The joy of reading classic noir doesn’t usually come from the investigation itself, but rather uncovering the secrets and hypocrisies the PI’s client would rather stay hidden. How sweet it is to see Phillip Marlowe or the Continental Op turn on their employers, to end the adventure perhaps shorn of their fee but with a clean conscience.

Clearly Stephen Frears and Neville Smith, respectively director and writer of Gumshoe, are fans of the hard-boiled genre. The detective of the title is Eddie Ginley, a bingo caller in a working man’s club who, in an attempt to break his depression and ennui, posts a classified newspaper ad offering services as a private investigator. Well, waddyaknow? someone takes him at his word and before the day is out (his birthday, since you ask) he’s walking into a hotel suite and picking up an envelope containing a stack of pound notes, a .38 revolver and a B&W snap of a girl. He’s knows he’s probably bitten off more than he can chew but since he’s decided to play the part he runs with it.

As it turns out he has been mistaken for someone else – a contract killer no less – and is soon stuck between the real hitman, the dark forces who hired him and his target with only his wits to protect him. Luckily for both him and us Ginley has wit to spare. He’s initially so nonplussed by the gun he attempts to sell it, only to be told by his criminal connection that so alien are firearms in Liverpool (oh, how times have changed) that he would be better throwing it away. He chooses to hang on to it and while he does lark about and occasionally uses it to back up his threats you just know he’ll not pull the trigger.

He’s got something of a phlegmatic attitude toward peril too and the way he confronts the assorted dangers that come his way puts you in mind of those heroes of British Empire who rode into various valleys of death – Cardigan in Balaclava, James Brooke in Sarawak – and yet came out with not a scratch.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that Ginley is played by Albert Finney, who produced the film and was at one time slated to direct. He has such fun playing the role within the role here, his accent slipping between convincingly subtle Liverpudlian and wise-cracking Angeleno, that it makes you wish he’d stayed in Britain rather than making – with a few exceptions – sub standard Hollywood fare of the next two decades.

The plot involves some nonsense about drugs and South African politics but really who cares? The ride is what counts, and with Finney in the driving seat it’s a hell of a fun one.

Gumshoe – directed by Stephen Frears (1971)

In Short
A disillusioned nightclub bingo caller decides to try his luck as a private investigator. His first job turns out to be more exhilarating than he’d planned – it could also be his last.

Film clips here