The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

Aug 29, 2001 at 12:00 am

Curse that Jade Scorpion! It’s 1940. C.W. Briggs (Woody Allen), a dweebish insurance investigator, and Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt), his office nemesis at Northcoast Fidelity & Casualty, an attractive, but icy, buttoned-down efficiency expert, stand before the hypnotist Voltan (David Ogden Stiers). Voltan swings the Jade Scorpion (once, according to him, the possession of an emperor of China) before them, commanding its power “to cloud men’s minds.”

With an incantation of the names “Constantinople” and “Madagascar,” the hypnotist evokes the opiate romance of those exotic locales in order to bind the two foes in a spell of love — and to his will. When the jewels of Northcoast’s wealthiest and most preferred clients begin to come up missing in a string of bold burglaries, Briggs begins to realize the truth of his boast, “I would hate to have me after me.”

The Curse of the Jade Scorpionis Allen’s comic, Technicolor love letter to the truly silver screen of the ’40s. Like Voltan, Allen draws opposites together: the light and dark brilliance of a decade of movies arguably epitomized by the Janus-faced legacy of director Howard Hawks.

Hunt’s machine-gun delivery is Hawks-like. It recalls Rosalind Russell’s barrages against Cary Grant in Hawks’ lighthearted His Girl Friday (1940) or Lauren Bacall’s salvos aimed at Humphrey Bogart in the director’s film noir, The Big Sleep (1946). The ironic comedy comes in putting Allen’s “weaselly” Briggs in Grant’s shoes or Bogart’s trench coat as a romantic leading man.

An echo of the titular objet d’art of another Bogart movie, The Maltese Falcon (1941), the Jade Scorpion is similarly cursed and legendary. It’s apt that the talisman that holds sway over Briggs (a “roach,” “inchworm” or “termite” according to Fitzgerald) is a romantic bug — just as he himself proves to be. The sweetness of Woody Allen’s blend of vintage Hollywood has an aftertaste like the reverberations of a Gershwin tune. Some curses may be seen as gifts.

E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].