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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Shopworn Private Eye Takes on a Tail Job

Directed by Noah Buschel from his own screenplay.
Starring Michael Shannon, Frank Wood, Amy Ryan.

You don't see many really old fashioned hardboiled detective films these days -- the kind where the shamus is hired to do an unsavory job, runs into dangerous criminals along the way, gets sapped unconscious by the bad guys, has a femme fatale betray him and at the end has to decide whether to do the right thing or simply take the money and walk away.

I'm talking about movies like The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon: films in which the hero cracks wise at tense moments, most of the mayhem takes place off screen and the murders are relatively bloodless.

Even good noir thrillers these days are ultra violent, with bodies dropping like elevators with their cables cut and at least one unlikely freeway chase that ends with a fireball that leaves a carful of bad guys flambéed.

I'm happy to say that The Missing Person is old-school noir that features a wise-cracking private detective, the requisite femme fatale and a shadowy conspiracy. What's more, the protagonist gets knocked out twice as the plot progresses, not just once.
Rosow listens in to the conversation in the next
room. Snooping is what private detectives do, right?

Does he do the right thing? Like all good noir, it depends on your point of view. As the protagonist, John Rosow (Michael Shannon) says in the voiceover narration: "What is that -- 'the right thing?'"

You see, Rosow is a former New York City cop who turned in his badge and fled Manhattan for reasons that aren't immediately made apparent. When we first meet him, he is sleeping in his underwear in a dingy Chicago walkup so close to the elevated railway that he could read the Tribune in the light from passing trains -- if he could afford to buy a copy.

Unfortunately, the primary things Rosow uses his investigative skills to get to the bottom of are gin bottles. He is clearly trying to sleep off the previous night's drunk when he gets an early wake-up-call from, Drexel Hewett (Paul Adelstein), an attorney who wants Rosow to tail a mystery man from Chicago to California. The only thing the attorney will tell the private eye about his quarry is that he will be on the California Zephyr to Los Angeles at 7 a.m. that morning.

From almost the first frame of the film we are led to believe that Rosow is not just a drunk -- he's a drunk who's not very bright. First, when Hewett mentions the Zephyr, Rosow rather stupidly says, "Zephyr -- that's a wind, isn't it?"

When Hewett's attractive assistant, Miss Charley (Amy Ryan), shows up to give Rosow photos of his quarry and a retainer that seems ridiculously large for the job he is being hired to do, Rosow's clumsy pass at her is shot down. He then tries to impress her with his astuteness by sizing her up as someone who is "pretty now," but was a tom boy who grew up in a household with three brothers."

Miss Charley: Adding a touch of romantic interest.
She smiles drily, says he is "perceptive," then sarcastically counters that she was an only child who spent all her time playing with dolls.

Despite these two strike-outs, Rosow takes the assignment and pulls himself together in a brief sequence that burnishes his image as an inept slob: when he puts on his shirt, his necktie is already looped around the collar and tied in a loose four-in hand, an indication he is so lazy he never unties it. You can clearly see his shirt has a patchwork of little wrinkles pressed into it, evidence that he ironed it himself, badly.

As you can see, our protagonist appears to have everything working against him: he comes off as an alcoholic slob who's as dumb as a box of rocks, and charmless to members of the opposite sex; less than ten minutes in, the viewer has a very clear idea where the movie is going and what will happen along the way: Rosow has been set up to fail.

But that's where The Missing Person takes a sharp left turn and never looks back: Rosow, we start to realize, is not as dumb as he seems; and his heavy drinking is the result of a nightmarish event that made him leave the police and flee New York. We discover he is haunted by a terrible loss, something he has in common with Harold Fullmer (Frank Wood), the man he was hired to follow.

After a number of false starts, Rosow finally figures out who Fullmer is and how all the various loose ends fit together. Rosow realizes he was never intended to complete this assignment in the first place: the only reason he was hired was because "everyone figured I'd muck it up."

I don't want to spoil the plot, but the history of loss that Rosow and Fullmer share sets up the final conflict that will force Rosow to seize control of his life or crawl inside a bottle for keeps. By the time the credits roll, it is clear that everyone has underestimated the private detective -- including Rosow, himself.

For those who have seen Shannon only as Nelson Van Alden, the murderously hypocritical treasury agent in Boardwalk Empire, or as mob hit-man Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman, his performance as John Rosow will be a revelation: the character appears tough, but actually is tender-hearted, sensitive, considerate and deeply troubled by the ethics of his assignment.

For example, he is picked up in a bar by the femme fatale, a woman named Lana (Margaret Colin) who has been hired to keep tabs on him. She accompanies him to his motel room,  is taken aback when he wants to slow dance with her  instead of jumping into bed. The sequence where they move to an old rhythm and blues tune is touching: he, oblivious, is clearly just enjoying the comfort of holding a woman again; she, on the other hand, is uncomfortable with his old fashioned loneliness, uncertain what to do with her hands or whether to rest her head on his shoulder.

Lana: Are you like everybody else in this town? In show business?
Rosow: No I'm the hiding and seeking business.
Lana: Which are you doing now, hiding or seeking?
Rosow: (Draining his glass) Right now I'm drinking.
The violence in the film is minimal: other than the two times Rosow is knocked out, a brief period in which he is held at gunpoint and his glimpse of a dead animal alongside the road as he follows Fullmer to Mexico, there really is none.

The requisite wisecracks are traded, but author/director Buschel doesn't get carried away with them. Rosow is no Philip Marlowe, but his attempts at wit show he has a sense of humor -- and is considerably brighter than his associates think.

There are some technical flaws that may challenge the careful viewer's suspension of disbelief.  At one point, Rosow follows Fullmer to an isolated village in Mexico by abandoning his rental at a gas station 15 miles away and hitching a ride in the trunk of a taxicab. At the village he is quickly discovered and interrogated by a man named Don Edgar (Yul Vasquez) and in the next scene we see him returning to L.A. in his rental. But it is never explained how he got back to the hired car in the first place.

Perhaps more problematic is the fact that the California Zephyr runs from Chicago to Emeryville, not to Los Angeles.  And the trip takes more than two days, so there is no way that Rosow could drink martinis for dinner in the dining car the day he left Chicago, pass out afterward and wake up the next morning at Union Station in Los Angeles.

Finally, some of the dialog smacks of improvisation, which always troubles me. Exchanges between Rosow and Don Edgar, and Rosow and Harold Fullmer, specifically, have the halting quality of lines that are being made up on the fly. Given that that the plotline of The Missing Person is fairly thin to begin with, the occasionally improvisational nature of the dialog tends to distract the viewer from the flow of the story.

Despite these minor flaws, The Missing Person works. It turns out to be a hard-boiled yarn with a surprisingly tender heart, and the viewer will be quick to warm to Rosow and realize there is more to him than the people who surround him realize.
I had to watch this movie twice to be sure I liked it. Now I am considering buying it. I deduct a noose because of the technical flaws and dialog problems I mentioned above, but I feel good about giving it the remaining four nooses. I think you'll like this, one, so check it out.

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