M. Emmet Walsh
Sheryl Lee Ralph
1 Hr., 38 Mins.
The Mighty Quinn
August 6, 2020
n The Mighty Quinn (1989), Carl Schenkel’s island-set whodunit, the central murder mystery seems beside the point, almost. This is a film that so expressively creates a milieu, and so observantly cultivates its character dynamics, it could contain no police procedural narrativizing and still make for solid entertainment. Denzel Washington, who'd be an Oscar winner a year later via Glory (also 1989), stars in the film as Xavier Quinn, the
police chief of a tiny Caribbean island.
As the film opens, we learn that Donald Pater, the owner of the island’s sole resort (it's by far its biggest money-maker), has been murdered. It’s a gruesome sight — we see his severed, blood-soaked head wobbling around his bedroom floor like a freshly dropped melon. Quinn's lifelong friend Maubee (Robert Townsend), who gets by as a small-time thief, is blamed from the outset. Quinn, though, senses that this is a rash accusation. Not because of the bias that comes with a decades-strong friendship, not because Quinn’s lounge-singer wife Lola (Sheryl Lee Ralph) believes Maubee “is a lover, not a fighter” and her husband agrees, but because resort personnel and the corrupted, public image-obsessed island governor (Norman Beaton) are so suspiciously antsy about getting the case closed. Maubee doesn’t have many scruples, but he’s unequivocally not the type to behead someone when a burglary goes awry. It seems as though his infamy around the island is being used against him by those more powerful.
Despite essentially being the local face of the law, Quinn gets by well with most everyone except his wife — his absences are really grating on her lately. He breezes through exchanges with noirish subjects. There’s the fretful governor, first of all, but also the snaky resort fixer (James Fox), the fixer’s slinky wife (Mimi Rogers), a local witch (Esther Rolle) who definitely knows more than she lets on (her daughter’s been dating Maubee), a shady would-be hitman (Alex Colon), and a portly associate of Pater’s (M. Emmet Walsh) who is always nearby whenever a dead body turns up. Many dead bodies turn up in the course of The Mighty Quinn; I wouldn’t say that appearing near them and clearly knowing more than you’re divulging about how they got to be lifeless is exactly serendipity acting out.
By the time I learned who specifically was responsible for Pater’s dramatic death, and what exactly led to his murder, I found myself neither as intrigued by the culprit nor the killing’s minutiae as the movie's other elements. By then I was so fully immersed in Schenkel’s unhurried depiction of this tight-knit island community, and so engaged with Quinn as a character, that I thought to myself that I wanted to stay here a little longer. Wouldn't have to be conginent on the solving of a suspicious murder; I wouldn’t mind accompanying Quinn on a subsequent case. (To borrow the phrasing of Vulture writer Hunter Harris, though, the dictum is still to abolish the police.) The Mighty Quinn could have been expanded into a TV series.
Washington’s performance is something of a marvel. There’s a looseness to it that reminds us of classic detective characters like Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe. He can afford to be so for the most part effortlessly placid about everything because we can sense, just from how his presence fills out the room, that without a doubt he's its smartest person. It’s fascinating to watch Washington’s body language shift and his delivery delicately adjust with each of the movie’s suspects. Embodying Quinn, he's a savvy investigator who can quickly adapt to a conversational partner's rhythms. If not building an instant trust with someone, he’s constructing an immediate aura of resoluteness.
There’s a particularly riveting scene during which Quinn meets up with the resort fixer’s wife for what is supposed to be an interrogation. But then the conversation noticeably shifts; he suddenly has to decide, when she makes clear sexual interest in him, whether he should be unfaithful. The attraction’s overpowering. The tension is effectively drawn by Schenkel and screenwriter Hampton Fancher; Washington has a potent scene companion in the always-welcome Rogers. But the actor’s portrayal in particular functions as a kind of sealant to the tautness of these nervous few minutes. You can see his racing thoughts on his face, on his body dressed in this loose-fitting floral polo and baggy blue jeans. The Mighty Quinn’s hypnotic atmosphere is one of its best attributes. But Washington’s pointedly, subtly detailed work is what makes it stand out. B+