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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Clueless (originally published 10/00)

One of the most pleasurable aspects of moviegoing is the opportunity to live vicariously through the experiences of others as represented on the screen. While nestled safely in our theater seats we can experience second-hand any number of exciting and dangerous occupations at their most hazardous and thrilling moments.

Box office returns through the years have shown that one of the most consistently popular onscreen occupations is that of the detective. We admire the ability of movie detectives to sift through and evaluate clues to solve the mystery, their easy familiarity with the secrets of the underworld, and their calm nonchalance in the face of danger. Most of all, we admire their supreme competence, the ability to handle whatever comes up with assurance and aplomb.

At the same time, it is sometimes fun to see a movie detective who is not quite so self-possessed and supremely competent. There is a certain reassurance to be found in seeing a movie character in that kind of role who seems a bit more like the rest of us. That's what director Alan Rudolph has given us in his recent film, "Trixie," in which the title character, a casino security guard, realizes her dream of becoming a private detective before she's really ready. Having been accidentally caught up in a series of political intrigues, she gamely sets about getting to the bottom of it all despite the fact that she is clearly in over her head, all of which results in what Rudolph has called a "screwball film noir."

Naturally, Rudolph is not the first filmmaker to put a less than competent detective in a situation beyond his or her abilities and play the result for comedy. Here are a few earlier examples of this premise to look for on home video.

"Whistling in Dixie" (1942). During the early Forties, Red Skelton made a series of comedies in which he played radio actor Wally Benton, whose on-air role is that of a detective known as "The Fox." In real life, Wally has a knack for getting involved in actual mysteries. Unlike his radio character, however, Wally is ill-prepared to cope with such adventures. In this second film of the series, he becomes caught up in a web of intrigues surrounding a hidden cache of Civil War era gold.

"A Shot in the Dark" (1964). Since the heyday of the Keystone Kops, the single most inept law enforcement officer to grace the screen is undoubtedly the one and only Inspector Clouseau as portrayed by Peter Sellers. Although introduced in "The Pink Panther" (1964), Clouseau didn't come into his own as the central figure of a film until this sequel. There would be many additional sequels to follow, but for me this remains the best of them all. Screenwriters Blake Edwards and William Peter Blatty (author of "The Exorcist") adapted the plot from a French play, substituting the character of Clouseau for the original protagonist. Although Sellers's antics naturally take center stage, one of the funniest elements of the film, especially on repeat viewings, is Herbert Lom's exquisite slow burn as Clouseau's exasperated boss.

"Gumshoe" (1971). In some ways, the character portrayed by Albert Finney in this film is a male version of Rudolph's Trixie. Eddie Ginley operates the bingo concession in an English nightclub, but he secretly dreams of being a private eye. His ideas of what a detective's life is like, unfortunately, are drawn not from life but from the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Eventually, he does get caught up in the kind of case that Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe would have relished, but he must then confront the fact that he simply isn't cut from the same cloth as his fictional heroes.

Although it doesn't really fit into the comedy category, I can't resist also mentioning director Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" (1973) in this context. Altman's Philip Marlowe, as played by Eliot Gould, is certainly much more of a regular guy than he appears to be in Chandler's own larger than life canvases. This kind of genre-bending has long been typical of Altman's unconventional narrative style. I mention it also because Altman has acted as a kind of mentor to Rudolph, producing a number of his films, including, by the way, "Trixie."

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