We all know the skinny: Dark, desolate dead-end streets littered with discarded Lucky Strikes and half-read newspapers with a headline screaming whatever new crime laden horror that has temporarily captured the imaginations of a cynical and dour populace. Down the street walking towards our view is a rumpled gumshoe right out of the Sam Spade School of hard-knocks. Those discarded Lucky’s? They’re compliments of this aforementioned palooka who has paced up and down this crumby one-lane road to Nowheresville and, looking at the headlines for a murdered socialite, he knows the fix is in, capeesh?
The above is probably Noir enough to pass muster, and it’s an apt representation of a new film from writer-director Shawn Schminke (Christmas with Cookie), A Dead Dame in Hollywood. The film follows a simple enough plot, much like many of the classic 1940s and 1950s film noirs that were once as ripe and abundant as low-hanging fruit from a straining tree: A 1940s sleuthhound going by the unforgettable moniker of Stone Evergreen is hot on the trail of the murderer of a young starlet. The ‘murder’ has been ruled as a suicide by the L.A. elephant ears, but our boy Evergreen knows the real dope and, with the Golden Age of Hollywood and California as his backdrop, he sets out to uncover the whys and wherefores in this taut and funny noir whodunit. Think of it as The Maltese Falcon Meets The Thin Man.
A Dead Dame in Hollywood is a loving pastiche of some of the best film noirs such as The Big Sleep or The Third Man. It tips its hat early to those classic forerunners and then promptly and wisely goes about the business of becoming its own living and breathing thing, ratcheting up the suspense and just as quickly having a chuckle and throwing a knowing wink to the audience. Nostalgia is its base, but Shawn Schminke cleverly and lovingly crafts a solid story that can more than stand on its own without benefit of excessive navel gazing.
A big part of the appeal is the superlative cast Schminke has surrounded Dead Dame with: For the most part, this talented ensemble is made up of authoritative character actors who more than know their way around a good script. Alan Maxson as cannon shooter hero Stone Evergreen, surely one of the best filmatic names since P.T. Anderson’s Reed Rothchild, chews up Schminke’s expert dialogue as if he were slugging back about a million cups of belly warmer. He is that good and that funny and that convincing as a hard-boiled detective and, if there is any justice in Tinsel Town (which, come on, we all know there rarely is), he’ll be making a bee-line for about a million and one film projects that display his considerable chops as well as A Dead Dame in Hollywood does. I’ve got him on my weathered dance card, that’s for sure.
Surrounding Maxson like a veritable galaxy of shining stars are Noel Jason Scott (in a tour de force performance as Police Chief Redfern), Allie Rivera, Justin Armao and Breeanna Judy, among others. These actors don’t buy into anything too flashy; they’re sure and confident enough of their own acting talents to not only swing for the fences when they’re up to bat, but to give the Sultan of Swat Babe Ruth a run for his greenbacks. And you know what? They all hit homers every blessed time.
The one unbilled character in Dead Dame is Shawn Schminke’s lush and eye pleasing black and white cinematography. To say that it takes major stones in the Hollywood of 2020 to shoot any film in black and white is probably the very definition of understatement. Think about it for a second: what’s the last black and white film you caught at the local drive-in or on television? As far as current day shoots, there just aren’t a lot of movies given that treatment anymore thanks to the old Hollywood bromide that people don’t turn out for any film that’s not shot in Ultra 4K Violet New Color Spectrum. The black and white in the film, and Schminke’s masterful and steady turn behind the camera, is akin to being reunited with an old friend that you haven’t seen since at least Rod Serling’s supernatural film noir series, The Twilight Zone.
A Dead Dame in Hollywood is dramatic and fun and perhaps exactly what is needed in today’s current environment. And the best news yet? You don’t have to risk life and limb to see this sucker: Shawn Schminke’s glorious ode to Bogie and Cagney and Lake can be enjoyed in the inner sanctorum of your domicile courtesy of Amazon Prime streaming. Go lay your peepers on this little gem and tell ‘em Dashell Hammet sent you!