A Shock to the System is a 1990 American black comedy crime thriller written for the screen by Andrew Klavan and directed by Jan Egleson, based on the 1984 novel by British author Simon Brett. The film stars Michael Caine and Elizabeth McGovern, with Peter Riegert, Will Patton, John McMartin, and Swoosie Kurtz.
The film’s delightfully quirky soundtrack was composed by Gary Chang, with its string quartet pizzicatos, marimba, etc. The tagline, “Climbing the corporate ladder can be murder,” is apt, for it encapsulates perfectly the predatory capitalism that is satirized in the film.
Here are some quotes:
It all began one night when the lights went out. –Graham Marshall, voiceover, opening line
Beggar #1: Hey buddy, gimme a buck, willya? What do you make, a million a year?
George Brewster: [handing beggar a pittance] City’s getting to be like Calcutta.
“The whole point of these takeovers is to sell off the assets, and put old farts like me out to pasture. I can hear the fat lady singing, Graham. I can hear her singing.” –Brewster
“Space invaders, Graham. The new people – all gadgets and the bottom line. Stop them early, or they’ll run right over you! ‘We can be more efficient than such-and-such a program…’ Blah blah blah, it’s all bullshit, Graham, soup to nuts. It’s code for mass firings and low quality. Just melt the market dry, and get out. I mean, if our system wasn’t any good, why did they take us over in the first place? Christ!” –Brewster
Robert Benham: Gentlemen, gentlemen… you don’t understand! We are the young, the proud! We shouldn’t be ashamed of success! We should say, “Yes, I *have* a boat. I *have* a country home. I *have* a girlfriend named ‘Tara’!” Say it with me, brothers.
Executive #3: I do have a Mercedes.
Executive #2: I have a condo with a pool.
Executive #1: I have a personal sports trainer.
Graham Marshall: I have a wife, a mortgage, and two dogs.
“What the hell is going on out there, George? Did somebody die or lose money or something?” –Graham
Graham Marshall: I didn’t get the job, Leslie. The promotion… I didn’t get it.
Leslie Marshall: No, of course you got it, Graham. You always get it.
Graham Marshall: I’m sorry. I know what it meant to you.
Leslie Marshall: No, you don’t, Graham. I really don’t think you do know how much it meant to me!
Graham Marshall: [voice-over] That’s when he realized she… was a witch.
“I think it’s rotten, Mr. Marshall. The only reason you didn’t get that job is ’cause they didn’t give it to you!” –Melanie O’Conner (played by Jenny Wright)
He was perfect. She was perfect. The house was perfect. The boat was perfect. The American dream. –Graham, voiceover, speaking of Benham, his country home, his boat, and his beautiful girlfriend, Tara
“My father had it all figured out. He was a London bus driver. And when I was a boy, he used to take me over the river to Mayfair, where the rich people lived. And he used to say to me, ‘Son – there is no heaven. Here is the closest you will ever get. Life, here, is sweet. Life, back over there, is hard. So live over here, son!'” –Graham, to Stella
The world, as they say, had become his oyster. Now he was going to pry it open. –Graham, voiceover
Graham Marshall: I will try and put this as politely as possible, Henry… what the fuck are you doing in my office?
Henry Park: Bob says I’m supposed to help out with the reorganization report.
Graham Marshall: Uh huh. Let me rephrase the question. — [shouts] –What the fuck are you doing in my office?
Henry Park: Bob just thought it was crazy not to have a computer in here.
Graham Marshall: It’s not the *computer*, it’s you and your goddamn desk!
Graham Marshall: [shouting] Why don’t you bring Henry Park in here, huh? Why don’t you bring Melanie in to make sure the phone gets answered? Hell, we could bring in the whole goddamn New York Knicks, just to make sure your trash hits the basket! How’s that?
Robert Benham: If I thought I needed an assistant to do my job…
Graham Marshall: Meaning what? That I don’t do *my* job? Then why don’t you have me removed, Bobby Boy?
Robert Benham: Because you’re too senior in the company to be fired for anything less than gross insubordination.
Graham Marshall: So you’ve decided to have me removed piece by piece. A privilege here, a responsibility there – never enough to fight over, just a subtle drain of power, right? [Menacing] Well, let me tell you something, Bobster. You don’t know the first fucking thing about power. I have more power in this hand than *all* you fucking know!
“Abra kadabra. Shalakazam. Bye-bye, baby. Boom.” –Graham, repeated line
He felt like one of those gods who appeared to maidens in human form. He knew he’d been great. Ah, Stella… such a sweet girl, really. He’d have to be sure to reward her for being in the right place at the right time. –Graham, voiceover
Lieutenant Laker: He was your superior, wasn’t he?
Graham Marshall: No, he was my boss.
“You know, sudden death hasn’t been all bad to you.” –Laker
“Whoa, let’s not all panic – you, you, and you panic; the rest stay calm.” –Graham
There was only one tiresome detail. Jones. He just wouldn’t let go of that corner office. [sputtering Cessna flies by] Abracadabra, Shalakazam. Bye bye, baby. –Graham, voiceover, last lines
Graham Marshall (Caine) is an executive in an advertising company in New York City, and he’s expecting a promotion. This promotion will be a great relief to him financially, since his expenses (his mortgage, and his wife’s extravagant spending–that is, her exercise machine, their dogs, etc.) are like a ball and chain around his leg.
Little does he know that the top dogs of his company have no intention of giving him that promotion (he’s seen as too soft, like George Brewster [McMartin]); still, they take him out to lunch and regale him as if they don’t know anything about who will really get the promotion–a cocky yuppie by the name of Robert “Bobby” Benham (Riegert).
Upon hearing the disappointing news, Graham goes about for the rest of the day with a black cloud over his head. Normally, he’d give generously to the many homeless men who appear numerous times throughout the movie; fatefully, he doesn’t feel generous on this particular night.
The homeless, for obvious reasons, have much better reasons to be discontented than Graham has, but this means nothing to him at the moment. On this particular occasion, the homeless man, facing Graham at a train station, has chosen the wrong man to be irritable with, and Graham pushes him, causing him to fall on the train tracks, just as a train is coming by, killing him.
Graham is like the liberal who, as long as all is going reasonably well for him, will show generosity to the poor; but when things go wrong for him, he becomes mean-spirited, and even violent. Don’t mess with his class privileges (i.e., that promotion he has earned and should have gotten), and he’ll be good to you. When, however, the liberal doesn’t get what he wants…for example, his preferred presidential candidate elected, he’ll bang the war drums as loudly as a conservative will.
It’s fitting that, though Brett wrote the novel in 1984, the film should have been made in 1990, when the Soviet Union was soon to be dissolved and Bill Clinton would be president in a couple of years. Granted, Reagan and Bush Sr. did plenty of damage to the working and middle classes in the 80s; but it was the Democrat shift to the right in the 90s, spearheaded by the Clintons and causing such damage as NAFTA, the gutting of welfare, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the manipulation of the 1996 Russian election to keep Boris Yeltsin in power, and the “humanitarian war” in the former Yugoslavia in 1999, that the shit really hit the fan.
Now, Graham’s killing of the homeless man (symbolic of bourgeois liberals’ wars on the poor and imperialism in general, as noted in the above two paragraphs) is, of course, accidental and shocking for him. He goes home shaking and terrified, even thinking he has torn a hole in his shirt–the unconscious wish-fulfillment of a mild punishment to assuage his guilt. But…he has gotten away with the killing. He can do it again.
As Virgil (played by James Gandolfini) observed in True Romance, “Now the first time you kill somebody, that’s the hardest.” It only gets easier after that, and Graham finds himself especially easing into the “murders and executions” that Patrick Bateman of American Psycho indulged in. Such is the nature of capitalism, especially in its late stage, imperialistic, monopoly form.
On his way home transferring from train to train that night, Graham sees a man emerging from the steam from a train. For a split second, he imagines it’s the homeless man he’s pushed onto the tracks, but he’s really a worker in the train system. For our purposes, it actually makes little difference whether the man is a member of the lumpenproletariat or the proletariat: poor is poor in the eyes of capitalists like Graham; he steps on both types, though in different ways.
To add to Graham’s frustrations, he is henpecked by his conservative wife, Leslie (Kurtz), who makes demands on him to be an ever bigger wallet. This doesn’t give him any special right to plot to kill her, of course, but the pressure she puts on him to earn more is the last thing he needs after having been passed over for a promotion. Because of her attitude, he imagines her to be “a witch,” draining him of his power.
In his narcissistic imagination, Graham fancies himself a sorcerer, able to bend any circumstance to his will, including the seduction of women. His killing of Leslie–tricking her into electrocuting herself in the basement by yanking on the string of a lightbulb with one hand while holding onto a slimy, wet pipe for balance with her other–will free his magical powers of the control of the “witch.”
Light is a recurring motif in this film, coming in the forms of the basement light bulb, electrocution (Graham’s near death from it at the film’s beginning, as well as Leslie’s actual death from it), lit matches, and cigarette lighters. These lights are representative of social and economic power, Graham’s wish to have it, and his envy of other people’s use of it, especially at his expense.
Beyond his fancying of himself as a sorcerer, he also imagines himself to be like Zeus in his seduction of maidens (i.e., Stella Henderson, played by McGovern, as well as his potential seduction of Melanie O’Conner [played by Jenny Wright, who also, incidentally, played a groupie in Pink Floyd–The Wall]). The electrocutions thus can be likened to Zeus’ lightning. In zapping Leslie, ‘Zeus’ was getting rid of his nagging ‘Hera.’
Benham requiring Graham to light his cigars, just as mild-mannered George Brewster has done (even to the point of buying Graham the lighter with which he’d light Brewster’s cigars), is like Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus to give to man. A great sorcerer/god like Graham should not have his fire taken from him for the use of mere mortals like Benham!
So, to reach the only truly existing heaven in Graham’s world, the corporate Mount Olympus, he must crawl from the darkness of his humbler beginnings (“a wife, a mortgage, and two dogs”) and up into the light. I once again must quote Satan’s words from Milton‘s Paradise Lost: “long is the way/And hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.” (Book II, lines 432-433) Graham, Satan of capitalism, must use the fire of lit matches to blow up Benham’s boat to reach the top of Olympus.
To repeat another relevant quote: “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929, as Graham does to Benham and, at the end of the film, to Jones [played by Sam Schacht]). This wiping out of executives is also comparable to the usurpations of Greek myth. Benham’s replacement of Brewster is like Cronus‘ taking of the heavenly throne from Uranus. Graham’s violent killing of Benham and Henry Park (played by Philip Moon) parallels Zeus’ defeat of Cronus after the ten-year Titanomachy. And Graham’s killing of Jones in his Cessna is like Zeus defeating such adversaries as the Giants and Typhon, further consolidating his Olympian power.
It’s especially fitting that Brewster should be compared to Uranus, who was castrated by Cronus. The whole reason that Brewster is replaced is because he is weak. As a ‘kinder, gentler capitalist’ who wants to save his employees’ jobs and not ‘trim the fat’ from the company, he is seen as ineffectual, not conducive to the growth of the business empire. Brewster, in this sense, is the Jimmy Carter of capitalist leaders, not fighting any wars during his…brief…term.
Graham, however, is potent both sexually and as an executive, rather like that Democrat of the 1990s. He may have seemed like a softie, like Brewster, but when Graham has his chance, he shows his true colours. His imitating of Brewster’s voice on the phone, as part of his scheme to kill Benham, is symbolic of how bourgeois liberals like the Clintons, Obama, and Biden pretend to be gentle and progressive, when really they’re as right-wing as Reagan, Trump, and the Bushes.
People like Lt. Laker (Patton) of the Connecticut police, as representatives of the government, sometimes try to soften the effects of capitalism by bringing to justice those who abuse the system, men like Graham; but they fail far more often than they succeed. Laker is in this sense like Brewster, representative of those who would smooth over the sharp edges of capitalism, but who fail because its cruelties are inherent in the system. Only a revolutionary death blow to capitalism will end its cruelties…and who has the willpower to do that?
We hear Caine’s voice as the narrator of the story, meaning Graham is telling it; but all the way through the narration, except at the end, we hear Caine refer to Graham in the third person. Only when he has succeeded in thwarting Laker’s attempts to build a case against him, does Graham’s voiceover finally speak in the first person.
This switch from third to first person represents the switch from his initial alienation from himself, from his species-essence, to his feeling of comfort with his identity, his oneness with it, at the end of the film. For though Graham is a capitalist, he also has bosses over him, and the only way to end worker alienation is to remove one’s bosses.
Too bad that he, as a boss himself, is now causing the same estrangement for those under him, for people like Stella, who is shocked in the end to learn he’s a murderer. And though he promotes her, his sending of her to the company’s Los Angeles office, causing their geographical separation, is symbolic of that alienation.
The film’s ending differs greatly from that of Brett’s novel, but the changes the film makes are good ones. Brett had Graham’s mother-in-law, Lillian (played by Barbara Baxley), scheme to have him charged with murder for a crime he hasn’t committed, in revenge for the killing of her daughter, Leslie. In the novel, Graham originally makes an attempt to poison Leslie’s whiskey bottle, but the drink turns blue, so he abandons the attempt. However, Lillian discovers the poisoned whiskey, and in a fit of mental instability publicly kills herself by drinking it, having those who see her drink it know that he poisoned it.
There are two problems with Brett’s ending: first, the notion that Lillian goes crazy and publicly poisons herself just to get revenge on Graham, ironically causing him to be convicted of a crime he hasn’t committed (as opposed to his previous getting away with crimes he is guilty of), strains credibility and comes off as “awfully contrived,” as one critic noted (Graham’s getting away with killing Leslie, Benham, Park, and Jones is already stretching things as it is).
Second, the film’s ending, with the bad guy prevailing, works better as black comedy. Besides, Graham’s success also works better as an allegory of capitalism, for indeed, the capitalists and imperialists have been getting away with crime after crime against the poor, and with war crime after war crime against all the countries that the US and NATO have bombed.
Bill Clinton not only got away with the bombing of the former Yugoslavia and the demonizing of Slobodan Milošević, but he also has a statue of himself in Kosovo, where there’s a huge NATO/US military base! Not only did George W. Bush get away with the illegal invasion of Iraq, killing about one million Iraqis, but he has also recently been rehabilitated by such liberals as Ellen DeGeneres, merely because he isn’t Trump! Though Obama continued, extended, and expanded Bush’s wars, use of drones, surveillance (i.e., the Patriot Act), etc., he is lionized by liberals as being an exemplary president, undeservedly awarded a Nobel Peace Prize…and every day of his administration was at war somewhere, including the bombing of seven countries in 2016.
I wonder how Trump will be rehabilitated in the 2030s.
These men, like Graham, all got away with their crimes. That’s the magic of capitalist imperialism, the supremacy of Zeus.
Abra-cadabra, shalakazam, bye-bye, baby…boom!