Gumshoe is problematic, to say the least. It was Stephen Frears’s debut film, and his only feature until 1984’s The Hit. As the title suggests, it’s about a detective (played by Albert Finney), an amateur who dreams of being a Philip Marlowe type of professional. It’s mostly set in Liverpool, and is an odd film—his proper job is as a bingo caller and occasional nightclub comedian. He puts an advert in the Liverpool Echo offering his services as a private detective, and is soon contacted to solve a mystery. Quickly he ends up working on a case that really doesn’t add up.
Obviously they were trying to do something like The Big Sleep, where famously no one really knew what connects (not even Raymond Chandler!) But the plot is complete nonsense—as Frears admits in the interview on the disc. He was learning how to make films as he went along, having alreadydonee some TV work and a short called The Burning, which is included in the package. Although obviously he’s not racist (he’s the director of My Beautiful Laundrette and Dirty Pretty Things after all) but throughout the film Finney’s detective makes really dodgy racist jokes-not on stage but in his daily speech. It’s never called out, and to the modern viewer is pretty disconcerting—and might another reason that why the film had more or less dropped out of view until now.
That said, Finney is a great actor, and it’s interesting to see what Frears was doing at the beginning of his career. He has dipped into the film noir pool over and over, and made quite possibly the greatest British neo-noir with his next feature (an near perfect film except for the awful Eric Clapton score), as well as the excellent The Grifters. He understands the genre very well, but Gumshoe was a bit of a mess.
It’s a nice release from Powerhouse, which also features the aforementioned short and an interview with Frears. The Burning is about a British kid living in Tangiers, and attempts to comment on the end of colonial rule in Africa. It’s an odd little short, but has its interesting moments. Additional cast and crew interviews are also included.