When the people who made “The American Side” brag in promotional material about its “twisting, almost impenetrable plot,” they know what they’re talking about.
It’s film noir, all right. “Noir” means black, and that pretty much sums up the chances of figuring out for the next 103 minutes what’s going on.
The film is being screened Thursday night as part of the Olympia Film Society’s Northwest Premiere Series.
The picture is an insider’s tribute to things like conspiracy theories (complete with schematic drawings of suppressed inventions) and hard-bitten dialogue (“The worst trouble she’s got is you, Charlie”) and low-flying airplanes that chase after good guys (“North by Northwest”).
As long as a filmgoer doesn’t mind being as befuddled while watching “The Big Sleep” (a noir picture so confusing that star Humphrey Bogart had to send a telegram to the writer, asking what was going on), it doesn’t really matter. “The American Side” is a grand and glorious stumble through the dark. A lot of things happen and keep happening, and it seems as if the plot is moving forward, and that’s plenty good enough. “The American Side” proves it’s possible to have a good time while scratching your head.
The movie has something to do with inventor Nikola Tesla, the electricity pioneer who lived alone in a New York hotel and fed pigeons for kicks. Here he is elevated to godlike status, and his secret becomes the McGuffin, or the thing in a Hitchcock movie that people keep chasing after. In “The American Side,” director Jenna Ricker orchestrates the endless McGuffin chases around somewhat enchanting Buffalo and to the American side of nearby Niagara Falls, which gets a lot of screen time, up close and wet. If you have never been to Niagara Falls before seeing the picture, you will not need to go afterward.
Greg Stuhr plays a cheap detective who talks tough, drives fast, wears a bandage with panache and can’t figure out who the good guys are, either. Along the way he gets help from such unlikely film noir soul mates as Matthew Broderick, who perpetually looks 16, and silver-haired Robert Vaughn, the original man from U.N.C.L.E., who looks the opposite of 16 but handily swipes the one scene bestowed upon him. If only he could open Channel D and explain things to Mr. Waverly and the audience, the way he did half a century ago.
There are tunnels, long staircases, dark alleys with beautiful women in them, a cheesy carnival, hasty glimpses of scribbled secret inventions, impenetrable conspiracies (“Most of his ideas were suppressed; it’s all politics”) and terrific things for actors to say to each other (“I don’t mind getting paid to look for someone I’m already looking for.”)
At the end of the movie, which is when things are supposed to make sense, they still don’t. It doesn’t matter. “The American Side” is a swell trip on one of those cheesy carnival rides, and you’ll know it’s time to get off the roller coaster when the credits roll.
The American Side
▪ ▪ ▪ ▪ out of 5
Cast: Greg Stuhr, Alicja Bachleda, Camilla Belle, Matthew Broderick, Robert Forster.
Director: Jenna Ricker.
Running time: 1:43.
Rated: Not rated.
Q&A session: There will be a post-film question-and-answer session Thursday. Director Jenna Ricker and lead actor Greg Stuhr will be on hand. Doors open at 6 p.m. with the film showing at 6:30 p.m. $9 general admission, $6 for Olympia Film Society members.