Perfect Strangers (1984) is a gritty and erotic character study of a mafia hitman torn between the promise of redemption and the corrupt moral code of organized crime from low budget auteur Larry Cohen. Perfect Strangers evokes the voyeuristic gaze of Alfred Hitchcock and the grime of William Friedkin’s thrillers to create an intertextual complex steeped in the milieu of off the cuff New York City independent filmmaking.
Larry Cohen’s tale of a hitman named Johnny (Brad Rijn) who becomes a kind of surrogate father to three year old Matthew (Matthew Stockley), the lone witness to a murder Johnny has committed, may not be wholly original but it does represent Cohen at his most sensitive as a director. The suspense of Perfect Strangers is primarily derived from Johnny’s romance with Matthew’s mother Sally (Anne Carlisle) wherein it appears that it is only a matter of time before Johnny’s violent tendencies show themselves. Cohen sustains this threat of violence with a tightly knit narrative where cops, exes, P.I.s and gangsters constantly circle around Johnny and Sally threatening them with violence and exposure.
In the cloudy, soft-focus images of Perfect Strangers these dangers are reiterated in close-ups cut with POV shots that suggest fear and at other times rage. Characters consistently peer at each other from afar through crowds or cracks in a fence. Perfect Strangers presents the human gaze as inherently paranoid and almost always obstructed. In the sex scene Cohen films Sally and Johnny through the blinds in the windows, reflexively suggesting the audience’s complicity not just as fellow voyeurs but as Johnny’s silent accomplices in his deception.
Larry Cohen’s modus operandi of offering his viewers titillating spectacles is in full swing in Perfect Strangers as the filmmaker balances sub-plots with the main action of the narrative. For each scene dedicated to character building Cohen gives the viewer a sequence that is not only expositional, but also highly suspenseful. The most contrived moments in the plot are glossed over by this technique which places the superficial thrills of the film at the forefront as Cohen subtly revels in the complexity of his characters in the background.
Perfect Strangers, although not entirely successful as a character study, is nonetheless affecting. The film also offers a glimpse of the New York City that once was before Disneyland came to Times Square. As a historical document of a moment in New York CIty’s history as well as that of independent low budget filmmaking Perfect Strangers is indispensable. In terms of Larry Cohen flicks Perfect Strangers may be lesser known but it is one of his best.