Some period films come across as homages to classics of the past, while others play perilously on the edge of imitation. “Budapest Noir” definitely falls in the latter category, channeling any number of noir films, including “Chinatown,” with the usual stock figures: hard-boiled investigative reporter, femme fatale, corrupt officials, sleazy underbelly, and an urban landscape used as if it’s one of the main characters. It’s a tried-and-true formula, but to make it work there needs to be more than an ounce of originality, which editor-turned-director Éva Gárdos (“An American Rhapsody”) has a hard time locating in either András Szekér’s script or her own direction. Instead, the movie feels like the pilot for a period detective series, which might not be far from the truth since Vilmos Kondor’s novel launched fictional newshound Zsigmond Gordon as a recurring character.
As a fairly anodyne mystery, the film can be considered a mildly diverting time filler whose Jewish angle — anti-Semitism forms a key plot point — explains why U.S. specialty distributor
Menemsha Films picked it up. For foreign affairs junkies, the setting in 1936, soon before Hungary turned fascist, has a distinct resonance with the country’s direction today under Viktor Orbán, and to Gárdos’ credit, she wants those parallels to be felt loud and clear. Whether her fellow countrymen also want to be reminded of certain similarities is less evident, considering the film only made $275,669 following a November 2017 opening. Put in perspective, “Murder on the Orient Express,” released in the same season, made $822,720.
Things open with preparations for the funeral of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös, whose political affiliations were very much with the right. For intrepid reporter Zsigmond Gordon (Krisztián Kolovratnik), it’s just another day: “On the crime beat, I’ve seen my fair share of death,” he wearily intones in voiceover, copying pretty much every jaded, unshaven, bourbon-swilling, macho film noir protagonist of the 1940s and ’50s. Then at a café he has a silent flirtation with a woman (Franciska Törőcsik) whose murdered, bruised body is discovered in an area frequented by prostitutes.
While snooping around he finds a thin dossier on the woman left conveniently half-concealed on the desk of police inspector Gellért (Zsolt Anger), but it doesn’t give him any answers. Clearly there’s a cover-up, and the sudden arrival of ex-flame Krisztina (Réka Tenki), a shutterbug back in Budapest after documenting Nazi atrocities in Germany, provides him with an investigative partner as well as adding a little sexual tension. Hanging around a boxing ring/watering hole owned by Baron Andras Szőllősy (János Kulka) isn’t offering many clues, and Margó Vörös (Kata Dobó), madame to the ruling class, also isn’t very forthcoming. But like the inspector, Margó is careless about hiding things, and Zsigmond learns that the dead woman, named Fanny, was fleeing her parents’ disapproval after falling in love with a rabbi’s son.
Revelations come in expected intervals so that interest doesn’t flag, and there’s enough discreetly seedy shenanigans to raise the eyebrows of churchgoing ladies without crossing the bounds of good taste. Gárdos keeps the testosterone level as high as required for this sort of thing while injecting a note of strong-minded female independence in the character of Krisztina, who loves Zsigmond but won’t let herself be overwhelmed by his cynical personality. One scene of anti-Semitic brutality and a number of references to the increased fear Jews were experiencing as Hungary began aligning itself to the Axis powers ensures that the dangerous political situation remains ever-present. A mix of atmospherically designed studio sets and dogged location scouting among Budapest’s grand but decaying prewar structures gives the film a grounded feel and is the production’s most successful element.