J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The American Side: Niagara Noir

If you think Niagara Falls is a romantic spot, you probably haven’t seen Niagara with Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten. Hopefully, you are also unfamiliar with local P.I. Charlie Paczynski, who specializes in the sleaziest divorce cases possible. When the stripper-partner he employs for honey trap scams is rather inconveniently murdered, the Polish detective will blunder into a far-reaching conspiracy in Jenna Ricker’s The American Side (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Paczynski and “Kat” were basically running a blackmail operation, until one of her “dates” up and killed her. He liked her way more than Sam Spade liked Miles Archer, so he duly follows the clues to a suspicious character named Tom Soberin. When his chief suspect takes a swan dive off the Falls, Paczynski realizes there is a larger scheme at work. It turns out Soberin was once an employee of an experimental energy firm, whose co-founders have had a falling out. It is unclear which faction he ultimately chose, but he supposedly had an affair with Emily Chase, the younger, far less stable but much more alluring sister of Borden Chase, who largely won the corporate power struggle.

Sterling Whitmore, Borden Chase’s ostensible partner, serves up cryptic clues to Paczynski while he develops a high tech barrel sufficiently reinforced to provide safe passage over the American side of the Falls. Evidently, people have made the ill-advised trip on the more forgiving Canadian side, but not from New York. In fact, Paczinski will have no shortage of dubious sources, including a fishy FBI agent, a Serbian spook, and “the Eavesdropper.”

Side starts out as a nifty old school noir that fully capitalizes on the faded glory of its Buffalo and Niagara Falls locales. However, viewers better hold on to their hats when wildly speculative Nikola Tesla schematics enter the picture. Holy death rays, Mike Hammer. It is so crazy, it kind of works.

Co-screenwriter Greg Stuhr has the right kind of nervy presence and caustic attitude for a hardnosed antihero like Paczynski. Alicja Bachleda (so terrific in Ondine) smolders up the lens as Nikki Meeker, the Tesla expert in distress. Matthew Broderick’s Borden Chase will be nobody’s idea of a sinister heavy, but as Emily Chase, Camilla Belle is a hot mess in the grand tradition of Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep. However, nobody can out-noir Robert Forster doing his thing as Whitmore, even when Robert Vaughn and Joe Grifasi (FX the movie) pop up in cameos.

Cinematographer Frank Barrera gives it all a suitably murky, noir glow, while David Shire (whose soundtrack for the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three remains a perennial collector favorite) reinforces the mood with his insinuating score. Like The Big Sleep referenced above, The American Side is a fun film, even when it doesn’t make perfect sense. Recommended for genre fans, it opens this Friday (4/29) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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