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  • Benjamin May

Gumshoe (1971) Review

In the seedy world of pulp fiction, private detectives like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade prowl, cynically solving crimes while clad in their trench coats, fedoras cocked at jaunty angles and cigarettes burning. Eddie Ginley- a noir-loving small-time comedian at a Liverpudlian bingo hall- wants a slice of the gumshoe action, and places an advertisement in the newspaper offering his services as P. I. Almost immediately, Eddie nabs a gig and, despite his greenness, makes some headway on the case. As he delves deeper into the sordid underground of heroin smuggling, will Eddie solve the mystery; or end up sleeping with the fishes?

Written by Neville Smith, Stephen Frears' directorial debut 'Gumshoe' is a brilliant homage to the genre of film noir and detective fiction in general. A witty and clever tribute to the classics of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Smith's dialogue is quick and sharp, mimicking the snappy banter and witty one-liners of the hard-boiled heroes. The back and forth between his characters is a constant delight to listen to, even if the plot around them is a little underdeveloped and predictable at times.

What makes 'Gumshoe' really stand out from other noir parodies, like Neil Simon's 'The Cheap Detective' or 'Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid,' is Frears' naturalistic approach to the material. He strikes a fine balance between the screenplay's noir stylizations and the harsh realities of life in early 70's Liverpool. The film does not shy away from showing the poverty, unemployment and social unrest that plagued the city at the time. Eddie is not a glamorous or heroic figure; he is a struggling comedian who lives in a shabby flat, signs on the dole and has a complicated relationship with his brother's wife. He also faces racism, violence and corruption as he pursues the case. These elements add a layer of realism and depth to the film, making it more than just a spoof.

Chris Menges' cinematography is as intuitive and striking as Frears' direction, reminiscent in terms of composition and framing of the work of John Seitz or Sidney Hickox. He makes excellent use of light and shadow to reenforce the film's links to noir, while his utilization of handheld cameras helps foster a sense of realism and intimacy with the characters. Additionally, Michael Seymour's detailed production design and Harry Cordwell's set decoration adds further atmosphere to proceedings; ensuring that 'Gumshoe' is a real visual treat.

'Gumshoe' finds Albert Finney headlining as Eddie, delivering a performance of much charm and wit. A down-at-heel character who loves to speak like Bogart, Eddie is something of an eccentric P. I. to say the least, and Finney ensures he is always on the entertaining side of strange. Clearly enjoying the material, Finney's exuberant performance is one to be cherished, and he and his co-stars work wonderfully together. Billie Whitelaw does particularly fine work as Eddie's ex-lover and current sister-in-law, and Fulton Mackay has a scene-stealing turn as a rival P. I. hot on Eddie's tail. All in all, from the largest to the smallest role; all are played to perfection.

A sure-fire cinematic gem, 'Gumshoe' deserves more recognition. A smart and funny homage to film noir- that also offers a glimpse into the dark side of Liverpool in the 1970's- the film is immensely enjoyable. Featuring a charismatic performance from Albert Finney, witty dialogue and strong characterization, the film has a lot to offer. Frears' naturalistic approach serves the material brilliantly, and despite its narrative flaws; 'Gumshoe' readily entertains. If you are a fan of film noir or pulp fiction, you'll never want to say "farewell, my lovely" to 'Gumshoe'.


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