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Home Video Reviews

Gumshoe (1971), the first feature by Stephen Frears, is an unheralded gem of a film. Part parody, part tribute and all unabashed appreciation of old Hollywood private eye movies and hard-boiled detective fiction, it drops the tough-guy attitude and romantic ideals into the dreary world of 1970s Liverpool. Along these mean streets walks a small-time bingo caller and wannabe stand-up comic who plays private detective for a lark and winds up hired to kill a girl for real.

"I want to write The Maltese Falcon, record 'Blue Suede Shoes' and play Las Vegas," proclaims Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney) to his therapist in the opening scene. He settles for running an ad in the local paper offering his services as a private detective (under the name Sam Spade), a present to himself for his 31st birthday. When he gets a call, he just assumes his buddies are playing along for a laugh, but the package he gets from the mystery client (whom he dubs "The Fat Man" in his best Bogart impression) includes ₤1,000, a picture of a girl and a gun. Eddie's no tough-guy and he has no illusions otherwise, but he can't seem to help following the clues and putting the pieces together. Especially after his big brother William (a sneering snob played by Frank Finlay) first warns him off the case and then has him fired from his job at the club. William has clout. All Eddie has is a quick wit and a stubborn streak.

Eddie's the kind of guy who can't help but slip into hard-boiled patter (delivered with a touch of Bogie) when the opportunity arises, even if he's wearing nothing but BVDs and a ratty bathrobe and devouring a bowl of cold cereal between his tough-guy cracks. It's the kind of touch that makes Eddie Ginley so genuine. Finney plays him as a regular bloke with a non-stop sense of whimsy, a smart retort for occasion and a penchant for narrating his story in the vernacular of an American wise guy. Even his simmering antipathy for his brother, an arrogant twit who stole Eddie's girl (Billie Whitelaw) and quite possibly the family business, doesn't stop him lobbing cracks and insults in their brotherly bonding sessions. When the case turns downright dangerous, there's a bit of shamus chivalry in Eddie's act, as if the trenchcoat and hard-boiled affectation gives him the courage (or at least the stubbornness) to play the hero for real. He knows the score, but that doesn't mean he can't have a little fun while he plays out his hand. The film is full of playful quotes and references (Eddie all but replays a scene from The Big Sleep when he visits a London bookshop and sends the film off with Bogie's signature line: "Here's looking at you, kid") without getting too insular or in-jokey. Frears roots the film in the dreary atmosphere of working-class Liverpool, where the folks escape the industrial grime in "The Broadway Club," a working man's music hall where the locals gather to eat, drink and enjoy the entertainment between rounds of bingo. It may be a shabby place, more beer garden than night club, but Frears never stoops to ridicule the audience or the entertainers. The club boss, a semi-connected guy with an affection for Eddie, is a character cut from the same cloth: the photos of show-biz royalty posing with him are all lovingly-produced fakes. They both play out their dreams in harmless games while keeping their feet firmly planted on the ground.

Stephen Frears had worked his way into directing by first apprenticing as an assistant to directors Karel Reisz (on Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment) and Lindsay Anderson (on If...). "Film schools didn't exist when I was growing up," he explained in an interview. "I learned by working with clever people. Good writers and cinematographers. And before them, Karel [Reisz] and Lindsay [Anderson], who gave me a kind of foundation course." He went on to direct episodes of a couple of British dramas, but was likely another early job that played a key role in making Gumshoe: he was the "personal assistant to director" on Charlie Bubbles (1967), a film directed by and starring Albert Finney. According to the IMDb, Finney subsequently served as an uncredited producer on Frears' 1968 short film The Burning and it was likely his support that gave Frears this first shot at feature directing. Frears returned to the small screen after this production, directing numerous acclaimed TV dramas and teleplays by the likes of Alan Bennett, Christopher Hampton, David Hare and Tom Stoppard (among many others), and did not direct another theatrical feature until 1984, when he made the taut little thriller The Hit.

The film was shot in dull, desaturated colors befitting the industrial environment of Liverpool and set in locations that keep the film firmly planted in the blue-collar reality of Eddie's world: the crowded little music hall, Eddie's cramped apartment, a walk along waterfront warehouses and a trip to the unemployment office. The score provides the counterpoint of Eddie's detective movie fantasy, a dramatic orchestral soundtrack that recalls the symphonic drama of a fifties film. It was, notably, the first score composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber.

The DVD letterboxed at 1.66:1 (you can just see the slivers of black on each side of the screen) and preserves the soft colors and grimy atmosphere of the film with a clean, clear print. The bare-bones DVD release features the film's original trailer and two "Martini Minutes" featurettes, which are nothing more than tongue-in-cheek self-promotions.

For more information about Gumshoe, visit Sony Pictures. To order Gumshoe, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker