Thursday, March 4, 2010

THE BIG FIX (1978)

In the movies, private detectives are tough, cynical guys who have seen the worst in mankind, yet still believe in the best. They risk what little they have to right wrongs and protect those who need protecting the most. Like Chandler wrote in “The Simple Art of Murder”, Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”

In real life, private detectives are probably more like Moses Wine, guys who tripped into the job for one reason or another and spend the majority of their time investigating insurance fraud, cheating spouses, or, as when we first meet Moses in The Big Fix, counting turkeys to verify a theft claim. Once upon a time, Moses was a student radical at Berkeley, out to change the world with other protesters. A decade later, he’s a guy with an ex-wife and two kids and is disappointed by life. The world changed but the corruption got more transparent, more capitalistic. So saddled with high child support and low ambition, Moses does what he can to get by. His former radical friends think that he’s a sell-out, but they’re the ones campaigning for the phony politicians and empty-promises. Politics, according to his Communist Aunt Sonja, “is two nothings arguing about nothing”.

Into his life steps an old flame, Lila, who wants him to work with her on the campaign to elect Miles Hawthorne for Governor of LA. She needs Moses’ skills in particular because a doctored flier is circulating showing Hawthorne in the company of Howard Eppis, a notorious radical branded a terrorist in the ‘60s and wanted by the feds. This connection could blow the election for Hawthorne, and Moses is just the man with the right connections to hunt down either Eppis or whoever is libeling Hawthorne. Not that Moses cares one way or another, but it is nice to see Lila again, and the investigation would be a great way to spend time with her. Until she winds up dead. Then the case becomes very personal.

Directed by Jeremy Kagan and written by Roger L. Simon, who adapted his own novel, The Big Fix is an incredibly entertaining and reasonably light-hearted (murders aside) mystery that is more about the unusual detective than it ever is about the case. As Moses, Richard Dreyfus is pitch-perfect in a role that could be the best of his very impressive career. And he’s backed up by a whole cadre of terrific actors including John Lithgow, Fritz Weaver, Bonnie Bedelia (playing Moses’ self-help fad-obsessed ex-wife) and, especially, Susan Anspaugh. As Lila, Anspaugh is provides Dreyfus’ Moses with the energy and motivation he needs to set down his bong and get to work. Their chemistry together during the first act is simply delightful—particularly a sequence where they visit the print shop that created the fliers and they playfully shove and one-up each other to extract the needed information from the proprietor. Lila’s death provides Moses with a mission, and while it’s necessary to the plot, you can’t help but feel sorry to see Anspaugh go. And we feel for Moses, who reacts to her death with shock and tears. Maybe you’d never catch Philip Marlowe crying, but that’s what makes Moses so real and human.

There is so much enjoyment to be wrung from The Big Fix, particularly the details, that, again, the plot is secondary. In fact, the most interesting mystery is why soft-boiled Moses has a cast on his arm (he gives a variety of excuses based on the situation—“these cops were hassling a friend of mine in Compton”, he tells a Mexican thug; to another trying to intimidate him, he explains he broke it in a bar fight—the real explanation is very appropriate). Because his ex-wife is so busy with her “est” classes, Moses is frequently stuck gumshoe-ing with his kids. When caught trespassing by a cop, Moses explains that he has a license to carry a gun. In the glove compartment is the weapon—sans cylinder and with a crayon stuck in the barrel. In another scene, he sets off a metal detector and the offending object is revealed to be a toy robot in his pocket. When Aunt Sonja, espousing socialism in her nursing home, refuses to watch the boys, Moses is forced to bring her along as well as he shadows a suspect—and she even assists in another wonderful scene: Moses knows the name of the man he’s looking for, but not what he looks like, so he gets Aunt Sonja to call out the man’s name in a room full of people, just like any elderly woman would do when searching for someone, to see who looks up!

That The Big Fix is unavailable on DVD—and only hard to find on VHS—is criminal in and of itself. It shows up occasionally on the Sleuth Channel and occasionally on TCM, but it should have a place on every film-lover’s shelf. If you run across it, by all means snatch it up.

No comments :

Post a Comment