have actually heard of. When I first came across this film listed in the guide, it was mentioned that High Stakes was Sarah Michelle Gellar’s film debut. However, before all of my fellow Buffy fans get all excited, they should be aware that Sarah was only 12 years old when she appeared in High Stakes and she spends most of her screen time going, “Mommy!” If not for her name in the credits, you would never suspect that the little girl playing Sally Kirkland’s daughter would later grow up to play one of the most iconic characters in film history.
Sarah plays the daughter of Bambi (Sally Kirkland), an aging New York-based prostitute and stripper who works for the demonic pimp Slim (Richard Lynch). Bambi hates her life but she does what she has to do to support her daughter. One night, Bambi finds a man passed out in the garbage across the street from her apartment. That man is John Stratton (Richard LuPone), a crooked stock broker who has recently grown disillusioned with his greed-fueled life. John is laying in the garbage because he’s just been mugged. Despite her natural instincts, Bambi takes sympathy on John and allows him to come up to her apartment. John and Bambi start to talk about their respective lives, just to have the conversation interrupted by one of Slim’s henchmen showing up at the apartment and demanding money. John and the henchmen get into a physical altercation and soon, he and Bambi find themselves on the run with $4,000 of Slim’s money.
As directed by Amos Kollek, High Stakes is essentially two different stories. One of which is rather conventional thriller, in which John and Bambi have to escape from Slim. The thriller elements are rather predictable, distinguished only by Richard Lynch’s notably unhinged performance. The other part of the film is the opposites-attract love story between John and Bambi and these scenes work a lot better. LuPone and Kirkland have a lot of a chemistry and some of the best moments in the film are the ones where the characters simply talk about their different lives. Kirkland, in particular, does a good job and she manages to bring some unexpected shadings to a stock role. She’s especially good in her scenes with Sarah Michelle Gellar, radiating a very natural maternal instinct. By the end of the film, you truly like Bambi and root for her. Despite all of my natural expectations, High Stakes turned out to be a rather sweet and touching film.
High Stakes may be an obscure film but it’s definitely one to keep an eye out for the next time it shows up on Encore.
That concludes the 80s. Tomorrow, we’ll start in on the 90s.