A peculiar byproduct of the ’70s film-noir revival, this British picture stars Albert Finney as a Liverpool everyman who works at a nightclub but aspires to be a private eye in the Chandler/Hammett mode. As a result, he regularly slips into a stilted American accent, talking about “dames” and “heaters” and such even though everyone around him speaks in normal early-‘70s British vernacular. Gumshoe is sort of a spoof, but because the storyline gets convoluted and dark, it’s also sort of a thriller and sort of a whodunnit. Oh, and sort of a character study, too. However, it’s worth noting that Gumshoe was the directorial debut of Stephen Frears, who has made a career out of mixing genres in such offbeat movies as The Grifters (1990) and Dirty Pretty Things (2002)—so it’s possible Gumshoe was deliberately conceived as self-reflexive satire. Whatever the intentions, the result is the same—Gumshoe is sluggish and unfocused, with a number of interesting scenes contributing to an underwhelming sum effect.
Finney plays Eddie Ginley, a bitter man whose true love, Ellen (Billie Whitelaw), left him for his own brother, William (Frank Finlay). Worse, William is a successful businessman with influence at Eddie’s nightclub, so even though the siblings hate each other, Eddie depends on William’s goodwill for continued employment. When the movie begins, Eddie half-jokingly places a newspaper ad offering his services as a private eye. Soon afterward, a client shows up and gives Eddie a package containing a gun, money, and a photo of a woman—instructions for a paid murder? At first, Eddie thinks his brother is playing a cruel joke, but then he realizes he’s been drawn into a strange mystery involving debauchery, deceit, and drugs. Unfortunately, the mystery is nearly impenetrable, and Eddie’s not a sufficiently interesting character to justify the effort of slogging through the plot. (The actors’ thick blue-collar accents make comprehension even more difficult.) Finney’s performance is low-key to a fault, despite flashes of cynical charm, so Finlay’s seething malice and Whitelaw’s pained ambivalence command greater attention—a considerable problem since they’re only in the movie periodically, whereas Finney is in nearly every scene.