The Bellhop Rings Twice: Hardboiled Throwback Hotel Noir Aims for Nostalgia—Result is a Big Sleep
New York Observer, 9 October 2012
I’m all for refurbishing film noir and all the private eyes in trench coats, redheads in silk dressing gowns, sweaty weirdos chain-smoking unfiltered Camels and revolvers with silencers that go with it. But 'Hotel Noir', written and directed by Sebastian Gutierrez, is too stylistically derivative of Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Jean-Pierre Melville and Paramount B-movie hacks on the studio’s payroll (like George Marshall and Frank Tuttle) to smack of anything fresh and original, and too pokey and pedantic to keep you awake. It was filmed entirely inside the old Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles in 15 days for less than $300,000, so such luxuries as period cars, exotic locations and noirish Art Deco sets were out of the question — and it looks it. Neither a fogbound Alan Ladd crime picture nor a clever parody like 'Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid', it lurks somewhere in the shadows in between. They aimed for Raymond Chandler and ended up with Mickey Spillane.
Still, the cast is worth watching, and it’s clear that Mr. Gutierrez loves the genre. A lonely loser named Eugene who installs shower doors and paints portraits of pet animals checks into the hotel, sets up a typewriter and starts to write a crime story. This would be Danny DeVito. Stand him on his bald head, hold him by his stubby ankles, push his beer belly forward and walk him across the floor, and you’d mistake him for a rickshaw. The cantilevered story he makes up may or may not be happening in actual time (the whole thing takes place on one dark, rainy night in 1958) and involves a labyrinthine cast of characters: a tired, washed-up British detective named Felix (Rufus Sewell) with a dark and sinister secret motive for being in the hotel (think Robert Mitchum); a nightclub singer named Hanna Click (Carla Gugino) who writhes around on top of a piano singing only one tune per night (think Lizabeth Scott); a gangster’s moll named Swedish Mary (Malin Akerman) who is really an Italian with a terrible accent (make that two terrible accents); the hotel chambermaid (Rosario Dawson) who spends the night trying on sexy lingerie; a cheap crook who plays jazz guitar named Vance (Kevin Connolly); a lesbian tennis champion named Maureen (Cameron Richardson) who seduces Hanna Click into some obligatory girl-girl action, and is who the wife of a magician who performs an act with a coffin; and Felix’s square American partner Jim (Robert Forster). As they waft through the rooms of the Biltmore, they take turns narrating their stories in clumsy voice-overs that drag on forever, with no beginning, middle or end in sight. (Think Terrence Malick remaking 'The Big Sleep'.)
The action (I thought you’d never ask) involves some gangsters who are planning to rob a steel factory payroll, stash the money away and claim it the next morning when the coast is clear. “All I had to do,” says the dick, “was wait—and walk out rich.” Everyone wants the money, including the characters you least expect. Nobody is who they pretend to be, including Felix’s straight-shooting family-man partner who discovers betrayal and likes it. “Plans do what they always do,” goes the narration. “They go wrong.” The point, as the saying goes, is “it’s all fun and games until someone pokes an eye out.” I’d like to say I wouldn’t want to ruin the fun of finding out whose eyes get poked, except that there isn’t much fun. If you wait until the end you’ll finally find out what Danny DeVito is writing and how so many disparate characters connect. Opinions will vary as to whether it’s worth the effort. As hard as they try, the actors look like they cannot camouflage the fact that they’re working for car fare.
Some of them work into the film noir conceit better than others, saying campy one-liners like “I need you to ravage me — even if I don’t look like I’m enjoying myself” and “Maybe it was the heat — or the ceviche that went to my head — but somehow I had 19 orgasms.” Best of all is Carla Gugino, whose diverse talents are as ample as her measurements (she transitions from B movies to prestigious stage productions by Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller with the greatest ease, most recently on Broadway opposite Rosemary Harris in an Athol Fugard play, proving her range). Nobody can say a line like “I never go to church — kneeling bags my nylons” like Carla Gugino. The film’s weakest link is Rufus Sewell’s rumpled gumshoe, inarticulate and mumbling to the point of madness. Barely audible, he seems to have been plunged into a state of narcolepsy. What really works is the use of ’50s jazz combo music (think Johnny Mandel’s neurotic jazz tempo throughout I Want to Live! and the swinging drive of Elmer Bernstein’s intense score in Alexander Mackendrick’s iconic 'Sweet Smell of Success')and the wonderful black-and-white camera work that provides plenty of opportunities for sinister overhead lighting effects. 'Hotel Noir' looks and sounds right, but 'Mildred Pierce' it’s not.