Gilbey on Film: Genre capers

Five films that play with the private eye movie.

Should you be in the market for a low-budget US independent film that happens to be set in Oregon and is given to tinkering around with genre codes (and, let's face it, sometimes that's the only thing that will hit the spot), then I am happy to say that you are in luck. Two fine examples of this specialised breed were released last week. Meek's Cutoff you will know about. But you should also hotfoot it to whichever cinema is showing Cold Weather, a charming detective story of sorts from the writer-director Aaron Katz (who made the haunting Van Sant-esque Quiet City and Dance Party, USA).

Cold Weather follows a former forensics expert who slips gradually into crime-solving when his ex-girlfriend goes missing. There are plenty of Sherlock Holmes references (the main character even buys a pipe -- though not quite a calabash -- to suck on while he's piecing the puzzle together) and the film has a sweet'n'loose approach to genre. Like Meek's Cutoff, it also builds to an ending which some will consider frustratingly abrupt. Others will argue that it allows the movie to continue gestating and flowering in the viewer's head. I'm in the latter camp.

Katz's picture fits into the modern tradition of revising or riffing on the private eye movie. Here are five more that pulled off the same trick with wit and panache:

The Long Goodbye (1973)
Robert Altman's baggy take on Raymond Chandler, with Elliott Gould at his crumpled best as a seen-it-all Philip Marlowe, was considered sacrilege in some quarters at the time of its release. How could anyone have the brass neck to take such an icon of detective fiction and turn him into an unshaven, shambolic drop-out? Now it's generally (and rightly) considered one of Altman's finest films, as well as an evocative, atmospheric snapshot of the loosey-goosey 1970s West Coast lifestyle.

The Late Show (1977)
Altman had a hand too in this wonderful lost gem from the same decade -- he produced it, while Robert Benton (best known, with his writing partner David Newman, as one of the nibs behind Bonnie and Clyde and What's Up, Doc?) wrote and directed. Ira (Art Carney) is a former private eye, and Margo (Lily Tomlin) is the over-excitable young client who tempts him back to detective work with the unpromising case of a missing cat. Benton modelled the film on the mood of the plangent western Ride the High Country, which is not to say he neglects the specifics of the thriller genre -- after all, the picture is also a commentary on our love affair with detective movies. ("I swear I feel just like Nick and Nora," babbles Margo, referring to the heroes of the enduring Thin Man detective movies of the 1930s and 1940s, adapted from the Dashiel Hammett novels.) For another great sleuth comedy in a similar vein, see the 1993 Manhattan Murder Mystery, one of Woody Allen's wisest and sunniest works.

Zero Effect (1998)
Bill Pullman lets his hair down as the socially inept but intellectually astonishing private eye and all-round man of mystery Daryl Zero, with Ben Stiller as his emissary and Dr Watson-style sidekick. Weirdly forgotten since its release, this is as inspired and affectionate a modern twist on Sherlock Holmes as the similarly discarded Without a Clue (1988), which cast Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley in the Holmes/Watson roles respectively, painting the former as nothing short of a nincompoop.

The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Coen brothers' comic masterpiece (their most beautifully realised film by some distance) is a thriller with backwards momentum, a whodunnit where the clues lead only to dead ends, or to other clues. The picture is essentially a hard-boiled, 1940s-style Californian mystery gone soft, and updated to early 1990s Los Angeles. The lollopping, doped-up "Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is mistaken for his namesake, a millionaire whose wife has been kidnapped. The other Lebowski hires the Dude to deliver the ransom, but the plan is derailed. A severed toe arrives in a jiffy bag. A trio of Kraftwerk lookalikes may be responsible. Also, it could be that the kidnapping never even took place. So whose toe is it anyway? One clue to the film's brilliance lies in its marriage of cool precision and dazed goofiness: it's equal parts Chandler and Cheech & Chong.

Brick (2005)
The last great revision of the private eye thriller came in this too-cool mystery set against a high-school backdrop, the twist being that amateur sleuth Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the adolescent misfits, femmes fatale and budding psychos with whom he comes into contact are as sassy and fast-talking as any wiseacre thugs from the annals of noir history.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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From probiotics to poetry: how Rachel Kelly keeps depression at bay

Kelly describes herself as a people-pleaser and yet 12 years ago she fled her own Christmas party, crushed by a deep depression. Now she's written 52 Small Steps to Happiness.

Rachel Kelly describes herself as a people-pleaser and yet 12 years ago she fled her own Christmas party, crushed by a deep depression. Hours later, she returned to her home in Notting Hill, west London, where her husband helped her to bed. The party continued downstairs – the Camerons and Osbornes were present, joined by the family’s other high-flying friends. “The struggle was over,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir, Black Rainbow. “I had tried and I had lost.”

Kelly’s suffering came as a surprise to many. A journalist at the Times, with a successful husband, beautiful house and healthy children, she had achieved everything she had wanted. But her mental health declined after the birth of her second child in 1997 and it took years of medication and therapy to recover.

Kelly’s latest book, Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, describes the strategies that have helped her stay “calm and well” ever since. Drawing equally from science and art, each chapter (one for every week of the year) offers salves for both body and mind, from probiotics to poetry.

When we met one recent evening at a café near her home, Kelly barely remembered to drink her water, so eager was she to share her experiences. She hopes that her new book will be for “those of us who, at times, find life stressful, or who wish to try to feel a little steadier”. It’s the kind of book she wishes she had read before becoming ill. “I’m a believer in prevention rather than cure,” she said. “I do a lot of work in schools, where we have a massive problem with teenage mental health. What makes me feel so exhilarated is that there really are things you can do.”

Having seen depression from both sides, as a sufferer and a campaigner, she is acutely aware of the stigma that mental illness still carries, particularly among people working in middle-class jobs. “If you’re unemployed or facing real social deprivation, there’s an expectation that you might get depressed. But in that middle cohort – of lawyers, bankers, doctors – there’s a lot of pressure, yet it’s hard to admit you might be suffering.”

Challenging such stigmas is vital. The head of the charity Mind estimates that 75 per cent of people with mental health problems do not receive any treatment. The number of those who do has continued to rise: the NHS issued roughly 53 million prescriptions for antidepressants in 2013, an increase of a quarter in three years. In some cases “antidepressants can be life savers”, Kelly told me. For others, “it’s empowering to take responsibility for what you can do yourself”. In her own case, she found that useful strategies came not only from professionals but from family, friends, readers and those who took part in the workshops she runs. She has found the words of poets helpful. It was a poem, “Love (III)”, by the 17th-century clergyman George Herbert, that she credits with kick-starting her recovery: “Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back.”

Pointing to work being done by the Royal College of Music and a new charity, ReLit, which promotes the use of imaginative literature in treating stress and anxiety, Kelly is hopeful that the bonds between well-being and the arts will grow.

“The NHS rightly has to be evidence-based,” she said, “but I’m absolutely certain that the arts have an important part to play in mental health and we’re beginning to see the research that proves it.” Though Kelly spoke cheerfully about her experiences, her present life is not without anxiety. Like anyone, she worries about the future. “I suppose if I wish for something, it’s for my children to avoid what I went through,” she said. “You wouldn’t wish depression on anyone.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror