Enterprising indie “The Red Machine” ambitiously mounts a period-dress espionage tale within very slim means. While the strain does show at times in the pic’s limited locations and underpopulated feel, this feature debut for writing-directing duo Stephanie Argy and Alec Boehm is nonetheless intriguing and has enough character to be an enjoyably old-school diversion. Beyond fest play, prospects look likely to skew smallscreen, though minor theatrical exposure isn’t out of the question.

In 1935 Washington, D.C., a lucky streak for cocky young thief Eddie (Donal Thoms-Cappello) runs out when he’s caught during a jewel heist. But he’s soon hauled from jail by the U.S. Navy, which offers a deal: He’ll go free after using his cat-burglary skills to successfully pilfer a top-secret code machine used for trans-Pacific communication by the increasingly militaristic Japanese. One such machine is located in the heavily guarded residence of Nipponese diplomat Shimada (Eddie Lee), with whom Eddie’s Navy minder, Lt. Coburn (Lee Perkins), has a complicated past — and even more so with Shimada’s wife, Naomi (Madoka Kasahara).

Rather than action or suspense, the pic places emphasis on character — specifically the turn from mutual annoyance to grudging respect between antic ne’er-do-well Eddie and stone-faced, by-the-book military lifer Coburn — as well as some reasonably clever plot turns climaxing in a caper-flick triple-cross. Characters are all nicely played archetypes, with the requisite 1930s snappy patter particularly felicitous coming from Mo Byrnes’ standout support turn as Eddie’s hardboiled lady fence.

Occasional graphics (well done, explaining the era’s political backdrop) and brief flashbacks jazz up a production package whose design contributions carefully make the most of monetary limitations. (Still, the Southern California-shot pic never convinces as being set in D.C. — for one thing, the architecture is just too different.) If the whole feels a bit static and stagy, it nonetheless suggests that since Argy and Boehm can eke this much out of so little, they’d be a safe bet to get maximum value from a decent budget.

The Red Machine

  • Production: A Mental Slapstick production. Produced by Stephanie Argy, Alec Boehm, Ken Cortland. Directed, written by Stephanie Argy, Alec Boehm.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD), Boehm; editor, Pansy Heritage; music, Mabel Echo; music supervisor, Kaz Smith; production designer, Mel Horan; costume designers, Kathy Pillsbury, Annamarie Von Firley; art director, Thuyen Tang; sound, Dino Herrmann; sound designer, Echo; assistant director, John Clarkson; casting, Sam Christensen. Reviewed at Mill Valley Film Festival, Oct. 12, 2009. Running time: 84 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Lee Perkins, Donal Thoms-Cappello, Meg Brogan, Mo Byrnes, Eddie Lee, Madoka Kasahara, David Ross Paterson, Roger Ainslie, Bryan Larkin, Josiah D. Lee. (English, Japanese dialogue)