Cast: Michael Caine (Graham Marshall), Elizabeth McGovern (Stella Anderson), Peter Riegert (Robert Benham), Swoosie Kurtz (Leslie Marshall), Will Patton (Lieutenant Laker), Jenny Wright (Melanie O’Connor), John McMartin (George Brewster), Barbara Baxley (Lillian), Haviland Morris (Tara Liston), Philip Moon (Henry Park).
Crew: Jan Egleson (director), Patrick McCormick (producer), Andrew Klavan (writer), Gary Chang (music), Paul Goldsmith (cinematography), Peter C Frank and William A Anderson (editors), Howard Cummings (production designer).
Synopsis: Graham Marshall has a nagging wife and a house with faulty wiring. But he enjoys his job as an advertising executive with a New York company and is looking forward to a promotion when his boss George Brewster retires. But George is pushed out early and one of Graham’s staff, Robert Benham, is promoted over him to become head of department. Graham accidentally kills a homeless man in the subway and is shocked when he gets away with it. Suddenly, he feels powerful again. When Graham’s wife Leslie offers him no sympathy about missing the promotion, he decides she has to die. Graham tampers with a circuit so she electrocutes herself while he is away at a conference. A local policemen, Lieutenant Laker, asks awkward questions about her death but can’t prove anything.
Graham sells his house in the suburbs and moves into the city. He begins dating his secretary, Stella. Benham keeps undermining Graham, so the murderous executive decides to kill his new boss. He drugs Stella so she believes they spent the night together and then booby-traps Benham’s yacht. But Graham leaves his distinctive gold lighter in a car he hired using George’s name. Laker believes Graham may be responsible for Benham’s sudden death and pressures Stella for help. She discovers Graham is lying about his missing lighter and realises he is a killer. Graham confronts Stella in the subway. She surrenders the lighter to him and he lets her live. George commits suicide, eliminating the last hope the police had of prosecuting Graham. Instead he continues climbing the corporate ladder, murdering those who get in his way…
Simon Brett’s satirical novel, A Shock to the System, was first published in 1984. The story of a corporate executive who kills to get ahead was aptly timed in a decade of conspicuous consumption where greed was considered good. Five years later work began on a film version, following the success of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987). Andrew Klavan adapted the novel, with TV director Jan Egleson having his first crack at helming a big screen film. Caine was cast as murderous executive Graham Marshall.
‘It was the script that got me to take the part,’ Caine said in the movie’s promotional material. ‘It’s very strange and it captured my attention immediately. I’d been reading loads of scripts, one right after the other, and suddenly I read this one. I said, “Wait a minute.” It’s a very funny nightmare, quite frightening, but extremely funny. What attracted me to it more than anything else is I have never seen a movie quite like it.’
Caine described his serial killer character as a victim: ‘They pass him over for a younger man. He’s victimised and he knows it. I’ve played a lot of sympathetic villains, and Graham’s certainly one of them. All psychotics – and Graham becomes one – are paranoid. They think of themselves of victims. And the reason they kill somebody is because they perceive that somebody to have done them a wrong.’
The picture began shooting sailing scenes Montauk, Long Island, during May 1989. The production then moved into a vacant floor on a brand new skyscraper overlooking New York’s Wall Street for the office scenes. Other locations included an unused subway station near 42nd Street, and Essex Falls in New Jersey as the site of Graham’s suburban home. Future Hollywood star Samuel L Jackson had a bit part role as a street corner card hustler in a scene that appears during the film’s opening credits.
Caine made his portrayal so sympathetic and charismatic that he created a dilemma for the filmmakers. In the original script Caine’s character was supposed to die at the end of the movie. After five weeks of shooting it was decided Graham had to survive and the finale was rewritten to accommodate this change.
A Shock to the System reached American cinemas in March 1990, rated R. Review were positive but Egleson’s direction suffered at the hands of critics. The film was released amid a glut of similar tales about corporate machinations and greed, such as Brian De Palma’s much derided adaptation of The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). A Shock to the System grossed less than $3.5 million. It reached the UK as a 15 in October 1990 and took just over $20,000 at the box office, before being released on video. The movie is also available on DVD.
In 2002 Caine talked about A Shock to the System in an interview with Venice magazine. ‘That was a lovely little film, but it was too small for its own good, really. It got lost. It was the sort of film, were it made today, that would be great as a film for HBO, or something. But at the time, it just got lost in the system.’
Reviews: ‘Pleasantly macabre, an offbeat comedy about a high-rolling psychotic played with nasty savoir-faire by Michael Caine.’ – Washington Post
‘A Shock to the System confounds our expectations and keeps us intrigued, because there's no way to know, not even in the very last moments, exactly which way the plot is going...’ – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Verdict: The ‘greed is good’ mantra was old news even when this film was released in 1990, let alone now. That firmly dates A Shock to the System. But this is a dark and humorous satire of office politics, and also a wish fulfilment fantasy for anyone who’s ever wanted to see their boss meet a nasty end. The script overplays its many magical allusions and Egleson’s direction is banal at best, but Caine gives a fine, edgy performance as the murderous Graham. The plot keeps twisting and turning, sustaining your interest to the end. This is an underrated movie, despite its flaws.