Quick Change is one of the more unusual films of Bill Murray’s career – and not just because it’s the only film he co-directed. It’s ostensibly a heist film, but it quickly balloons into a surreal quest in which a trio of white bank robbers try to make their way from Manhattan to John F. Kennedy Airport without taking the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. In other words, it’s an exercise in cognitive mapping – a comic attempt to envisage how New York looks and feels outside the sacrosanct parts of the city that were normally depicted in mainstream Hollywood at this time. Yet it’s also a parody of that very process, a playful dig at the ways in which Hollywood audiences were both fascinated and entranced by the spectacle of ethnic neighborhoods at a time when inner cities hovered between white flight and gentrification.
The film opens by introducing us to Grimm, Murray’s character, taking the subway into Manhattan, and then walking along Fifth Avenue, dressed as a clown. He heads into a bank, and holds it up as laconically and ironically as you might expect, directing the heist with the same languor you’d imagine Murray brought to directing the film. This is a heist in scare quotes, halfway between a genuine bank robbery and a weird piece of performance art, wavering somewhere between suspense and comedy, but never quite committing to either.
For the most part, Grimm seems more interesting in coordinating a media event, or a media circus, than in recovering the money. He gives notes to the news crew outside, and is quite deliberate about the way he presents himself on the phone to the police officers who surround the building. This sense of spectacle extends to the two hostages he lets go. First, he releases Loomis, a deranged neurotic, played by Randy Quaid. Then, he releases Phyllis, played by Geena Davis, who’s wearing a skimpy outfit that provokes wolf whistles from the crowd. Finally, he takes off his clown outfit, and leaves himself, adopting a bizarre accent in the process. By this stage, it’s clear that Phyllis and Loomis are in on the heist – and that they share Grimm’s joy in spectacle, in the fabrications and fabulations of his literary namesake.
However, it’s not enough for Grimm, Phyllis and Loomis to coordinate this spectacle – they have to coordinate it remotely. As soon as they leave the scene of the crime, they retreat to a phone box positioned on the other side of the East River, in Queens, with a clear sightline to Manhattan. Grimm continues to coordinate the heist from here, calling the main police officer, Walt Rotzinger, played by Jason Robards, on the phone, and making demands as if he’s still inside the building. At the same time, the trio congratulate each other on their performances: “Let’s see Meryl Streep try to vomit on cue.” Grimm also describes the robbery as his metaphorical marriage to Phyllis, turning the flight to the airport into their honeymoon.
Quick Time is fascinated by this spectacle of a remotely controlled space. There’s no realistic reason for the trio to have chosen this particular phone booth except that it offers a panoramic vantage point of the city, permitting them to luxuriate in how they’re organising things from afar. You sense that the heist is less about money than about reasserting control over urban space, especially once we find out that Grimm used to work in the Department of City Planning. The script implies that he was both financially and spatially frustrated – that he reached a point where he was no long able to remotely map the city that was meant to be his purview. Performing the heist becomes a way of remapping that city, remaking it according to his own narrative about what urban space should entail, and how it should address him.
Yet at precisely this moment, when Grimm seems to have achieved some panoptic control over the city, the city starts to fight back. We see this reversal foregrounded in the opening scenes of the film, when Grimm is taking the train to work. In the opening shot of the film, the directors pan back from a panoramic image of New York, and gradually fade up the diegetic sound, to reveal that we are looking at a painting on the wall of a subway car. Rather than observing New York from a distance, we are actually buried beneath New York in this opening scene. From there, the directors draw a pointedly comic connection between Murray’s clown uniform, and a black man wheeling a series of pimp-like costumes across the street. These costumes make Murray seem more ridiculous, and suggest a different kind of spatial scheme entering downtown Manhattan – one more attuned to black neighborhoods.
These two moments bookend an advertisement for the Train to the Plane – the high-speed JFK rail connection, which is the next port of call after the three bank robbers leave the phone in Queens. No surprise, then, that these earlier spatial schisms come back to haunt the trio as they try to make their way to the airport. At first, they simply register this spatial confusion through a series of surreal tropes that encapsulate the black and Hispanic character of the neighbourhood – and parody their reactions to it “We’re going to find a familiar street soon.” “I’d settle for a familiar borough.” Black and Hispanic people here prefigure a new opacity of space that cuts comically against Grimm’s ambitions to commandeer space from a distance.
After a while, this opacity resolves into a more tangible sense of being lost – both physically and psychologically. Since these characters are all literally aiming for white flight, white flight is itself elevated to a parodic intensity, along with all the hand-wringing about inner cities that historically accompanied it. Grimm, Phyllis and Loomis parodically lament “the fate of the city” with each fresh impediment to the BQE, until it’s almost like we’re watching a Zucker comedy, full of sincere pronouncements that just can’t be taken seriously. The constant commentary about “city life” especially reminded me of the parodic world-weariness of Frank Drebin, Leslie Nielsen’s hard-boiled character in The Naked Gun – and this commentary is so continuous that it might as well be a voiceover, standing free of the more realistic dialogue.
Beyond a certain point, it’s as if the sheer plethora of diverse ethnic voices have denaturalised white language, imbued it with the same concrete redundancy that we see in Airplane! For while the trio of robbers are alienated by every ethnic person they meet, they have a comically immediate rapport with other white middle-class people, most memorably in a hold-up scene that immediately turns into a discussing of rising property values. Scenes like this make it clear that Quick Time is as sceptical of gentrification as it is of ghettoization, converging both urban dynamics on an utterly unreadable version of the city for white middle-class subjects. At times, this plays as a comic devolution of the entire Baby Boomer project, in a metropolis that has swung “from Woodstock to Charles Bronson in thirty years.”
At the same time, the impediments to mapping are so preposterous in their physicality that the film starts to grow exhausted with the concept of physical mapping itself, and instead pre-empts the rise of satellite navigation in its yearning for a more omniscient spatial scheme. The trio first realise they’re lost when they realise they’ve forgotten their street directory, and from here they start to look out for signs. The first sign they see informs them that they’re on a Scenic Drive, but with no other directions or information. The second sign is a direction to the BQE, but it’s being erected by workers who have damaged the arrow, meaning it’s impossible to tell what direction it initially pointed. Finally, they come across a white man, whose Iowa number plates suggest he might have a directory, or a broader map. But it turns out that he’s a wanted criminal – and worse, that he “doesn’t even know the capital of Iowa.”
These sequences all evoke an inchoate longing for satellite mapping technologies – for a GPS system that will allow Grimm to map his location as expertly as he coordinated the heist remotely. GPS mapping is the logical conclusion of the heist in that sense, and the film provides it affectively by periodically rendering the characters remote from themselves – especially Murray, who first exudes the deadpan alienation here that would eventually flourish into his work with Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch. When we first see him in the opening scenes, he seems straight out of an Anderson film, staring at the camera like so much deadpan whiteness in a diversified world, remotely mapping himself in real time and space. He can only command space by remaining so still that it appears to revolve around him. Conversely, Loomis isn’t even a character so much as a bundle of frustrated spatial trajectories, deflected lines of flight, that comically convolute Murray’s serenity and stillness.
This spatial anxiety intensifies as we near the airport, which the film understands as an extension of the third world. That’s not a bad reading, since you often notice a profound and increasing disjunction in space as you approach American airports – only wealthy people can afford to use them, and only poor people are forced to live near them. As the trio get close to JFK, Chief Rotzinger laments that “they’re probably in the third world by now – all we can hope is that they’re mired in the same shit we go through every day.” He’s right on both counts, since the robbers are in the third world, in one sense, but also part of the same “daily shit,” since that third world is thoroughly embedded in the urban texture of New York City.
As they approach the airport, Grimm, Loomis and Phyllis thus already seem to have departed for the third world, or discovered the third world in New York. They encounter every conceivable ethnic enclave, and each enclave becomes more recent, more of an immigrant enclave. Each enclave also distorts or deranges space, culminating with a Middle Eastern cab driver, played by Tony Shalhoub, who can only speak one phrase – “Where to?” Even then, he can’t read road signs, or the most basic elements of wayfinding, riding a red light as Loomis exclaims: “You don’t even understand colours, do you?” The irony, of course, is that it’s the trio of white New Yorkers who don’t understand colour – and the film knows this, as Grimm cautious Loomis: “Easy – he may be a guest in our country.” New Yorkers, in Quick Change’s vision, love to welcome immigrants publically, even as they have to disavow them spatially.
Finally, on the brink of the airport, space starts to break down entirely, becoming more dangerous and internally incoherent. The danger of the heist pales in comparison to the risk of approaching the airport on foot – traversing a space that is entirely defined by highways. In that sense, Quick Change is quite unique in taking the highway tropes so common in films about Los Angeles during this era, and transplanting them to New York, where they make ordinary pedestrian space seem even more surreal. The last stop on this trip is a highway underpass beside the airport – a bizarre interstitial space with expressionist lighting, a dog trotting across the road, and a Hispanic woman calling plaintive chants into the misty ether.
By this stage, the film has to overtly acknowledge its own absurdity – “Thank God she’s not too symbolic or anything” – or alternatively stop pretending to be anything other than a sound stage. Yet at the very moment at which the fabric of the film breaks down, the precise point at which it becomes palpably artificial and irreducibly self-referential, the trio of robbers are confronted with a blinding sheet of light. This deus ex machina restores their spatial command, revealing that they have actually arrived at the airport despite themselves – the cusp where this expressionist non-place gives way to the back of the JFK Freight Department.
From there, they make their way onto the plane, with a nod in the direction of Airplane!, as the world-weary Zuckerisms reach a comic climax. Finally, when the plane takes off, we receive a panoramic perspective of the city, but it’s fleeting, and offset by the final comic misrecognitions that allow Grimm, Loomis and Phyllis to escape in the last instant. As a result, that escape is oddly displaced – it’s already happened, since they had to encounter the third world to make it to the airport, but it’s also not complete, since their longing for spatial omniscience has been punctured as a fantasy. In the end, they can only command space, and glimpse themselves remotely, in a passing moment, as one of the quick changes that drive the narrative, which collectively evoke a city that middle-class whites can only perceive out of the corner of their eyes, as a sustained gesture of departure, on the precipice of the 1990s.