The American Side (2016): Nikola Tesla Noir (Review)

Greg Stuhr The American Side

Directed and co-written by Jenna Ricker (her second feature length film) The American Side stars Greg Stuhr  (who was the other scribe on the film) as PI Charlie Paczynski. Charlie is more or less old school. He does not carry a gun or a cell phone and he smokes like a proverbial chimney. 

The “gumshoe” has a loose code of ethics and at the start of the film has photos of a man’s wife cheating on him.  Later a young woman comes to see Charlie and she tells him he is the only private investigator listed in the phone book.

A long and twisted journey begins after this visit where Charlie loses a friend and learns about a Nikola Tesla conspiracy.  He meets a few very rich and powerful people who are prepared to kill to obtain some of  Tesla’s “blueprints.” The film is a touch noir-ish although it feels very much like the Gene Hackman movie Night Moves in texture and tone.

Stuhr has some impressive actors on call to keep his character company.  Robert Vaughn has a cameo, as a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge. Harris Yulin plays Tom Soberin, the character who starts off the investigation by being murdered.  Matthew Broderick and  Robert Forster  round up the established names on the cast list.  Camilla Belle and Alicja Bachleda are the accomplished performers who make up the main protagonists in the film.

The American Side (meaning the US side of Niagara Falls) has a certain amount of satisfying mystery.  Stuhr’s character follows the clues as they twist and turn around the real issue at hand.  The “Falls” themselves also play a part in the film’s mystery and there are several scenes that take place along side the watery landmark.

There are things about the film that do not work overly well. Stuhr’s heavy drinking and chain-smoking private investigator managing to outrun the bad guys is one instance where credulity is stretched to breaking point.  However, the fact that Charlie does not carry a gun is a nice touch (he uses a hammer for protection at least twice in the film).

It is interesting to note that not once does a cell phone appear in the film. Tesla actually appears to have predicted “smart phones” in 1926 so the lack of these everyday gadgets seems odd.  The absence of cell phones does  make the time period for the film somewhat ambiguous  so that may well be why they do not make an appearance.  (At one point Charlie calls on a payphone, something that is almost a rarity in 2016.)

This throwback detective film is entertaining. There are enough puzzles and false leads to keep most amateur Philip Marlowe’s occupied through the film.

Stuhr does well in his lead role despite being a rather unconventional choice.  This is no square jawed steely eyed Sam Spade type. He sports a mustache and goatee, a balding pate and brown eyes. The actor sells his character well  however and projects a sort of tired competence.

Kudos to prolific actress Janeane Garofalo who steps in as DARPA Agent Barry. The few scenes she is in take on a spark of authenticity that  impresses and helps to move the story along. 

Overall, the film entertains and never wanders too far from its Mcguffin type plot.  At 90 minutes it  is not overly long and the pace is brisk enough that the film does not drag.  While the theme was very noir in intent, the overall feeling was more of a ’70s detective thriller. Paczynski’s garish wide ties and tone of the musical score help this allusion. (Along with its Night Moves touches  it is slightly reminiscent of  Robert Mitchum and The Big Sleep  without all the PI gunplay.)

Director Jenner has her work cut out for her with this somewhat convoluted story but manages to pull this off despite The American Side being her second feature length film.

The American Side is a solid 4 star film. It may be a trifle confusing at times but it moves steadily forward to a suitably noir-ish ending.  It is streaming on Netflix and is well worth a look.

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