Whether it's Vienna in "The Third Man" or the Mexican border in "Touch of Evil," some of the best noir films are inextricably linked to their settings. Filmed and set in Buffalo, "The American Side" can be added to that list for utilizing its Western New York locations in expert fashion.
Sure, the ability to spot familiar sights can add to the fun, but grounding the plot in a specific sense of place lends the tale its flavor. Here, Buffalo isn't just a stand-in for some anonymous city, but is allowed to have a distinct personality all its own, while director Jenna Ricker and co-writer and star Greg Stuhr toss in the sort of detail that only a native could provide. If "The American Side" doesn't reach the level of those all-time classics (but really, that's not a fair comparison), it should leave fans of the genre more than satisfied.
In keeping with established genre conventions, "The American Side" revolves around a classic anti-hero type, a private eye named Charlie Paczynski (Stuhr). A gumshoe with a moral compass all his own, Charlie's not above blackmailing his clients out of some extra dough by photographing them in compromising positions with his stripper friend (Kelsey Siepser). He's in the middle of one such photo session -- beneath the lurid neon lights of a carnival -- when a gunshot rings out and both his friend and his mark disappear.
Charlie eventually tracks the man, an engineer named Tom Soberin (Harris Yulin), to Niagara Falls, where Tom delivers a cryptic warning before promptly taking a dive into the drink. Digging further only embroils the hapless PI in a conspiracy that involves the lost designs of inventor Nikola Tesla -- and one schematic in particular may hold the key to building an all-powerful, world-altering doohickey.
Tesla lore is a subject so ripe for exploration that I wish Stuhr and Ricker had worked more into their story, but as you might expect, the Tesla aspect of the story is merely a MacGuffin. Instead, the plot is mostly an excuse to put Charlie up against a cast of colorful characters: femme fatales, government agents, and shady businessmen, all of whom may or may not want him dead. Naturally there's a couple of beautiful and mysterious women (Alicja Bachleda and Camilla Belle), a stern DARPA agent (Janeane Garofalo), a pair of feuding energy tycoons (Matthew Broderick and Rochester native Robert Forster), and a supporting cast rounded out by ringers like character actors Robert Vaughn and Joe Grifasi.
Stuhr and Ricker have a clear appreciation for the genre they're working in. The film is loaded with references and homages, from "North By Northwest" and "Kiss Me Deadly" to the musical score by David Shire, known for providing the driving force behind 1970's conspiracy thrillers "The Conversation" and "All the President's Men." At one point, a character compares Charlie to Philip Marlowe, "I always preferred Mike Hammer," he responds.
The performances can occasionally feel a touch uneven -- not everyone is convincing with the stylized, hard-boiled dialogue that the script calls for -- and the plot only barely holds together. But then, overly-complicated, near-impenetrable plots have always been a noir staple.
But Ricker and cinematographer Frank Barrera make great use of Buffalo's industrial architecture, including the gorgeous Colonel Ward Pumping Station, and a late-film foot chase that takes place alongside Niagara Falls is thrilling.
Stuhr and Ricker are also careful to not tie the film to any specific time period; no cell phones or modern technology make an appearance, giving the film a timeless feel. Filled with enough twists and turns to keep audiences guessing, "The American Side" is a worthy throwback to the retro thrillers that inspired it.
A Q&A with filmmakers Jenna Ricker and Greg Stuhr will follow Thursday's screening.