An ambitious, low-budget neo-noir, Stephen Purvis’ “El Cortez” navigates the genre’s tawdry twists and crosses and double-crosses with intermittent flair. However, script, starting deep in Jim Thompson territory and inexplicably detouring into “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” falls apart at key moments. Biggest problem is the helmer and star never reconcile the contradictory imperatives of an autistic hero and a typical Lee Diamond Phillips vehicle. Yet, somehow, “El Cortez” is stronger than its component parts. Pic, which opened Oct.6 at Gotham’s Quad and will open Oct. 20 at Los Angeles’ Laemmle Music Hall, might be better appreciated in ancillary.
Oddball hero Manny (Phillips), was recently released from an institution for the criminally insane. He putters around in slicked-down hair and bow tie, his fastidious movements, pasted-on smile and barely inflected speech patterns supposedly signs of autism.
Manny works as a night clerk in a second-rate hotel in Reno, and Phillips models many of Manny’s mannerisms on Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates character in “Psycho.”
Trouble, of course, knows just where to find Manny, as the cop who arrested him (an excellently ominous James McDaniel), a small-time drug dealer (Glenn Plummer) with sexy dame Theda (Tracy Middendorf) in tow, and a wheelchair-bound prospector (Bruce Weitz) all converge. Manny would seem to fill the bill as everybody’s perfect patsy.
But you can’t judge a book by its cover, as Manny informs Theda: beneath the bow tie lurks a sexy hunk with a genius for detail.
Neither helmer Purvis or scripter Chris Haddock fully come to terms with pic’s referential framework, which slides uneasily back and forth between the 1940s and the 2000s, with cell phones and drug deals one moment and Chandleresque voice-over and a plot involving an untapped gold mine the next.
The use of several locations from the real-life “El Cortez” hotel gives a measure of visual coherence to the transplanted noir tropes. Purvis, in a departure from his debut romantic comedy “Deep in the Heart,” concocts an update of classical noir style that combines nervous handheld immediacy with fixed, distanced compositions, emphasizing old-fashioned glass reflections and shadow-play, to interesting if uneven effect.
Purvis choreographs Haddock’s ever-changing patterns of scams and grifters in and out of dark corners with a degree of élan, hamstrung by mostly uninspired thesping. But when the action descends into shootouts in a two-by-four mine shaft, the naked literalism of the old-fashioned lust for gold scenario brings decades of cliches crashing down on the hapless participants.
Tech credits are thin, particularly in the area of music, with the same two themes sampled sparsely but repetitively.