Review: ‘The American Side’ reincarnates film noir

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In the director’s statement on the film’s website, Jenna Ricker explains that she was inspired by Hitchcock and 70s conspiracy thrillers, but that wasn’t really my experience. As I started watching The American Side, it became immediately apparent that this was to be film noir reincarnated. Everything from the camera angles, to the music, to the dialogue, perfectly captures that spirit. Or perhaps 70s conspiracy thrillers were inspired by film noir of the 30s and 40s. Nothing is new anymore. It’s just how you can reimagine it.

When Charlie Paczynski’s raven-haired partner is caught in the crossfire of a blackmail scheme gone bad, he trails the prime suspect to the brink of Niagara, only to receive a cryptic warning: ‘what’s happening here you can’t begin to comprehend’… Thrust into a world populated by a whiskey-swilling raconteur (Robert Forster), strangely bonded siblings (Matthew Broderick and Camilla Belle), and a dubious government agent (Janeane Garofalo), Paczynski joins the quest for a long-lost design by enigmatic genius, Nikola Tesla. From the eccentric eavesdropper who gives him his first clue (yes! – that’s Robert Vaughn, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) every door Paczynski forces open raises the stakes. Reminiscent of the conspiracy thrillers of the 70’s, complete with a score by David Shire (The Conversation, All the President’s Men), and packed with nods to Hitchcock and classic noir, The American Side is a jigsaw puzzle mystery, climaxing under the roar of the Falls as the final piece snaps into place.

Rogues-Gallery_Rotation62Style. Everything is just perfect for this. Charlie’s office is the quintessential private detective office, complete with non-working plumbing, glass window door, and one of those old wooden office chairs. It’s dimly lit without a computer in sight. Everyone smokes and there are no mobile phones anywhere. Charlie has a older 70s car, and is outlandishly dressed in mismatched patterned dress shirts and ties. He goes to a local diner and runs to the phone when it rings, saying he knows it’s for him. How awesome is that?

Rogues-Gallery_Rotation4Another one of my favorite scenes was when Charlie is inspecting an apartment. He notices that it’s empty and then immediately goes downstairs to the tenant below. It’s an older man, Robert Vaughn, who gives the detective all the info he needs. That was a big plot device in classic crime movies. If you knew, you’d know.

Rogues-Gallery_Rotation3Women everywhere. There’s a woman waiting for him at his office. A woman stops him on the street. A woman federal agent. This is not something revolutionary for classic cinema. Woman ruled Hollywood in its golden age.

The score was not really to my liking. It is very much in the style of the late 70s and for me it really just underscored the absurdity.

Greg Stuhr is the detective, Charlie, mixed up in a tangled web. The dialogue is well-written, but his delivery doesn’t quite have the bite that the role requires. With the style and the dialogue, this cast didn’t seem to capture the spirit. It’s as if they didn’t know if it should be played straight or with a wink.

tesla-portraitThe real story is of Nikola Tesla. The name Tesla might be more well known as a car company right now, but Nikola Tesla is responsible for basically everything electronic we use everyday. Do yourself a favor and go down the rabbit hole of information at Wikipedia. Beware though, you’ll soon discover that Thomas Edison was really not who you thought he was. Poor elephants.

For anyone not familiar with the older era of cinema, some of the scenes are probably going to come off as comical. Especially where things randomly happen perfectly without any coordination whatsoever. But that is what those films WERE. They were fantasy. They weren’t supposed to give you reality. The American Side will take you back to that world.

Special in-person Q&As at the IFC Center include:

  • Wed May 4 at 7:45pm: composer David Shire, moderated by composer Christopher North
  • Thu May 5 at 7:45pm: Stuhr, moderated by noir expert Foster Hirsch

About Melissa Hanson

Melissa Hanson aka Dial M For Melissa –
Managing Editor / Podcast Producer –
Growing up, Melissa’s favorite destination was always the video store and would agonize over whether to watch something new or to rewatch a favorite. Things have not changed.
Follow on Twitter @DialMForMelissa

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