ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Gumshoe (1971) dir: Stephen Frears Blu Ray (Indicator)
Film noir in Liverpool
Albert Finney plays Eddie Ginley, a Liverpool bingo caller with an obsession with film noir and the Dashiell Hammett novels upon which they were based. This extends to him imitating the hard-boiled dialogue of the stories’ main protagonists and even trying his hand at some part-time detective work. When he puts an advert in the local paper a mysterious caller soon responds to it, asking to meet up with him in his room at a plush hotel.
The man who greets him (whose face is hidden as he sits with his back turned to him) asks him to pick up a brown package from the table. On the bus ride home he opens it - to find that it contains a gun, some money and a photograph of a young woman (played by Carolyn Seymour), all implying that his contact wants her done away with. Understandably, Eddie doesn’t want to go through with it and tries to get back in touch with him to return the envelope’s contents. However, while the mystery man has now left the hotel and is thus unobtainable, he is too invested in his double life to let the matter go. Sure enough, he soon starts discovering tantalising bits of intrigue at every turn - some of which seemingly involves his brother William (Frank Finlay) and his ex-lover Ellen (Billie Whitelaw).
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A neglected gem
Gumshoe is one of the true hidden gems of British cinema. It’s an unashamed film noir pastiche, complete with outright references both to the old films themselves and to the hardboiled detective novels upon which they were based. It came out at a time when the genre (which was synonymous with hardboiled crime dramas of the 1940s and 50s) was undergoing a bit of a revival. In the UK, Get Carter came out that same year. A number of films were also made in the US in the years that followed, such as The Long Goodbye (1973), Chinatown (1974) and the Farewell, My Lovely remake (1975). However, while Gumshoe was nominated for two BAFTAs in 1972, it hasn’t been a well remembered as any of the aforementioned films.
While not a perfect film, it’s quite a revelation with a distinctive texture all of its own. What makes it work so well is its canny juxtaposition of Northern English culture with the language and intrigue of the very American noir genre. The former is presented in a style closer to social realism - all overcast skies, semi-decrepit postwar industrial British urban landscapes, cheesy Bingo hall entertainments, dingy bedsits bedecked by peeling wallpaper and so on. The latter adds an almost romantic air of escapism to the dismal world which the characters inhabits. The flickering neon sign of The Broadway Club where Eddie works is a rare (literal) flash of glamour here. The lighting is rich and atmospheric. The dialogue is hilariously razor-sharp.
A surprising ladies’ man
The best scenes are those involving Albert Finney sharing the screen with Billie Whitelaw. They have a great chemistry on screen together which makes us believe that these lapsed lovers (the latter is now married to Eddie’s brother William) could conceivably still go with each other. They also get some of the best exchanges of dialogue such as when Finney asks Whitelaw for a “bourbon on the rocks, please”. She responds “with milk and sugar?” with quite impeccable timing before serving him that traditionally English cup of tea. Indeed, Finney generates a remarkable amount of chemistry with most of the women whom he encounters during the film’s runtime. The fact that he manages to seduce one after another (albeit never quite going as far as taking any of them to bed) is thus somewhat believable despite considerations that he is considerably older than most of them and looks less like an impeccably-chiselled movie idol and more like a everyday middle-aged man.
Some modern viewers may be upset about Eddie’s use of racial epithets towards a black character whom he crosses paths with. This is partially excusable considering that (warts and all) he’s someone who is clearly defined as having a resolutely old-fashioned worldview. However, since he’s also the guy who we are supposed to be rooting for this tendency does have a fleetingly uncomfortable edge to it. The film’s other main issue is that the plot is rather difficult to follow and, particularly in its earlier stages, feels random and episodic. However, it does come together in a satisfying way at the end. Besides which, the mood, rather than the storyline, forms the film’s main draw.
Runtime: 86 mins
Dir: Stephen Frears
Script: Neville Smith
Starring: Albert Finney, Billie Whitelaw, Frank Finlay, Janice Rule, Carolyn Seymour, Fulton Mackay, George Innes, George Silver
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Those slightly muted pastel colours so characteristic of British Social Realism are wonderfully presented here. The image is a little soft at times but overall it’s a pleasure for the eyes. Those not au fait with the Liverpudlian accent may not find the dialogue the easiest to decipher but the audio is about as clear as it feasibly can be.
The essay Bogart on the Mersey by Robert Murphy takes a look at this largely forgotten film’s distinctive appeal as well as examining how it fits into the 1970s neo-noir revival.
Gumshoe is an archive article from a 1970 issue of Sight & Sound magazine, featuring columnist David Robinson visiting the film’s on-location shoot and interviewing the then up-and-coming director Stephen Frears. One particularly interesting fact revealed here is that actor George Silver (who played an obese South African man in the film) owned a fifth of England’s Wimpy bars (for the benefit of younger readers, they were a McDonald’s-style fast food franchise which was popular in Britain at the time but has declined heavily in more recent years).
Billie Whitelaw on working with Frears & Finney features a snippet from the actress’s autobiography Billie Whitelaw... Who He?. She reveals that she once had a brief affair with Finney which was stopped as it got in the way of them working together.
Finally, Gumshoe Critical Response features the usual collection of review snippets which caps off Indicator’s enclosed booklets.
Stephen Frears on Gumshoe
The film’s director starts out by talking about cutting his teeth working as an assistant director to Karel Reisz, Albert Finney and Lindsay Anderson as well as his first attempt at taking the helm via the short The Burning (1968). Regarding Gumshoe itself, he reveals that he chose Finney to star because he knew he could do a good Bogart impersonation. The actor got cross during filming due to cinematographer Chris Menges fussing excessively about lighting each scene. Frears also mentions that he wanted legendary composer Bernard Herrmann to do the score. The latter, however, refused to take the job as he felt that there were too many close-ups in the film! In the end, Andrew Lloyd Webber composed the music.
Neville Smith on Gumshoe
The screenwriter talks about his experiences working on the film. He mentions that he was taken to a vicarage and, in his own words, “locked in” until he completed writing the script.
Producer Michael Medwin on Gumshoe
A very brief (less than 2 minute) interview with Medwin, who opines that actor Albert Finney wasn’t quite light enough for the part and that the ending didn’t quite click. He’s wrong on both counts.
Editor Charles Rees on Gumshoe
A somewhat rambling (25 minute) interview involving Rees discussing his editing technique, which he describes as “finding a rhythm” while trying to avoid being too manipulative. This featurette will be of some interest to film editing buffs but casual viewers may find it to be a bit on the dull side.
Production Designer Michael Seymour on Gumshoe
We’re back in overly brief interview territory again as we spend just over 2 minutes with the film’s production designer.
Actor Tom Kempinski on Gumshoe
Another very brief one - this time with an actor who had a one-scene role as a psychiatrist in the film.
This 1968 short was Stephen Frears’ directorial debut. While the story is set in South Africa the production was shot in Tangiers, Morocco - undoubtedly because the government of the former country would have allowed a piece so critical of Apartheid to go ahead on their soil. It takes place largely from the point of view of a young boy living in a wealthy white household with his mother and a trio of black servants. When they go on a trip to visit his aunt it becomes clear that some sort of violent uprising is occurring. It is a beautifully-shot but quite chilling look at a climate of normalised racism where even the servants look down upon their fellow blacks due to their privileged position working in the house of white people. However, it takes place from a point of view of childlike innocence where the boy calls one of the housemaids a “kaffer” (a derogatory word for black Africans) only to quickly afterwards ask their chauffeur “what’s a kaffer?” The film’s climax (hinted at via the title) is a genuine shock since, up until then, its tone is surprisingly relaxed.
It is the undoubted highlight amongst the special features here. The remaining extras are comprised of the obligatory trailers and image gallery.
A highly enjoyable British noir homage which deserves to be better known than it is. Extras-wise, the accompanying interviews are so-so (some being far too short to be meaningful and others rambling on a bit) but the short film The Burning is well worth a watch.