I woke up at 2:30 this morning, unable to shake The American Side, a first rate neo-noir that isn’t afraid to wear its homage driven heart on its sleeve. Director/writer Jenna Ricker takes those hardboiled film noirs of the 1940s-50s and the conspiracy filled thrillers of the 1970s (The Parallax View, Winter Kills) and gives us a cinematic dish that’s worth the calories. Cinephiles will gorge on the various easter eggs and references in the film, and actually the less said about this film, at least story wise, the better. Below are five reasons to love The American Side.
1, Charlie Paczynski Is A Gumshoe To End All Gumshoes
Whether the proper slang is “private dick” or simply private eye, Charlie Pazynski (Greg Stuhr) is an investigator who makes money on the sleazy side of the street, working every angle to keep his ramshackle office afloat. The movie begins with Charlie at a bar hanging out with his only two friends – a shot of whisky and his partner-in-crime Kat (Kelsey Siepser). Their latest operation, which dealt with selling incriminating photos to a philandering professor (Murphy Brown’s Grant Shaud), is a success, and though they should be out celebrating and spending some of that green, they embark on another operation.
Their latest job leads to Kat’s untimely death, and all she leaves our resident anti-hero is a beautiful silver lighter. Out for revenge, Charlie searches for Kat’s killer, only to uncover a huge conspiracy that deals with a lost design that may have been crafted by Nikola Tesla.
Although he’s offered a healthy stack of cash for his troubles, bonds with two absolutely stunning women (Alicja Bachleda, Camilla Belle), and becomes the pawn in a chess game between two power players (Robert Forster, Matthew Broderick), Charlie’s sole focus is to dole out his brand of justice in Kat’s memory. The moral code amidst a ridiculously corrupt universe is a film noir trope that works really well in The American Side, and Stuhr, who also co-wrote the script, attacks his role with aplomb.
**Charlie’s also great at one-liners, my favorite is his hilarious insult to some suit wearing tough guy: “Appointments are for a**holes, you probably make ’em all the time!”
2. Women Rule (And Rue) The Day in ‘The American Side’
Upon first glance, the characters played by Camilla Belle and Alicja Bachleda play the damsel in distress and femme fatale roles in the narrative, but the best film noirs turn this stereotype on its head. Both women have their own bond with Tom Soberin (Harris Yulin), a man whose connection with Tesla’s supposed invention leads to an unfortunate incident in Niagra Falls.
Credit goes to Ricker for not making these femme fatales simply an object of desire, as they are actually the story’s most influential players. Charlie wasn’t exactly born yesterday, and he probably knows he’s in over his head with these whip smart women, but he’s got a job to do – even if it leads to his demise.
Belle does a great job at showing us the complexities behind her all too mutable character, and Bachleda, who reminds me (at least presence wise) of a modern-day Lauren Bacall, is also memorable.
3. The Film’s A Visual Feast
A noir that relies on static shots and coverage is simply unforgivable, especially since its roots lie in German Expressionism. Thankfully director Jenna Ricker and cinematographer Frank Barrera are wonderful with their visual compositions, knowing when to shoot top-down/God’s point of view set-ups (i.e. when Charlie’s briskly walking up a flight of stairs) or frame the perfect close-ups.
The main action scenes, which features a drone and Serbian gangster attack on an abandoned building and a fateful trip to Niagra Falls, are also beautifully shot and edited. Considering this film’s an indie, it’s great to see that Ricker got enough bang for the buck production value wise.
And yes, a picture is worth a thousand words (especially in relation to this blog!!):
4. Character Actors Litter (In A Good Way) ‘The American Side’
Although he’s best known as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and one of the A-list actors from The Towering Inferno, Robert Vaughn will always be remembered, in my eyes, as the cowardly, black-gloved gunslinger from The Magnificent Seven. Vaughn plays an overly snoopy neighbor living in an Art-Deco apartment who isn’t afraid of Charlie’s shakedown tactics, and Ricker/Stuhr give Vaughn a couple of funny lines to play with.
Casting Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) as a Machiavellian figure and Janeane Garofalo as a government agent who doesn’t suffer fools were also great choices. Forster is an old pro whose deliberate cadence is perfect for the hardboiled dialogue that’s exchanged between his character and Charlie. Though she has a small role, Garafalo’s character has a ton of information to deliver to Charlie in a short amount of time, and she also handles the machine gun delivery dialogue in a clean and effective fashion.
Oh Easter Eggs – How I Adore Thee!!
I’ve definitely missed numerous easter eggs which are hidden throughout the film, but I’ve spotted two pretty cool ones.
The first deals with Borden Chase (Matthew Broderick) comparing Charlie’s cynical and morally superior demeanor to fictional private eye Philip Marlowe, but Charlie cracks that he’s more of a Mike Hammer guy (a character created by scribe Mickey Spillane). In the film, two women identify themselves as “Nikki Meeker.”
Director Jenna Ricker is obviously a fan of Kiss Me Deadly, a 1955 feature which features Mike Hammer being played by . . . Ralph Meeker!!
In a more obvious connection of monikers, we turn to Matthew Broderick, as Borden Chase was a prolific screenwriter whose best work included penning the Westerns Bend of the River, Winchester 73 and Red River! All three films were directed by Anthony Mann, a director who was also known for his own set of noirs (T-Men and Raw Deal).
****The American Side’s labyrinthine plot may leave you confused or in the state of constantly catching up, but really that’s another film noir and pulp fiction trope (i.e. The Maltese Falcon) that Ricker exploits to the hilt in her highly engaging and inspired feature.
As a noir lover and cinephile, I definitely recommend The American Side DVD (for movie fans who are ditching the hard copy era, it’s also streaming on Netflix). Although I do wish Jenna Ricker and the ensemble did some audio commentary for the DVD, this film is definitely worth the purchase.
I’ll also discuss The American Side on this week’s CinemAddicts podcast. Our episode 31 show is below: