Stars: Travis Mills, Dean Veglia, Scott Scheall, Rob Edwards and Cara Nicole
In some ways, The Detective's Lover, the second feature from Arizona writer/director Travis Mills and Running Wild Films, has much in common with its predecessor, The Big Something. Both are phrased as mysteries, with Humphrey Bogart and Philip Marlowe dropped into dialogue in under ten minutes as overt reference points. Both task a fair sized ensemble cast with playing a wild variety of characters weaving their respective ways in and out of a complex plot. Both are built around a central male lead, not a real detective but someone who stumbles through some sort of investigation anyway that he only believes he understands. Both begin with music to colour our introduction to this lead character who only begins to find any real direction some fifteen to twenty minutes in. Phrased like that, you could almost mistake them for the same movie, but really the tone couldn't be more different. This time round, we really get a film noir.
Even if you don't know the term, you'll recognise the style. It's shot in black and white. We begin in a bar, with live jazz playing in the background. The two characters we focus on are a journalist and a private dick. Even the opening credits highlight the genre: The Detective's Lover stars four men and a lady. It has to be a lady, rather than simply a woman, because she's a femme fatale, guaranteed, and she'll be elegant and beautiful, but also morally ambiguous, if not outright evil, deep inside. Even the story focuses on noir as a theme. The journalist is Scott Miller, sick of the newspaper that's stifling his talent so starting instead to write a book about detectives. That's why he's here, to meet Dave Goodman, private eye. Miller is a heady mix of bored and driven, which helps us pay attention, and he's played by Travis Mills himself, doing a pretty capable job for someone who's also focused on writing and directing.
All these characters, Miller's colleagues on the paper and the detectives he interviews at the jazz club, are grounded and naturalistic, a far cry from the quirky folk in The Big Something. Before too long, we reach the most grounded of them all. Goodman sends Miller to see John D: the best of the best, he says. Unlike his other interview subjects, John D doesn't make much eye contact. He's not interested in stories. While Miller wants to expose the last hurrah of a dying breed, John D couldn't see it more differently. He calls himself ordinary, his job boring as hell. He has a wife and a kid and that's all he cares about. He's Rob Edwards, who shone so brightly in the last film, and he does no less here, however much he channels Harvey Keitel rather than Bogie. 'Stick with the lies,' he tells Miller. 'Nobody's going to pay you for the truth.' Then, to top it all, he vanishes while Miller is in the bathroom. Of course he's going to be hooked! Who wouldn't be?
And so he starts to follow the trail, to find out who John D is, now that he's found what he feels is a real story. Even now, he's a journalist playing at being a detective and that point is hammered home in scene after scene, with only Miller not paying attention. Nobody watching from Arizona is going to fail to recognise a few of the places that this trail takes him through, from The Living Room in Chandler to the San Carlos in Phoenix, from half of the stores on Main Street in Mesa to the corner in Winslow, Arizona that that the Eagles sang about. It's probably telling that I don't recognise the cougar bar but I do know the antiques store well. I've even been out the very back door that Miller uses to escape from a mysterious cop. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, we need to meet Chris. Christine Appleton is the femme fatale that the credits promised and she's a peach because she's played by Cara Nicole, who I'm used to seeing in spandex as AZ Power Girl.
The reason that this story works as well as it does is because we can't figure Chris out. Sure, it's obvious that Miller is being played every which way but loose and it's just as obvious that Chris is the key to it all but we don't know why. We also don't know whether it's just Chris leading him on or whether someone else is leading her. If she's a puppet too, who's the puppeteer and does she know that she's dancing on his strings? The setup is really well constructed, though surely Rob Edwards benefits most given that he gets to see a heck of a lot more of Cara Nicole than we do. The story proceeds well too, though it's not quite so labyrinthine that we can't figure out a good deal of it before the finalé, which turns out to be as well done as the setup. It's in between that the story has problems as we can't always buy into Miller being quite so dense. Of course he falls for Chris; that's how film noir works, but this quickly and this strongly? That's a stretch.
Mills does well with the part, though it's not the most believable character he's written. He starts decently, gets better in the middle as escalating events give him an edgier feel, then goes back to decent again. He's especially good when doing first person narration, as his voice is just right. He's backed up by a solid cast, many of whom return from The Big Something and, often, many Running Wild short films. Rob Edwards is a standout again. This marks four times that I've seen him now, in four completely different roles, and he's been excellent each time, or at least he has in the three I can place. I still can't picture him as a hitman in A Man Called Nereus but I'll surely be keeping my eyes open next time I see it. Unfortunately all these are small parts: supporting, albeit pivotal, characters in features with the only lead role being in a very short short film. I'd very much like to see more of his work and fortunately he's been doing quite a lot of it lately.
He isn't the only standout here. Dean Veglia, Garry Myers and Scott Scheall play utterly different roles to those they had in The Big Something. In that film, Myers and Veglia were an outrageous father and son pairing, but I found that I preferred both playing it straight here, Veglia as Dave the detective and Myers as a carefully spoken, down to earth, motel owner. Yet, while Scheall is very good here as Eddie Adams, Miller's best friend, sanity check and little angel on shoulder, I liked him much better as the delightfully wrong cop in The Big Something. And after quick nods for Will Burkhart and Mark Shannon as characters so different that they're near polar opposites, that leaves Cara Nicole. She's good but not great, with little female competition in a very male film. It's a tough role though, having to combine the elegant lady who sings jazz with the sleazy chick who seems to sleep with everyone she meets. She deserved more time to develop.
On the technical side, there's improvement from the last film. The camera movements are much smoother, while cinematographer Dave Surber finds almost as many clever angles and framing shots as Jason Cowan did in The Big Something. The night shots are far better, suggesting more sophisticated Running Wild equipment, though not enough so to dabble in expressionistic light and shadow. The saxophone soundtrack works well, though it's a little obvious for the material. Of course, the bar set for music last time was so high that it wasn't going to be matched here anyway, even if Mills got lucky, won the lottery and flew in Miklós Rózsa. Maybe if he landed T-Bone Burnett instead. In any film noir, the dialogue should be almost its own character and while there are some good lines here, they generally fall short of the iconic stature they was aiming at. The best line may be the simplest: 'It's not safe,' Chris tells Miller and he's hooked.
On the downside, the sound inside moving cars needs work, but we only have two such scenes to deal with. The gunshots are cheap, which is disappointing but easily overlooked. I found the back and forth camerawork overdone when shooting conversation scenes between two people. It's a well worn technique to build disconnection but there's just too much of it here. Then again, it got overused even more in Miller's Crossing and, for some reason, that's consistently rated as a masterpiece. I don't get it. More importantly, one late scene completely failed to make sense to me, its internal logic seemingly jumbled. That scene aside, I enjoyed this journey back to the noir era though it didn't find as solid a feel as its predecessor. While much of it felt tough like a forties noir, much of it felt exploitative like a seventies remake and the two approaches were sometimes at odds. I'm glad I saw this, but I'll go back to The Big Something before this one.