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There is a point where film noir can be too stylized for its own good. Its traits of small-time crime, femme fatales, anti-heroes, and the underbelly style of all things that creep in the urban dark can be too fictitious and extreme. There’s room for film noir that can inhabit real places and exhibit plausible characters, while still having all the necessary ingredients to make them as cool as the genre demands.
With a deep homage to noir, coupled with a big dose of 1970s-esque conspiracy thrillers, director Jenna Ricker, in her second feature film, did just that in 2016. She presented The American Side, starring her writing collaborator Greg Stuhr and a notable ensemble cast. Using upstate New York, Ricker created a living and breathing seedy side out of a wholesome American city and tourist destination.
Let the local cop in The American Side tell it to you bluntly: every tourist destination has a dark side. Niagara Falls is the home to honeymoons and suicides (as many as 25 a year, in fact). Whenever you have that many out-of-towners in one place with loaded pockets, there will always be schemes, crimes, and exploitation. Remember, crime doesn’t have an address.
As a film, The American Side is a satisfying and constantly engaging throwback detective story. In this writer’s opinion, it surpasses its glitzy and more expensive Hollywood peer The Nice Guys from the same year as the superior yarn. This flick counts as a buried treasure from the last five years waiting for you on rental and VOD.
People that seek out Charlie Paczynski (co-writer and TV actor Greg Stuhr) are quick to judge him as second-rate and stand unimpressed by the fact that he appears to be the only private investigator left in the Buffalo phone book. He sure looks the disheveled part of a nightcrawler. Dressed in bad neckties, riding his wheezing late model classic car, and pulling off a substandard tough guy look of salt-and-peppered baldness leading to handlebar scruff that holds an ever-present lit or unlit cigarette, he’s 100% the gumshoe anti-hero.
Not rich and not broke, the guy isn’t an arm-breaker. Charlie doesn’t even carry a gun. He fashions himself as more Mike Hammer than Philip Marlowe. Pinching cheating spouses with hired voyeuristic photographs seems to be the bulk of his business. He even employs a friendly stripper named Kat (Kelsey Siepser of White Orchid) as his bait of choice to help seal the deals.
Take it from a private detective like Charlie and the tagline of The American Side: never believe the first story you hear. There are more sides to a story than one, or even two. Corroborate your facts and don’t fall for the first thing you hear. Nail down the truth and dig deeper. That’s the playful misdirection crafted by Ricker and Stuhr and commentary for all us. We all can start today with Snopes-busted social media posts while we’re at it.
When Kat is shot and killed on the job by a desperate mark named Tom Soberin (Harris Yulin), the pursuit gets wider and wilder. All of the salacious tangents in The American Side tangle and clash with duplicitous twists, turns, and results. It reaches a dynamite peak of a climax in the mist of Niagara Falls.
There are planners and there are doers. Make no mistake, Charlie Paczynski is a doer. He is a man-of-action who gets in faces and doesn’t sit on his hands. More often than not, he’s up against people that plot, plan, and scheme. Sometimes that puts them a few steps ahead of Charlie. Other times, Charlie gets to be the unpredictable monkey in the wrench, an unplanned variable that ruins the supposedly well-organized plans.
Come for the mystery and stay for the style in The American Side. The film was shot on location in Buffalo and Niagara giving it the well-worn authenticity of a noir with plausibility, rather than one with makeshift cities, sets, and stages. As aforementioned, none of the bawdy style elements are lost with real (and cheaper) locations. If anything, they are shrewdly amplified. Further, Ricker slyly soaks the film with a conspiracy thriller tribute score from Oscar-winning music man David Shire (All the President’s Men, Zodiac), a nice get for a small film like this. The American Side bleeds plenty of coolness without cheap gags or pitfalls.
Credit the writing team of Ricker and Stuhr. The clever narrative woven to combine the noir and conspiracy genres is top-notch. The sleazy quandaries and quagmires rarely feel predictable or contrived. The splash of historical connection to Tesla brings more austerity than silliness. Its inclusion as the “MacGuffin” is a clever and shrewd storytelling bonus. The script juggles its characters well and it comes out in the performances. It is plain to see that the cast all delightfully relish their showy and shadowy roles, no one’s talent is wasted and no one is trying to steal the show by overplaying their hand. They all glide like mudpuppy lizards that love to get dirty, with Greg Stuhr leading the way trudging through the muck in a star-making performance. Somebody needed to give this character his own TV series years ago.