GUMSHOE: a noir fan plays detective

Albert Finney and Billie Whitelaw in GUMSHOE

Albert Finney and Billie Whitelaw in GUMSHOE

Gumshoe (1971) is not really a film noir itself, but it is an overt homage to noir and hard boiled detective writing. The main character is a playful underachiever (Albert Finney) who is in love with nasty noir and the works of Marlowe and Chandler. On a lark, he runs a private detective ad. Someone answers the ad, and his pose turns into the Real Deal.

This is 1970s London, but he affects hardboiled patter – “I’m also a private eye, see”. Gumshoe has its share of double- and triple-crossing. There’s a scene that’s a nod to the Humphrey Bogart/Dorothy Malone bookstore scene in The Big Sleep.  Plus there’s a would-be kidnaper (he’s a Brit version of Runyanesque), an obese junkie and a merciless lady crimelord (the always welcome Janice Rule). There’s also a lot of racist dialogue, which has reportedly kept Gumshoe off the air waves in the past few decades.

The most compelling aspect of Gumshoe is that the traditional femme fatale character has been replaced with the gumshoe’s sister-in-law (Billie Whitelaw) – his former girlfriend who has dumped him for his brother. (As a result, the brothers are not on the best of terms.) The former lovers are still mutually attracted. Until the climax, it’s not clear which brother she will end up with – or the degree of her innocence in the story’s caper.

The best moment in the film comes when Finney’s poser suddenly realizes that his romp has turned into a matter of life and death. Finney’s face reveals his initial shock and panic, and then the urgent determination to find an avenue to safety. (Later in the film, there’s also an especially well-crafted scene with a Molotov cocktail.)

Gumshoe was the feature debut for director Stephen Frears. After Gumshoe, Frears spent over a decade working primarily in television before his The Hit (1984) and My Beautiful Laundrette (1986) became art house hits in the US. Those successes led to the higher profile Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Grifters (1990), Hi-Fidelity (2000), The Queen (2006) and Philomena (2013).

I saw Gumshoe on Turner Classic Movies.  It’s also available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Xbox Video and Flixster.

Albert Finney in GUMSHOE

Albert Finney in GUMSHOE

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