Sony // 1971 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 3rd, 2009
The sleuth, the whole sleuth, and nothing but the sleuth.
"Do you serve lemons with the water here? Because I think I might have just squeezed your canary."
Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) doesn't seem to be going anywhere fast. Eddie works as an entertainer at a local club. Well, not an entertainer, really. He hosts the bingo tournaments at the local club. Eddie has hopes of someday being an entertainer in Las Vegas, but for now he'll have to settle for the little smoke-filled joint in London. Anyway, being an entertainer isn't Eddie's real dream, anyway. If he could have things his way, Eddie would be Sam Spade, or maybe Philip Marlowe. There's nothing he likes better than digging into one of the books of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, and he loves attempting to engage those around him in a hard-boiled round of dialogue.
One day, on a whim, Eddie decides to put an advertisement in the local newspaper. "Private investigator for hire. Ginley's the name, detecting's the game. No divorce work." It's just a gag, really. Even so, the phone rings the next day. Eddie is invited to come to the penthouse of a local hotel. He does so, and enters the dimly-lit room. Sitting in a chair is a fat man. "I need you to do a job for me," says the fat man. "On the dresser, you'll find a package. Take it. It has everything you need." Eddie takes the package and leaves. Inside, he finds 1000 pounds, a pistol, and the address of an occult bookstore. Without hesitation, Eddie jumps on the case, and soon finds himself encountering dead bodies, rough thugs, a femme fatale or two, drugs, and some twisted schemes. Can he figure out who's trying to get what before he winds up dead?
Gumshoe is an odd little movie that I quickly developed a fondness for. The film was the directorial debut of Stephen Frears, the talented English director whose diverse resume includes films such as The Grifters, Dangerous Liasons, Mary Reilly, and The Queen. Here, he joins forces with writer Neville Smith (a small-time actor and occasional television writer; this was his only film screenplay) to create an offbeat curiosity that will be an immensely appealing treat for some and a head-scratching oddity to others.
In tone, Gumshoe lands somewhere between Robert Altman's gleefully cynical Chandler adaptation The Long Goodbye and Carl Reiner's broadly goofy Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, though this film actually came before either of those. Part of the time, it seems as if the film wants to be a mockery of the noir genre. Those around Eddie often roll their eyes at his catchy hard-boiled dialogue, and it's pointed out on numerous occasions that Eddie is a bit of a nut case who is receiving psychiatric treatment. The rest of the time, Gumshoe acts as if it actually wants to be an honest-to-goodness noir flick, albeit a rather amusing and preposterous one. For every time that Eddie gets teased by one of his friends, he finds another person willing to play his noirish game without missing a single beat.
Perhaps that is appropriate, because if Gumshoe is anything, it is a film of contradictions. Most obviously, it takes a very American genre and transports it to London in the early 1970s, which is a very unusual thing, indeed. To hear verbal exchanges worthy of Bogart and Mitchum being delivered by a variety of English actors adds an intended comic effect to certain portions of the film. The film's final image sums up the contradictory absurdity of Gumshoe perfectly: Finney, wearing a trenchcoat and fedora, sits down in his chair, smokes a cigarettes, blows some smoke rings, drinks a cup of hot tea, and listens to a rowdy rock n' roll song.
Some may feel a bit annoyed by the film's non-committal atmosphere. Just when you think it's joking around, it goes for dramatic effect by throwing some dead serious elements into the mix. Just when you start to take it seriously, it backs off and essentially says, "Hey fella, ease up, we're just having a laugh." I stopped attempting to discern the film's subversive motivations after the first half-hour or so. I simply gave in and allowed the film to overwhelm me with it's many little pleasures. Chief among those pleasures is the performance of the great Albert Finney, who makes Eddie a rather fascinating and unpredictable figure. One moment, he seems like a grown-up child with innocent dreams of being a detective. The next moment, he's throwing flaming bottles of alcohol into a mobster's window. Finney plays the part with a "carefree edginess" that kept me hooked from start to finish (I'm pretty sure that Finney is in every single scene in the film).
The transfer is surprisingly solid. I didn't expect a film from the early '70s to look so sharp and clean, but I was completely satisfied with Gumshoe on a visual level. The predictably dour London locations are conveyed with crisp clarity, and there are virtually no scratches or flecks. The grain is kept pretty minimal throughout. Less successful is the audio, which is shaky and uneven at times. During a few moments, the dialogue seems to drop out a little. Additionally, the score (written by none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber!) often seems to be just a bit too loud or a bit too soft. It's not horrible, just less than satisfactory. The only extras included on the disc are a theatrical trailer and a couple of worthless "Martini Minutes" that combine martini recipes with cornball movie montages.
A couple of minor complaints. First of all, the plot makes very little sense. I'm sure one could put all the pieces together if they really tried, but we're dealing with an unnecessarily dense screenplay here. Even so, this is a minor problem because the plot really doesn't matter. The film is all about the style and atmosphere (like so many noir films, and like some of Chandler's novels). A slightly bigger problem is some unfortunate racial slurs that escape from Eddie's lips. A scene in which he refers to a black man as "King Kong" and "Mighty Joe Young" might have played with audiences in the early '70s, but these moments are rather cringe-inducing now.
Gumshoe isn't for everyone, but if you consider yourself a fan of the noir genre, it's well worth checking out. The DVD looks good, though it's too bad that there aren't any notable extras. I would have loved to hear an interview or two about this unusual movie.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Martini Minutes