Monday 27 April 2020

The alpha male gaze... Shamus (1973)

Ah Burt Reynolds, top-earning movie star for five years later in the decade and fresh off the back of his stunning turn in Deliverance, here displaying that unique chemistry that made men want to be him and women, no doubt, want to be with him. This is by way of balance with other films I may has assessed with reference to the characteristics of female stars, always couched in the most respectfully considered of phrases of course, but here the male gaze is very much on Burt’s physique through large chunks of the film. Director Buzz Kulik just can’t get enough of the Burt-bod and it’s displayed as often as possible along with the actor’s laconic charm.

Seymour “Buzz” Kulik worked mostly in TV and this film does have the feel of a TV movie being neither as gritty as a Clint Eastwood cinematic release nor as long on budget. We get plenty of good location work in New York along with a huge dash of class from Dyan Canon who, in the absence of a great script literally laughs her way through certain scenes. She first meets Burt’s character, a private dick called Shamus McCoy, in a bar as he pinches her bottom pretending it was an effeminate man nervously nursing a beer; Dyan knows there’s not enough here and we know but she smiles her way through all the same with enough brilliance to suggest real chemistry between the characters.

Shamus is indeed “of its time” but I chose to believe that the focus on Reynold’s sexuality is more ground-breaking than it might look, certainly in the absence of overt nudity from Cannon and the other female performers. It feels like a succession of early 70s tropes all tied together by a vaguely believable storyline laden with character quirks and action opportunities for the former parole officer, truck driver and stunt man.

"I don't care whether he can act or not, anyone who has this effect on women deserves a break…” said Lew Wasserman after Reynolds signed a seven-year deal with Universal in the late 50’s. But Burt worked hard to become a naturalistic player and enjoyed that huge career as a result of his work ethic as well as his natural charms. By 1973 it may have looked like he could walk his way through any movie and in Shamus he does exactly that… and he’s a force of nature matched only by Cannon’s elegantly restrained star power: she’s a Dyan Dazzler alright and technically very gifted. She had in fact withdrawn from the business after her toxic time on Such Good Friends (reviewed elsewhere on this blog) but was keen to work with Reynolds and they do work a screwball charm together.

Burt and Dyan showing their chemistry
Shamus starts of with the brutal murder of a couple who are burned to death in their bed and a packet of diamonds stolen. The titles roll as we cut to Shamus waking up with a hangover and a blonde in his bed atop a pool table in his “characterful” warehouse apartment somewhere in downtown Manhattan. Heck, minus the blonde-night stand (Melody Santangelo) and the pool table we’ve all had wakeups like this, albeit without Burt’s Velcro-vulnerable torso.

He gets the call to visit the local Mr Big, or as he is properly entitled, Mister E.J. Hume (Ron Weyand) who has all the signifiers of a weirdo criminal; large mansion, check, security guards walking huge attack dogs, check and aircon in his office which he keeps near freezing… check, but possible over-elaboration. Shamus is frightened of the dogs, possibly hinting at some childhood trauma or at least good common sense given the size of them. He gets offered the job of retrieving Hume’s diamonds and finding out who had the audacity to rob him…

Mister E.J. Hume and his men
This is a hot one and almost no one is talking not even at Shamus’s favourite pool hall not even the insatiably chatty Springy (Larry Block) , who can’t stop quoting sporting facts, unloading the contents of a memory almost full of photographic memories… Springy set out to find what he can while Shamus pops upstairs to a gambling den to chat with his childhood pal is Lieutenant Promuto (Joe Santos – who also played Jim Rockford’s favourite cop!), street-wise and willing to help his friend if only to keep him out of trouble.

A lead from one of the card players leads Shamus to a junky – cue chase and threats with violence – and from there to a bar called The Health Club where he meets Springy for a de-brief and, despite taking a brief time out to sexually harass Dyan Cannon’s Alexis Montaigne, who’s brother owns the bar, he spots a dodgy looking waiter. He stakes out the joint from a bookshop across the road run by an attractive redhead (Kay Frye) and passes the time by making a pass… sometime later her leaves the shop and then sets about assaulting the waiter in exchange for a little more information to lead him on.

Dyan Cannon, Burt and Alex Wilson
He’s beginning to make connections which is exactly why he is ambushed in his apartment by three guys who beat him up and tell him to reconsider his career path. Springy finds him fully clothed in the bath soothing his bruises in his overly quirky way. But he’s not the kind of man to take a beating and knowing now that Alexis’ brother Felix (Alex Wilson) is involved he heads to their plus midtown apartment to find out exactly how much…

The film is a jumble of set pieces and set characters and naturally Felix is an Ivy League smart Alec too involved to feel the need to explain himself to a private eye. Still, it’s a chance for Shamus to charm Alexis some more and we know where this is headed… but he’ll have to work at his chance to play pool with Alexis.

The story has more twists and turns than is healthy and whilst these “McGuffins” are all necessary to move the story on, you don’t necessarily care about the central crime at the heart of the story. What you do get is plenty of action in the closing stages, allowing Burt to run some stunts and escape the bad guys after uncovering – part – of the shocking truth in a warehouse. Then he finds a military connection via Alexis and the two have to escape the same careless henchmen this time driving in a US Army truck… Smokey and the Bandit never had it so good!

Dusty Verdict: This film is fun, but the reasons for it are most certainly not to do with the story, you have two bankable, exceptionally likeable stars and some great period New York City and the vague satisfaction that these are the good guys. But the stakes are rarely raised and that’s surely something that could easily have been fixed.

All the same, worth watching for Dyan and Burt! Plus, a cracking score from legend Jerry Goldsmith!

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