Stephen Frears' debut feature Gumshoe is something of an oddity in British cinema - caught somewhere between kitchen sink, 70s neo-noir and the genre reflexivity of the French New Wave. Albert Finney plays Eddie Ginley - mentally ill, unemployed, but playful and charismatic enough to live out his fantasy as a Chandleresque private eye. Against a backdrop of documentary-ish realism (rare that its Liverpool locations are actually what they say they are), he finds himself drawn deeper into the world of murder and drug trafficking. Through one character, we have glimpses of the following decades' epidemic levels of mental illness, the encroaching gun/drugs trade, welfare dependence, in-family class antagonism, racial conflict (its rarity on TV apparently due to Eddie's then-common racial insults), and the consolations of mass entertainment. It's as though Arthur Seaton, estranged from industry, community and family, has sunk into mental illness, and is now attempting to recover by switching genres. Or he may just be another deluded Scouse Quixote.
As with many a disillusioned northern male, Eddie's main defence against mental illness is fantasy, largely manufactured by Hollywood. In his fractured, disappointed life, a sense of the cinematic gives him the continuity he craves. It's fitting that Eddie, when not acting as a private eye, moonlights as a nightclub entertainer at 'The Broadway'. Whether talking to the dole, his doctor, or sister-in-law (Beckett favourite Billie Whitelaw as a lost love), the mid-Atlantic showbiz schtick rarely lets up. Those who know him accept this as part of his illness. In the criminal underworld, it's regarded as serious (like entertainment, a world where bullshit is the highest truth). 'Thriller' music (composed by Andrew Llloyd Weber!) jarringly intrudes on the environment in a manner that would make Jean-Luc Godard proud. As with Godard's Paris, or the Newcastle of Get Carter, noir photography doesn't work too hard against the natural murk of the location. It's a film of wistful regret, but holds back from reassuring nostalgia. The uneasy blend of comedy, tragedy and thriller may be why this film usually gets short shrift in considerations of Frears' ouvre. If we were to apply any 'auteurism' to his films, it's the sense of disillusion and quiet desperation shared by almost all his lead characters, not least in their pursuit of a 'game' (from Bloody Kids to the bloody Queen!). He can bounce between genres, classes, nations and centuries with such ease because the discontents of 'playing the game' can be applied to almost all situations. As for Finney, it's notable how he swung from the post-war grime of Nottingham, to the mid-Atlantic technicolour of Tom Jones and Audrey Hepburn, and back down with a graceful bump to the mean streets of Toxteth. Never as graspingly ambitious as Caine or Connery - but far more talented - he has successfully avoided institutionalisation.
What Gumshoe captures brilliantly is the distinct peculiarity of Liverpool. Even as '2nd City of Empire' it was hardly in line with the traditional industries of northern England. By the 70s, it occupied a space that was in many ways a foretaste of the north to come. Long before Billy Elliot and The Full Monty, Liverpool attempted to transcend declining industry and its miseries through sentiments of entertainment and pop success - the gloss on an insecure service economy. Eventually branded as 'culture', it was of a piece with the self-negating idolatory of Cool Britannia. As a once-thriving port, Liverpool's early proximity to American pop culture is widely documented. Less so is the strange sense of dislocation from mainstream England this arguably led to. In the 21st century this dislocation is far more mainstream. Following WW2, American pop culture promised escape, glamour and pizzazz to a restless working class. The 70s was when America led the way to social fracture, ideological confusion and neoliberal aggression. It wasn't that Liverpool 'fell behind'. Maybe it was just waiting for the rest of the country to catch up.