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Film review: The American Side

The title of this unusual, evocative mystery/suspense film refers to the ‘American side’ of Niagara Falls, which run along the U.S./Canada border, and which provide the film’s setting. The American side of the falls is also well known as the more deadly side: a daredevil might survive going over the Canadian falls in a barrel, but doing the same on the American side means almost certain death. The movie’s tagline suggests a third interpretation: “There are three sides to every story… the truth, the lie, and the American side.”

Directed and co-written by talented newcomer Jenna Ricker, The American Side, never released in Europe but now available digitally, is an updated Film Noir-style detective story, so full of film references that it is as much a cinematic tribute as a drama. The central character, Charlie Paczynski (Greg Stuhr, who also co-wrote the script), is the familiar shabby, hard-boiled private detective, based in Buffalo, New York. His work is largely limited to following cheating spouses, with a sideline in blackmail, until he unexpectedly stumbles over a much bigger mystery.The mystery is gradually revealed to centre around the work of the late genius inventor, Nikola Tesla, whose discoveries were so diverse, and so far ahead of their time, he can be said to have, as one character puts it, invented the twentieth century. Urban legends about the man abound, including the story that some of his more advanced and potentially dangerous designs were stolen and hidden away after his death. It is these hypothetical designs which are being sought by various individuals and groups, with assorted motives, benign or otherwise.

Paczynski’s case is introduced, in established private detective fashion, by an attractive but sharp-tongued young woman arriving at his office and hiring him to locate a missing man. The man in question is Tom Soberin (Harris Yulin), an engineer with an interest in Tesla’s work, and somehow connected to valuable but incomplete engineering plans by the late genius. The detective accepts the case, which quickly places him in conflict with a series of colourful but sinister figures. Mobsters, FBI agents, and physicists come into the picture, all with some claim on the mysterious designs. The good guys and the bad guys become hard to distinguish, and few are exactly what they claim to be, as Paczynski struggles to make sense of the case and stay ahead of the threats that seem to surround him.

The style and look of the film is as much a part of the entertainment as the story itself. There are constant, smoothly integrated tributes and references to both the private-I genre and to its significant figures, from Mike Hammer to Sam Spade to Philip Marlowe. Two suspenseful scenes are filmed in the style of Alfred Hitchcock, and more than one meeting with shadowy individuals comes across exactly like 1940s noir detective dramas.

Although The American Side is set in the present day, there is deliberate overlapping of time periods throughout. Contemporary backdrops coincide with anachronisms: Paczynski’s decades-old car, the use of pay phones, dated clothes and hair, ever-present cigarettes lit with an old-fashioned metal lighter, pinball machines, and even the musical score give a 1970s ambience, while the 1940s look is occasionally insinuated into the film in more subtle ways. The result is a seamless composite, taking what is needed from each era.Greg Stuhr is effective as the archetypal detective; Janeane Garofalo engaging and enigmatic as a federal agent dogging his steps; Alicja Bachleda and Camilla Belle adequate backup as the requisite mysterious dames in need of assistance. The remaining supporting cast are unremarkable, with the exception of Hollywood legend Robert Vaughan, who makes a brief appearance as an eccentric witness.

The American Side’s main flaw may be the convoluted plot, which requires close attention. Otherwise it is enjoyable throughout, particularly for movie buffs, and is a clever and offbeat first attempt from a promising director who will, hopefully, have the opportunity to do much more.

For further viewing:

Chinatown, Roman Polanski’s noir period piece, is virtually synonymous with endemic corruption. It is a dark, cynical detective drama, showcasing one of Jack Nicholson’s best performances as a private detective fighting a losing battle against greed and corruption.