With all of the deserved praise being bestowed up the new post-modernist detective film by Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice,” I thought that this week I would take a look back at “Gumshoe,” the debut work of Stephen Frears and a favorite dysfunctional detective film of mine, that, like our PT Anderson film and Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” would take the best ideas of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and spin them in a way that is less concerned about a cohesive narrative and more about the small moments and gestures of a flawed private eye.
Though we now recognize his talents, I had always wondered how director Frears had been able to land a talent like Albert Finney for his first film. After all, Finney had been on an epic roll as an actor since his sensational debut in Karel Reisz’s 1960 British New Wave masterpiece, “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning.” And with Tony Richardson’s “Tom Jones” and Stanley Donen’s “Two for Road” included in Finney’s oeuvre from the sixties, it just didn’t add up that Finney would go for this odd role of a hapless comedian turned private eye in “Gumshoe” for a then virtually unknown Frears. Perhaps it was that Frears had directed some television for the BBC? But it is more likely that it was due to Frears having been the assistant director for two of the finest English films of the late 1960s, Lindsay Anderson’s “If…” and Karel Reisz’s “Morgan!”
“Gumshoe” combines two of my favorite genres, film noir and the lesser known “everyman who gets in way over his head” genre, a la “North by Northwest” and “Into The Night.” Finney plays Eddie Ginley, a small time comedian and bingo caller who would rather be the next Sam Spade. One day, Eddie decides to put his fantasy to the test and places an ad in the paper offering his services as a private investigator, which gets immediate results. Eddie goes to a local hotel where he meets the big man who tells him that he has a job for him and proceeds to give our Eddie a package with a thousand pounds, an address for a book store that deals in the occult, and a gun. Bizarrely enthusiastic, Eddie takes the job and is soon thrust into the exact world that he has always dreamed of, complete with corpses, femme fatales, and a whole lot of trouble. Not surprisingly, Finney eats up the screen and seems to love playing Eddie with all of that character’s nods to Mitchum and Bogart. In every scene, Finney just looks like he’s in love with his trench coat.
“Gumshoe” shares much with the newest Paul Thomas Anderson film in that its humor and drama switch up on you so fast that you start to not care about the plot. And I’ll say that with both films, I am perfectly OK with this approach as by 2014, we know that we aren’t making the next “Maltese Falcon,” so why not carve it up into tasty bits and give us a main character who just seems to glide through the body count? Also with both films, all of the supporting characters add the necessary color needed to make any noir a blast to watch, and the classic noir-ish dialog here spoken with Liverpoolian accents becomes as entertaining as watching a Thai Western for its ethnocentrism.
Sadly, one major error in the film is the score by Andrew Lloyd Webber (yes, the guy who did “Cats”), which never seems right for any scene. It is as if he was hoping to score a different, more serious kind of noir than the one that was before him. He doesn’t kill it, but his music, which frankly is too intense for many scenes, was just not the best choice for our young director, even if Frears himself wanted the score to supplement the disorienting environments and events in “Gumshoe.” The other tragic error in the film, and one that might keep it from a repertory theater screening anytime soon, is its casual use of racial epitaphs, which in a film like 1973’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” make complete sense given the vérité of its titular lead character, but in “Gumshoe,” it just comes off as a clumsy attempt to make a bad joke that I cannot imagine was even that funny in 1971.
Gumshoe Trailer :
Despite these two errors in judgment, “Gumshoe” is successful in giving us a character who you can say was one of the first to demystify the classic hard-boiled detective; Altman’s very successful version of a sloppy Phillip Marlowe in “The Long Goodbye” wouldn’t be released for another two years. Sadly, “Gumshoe” did not find an audience in 1971, so it would be another fourteen years before Frears would make a feature film again, but he would come back with a vengeance by directing Terence Stamp in the massively underrated and terribly serious 1984 British gangster film, “The Hit” before becoming one of the hottest English directors of the 1980s with “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “Prick Up Your Ears.”
So, if you haven’t had enough well-intentioned mess of a detective after seeing “Inherent Vice,” I think a trip to “Gumshoe” will give you not only a different take on the messy private eye but also will hand you a world class actor in Finney and a soon to be brilliant director in Frears, whose first go at it was trying to break up a noir the best he could.