Judge Clark Douglas wants to know why you have death on your hand. Please wash it before supper.
America's favorite gay private eye is back.
Full disclosure: I haven't seen Third Man Out or Shock to the System, the two preceding films based on Richard Stevenson's Donald Strachey novels. Both films starred Chad Allen (Save Me) as Strachey, a gay private investigator in the vein of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. However, I understand that each film is designed to hold up on its own as a viewing experience, so I don't think I've missed anything that would have greatly deepened my appreciation of the third film in the series, On the Other Hand, Death: A Donald Strachey Mystery.
In this film Strachey decides to investigate some mysterious circumstances surrounding the persecution of an elderly lesbian couple. Dorothy (Margot Kidder, Superman: The Movie) and Edith (Gabrielle Rose, Lost Boys: The Tribe) have been together for a very long time, but lately they've been treated badly by the community. Not only have they been insulted by their neighbors, they've also had their home vandalized on several occasions. As the threatening behavior escalates, Strachey feels the need to step in and do something. Meanwhile, Donald's relationship with his husband Timmy (Sebastian Spence, Battlestar Galactica) comes under a bit of tension when a hot ex-boyfriend (Damon Runyan…yes, that's actually his name) from Timmy's past turns up. As Strachey continues his investigation, he digs up old secrets, old wounds, evil intentions, and a whole lot more.
I'm a bit conflicted about On the Other Hand, Death. As a crime movie, the film works on a purely basic level. The mystery is an engaging one, the revelations that appear in the third act are genuinely surprising, and the plotwork is reasonably intelligent. The basic structure of the film is sound, and Chad Allen does a strong job in the stereotype-defying lead role as the rugged private investigator. The film is referred to by many as a "Gay detective movie." Some may wonder, "What exactly makes the film a gay detective movie outside of the fact that there is a gay detective in the lead role?"
That's a fair question, and the answer is that the film falls a lot closer to the "gay cinema" genre than to the "detective movie" genre. On the Other Hand feels very much like a socially conscious piece of gay filmmaking with a detective story thrown in as a spicy backdrop. I'm perfectly fine with the concept, but unfortunately this proves to be the film's undoing. The pacing of the movie is thrown off completely by the film's need to insert the socially conscious segments. The themes and basic material are fine, but mismanaged. The filmmakers should have found a way to make all of the elements work together a little more organically. As it is, the viewing experience is awkward and lacking in focus.
The film literally seems to grind to a halt on numerous occasions in order to allow one character to get on a soapbox about an issue that affects the gay community in some way. For instance, there's a subplot in the film involving a young man who is contemplating suicide. He thinks that he is gay, and his parents are not accepting of their son's feelings. There are two "big dramatic moments" in the film that essentially serve as public service announcements for The Trevor Project, which helps young people and their parents deal with such situations. I'm sure the folks at The Trevor Project do great work, but such things should have been included as a bonus on the DVD. Their inclusion as important scenes in the film give the movie the vibe of being an after-school special (well, you know, if people actually showed films as risque as this one after school). There are similar well-intentioned offenders throughout the film.
The mystery portion of the film also suffers a bit due to director Ron Oliver's decision to give the film an old-fashioned noir vibe. That would be fine if this were a period piece, but in a modern-day setting, it seems very unconvincing. There are scenes between Strachey and his gay secretary (Nelson Wong, Shock to the System) that play like cutesy variations on the sort of back-and-forth routines done between detectives and their secretaries in forties films. Similar cutesy conversations are conducted between Strachey and the police chief. "Oh hell, it's you, Strachey." "Come on, you know you love me." Variety noted in their review of Shock the the System that the film felt like actors playing dress-up. That also aptly describes the vibe of On the Other Hand, Death.
The DVD transfer is pretty solid. The film gets a bit murky during a few of the darker scenes, but the image is mostly conveyed with an acceptable level of depth and clarity. Flesh tones are accurate, and detail is respectable. The film doesn't really offer much to look at from a visual perspective (and a few moments, such as the cheap-n-cheesy opening credits sequence, are painfully low-budget), but I'm content with what we get. The audio is okay, though I do think the imitation noir effort from composer Peter Allen could have been dialed down just a bit. There are no extras on the disc (though this is the sort of old-fashioned DVD that includes audio options under the Special Features section).
The film is perfectly watchable and engaging due to the basic strength of the plot, and Margot Kidder provides an entertainingly lively supporting performance. Alas, the good elements just aren't enough to save On the Other Hand, Death from its considerable problems.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Liberation Entertainment
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