Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Forgotten Crime Flicks: “Gumshoe”

(Editor’s note: Over the last 16 years, The Rap Sheet has posted numerous pieces about “forgotten” crime, mystery, and thriller books. Today we’re trying something different: an article that examines a forgotten crime film. Its author is Brett Mead, a New York-based criminal defense attorney with the firm of Lankler, Siffert & Wohl. In his spare time, he's an amateur historian and cinephile with an ever-in-progress draft of a private detective novel.)

The foundational private eye of fiction is Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op. Wise-cracking, sardonic, preternaturally competent and, yes, a bit of a cipher. Almost as soon as Hammett had built that foundation, however, he started paving over it. In 1934, Hammett saw the publication of The Thin Man, which asks, “what would happen if the quintessential San Francisco private investigator married into New York WASP high society?” That “spin” was hard-boiled detective fiction’s first major act of self-reference: between Sam Spade and the Continental Op we “know” Nick Charles’ background and the kind of dick he was; if we didn’t, it wouldn’t be nearly as funny to imagine him sipping champagne in penthouses with Manhattan gadabouts. This kind of self-reference would play out countless times both in the golden age of noir detectives, and, even more often, in the wide world of neo-noirs that followed. “We know the noir detective story, now let’s put it somewhere else—or put someone else in it.”

One such neo-noir is Stephen Frears’ forgotten 1971 gem, Gumshoe, a film in which the main character could tell you as much about the history of detective fiction as just about anybody. His name is Eddie Ginley and, from the jump, he’s shown as a Hammett obsessive. In Gumshoe’s opening scene, we watch Ginley (played by Albert Finney at the peak of his powers) give his shrink his best Humphrey Bogart-as-Spade impression. The shrink is unimpressed and asks Ginley what he wants to do with the rest of his life. “I want to write The Maltese Falcon and I want to record ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’” he answers. The problem is, it’s 1971 in the film, too, and both have already been done. But that won’t stop Ginley, who informs his shrink that he’s now advertising his services as a “gumshoe” in a local Liverpool rag.

And so begins the (then) latest-and-greatest “spin” on the P.I.: the P.I. as a fanboy and a daydreamer, raised on the classics, and desiring nothing more than to live life as a Hammett character—and who ends up embroiled in a mystery worthy of Hammett as a result. The subtle self-reference of Spade-cum-Charles is now overt. Ginley narrates (and almost as often interacts) in a sort of classic P.I. patois: part Spade, part Philip Marlowe, and a whole lot of Out of the Past’s Jeff Markham (“what’s the pitch?” being Ginley’s go-to verbal tic).

The other characters here mostly play along. Ginley is still holding the torch for his ex, Ellen (portrayed by Billie Whitelaw), who’s far and away the most tolerant of his shtick, even if she has run off with his no-good brother. She likes Ginley’s canned lines and, at one point, obliges him with a song request for “Melancholy Baby” (another Out of the Past reference). Then there’s the parade of heavies, a ring of pro-apartheid gun-runners who indulge Ginley’s detective fantasies by hiring him to knock off the Liverpool-based daughter of an anti-colonial African revolutionary. Like all of his heroes, Ginley may play the cynic, but he’s got a heart of gold. And he’s certainly no gun-for-hire. So he takes it upon himself to unmask a conspiracy that ends up hitting surprisingly close to home.

But not before some hijinks ensue. This is a comedy after all, albeit one with a plot that many straight detective mysteries would do well to imitate. At first, Ginley thinks the hit he’s been hired to carry out is all just a gag. You see, Ginley’s in the entertainment business himself and that’s just the kind of joke “the guys” would play on him. Maybe “Blue Suede Shoes” springs to his mind in the opening scene because it’s the kind of fare they play at Liverpool’s Broadway Club, where Ginley’s employed as a presenter and sometime stand-up comic. He’s a “club-caller” in contemporary English slang. The script, penned by Liverpool’s own Neville Smith, uses that city’s setting and native dialogue just as deftly as it does classic noir language and tropes.

Much of the local color comes through in the Broadway Club itself: from a flashing neon sign which invokes classic noir photography, to a cast of characters that lend the film both humor and verisimilitude. The joint is headed up by Tommy, an old hand in local entertainment circles (he’s 42, but “in the club game, you can multiply that by three”) with an office full of fake photos of him posing with (mostly American) celebrities. “From the kid from Hoboken to the kid from Liverpool” reads a particularly convincing one of Tommy beside Frank Sinatra. “Good, aren't they?” says Tommy. Never mind that Tommy’s wearing the same suit in all the pictures. Then there’s the toothless handyman who Tommy has to implore to put in his dentures so he doesn’t scare off the customers. “How can I?” the man responds. “Me wife’s got ‘em!” At one point, in need of a heavy of his own, Ginley goes to Tommy for a reference. Tommy provides “Joey. He’s muscle. He fought Rommel—and Rommel lost!” When Joey shows up in the next scene, he’s revealed to be a paunchy, good-natured pensioner. Asked by Eddie about his tussle with Rommel, he answers: “Personally, Eddie, I never seen the bugger. I seen James Mason take him off it in a film once. Couldn’t stand it. All them good Germans.” The way the characters talk pop culture is a bit of Tarantino-before-Tarantino, just as the mix of noir and comedy is a bit of Lebowski-before-Lebowski.

These kinds of scenes, which revel in the early ’70s Liverpool milieu, are Gumshoe at its best. The more direct invocations of noir-classics are a somewhat mixed bag. A scene in which Ginley flirts with a London bookshop girl, for instance, is a little too on the nose: it’s a nearly beat-for-beat reconstruction of Bogart’s bookshop interaction with Dorothy Malone in The Big Sleep. A brief heroin-related subplot also ill-serves Gumshoe’s tone, opting for a bit of straight-noir gratuitousness that this movie could have done without. The worst invocation by far of the bygone era of the ’40s noir, though, is a scrap of casual but vicious racism deployed by Ginley against an interloper. To Gumshoe’s credit, Ginley’s racist remarks are neither played for laughs nor to sap the dignity of the film’s lone Black character. The film gives Trinidadian actor Oscar James, playing Azinge, the last word in that exchange—he crumples Ginley with a single punch then straightens out his suit and walks off with a choice dig. And since Azinge turns out to be one of the good guys, Ginley ultimately realizes the error of his ways. Still, to modern viewing audiences, Ginley’s cruel, old-fashioned jabs will prove (rightly) jarring.

Those missteps aside, Finney is Gumshoe’s standout. He narrates, appears in every scene, and even produced the film after a white-hot run of gigs that had made him one of Britain’s most marketable stars. His Ginley is anything but a cipher. He’s a wannabe comedian, a wannabe dick, and a wannabe lover with literary flair and a sense of humor. It’s a stellar performance. The movie also features a neat bit of directing from UK screen legend Stephen Frears, plucked from obscurity to direct here for the first time and who, for all his commendable efforts, wouldn’t be given another chance to helm a film for another 13 years (when he’d get his hands on one more underappreciated crime classic, 1984’s The Hit, starring John Hurt, Terence Stamp, and Tim Roth in a BAFTA Award-nominated role). Aside from the moments when he and cinematographer Chris Menges are ably imitating the best of Huston, Hawks, and RKO cinematography legend Nicholas Musuraca, the film’s aesthetic is a humble and no doubt indie-inspiring look at northern England, similar in some ways to 1971’s Get Carter. And, like Get Carter, you can tell that while Gumshoe was made for cheap, it doesn’t suffer for it.

A cameo by American actress Janice Rule as Gumshoe’s would-be femme fatale is great, as is the performance of Fulton Mackay as Straker, the bungling Scottish hit man whose place, we learn, Ginley accidentally took when he accepted this first sleuthing assignment. Straker is all menace for the initial half of the film, but he quickly breaks down into a comedic standout. That process begins with Ginley giving Straker the slip at Britain’s equivalent of the social security office. In Gumshoe, our hero doesn’t have “ins” with the cops. Instead, he’s got a pal at the unemployment office who’s a bit disappointed to see Eddie advertising for work (“haven’t lost faith in us, now have you, Eddie?”), but who lets him sneak out the back anyways. Straker is ultimately exposed as a fake-it-till-you-make-it heavy perfectly suited to Ginley’s play-acting detective. When Ginley tells Straker his hopes for a payday are sunk in the film’s final scene, Straker answers with his own revelation: Straker’s not a hit man at all. He was just filling in for the real hit man, who fell ill on the appointed day. What’s more, he never even had a gun—his plan for extracting funds from Ginley was to involve no more than “violence of the tongue.” After he and Ginley make nice, Straker asks his new pal to “lend us a couple of quid” before taking his leave.

Herein lies the true cleverness of Gumshoe. It’s a detective story in which everyone self-consciously plays a part they remember from detective stories past. The central mystery is solid and the plot is slick and well-paced, but the comedy’s even better. If, as they say, comedy is about subverting expectations, then Gumshoe does it masterfully. The audience, after all, is nearly as keyed in to detective noir as Ginley, and knows all too well how these things are supposed to go. That just makes it all the funnier when everyone, in turn, emerges as a fraud. There’s no Sam Spade here, not even a Nick Charles. Just “gumshoe Ginley and slyboots Straker” and the “damn, crummy, ramshackle outfit” that tried to shoehorn them into a story where the stakes are as real as in Hammett, but nothing else is.

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