Neither an attempt to do a straight film noir nor a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the hardboiled detective genre, France-based Argentinean director Hugo Santiago's "The Wolf of the West Coast," from a story by crime maven Ross MacDonald, prefers to revel in flamboyant displays of ironic bravado.

Neither an attempt to do a straight film noir nor a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the hardboiled detective genre, France-based Argentinean director Hugo Santiago’s “The Wolf of the West Coast,” from a story by crime maven Ross MacDonald, prefers to revel in flamboyant displays of ironic bravado. With recognizable stars, pic could probably score as a cross-cultural romp through the metaphysics of attitude and gumshoe chic. Without known actors, though, film’s odd tonal shifts, references to Vietnam and vaguely deconstructive layering of narrative strike an intellectual note without ever adding up to recognizable arthouse fare.

James Faulkner makes a suitably impressive been-around-the-block private dick named Lew Millar (a combination of MacDonald’s detective Lew Archer’s first name and MacDonald’s own real last name) whose reputation precedes him. Sleuth is hired as a bodyguard by a nervous, reclusive gangster who, having ratted on his colleagues, has been hiding out at a palatial villa on the west coast of France for the last 15 years. Millar arrives from the U.S. West Coast to find his client crawling through the undergrowth, fatally shot.

Pic delivers an atmospheric slew of murder suspects, including the victim’s ex-drug addict brother, the brother’s ex-policewoman wife, the brother’s wife’s slutty teenage daughter, and a loose end from Millar’s own past, a lovely young woman judge, the purported offspring of an old army pal.

In the ensuing investigation, everybody tails everybody else in sinuous gliding patterns of light and shadow. Policemen declare themselves baffled, deferentially bowing to Millar’s superior experience and style, and cans of worms start popping open left and right as the plot grows ever more convoluted. Black-and-white photographs, pinned to a wall, surrealistically come to life to document long-ago sex acts in a bar in Saigon. All memories lead back to Vietnam, now beginning to morph into lies and double-crosses. To top it all off, a quavering voiced little old lady in bad makeup insists on narrating the whole thing from what eventually turns out to be a prison 20 years in the future.

Tech credits are superlative, celebrated Portuguese cinematographer Acacio de Almeda (frequent lenser for that other notable South American exile in France, Raul Ruiz) giving voyeurism a whole new light-filled aesthetic.

The Wolf of the West Coast

France-Portugal

Production

A Gemini Films/Madragoa Film production. Produced by Paulo Branco. Directed by Hugo Santiago. Screenplay, Santiago Amigorena, Santiago, from Ross MacDonald's short story "Guilt-Edged Blonde."

Crew

Camera (color), Acacio de Almeida; editor, Stephane Huter; set designers, Francine Cany, Paula Migalhada; costume designer, Nathalie Raoul; sound (Dolby SRD), Jean-Claude Brisson. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (World Cinema), Aug. 27, 2002. Running time: 132 MIN. (French, English dialogue.)

With

Lew Millar - James Faulkner Mai - Anna Mouglalis Harry - Gerard Watkins Madame Nemo - Valerie Dreville Jeanne - Lizzie Brochere

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