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British director Stephen Frears gained a lasting international reputation with the surprise commercial and critical success of his breakthrough film, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). At the time of its release, Frears was considered a talented director who had long labored in television before bursting onto the cinema scene with his offbeat love story and biting examination of life in Thatcher's Britain. In truth, his feature debut came nearly a decade and a half earlier with another movie that showed his talent for quirky humor and insightful, unsentimental character study - Gumshoe (1971). One of Frears's earliest jobs in the industry had been as personal assistant to director-star Albert Finney on Charlie Bubbles (1967), the second film produced by Finney's Memorial Enterprises. Finney had enough confidence in his assistant to tap him a few years later to helm the private eye satire Gumshoe with only one short film and a handful of TV episodes to his directorial credit, although Frears had also served as assistant director on Lindsay Anderson's If... (1968) and Karel Reisz's Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966).
Finney plays a bingo caller and failed comedian in a seedy Liverpool nightclub who imagines himself a Bogart-like detective ("gumshoe" was a common slang term for a private eye, a reference to the soft-soled shoes worn for sneaking around unheard). The story, narrated by Finney's Eddie Ginley in language imitative of the tough-talking heroes created by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, follows Ginley's initial foray into his dream job when his advertised services are called upon by a mysterious fat man who provides him with a young woman's photo, a gun, and a 1000 pounds in cash but no instructions. Ginley becomes enmeshed in a highly convoluted case involving heroin smuggling, gun running, and African politics.
The movie is chock full of direct references to such classics of the genre as The Thin Man (1934), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and The Big Sleep (1946), along with such diverse movies as Mighty Joe Young (1949), Rancho Notorious (1952), Casablanca (1942), and Born Yesterday (1950). The film works as both a pastiche and a traditional thriller, although the mystery plot, as Vincent Canby noted in his New York Times review, is handled with "affection and great good humor, as well as with the awareness that it's impossible to make a 1935 American private-eye movie in 1972, especially if one is English...."
The screenplay for Gumshoe was the first and only feature for British actor Neville Smith, who wrote occasionally for television over the course of a few decades. Smith plays a small role in the picture and also worked again for Frears in a couple of television plays by Alan Bennett and a small role as a police inspector in Prick Up Your Ears (1987), the screen biography of iconoclastic playwright Joe Orton.
Achieving another first here is Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer of such blockbuster stage hits as Jesus Christ, Superstar, Evita, and The Phantom of the Opera, all of them later adapted to the screen. Webber wrote the musical score for Gumshoe, his first for a feature film, as well as the song "Baby, You're Good for Me," with lyrics by his longtime collaborator Tim Rice.
Gumshoe was shot on location in London and Liverpool and at Lee International Studios in Shepperton by Chris Menges, who went on to award-winning work on The Killing Fields (1984), The Mission (1986), and Michael Collins (1996). Menges worked with Frears frequently on TV both before and after Gumshoe and later served as cinematographer on Frears's feature Dirty Pretty Things (2002).
The entire cast of Gumshoe received good notices for their work, particularly Billie Whitelaw as Ginley's ex-girlfriend, now married to his disapproving brother. An acclaimed stage actress best known for her work in a number of plays by Samuel Beckett, Whitelaw worked with Finney previously as his wife in Charlie Bubbles. Shortly after this movie she appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972) and a short time later as the demonic nanny Mrs. Baylock in The Omen (1976).
Director: Stephen Frears
Producer: Albert Finney
Screenplay: Neville Smith
Cinematography: Chris Menges
Editing: Fergus McDonald
Art Direction: Michael Seymour
Original Music: Andrew Lloyd Weber
Cast: Albert Finney (Eddie Ginley), Billie Whitelaw (Ellen Ginley), Frank Finlay (William Ginley), Janice Rule (Mrs. Blankerscoon), Carolyn Seymour (Alison Wyatt).
by Rob Nixon