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Ginley (Albert Finney) is a nightclub bingo caller eager for a career change. On his thirty-first birthday, he advertises himself as a private eye in the newspaper. He dons a trench coat, and begins engaging others in rapid-fire dialogue as if he were Humphrey Bogart, or some Dashiell Hammett creation. Soon after, Ginley is phoned by a fat man, who gives him a package containing a gun, a photograph, and a large sum of money. Eventually Ginley is investigating a case involving smuggling of weapons as well as drugs. Ginley also finds himself at odds with his unsupportive brother, who offers Ginley payment to break off his investigations. Eventually Ginley learns of his brother-in-law's involvement in the crimes at hand. Ginley faces a series of daunting tasks: solving the crimes, bringing justice to the smugglers (and a murderer), as well as maintaining his safety and sanity in the process.Written by
Steve Frears's first film, a successful mixed genre satirical thriller
I recently saw this film again for the first time since it came out, on a big screen, and had an opportunity to chat a bit with Steve Frears about it. It stands up very well to the passage of time, but the whiff of sixties Britain coming from the screen is very strong. I think we had all forgotten quite how grotty things were back then. People were still putting coins in gas meters and thinking that chow mein was Chinese food. So GUMSHOE has now become period. Why, I never. But there it is, it has joined Powell and Loy in the cabinet of yesteryear. And so it is all the more appropriate that in this film, Albert Finney sits reading a propped up paperback copy of Dash Hammett's THE THIN MAN as he eats his breakfast cereal. Where is Asta the dog? Well, now, down to cases, and I mean criminal cases. Albert Finney is a Walter Mitty fantasist who refuses to work in his brother's prosperous export business and instead lives on the dole, having forfeited the love of a good (?) woman played by Billie Whitelaw, who married his brother instead (an insidious Frank Finlay who is up to no good). But wait. Whitelaw keeps coming around and professing undying love for Albert. What is going on? She wants to stay overnight but asks where could she sleep, as Albert sleeps in a narrow cot. He says she could always sleep in the bath tub. Perhaps she was one of those gals of whom a chap could say: 'She'd scrub up nicely.' Meanwhile, Albert, under the influence of Humphrey Bogart (of whom he does imitations), and frenzied with love for THE MALTESE FALCON, puts an ad in the Liverpool paper (yes, he is a Liverpudlian) saying his name is Sam Spade and he is a private eye but will not accept divorce work. He is immediately contacted by 'the Fat Man', given a thousand pounds (a lot of money in those days), a photo of a woman, and a gun. It is a curious sort of gun, a .38 calibre revolver with only five chambers. There may be some numerological significance in this lack of a sixth chamber, especially as later in the film Aleister Crowley's face stares at us from the wall of the Atlantis Bookshop in London as if he knows what happened to the missing chamber. And for those of you who know Museum Street, you will be aware that there not only was a real Atlantis Bookshop, but it is still there. I don't like it because I don't like black magic. Albert, being a very kind-hearted person, does not understand that he is meant to kill the girl in the photo, who is a scholar at the University of Liverpool (a sinister place, home of Ian Shaw, who only leaves his coffin after midnight). So he looks her up and chats her up. Albert Finney plays this weird, innocent and intrepid character to perfection. His ability to pull it off means that the film works. It would have been so easy for a film like this walking the tightrope of comedy and murder to fail. Albert could have gone plop as he fell off the wire. But no, he is too sure-footed for that. It is a miracle that a first-time director could succeed in such a hazardous enterprise. But then Frears was well apprenticed under Karel Reisz on MORGAN: A SUITABLE CASE FOR TREATMENT, which was an even more bizarre mixture of comedy and tragedy, starring David Warner (who once pushed my friend Lucy Saroyan down the stairs, for which I have never forgiven him). There is a really serious criminal enterprise going on, of which Albert becomes dimly aware, assisted by the fact that people keep getting killed, so as one would notice. His brother is shipping guns in crates marked 'gardening tools' to Mozambique. Now, who would do a thing like that? Mozambique is so yesterday. But then, this is a period film, and there were different rebels then. The ice maiden Janice Rule (who six years later would be the ominous non-speaking third woman in Altman's 3 WOMEN) sends a chill down Albert's spine as she tries to deal with him. But even the most evil schemers can get nowhere with a Liverpool Prince Myshkin. Albert decides to find out what is going on, as it becomes clear that heroin is the game. His encounter with a young and sensual Maureen Lipman at the Atlantis Bookshop is a treat, as she assures him that the best time to see her is just after closing time, as 'I blossom in the evenings.' But the best scene in the film is when Albert encounters the young Wendy Richard and they exchange machine-gun rapid one-liners, he doing his very best Bogart, and she maintaining the most perfect taunting insouciance. I praised this scene to Frears and he agreed that she was 'absolutely brilliant', and it became clear that he loved the result of it very dearly indeed. Frears is very self-effacing and finds it hard to be praised. He looked pretty dazed that everybody still liked GUMSHOE all these years and 22 feature films later. But it is a gem.
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