Stephen Frears is one of our most interesting directors; a bit of a journeyman, he's dabbled in a variety of genres, from thriller (The Grifters) to classical drama (Dangerous Liasons) to romantic comedy (High Fidelity) to mystery (Dirty Pretty Things) to farce (Mrs. Henderson Presents). There aren't a lot of common threads in his work, aside from the fact that most of it is, at the very least, pretty good (and much of it is excellent). His debut feature, the 1972 detective spoof Gumshoe, has long been unavailable on Region 1 DVD; that is now remedied with Sony's release of the picture as part of their "Martini Movies" series (more on that moniker later).
Albert Finney stars as the splendidly-named Eddie Ginley, a bingo-caller and small-time nightclub comic floating through then-contemporary Liverpool. Eddie is a bit of an oddball, unsettled but too unmotivated to do much about it, until he takes out a newspaper ad as a birthday gift to himself. It's an advertisement for his detective services; he is obsessed with classic private eye fiction, and speaks in the cadences and tough-guy jargon of a Cockney Bogart. But then his phone rings.
Gumshoe starts quite promisingly, kidding the genre conventions (Eddie's hard-boiled voiceovers are occasionally peppered with non-sequiturs like "Ironing can be fun") and enjoying the dichotomy of telling its 1940s story in a 1970s style and location. The opening titles are pitch-perfect (enjoy them, fellow font nerds), and Neville Smith's witty script has some enjoyable, fast-paced repartee.
But somewhere around the halfway mark, the film starts to strain, morphing out of the homage/semi-parody of the first half and into trying to transform into a serious detective story. Sadly, it can't quite pull it off. The convoluted screenplay starts to buckle under the weight of its own complications (there's a murder-for-hire thread, a kidnapping plot, and some heroin smuggling thrown in for good measure), and the casual racism of the characters (particularly Finney's) is a bit troublesome and anachronistic.
That said, Finney is fantastic (he really nails the rapid-fire dialogue and the pathos of his character's strained relationships), and is ably supported by a stellar secondary cast (particularly Billie Whitelaw as the sister-in-law he pines for). Frears' direction is nicely atmospheric (ably assisted by an evocative score from Andrew Lloyd Webber--one of his two original film composition credits) and he brings the film to an entirely satisfying resolution. And, at its end, it settles on a nearly-perfect closing shot, ending the uneven but enjoyable proceedings on a high note.
Gumshoe boasts a 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, and the image doesn't look half bad for a 35-plus year old film. The picture is a touch grainy, but it's clean and good-looking overall (there is some occasional softness, but that appears to be present in the source material). Free of any noticeable digital noise or compression artifacts on the single-layer disc, Gumshoe makes for a pleasing package, aesthetically speaking.
The 2.0 audio track is a little on the flat side, with no noticeable separation and not a lot of flavor. However, music and dialogue are all clear and distinct, and levels are consistent and well-mixed. Adequate, but not much more.
The bonus features are a little on the slim side. The box primarily trumpets a pair of so-called "Martini Minutes": "How To Become A Villain" (1:49), and "Secrets of Seduction" (1:52). Don't let the fancy titles fool you; both are merely promos for Sony's "Martini Movie" series (and apparently both are included on all releases in this wave). The series itself seems a little nonsensical; I saw no martinis (and very little alcohol) consumed in Gumshoe, and it certainly isn't a free-wheeling, Rat Pack-style entertainment. I'm not sure what kind of umbrella you have to open up to get from Gumshoe to Our Man In Havana to Vibes (the 1988 Jeff Goldblum- Cyndi Lauper bomb), but if Sony says they're all "Martini Movies," I guess we'll just have to take their word for it.
The only other bonus feature is the Original Theatrical Trailer (2:59), which suffers from some hilariously inappropriate period slang in the voice-over ("It's not his bag at all," the narrator informs us).
Gumshoe is a quirky little picture, most effective as an affectionate tribute to Chandler and Hammett, less successful when trying to work as its own entity. It's a fun, enjoyable throwaway, instantly forgettable though it may be. Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.