Gumshoe is difficult to write about with any critical distance as it’s a film that I love on so many different levels (though I do worry about its use of racist language). It cropped up on Talking Pictures TV and worked as a tribute to Michael Medwin, one of the least recognised but most important figures in the British film industry over a period of 60 years or more – mainly as a character actor but also as a producer. Medwin died aged 96 a month ago and since Talking Pictures TV schedules well in advance this screening probably wasn’t planned as a tribute. In fact, because he appeared in over 100 films and TV programmes, Michael Medwin pops up frequently on Talking Pictures. In 1968 Medwin’s production company established with Albert Finney, Memorial Enterprises, released its first two films. Charlie Bubbles (1968) was directed by Finney from a Shelagh Delaney script and co-starred himself with Billie Whitelaw and Liza Minnelli and if . . . . made a star of Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson’s film. Spring and Port Wine followed in 1970 with James Mason in a Bill Naughton-scripted family melodrama set in Bolton. I really should post something on each of these three films, important to me when I first saw them and also now.
Gumshoe re-unites Finney and Whitelaw as actors but it also introduces a whole range of other creative talents. Albert Finney plays Eddie Ginley, a man in his early thirties who has ‘achieved’ little so far. He lives in a bed-sit at the top of a Liverpool town house where he re-reads Dashiel Hammett and develops a comedy routine to try out in the social club where he has a job as a bingo caller and occasional MC. But now he decides to expand his range and he posts an ad in the Echo offering his services as a ‘Private Eye’. He intends to hide behind his Sam Spade impersonation and dresses and talks like his hero in The Maltese Falcon. He’s surprised to get a phone call quite quickly and to be offered a job that appears deeply mysterious and which shocks poor Eddie.
I won’t describe the plot but I will sketch in the characters and the themes. The script is by Neville Smith, a Liverpool lad who was a young actor in the 1960s, appearing in some of Ken Loach’s TV plays as well as writing his first script in 1966 for Loach, The Golden Vision about a bunch of Everton FC supporters. Smith also gets a small part in Gumshoe as he had in the Loach play. Finney was from Salford, just up the Ship Canal from Liverpool and Whitelaw was brought up in Bradford. Both were part of the RADA wave of brilliant young Northern actors who broke into UK stage and screen acting in the 1950s. Billie was a few years older and got a start in the early 1950s. In Gumshoe, she is Ellen, Eddie’s ex-girlfriend who went and married his older brother William, the smooth and money-grabbing character played by Frank Finlay. Finlay was born in Farnworth, Bolton. There are also parts for two familiar Liverpool actors, Bill Dean as the club owner and a cameo for Ken Jones as a clerk in the labour exchange. Liverpool looks good in the film, from an oddly deserted Lime Street station down to the docks and around several streets of Georgian terraces. At one point Eddie goes down to London and meets a woman in a bookshop played by a young Maureen Lipman (from Hull). I thought this scene was perhaps a nod to Humphrey Bogart in the bookshop in The Big Sleep where he meets Dorothy Malone. There were moments too when Eddie’s internal monologue seemed more Chandler than Hammett when he refers to hotel carpet “so thick you could feel Axminster up to your knees”. And to reverse Lipman in London, Eddie also has a joking dialogue with Wendy Richard as a girl working in William’s office who came up to Liverpool from London and got conned into staying (Richard was born in Middlesbrough). The mystery is concocted by the arrival of a South African in Liverpool played by the American actor Janice Rule and the mystery girl (looking very late 60s) is Carolyn Seymour as a South African post-grad student. Finally, Fulton Mackay is a menacing would-be Scots gangster type. Mackay and Jones were re-united in the long-running UK sitcom and later feature film Porridge (1974-9).
The dangerous criminal narrative behind all the comedy moments involves William’s trading company getting involved in a sanctions-busting enterprise, shipping goods to Mozambique that will then be transported to Rhodesia to support the Ian Smith regime. This plot seems vestigial at best and Eddie’s involvement is accidental. One disturbing feature is that the young white South African woman played by Seymour is protected by a black student (Oscar James). He has to be ‘dealt with’ in the process of the smuggling deal and Eddie (who discovers what happens) refers to him using the language of Hammett/Chandler as it might have been used in the 1930s and adds to them some 1970s racist terms. Similarly, Eddie’s comic routine includes the kinds of racist/sexist lines common in northern clubs at the time. It’s jarring now but it works in context – Eddie is a good guy, even if he does himself no favours. Perhaps his racial taunting is cover for his own terror? I think we forget now just how prevalent such language was, but even so it does demean Eddie and emphasises his lack of confidence in himself. His relationship with Whitelaw as Ellen is not dissimilar to their relationship in Charlie Bubbles. But in this case marriage to the horrible William seems to have derailed Ellen.
This is a great Liverpool film and an essential North of England film. (There is a useful Liverpool perspective on this website.) Gumshoe did get a US release but, from some of the reviews, it did present problems for American viewers. Some must have been baffled by Finney playing the ‘loser’. It was a début fiction feature for director Stephen Frears (from Leicester) who would go to become one of the most accomplished British directors of the last fifty years. It’s a sign of where British cinema was heading in the 1970s that Frears began in TV and made his name there with some important working relationships, including with the writer Alan Bennett on TV films and plays. Apart from the criminally under-rated and neglected The Hit in 1984, it wasn’t until My Beautiful Laundrette in 1985 that Frears would emerge as an international filmmaker – and even then its success was almost accidental since that film began as a Channel 4 TV film. Chris Menges photographed Gumshoe as his first high profile job after Kes in 1969. He had shot Living Memory a 57 minute drama directed by Tony Scott, again for Memorial Enterprises in 1971, but I don’t think that got a cinema release. Gumshoe was composed for 1:1.66 projection so it is very slightly blown-up and then cropped to fit the 16:9 TV screen. There is plenty of diegetic music in Gumshoe, mainly in the club, but the only false note in the film for me was the non-diegetic song over the final scene and closing credits – by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. This was before their careers had taken off. Lloyd Webber is credited with the film’s music but this is the only one of the duo’s compositions (the others are covers) and it is wrong on every level. It’s the song not the singer, who was Roy Young, a ‘Beatles in Hamburg’ era rocker. But there is a mute button on the TV remote.
Humphrey Bogart was popular again in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In 1969 Woody Allen appeared on Broadway in Play It Again Sam in which he actually converses with a Bogart look-alike and a film version was directed by Herbert Ross in 1972. I don’t know if Neville Smith saw the play. Probably not, but he may have caught the zeitgeist. There is another link worth exploring and that is Jack Gold’s The Reckoning (1969), a film in which Nicol Williamson plays a scouse version of Charlie Bubbles, returning to Liverpool for his father’s funeral and investigating the death. Columbia put money into both The Reckoning and Gumshoe. Gumshoe is now available on a Blu-ray from the UK specialist distributor Indicator. The disc also carries an early Stephen Frears short Burning (1968), shot in Morocco standing in for South Africa.
Thanks. A great favourite of mine too.
Neville Smith a hero for so many fine scripts.
I know, from reading your blog, that we share similar musical tastes. I wondered what you thought about the Rice-Lloyd Webber song at the end of the film?
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I remember Neville Smith playing a very passable Alan Bennett surrogate in one of Bennett’s television plays, also with a young Julie Walters as love interest. That is one I would like to see again though it would obviously help if I could remember the title. A dramedy as we would say now, and a very Woody Allen conceit in having another actor play a version of oneself in a non-biographical story.
I think this might be Me! I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1978).