Friday, 20 January 2012

Of time and the city* - Gumshoe (1971)

*Rose-tinted UK regional references warning…but please bear with me.

After back-to-back viewings of the excellent Otley (now out on US DVD – details below!) and this film, my wife informed her mother and the world in general, that I clearly wanted to go live in late 1960’s Britain. This is an outrageous slur… but may well be (partly) true… I would like to poke around the market stalls in Notting Hill Gate when they held genuine bargains, sup a pint in smoky Newcastle ale houses with Michael Caine and drive a Lotus Europa round Liverpool’s exhaust-fume coated Georgian centre.

How much do we actually want to be in the movies?

The Lotus Europa was just about my favourite car growing up and it’s great to see the lovely white model featured in Gumshoe. It’s perfect for this updated noir that transposes the Maltese Falcon to Merseyside, land of my forefathers. Flashy and fast it was a brave attempt to produce a super car but was still not quite top drawer … for that you’d need an Aston Martin DB8 or an E-Type Jaguar. But we’re also not in London or New York and this is Albert Finney we’re watching and not Humphrey Bogart.

Made in 1971, when Liverpool was still someway off hitting rock-bottom, the former second city (and I know a few who claim it’s still actually first!), provides a suitably grim setting for this wise-cracking detective story. Raymond Chandler comes to Crosby…Sam Spade drinks scotch in Scotty Road, Albert Finney meets the Albert Dock - we never know when to stop do we!

Directed by Stephen Frears (his first feature) and based on a novel by local lad Neville Smith, Gumshoe tells the tale of one Eddie Gimley part-time bingo caller, comedian and wannabe private dick. Albert Finney plays Gimley with quick-firing Bogart wit and a dodgy accent – well he is from Yorkshire after all.

His disapproving brother, William, played with menace (and an even worse Scouse accent) by Frank Findlay is a successful businessman, importing and exporting all kinds of material from his dockland base. William is married to Ellen (the monumental Billie Whitelaw – what an actress!), the Lotus’ driver and former squeeze of Eddie’s. Ellen is trapped, loving both brothers and wanting the one she can’t have.

Eddie advertises his services as a private eye and unknowingly stumbles into a genuine case – hired to take out a local academic (the sublime Caroline Seymour) who is the daughter of an influential South African. So far, so confusing, as the plot runs away with itself and everything and everyone becomes connected with each other: drug smuggling, gun running, African politics all tangled up with an occult bookshop in London and fraternal betrayal…

It packs a lot into a relatively short time and, at a distance of 40 years, feels as much a period piece as the black and white classics of post war Hollywood it apes.

Finney is excellent, accent aside, and wisecracks his way believably through the chaos. He is ably supported by a great cast including Fulton Mackay as a pro hitman and Janice Rule as the ruthless schemer behind most of the mess.

Then there's Bill Dean (who lived down the road from me in the Mersey hinterland of Maghull) who basically plays himself, as Eddie’s club boss, Tommy and a host of genuine local acts performing at The Broadway, the club where Eddie works. There are also brief cameos from a young Maureen Lipman and Wendy Richard who give Eddie the chance to flirt like Bogie with two dolly-bird Bacalls.

Lotus Europa aside though, the real star for me is the city of Liverpool. I’m biased, but the site of Georgian glories such as Gambia Terrace (John Lennon lived there awhile) and a grimy Falkner Square (now whitewashed and a little like Notting Hill North), the still teeming docks and bustling business centre (where my father worked) fills me with nostalgic civic pride.

My wife’s right but I already did live there, albeit as a boy, travelling through these scenes en route to see friends and relatives or to watch football matches. To this extent, Gumshoe provides me with a glimpse of how the grown-ups saw the city. How my parents would have taken it for granted as much as Eddie does.

But Gumshoe works on its own merits and you don’t have to be a soft scouse sentimentalist to appreciate the dialogue, performances and the direction. This is a bold attempt to claim “drama” for a British city in the same way that American films do with ease. These events could happen here – you don’t have to be in LA or Chicago - and they could happen to anyone.

Ultimately the dreamer at the heart of the story becomes a man of action who ends up finding a more certain course for himself and doing some good. Isn’t that more worthwhile than a snuff of nostalgia?

Isn’t that the place were, actually, we’d all like to be?

Gumshoe has been a bit rare over the years, but is now available in decent quality DVD. I’d urge you to try it - some of the attitudes are now unfortunate but the spirit of the thing is universal. Good wins out in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Otley, the Tom Courtney demi-classic covered elsewhere in this blog, and set a few years’ earlier in swinging London, is also now on DVD. Basic but good quality.

I’d recommend both for hopeless time-travellers, fans of English cities when grime was king and lovers of artfully witty films. Order them now sweetheart, you won’t regret it, not today and certainly not tomorrow or soon...


  1. I'm a fanboy... great Gumshoe!!!


  2. Thanks Roy - I think the story transcends its location: it's just a really good film!