Wednesday 6 March 2013

Movie Review: Shamus (1973)

A private detective adventure set in New York, Shamus partially achieves the amiable tone of one bullheaded man in way over his head amongst a scuzzy sea of criminality. But the murder and weapons smuggling plot cascades too quickly into baffling territory, dulling the potential for the movie to shine.

Shamus McCoy (Burt Reynolds), a last-resort private detective, is unexpectedly retained by wealthy diamond magnate E. J. Hume (Ron Weyand) to investigate the brutal murder-by-incineration of a jewel thief. McCoy follows a trail of dangerous scum that leads to retired football star Felix Montaigne (Alex Wilson), who is now running a shady trading company.

Felix lives with his sister Alexis (Dyan Cannon) in a glitzy Manhattan apartment, and while Felix is evasive in answering McCoy's questions, Alexis soon becomes a willing bed partner for the dogged detective. McCoy uncovers an illegal, large-scale weapons smuggling operation being run by Felix and a silent partner, and his investigations prompt a spate of new violence as tough guys move in to silence the detective.

The Barry Beckerman script, based on Ed McBain's "87th Precinct" series of novels, contains a couple of welcome nods to The Big Sleep. McCoy's initial meeting with E. J. Hume turns Philip Marlow's meeting with General Sternwood on its head, Hume keeping his office ice cold while Sternwood lived in a humid swamp. And just like Marlowe, McCoy kills time on a stakeout by seducing, in record time, a busty bookstore clerk.

Director Buzz Kulik gives Shamus an attractive look, stylishly capturing a dynamic New York in all its 1970s earthiness. The action scenes are animated without being jarring, the movie mixing some bone crunching brutality with enough character interaction to bring Shamus' world to life.

Kulik and Beckerman also score points for presenting a terrific contrast between McCoy's austere, barely functional  apartment, and the rich, elegantly furnished pad of Felix Montaigne, the latter representing the latest in 1970s high-end chic.

Reynolds is fine as a gruff detective curious enough to pursue a case much larger than his abilities, but keenly aware that he is more than likely being gamed. McCoy is surrounded by memorable secondary characters representing friends and family, and more than the usual amount of time is invested in humanizing his surroundings. The relationship with Dyan Cannon's Alexis is less than plausible and appears thrown into the script simply to provide relief from the raging manliness.

But Shamus does creak, and eventually the edges fall off, in a plot that spirals into incomprehensible territory all too soon. None of the key criminal relationships or motivations are ever explained. The link between the original murder and the weapons smuggling operation is never revealed, nor is E. J. Hume's shady role in all the wrong-doings clarified. And there simply isn't enough intrigue, mystery or slime built around the malevolent characters to cover the large gaps in logic. Shamus is left flailing against all-comers, unable to tame a conspiracy against common sense, but looking good while trying.

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