Gumshoe (1971) Stephen Frears

    Stephen Frears first directorial effort is a warm and successful attempt  to pay a loving tribute to those cinematic private eyes that wore fedoras, trench coats and always had a cigarettes dangling from their lips. Think Phillip Marlowe, or Sam Spade as portrayed by Bogart or Alan Ladd.

    “Gumshoe”, however is more than just an affectionate nostalgic look back at cinema’s private dicks. It is a look at a young Liverpudlian named Eddie Ginley (Albert Finny) whose life is falling apart. He longs to have written The Maltese Falcon or record Blue Suede Shoes, unfortunately, for Eddie both have already been done. He wants to play Las Vegas though deep down he knows he’ll never be more than the third rate nightclub master of ceremonies,  a comic wannabe, that he is. While certainly not as bleak, Eddie Ginley can be seen as an extension of his working class hero, Arthur Seaton role in “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.”

    Eddie’s life is in a shambles. You see, Eddie’s former girlfriend, Ellen (Billie Whiteshaw) dumped him and married William (Frank Finlay), his creep of a brother about a year earlier. Since then Eddie has been seeing a psychoanalyst,  only now he decides the doc’s “off his head’ so naturally Eddie puts an ad in the newspapers offering his services as a Private Eye.

    He quickly gets his first job. He is told to pick up a package at a hotel. Inside the room, sitting in a chair, seen only from a side view, is a Fat Man (shades of Kasper Gutman). There is a  package for Eddie containing a photo of a young woman, a thousand dollars and a gun. The assumption is Eddie is being paid to kill the young woman. Eddie thinks the whole situation is a setup, a joke by some of his mates as a way celebrating his 31st birthday.

    Soon, the plot thickens, as they say, and before you can spit out the words “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it”, Eddie is involved in a convoluted plot  worthy of Chandler or Hammett. Eddie finds himself caught up in a kidnapping, illegal arm sales, heroin deals and murder. Oh and there is a beautiful villainous American woman (Janice Rule) who is willing to pay any amount for his investigative services is also in the mix.

    The joy of this film is that it works both as a loving tribute, note the bookstore scene that pays homage to “The Big Sleep”, and also as a mystery. This is due to the intelligent and witty script by Neville Smith that contains  sharply written  and wonderfully descriptive dialogue and the work of first time director Stephen Frears.  If for no other reason, the film is worth watching for the performance by Albert Finney who has the right look of innocence and manages a pretty good impression of Bogie for this role. Also, add Billie Whiteshaw, Janice Rule and Frank Finlay as Eddie’s repugnant brother, William to the list of fine performances in this enjoyable film.  Probably the most surprising aspect of the film is the score, which was written by Andrew Lloyd Weber  that includes a 1950’s style rocker, written with Tim Rice, sung over the final credits that cruise along like a smooth driving hot rod.  

***1/2 (out of five)

11 comments on “Gumshoe (1971) Stephen Frears

  1. R.D. Finch says:

    John, I saw this not long ago and really enjoyed it. As you implied, it’s one of those movies that rates higher on the entertainment scale than on the artistic quality scale. I’m a big fan of Albert Finney and agree that the movie is worth watching for his very entertaining performance alone. It’s also a real treat for fans of the P.I./noir genre of the 40s, which it both spoofs and respects. An additional treat for anglophiles like me was the presence in the supporting cast of the very young Maureen Lipman (she played Aunt Eller in the revival of “Oklahoma” that made Hugh Jackman a star) as the bookstore clerk (a nod to the Dorothy Malone character in “The Big Sleep”?) and also of the late Wendy Richard (she played Miss Brahms in the British sitcom “Are You Being Served?” and for many years was Pauline in the British soap “EastEnders”), whose one scene of rapid-fire exchange of dialogue with Finney showed she was a much better actress than she was given credit for.


    • John Greco says:

      Finney is wonderful in this as he is in most everthing he does. I agree, anyone who is a fan of 1940’s P.I./noir will enjoy this.


  2. Wow, that sounds a darn interesting movie. The very first couple of paragraphs caught my interest and hence I chose not to go all the way down (pun not intended) lest I stumble on any spoiler 🙂

    And by the way, wish you a slightly belated happy New Year!!!


  3. Sam Juliano says:

    Excellent response there from R.D. Finch! And Happy New Year’s to you John, and to R.D. and Shubhajit!

    Yes, I do remember this film well, and it was a formidable launching of Frears’s career which of course subsequently included a number of good to excellent indes, like THE GRIFTERS, MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE, PRICK UP YOUR EARS, SAMMIE AND ROSIE GET LAID, MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS, THE HIT, THE SNAPPER, DANGEROUS LIASONS, and perhaps his biggest critical and most popular success, THE QUEEN, which won him a nomination as Best Director, and for which Helen Mirren won Best Actress.
    I agree that GUMSHOE, which you again provide exceptional historical and narrative underpinning for here is a homage and equally fine as a mystery piece with that rightly lauded script by Neville Smith. Finny of course is magnificent, as he almost always is.


  4. John Greco says:

    Sam, Frears has done some wonderful stuff, THE GRIFTERS is a terrific neo-noir. MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS, MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNRETTE and THE QUEEN all marvelous works. I have not seen the others you mention but a couple more worth mentioning are HIGH FIDELITY and his TV remake of Lumet’s FAIL-SAFE were quite good. I was disappointed in MARY REILLY.


  5. Sam Juliano says:

    Aye, John, aye! MARY REILLY was the weakest one, hands down.


  6. Judy says:

    I haven’t seen this but would like to – I’m always sayng that, John, but I really do follow up your reviews when I get a chance! ‘Dirty Pretty Things’ was another good movie by Frears in the last few years, a thriller about illegal immigrants leading a twilight existence in London with a powerful performance by Chiwetel Ejifor – must admit I wasn’t a big fan of ‘The Queen’ or ‘Cheri’, though, although they both looked gorgeous.


  7. John Greco says:

    Thanks, I have yet to see “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Cheri.” Hopefully, I get the chance. There are just so many films and not enough time.


    • Judy says:

      I definitely agree about so many films and lack of time – it seems as if, for every movie I actually watch, there are ten more I hear of that I’d really like to see!


  8. […] regresó al cine (entre medias trabajó incasablemente para televisión) después de su debut doce años antes con otro singular thriller, Detective sin licencia (1972). Una producción de Albert Finney que […]


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