Gumshoe (1971) dir. Stephen Frears
Starring: Albert Finney, Frank Finlay, Billie Whitelaw, Janice Rule, Carolyn Seymour
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
One of the most infuriating things is when a picture cannot decide what it wants to be – throwing in everything (including the kitchen sink) and looking not unlike a ratty patchwork quilt designed to comfort the posteriors of smelly hippies sitting on a cold, rain-soaked, mosquito-breeding patch of earth during some loathsome folk festival. On the other hand, there are patchwork quilts like Stephen Frears’ first feature “Gumshoe” which, like the work of a serious folk artist, is designed specifically for aesthetic scrutiny.
Frears’ long-form debut wanders between loving parodistic homage and straightforward detective drama – a picture that succeeds winningly in spite (or perhaps even because) of its desire to both comment on the form of detective fiction whilst being the thing itself. In this sense, “Gumshoe” comes close to satire, but because it doesn’t have a mean bone in its celluloid body (save for some of the roughing-up the genre demands) and never quite comes close to roasting the folly of humanity over an open fire in the Swift-like fashion we’ve become accustomed to, it doesn’t really earn the right to be called satire either.
It does earn the right, however, to be called one kick-ass picture that will stay with you long after it’s unspooled.
Spinning the tale of clinically depressed schlub Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney) and his obsession to parlay a photographic memory of hardboiled detective movies into his own reality, “Gumshoe” uses every cliché in the Warner-Brothers-RKO book. Of course, so does Eddie, and he’s the one driving the narrative – a narrative where dream gives way to reality.
When we first meet Eddie, he’s undergoing therapy and working in a seedy working class Liverpool nightclub as an emcee, bingo caller and standup comedian. Longing to be part of the world of rumpled Humphrey Bogarts where he can merrily be dispensing wisecracks, justice and indulging in kisses and repartee with a bevy of femme fatales (and potential victims of the evils of higher powers), he’s a man in search of something, anything that can help him escape what a miserable drudge his life has become. Turning 31 years of age, Eddie treats himself to a want ad in the newspaper announcing his services as a gumshoe – a private eye for whom no job is too big, too small or too dangerous. Quicker than he can shoot out a hard-boiled quip, he’s offered a seemingly routine job on as case that eventually extends well beyond its simple surface intrigue.
The convoluted mystery that follows is, like most mysteries, secondary to the world and style of the genre itself. What really sets “Gumshoe” apart is that Eddie’s just a regular Joe and most importantly, his stylized patter and adventures are set against a kitchen sink British backdrop that would definitely be more at home in the Angry Young Man genre of the early 60s where the likes of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Tom Courtenay and Laurence Harvey railed against the injustices of working class life, but seldom found a way to crawl completely out of the muck. Eddie’s character is certainly not unlike those abovementioned anti-heroes. His ex-wife Ellen (Billie Whitelaw), a woman he will always love, left him for his own brother William (Frank Finlay), a shipping magnate who offered the sort of stability Eddie could never provide and, even to the end, has no intention of ever providing.
And, of course, in any great crime drama, betrayal always cuts deeper than anyone involved in the proceedings could ever imagine and in “Gumshoe”, betrayal is laid on thickly indeed, pistol-whipping Eddie constantly in the face.
This is an incredibly strange, beautiful and compelling picture. I’ve avoided detailing too much of the mystery, not so much for the continual surprises it offers, but because there is a political backdrop that, while dated, seems to have as much, if not more resonance in our contemporary world of strife and the gradual discovery of this makes for extremely engaging viewing. Also, Eddie’s family situation is one that figures very prominently in the proceedings and this is an especially poignant touch.
Save for a clunker of a performance from Janice Rule (though she looks great) as a femme fatale, the movie explodes with great acting. Finney fits his role like a glove and frankly, it might be one of his best performances in a very stellar career. As his brother Willie, Frank Finlay is the icy epitome of familial meanness.
Neville Smith’s screenplay bristles with crisp hardboiled narration and dialogue and the characters are full of delightful eccentricities and subtexts that always add to the forward movement of the convoluted, but always compelling narrative. The cinematography by Chris Menges (“The Killing Fields”, “The Mission”) dazzles with its stunning virtuosity. Blending film noir stylings with garish kitchen sink realism, this is perhaps one of the picture’s greatest achievements. The lighting and compositions are in perfect tandem with the strangeness of the screenplay and the two worlds that are often separate, but occasionally blend together, is always a visual wonder to behold. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s weird-ass score that veers from parody to homage to out and out straight up romantic old-Hollywood stylings is occasionally jarring in the wrong ways, but more often than not, hits the notes it needs to.
And last, but certainly not least, threading this altogether is Frears’ bold, yet controlled direction. He clearly loves these characters and this world. And frankly, so do we.
“Gumshoe” is currently available on the Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment DVD label as part of their “Martini Movies” brand, which seems like a convenient way to lump a grab bag of catalogue titles under one banner. Alas, the banner makes no sense whatsoever with respect to the vast majority of films contained under it.