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19 April 2011updated 05 Oct 2023 8:55am

Gilbey on Film: Genre capers

Five films that play with the private eye movie.

By Ryan Gilbey

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.

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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.

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