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Everyone dreams of resurrecting the film noir classics that flourished in the 1940s, but a lot of changes in Hollywood and the rest of the world add to the formidable challenges. A new movie having its world premiere in Santa Barbara this year, The White Orchid, aims to stir fond memories of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, and it is even presented under the auspices of the Humphrey Bogart Estate, with Bogart’s son, Stephen Bogart, as one of the executive producers. The film, written and directed by Steve Anderson, cleverly updates the formula by introducing a female detective (Olivia Thirlby). All in all, it’s a mixed bag with limited box office potential, but it has some rewards for fans of the genre.
Thirlby plays Claire, a mousy investigator who travels to Morro Bay to try to solve the murder of a glamorous outsider who was renting a house there. Her first job is to identify the victim, since the murdered woman had her head and hands severed, and then see if she can help with a solution to the crime. The dead woman, who called herself “Jessica,” reportedly had a series of one-night stands with both men and women. Claire finds a drawer full of sex toys, a supply of wigs and expensive clothes in the closet. Eventually she also discovers a cache of money and a gun. She becomes somewhat obsessed with the mysterious dead woman, trying on her clothes and beginning to remake herself in a more seductive image. She also begins to experiment sexually, surrendering to a flirtation with another woman she meets in a San Francisco bar that “Jessica” frequented.
The idea of characters who become obsessed with a dead woman has animated other suspense films, most notably Rebecca, Laura, and Vertigo. (One shot looking up at the Golden Gate Bridge even evokes a famous shot of Kim Novak in Vertigo.) These are admirable models, but they set the bar very high, and The White Orchid doesn’t come close to reaching the atmospheric richness of those masterpieces. It does benefit from moody cinematography by Patrick Meade Jones and an insinuating score by Enis Rotthoff, two elements that can be compared with classic film noir.
The performances, however, are uneven. Thirlby is game, but she’s more convincing as an insecure waif than when she morphs into a commanding femme fatale and master sleuth. Reliable character actor John Carroll Lynch does a fine job as the suspicious local sheriff, and Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols has some affecting scenes as a blind woman who interacted with the victim. (Her blindness is a convenient gimmick to prevent her from providing too much useful information.) Jennifer Beals has a commanding presence as Claire’s supervisor.
The denouement, which owes a debt to Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat, has some satisfying surprises, though the very last scene introduces one twist too many. The film is entertaining enough to fans of the genre, though it will probably inspire you to revisit one of those earlier, better romantic thrillers.
Cast: Olivia Thirlby, John Carroll Lynch, Jennifer Beals, Nichelle Nichols, Brendan Sexton III, Janina Gavankar, Rachael Taylor, Kelsey Siepser
Director-screenwriter-editor: Steve Anderson
Producers: Steve Anderson, Jeff Marchelletta, Josh Mandel
Executive producers: Robbert de Klerk, Stephen Bogart, Bill Eikost, Jere B. Ford
Director of photography: Patrick Meade Jones
Production designer: Aaron Osborne
Costume designer: E.B. Brooks
Music: Enis Rothoff
No rating, 88 minutes
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