The debut feature of one of Britain’s most successful contemporary filmmakers is a respectful homage loaded with a barrage of one liners. Mark Fraser revisits an English crime movie made at the start of the 1970s which bucked the trend of the day by eschewing violence.
WARNING: This review contains some spoilers.
Ostensibly a comedy, Stephen Frears’ Gumshoe (1971) sits in a kind of cinematic no man’s land – occupying the space between mild satire and pure genre adulation.
While the film is almost strictly played for laughs, it’s also a little self-conscious as it goes about creating a respectable level of lampoonable authenticity.
Not surprisingly the results are something of a mixed bag. On the one hand there is the wise-cracking amateur private eye Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney), who is so full of the kind of confident swagger normally reserved for the tougher (and more experienced) Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler-penned private eyes – as played elsewhere by the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum – that he comes across as being totally unflappable.
Yet, on the other, the case he gets caught up in is so convoluted and meandering that his laid back modus operandi at times resembles someone dealing with an annoyance rather than a wannabe sleuth intent on solving a mystery.
To be clear, Gumshoe is not a comedy in the same vein as something like Herbert Ross’ Play It Again Sam (1972), which also involves a lead character (this time played by Woody Allen) who nurtures a serious Bogart complex.
Nor is it an overblown detective movie homage like Wim Wenders’ stagey Hammett (1982), despite the fact both works have their nostalgic leanings.
Instead, with its drably authentic Liverpool and London locations, it has the feel of an English realist drama – something reminiscent of an early work of Ken Loach, except packed with repartee. Oddly, this mixture of wit and matter-of-factness brings with it a sense of aloofness, meaning there are times when Gumshoe might have benefitted if it was accompanied by a laugh track.
Needless to say, like much of the humour throughout the script (by Neville Smith, who also appears in the film), this is one hell of a dry movie.
Having said this, Gumshoe is also kind of sweet insofar as its heart is definitely in the right place – even if the director (it was Frears’ first feature) and his cameraman Chris Menges refused to give it a complete expressionistic film noir look.
As a result, it’s left up to Finney as the titular Liverpudlian bingo announcer, who has aspirations to be both a stand-up comic and private dick (but without taking on messy divorce work), to carry the movie’s weight – a task he deftly conducts with aplomb.
Following his lodgement of an advertisement in the local newspaper (in which he refers to himself as Sam Spade, the protagonist of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon), Eddie gets more than he bargains for when he receives the instructions for his first case from De Fries (George Silver) – an enigmatic, black and white television-watching fat man a la Sydney Greenstreet sans the penchant for conversation – with whom he meets in a hotel room.
The brief is vague; it basically comes in the form of a package containing a photo of Alison Wyatt from the University of Liverpool’s mathematics department (Carolyn Seymour), £1000 in cash, the address of a bookshop in London and a 38 Smith & Wesson five chamber pistol, a weapon Eddie subsequently uses to intimidate people, but only fires at the end of the story when he has cracked the case and is trying to alert the authorities of the bad guys’ location.
In a sequence of events that even makes John Huston’s screen version of The Maltese Falcon (1941) seem relatively straightforward, the quick witted (and seemingly fearless) layman shamus stumbles across an international arms smuggling operation involving his older brother William (Frank Finlay), his sister-in-law (and ex-lover) Ellen (Billie Whitelaw), Alison and her African-born minder Azinge (Oscar James) as well as the bothersome Scottish thug Starker (a lively Fulton Mackay), who is hell bent on getting his hands on the 1000 quid.
Along the way – on a path which briefly touches base with a heroin ring – Eddie also comes across an amorous occult bookshop assistant (Maureen Lipman), a sexy secretary working for his brother’s exporting company (Wendy Richards) and a callously sassy criminal mastermind (Janice Rule), two of whom flirt with him.
Being a crime movie, Gumshoe doesn’t contain much violence – a somewhat surprising development given it was released in the same year as both Mike Hodges’ mean spirited Get Carter (wherein a vicious London hoodlum played by Michael Caine travels to a dreary Newcastle to investigate the death of his brother) and Michael Tuchner’s unpleasant Villain (starring Richard Burton as a sadistic homosexual English thug). Furthermore, it came out shortly after the arrival of the ground-breaking (but equally as nasty) Performance (1970), the dazzling hoodlum-meets-rock star opus jointly directed by Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg. While one can only speculate, it’s possible Gumshoe’s lack of violent content was one of the reasons the film was largely overlooked by audiences when it first came out.
If anything there doesn’t really seem to be a seething gangster underbelly in Liverpool, which – at one point – Eddie describes as “not a gun town”. Instead, the central conspiracy of the story is perpetrated by some white collared mercenaries whose motivation for selling weapons boxed as gardening tools to an unseen party in what is now Zimbabwe appears to be more driven by money than any gangland concerns.
As mentioned earlier, while Gumshoe lampoons the private eye yarn, it doesn’t necessarily look like a detective movie per se (although Eddie’s trench coat and laconic voice-over go some way to rectifying this situation).
The use of conventional sets and saturated colours, for instance, ensures Liverpool comes across as a rather sombre and dull industrial port city. Furthermore, during the film’s handful of night scenes (some of which are in London), there’s not much shadow, fog or filtered light spilling through venetian blind-covered windows. Although Frears offers a useful visual reference to these urban locales in an historical sense, his cinematic landscapes nevertheless remain fairly expressionless.
This is not to say, though, that Gumshoe doesn’t have its moments as a stand-alone entry in the private detective genre. For a start the movie’s opening credits – in which 1940s Hollywood fonts are employed – reek of tradition, while Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score at times provides a dramatic impetus that is absent from the events unfolding on screen.
And despite the above criticism regarding a lack of visual flourish, there is one stand out moment when Frears and Menges genuinely deliver – that being the scene when Eddie collects his instructions from De Fries in room 322 of the Plaza Hotel. Had the film makers infused more of this generic lighting scheme into the rest of the narrative, it’s possible Gumshoe might have ended up being a little more iconoclastic.
Ultimately, if one was to associate style with any part of this movie, it would have to be with Finney’s performance as he wisecracks his way through a series of circumstances – some of which are quite baffling.
While not exactly a tour de force, his timing is effective enough to make this good natured, albeit dry, oddity worth enduring.
Words by Mark Fraser
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