'The American Side': Woodstock Review

A terrific supporting cast and evocative locations enhance this film noir homage

Jenna Ricker's retro private-eye thriller has its world premiere at the Woodstock Film Festival

The MacGuffin, that perennial staple of Hitchcock and film noir, returns to the screen in Jenna Ricker's thriller set amid the unlikely backdrop of Buffalo, New York. Starring Greg Stuhr as a low-rent private-eye who stumbles onto a conspiracy involving long-lost technical designs by famed scientist Nikola Tesla, The American Side is a loving homage that should be of particular interest to film buffs who can play spot the references.

And oh boy, are there references, from the jittery musical score by David Shire, famed for such '70s era conspiracy thrillers as The Conversation and All the President's Men, to the small plane bearing down on the hero that recalls North by Northwest to the cast populated by a startling array of familiar faces including such genre stalwarts as Robert Vaughn and Robert Forster.

Stuhr's Polish private dick, named Charlie Paczynski, is the sort of tough-talking throwback who smokes incessantly, uses payphones and makes such pronouncements as "appointments are for assholes." When a shady character compares him to Philip Marlowe, he says, "I always preferred Mike Hammer."

"Even your idols are second-rate" is the sneering reply.

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True to form, the screenplay, co-written by Ricker and Stuhr, is barely coherent in its explication of the convoluted plotline. But it does provide a fair share of hard-boiled, frequently amusing dialogue and a plethora of colorful characters, including Matthew Broderick and Camilla Belle as siblings with a secret, Forster as a shady energy tycoon, Janeane Garofalo as a federal agent (or is she?) and Grant Shaud (Murphy Brown) as a cuckolded client. Also making brief appearances are such veteran character actors as Harris Yulin and Joe Grifasi, demonstrating that the filmmaker has an impressive Rolodex.

Lead actor Stuhr doesn't really have the necessary charismatic presence to fully anchor the proceedings, but the evocative locations more than make up for it. Cinematographer Frank Barrera makes excellent use of Buffalo's faded grandeur with its run-down industrial structures; magnificent buildings designed by some of America's most famed architects; and of course, Niagara Falls, receiving its most extensive screen exposure since 1953's Marilyn Monroe- and Joseph Cotten-starrer Niagara and providing the opportunity for one of the film's more harrowing sequences.

Production: Center Street Productions, One Horse Shy Productions
Cast: Greg Stuhr, Alicja Bachleda, Camilla Belle, Matthew Broderick, Robert Forster, Janeane Garofalo, Grant Shaud, Robert Vaughn, Harris Yulin, Joe Grifasi
Director: Jenna Ricker
Screenwriters: Greg Stuhr, Jenna Ricker
Producer: Jonathan Shoemaker
Executive producer: Mary Henry
Director of photography: Frank Barrera
Editor: Robert Grigsby Wilson
Production designer: Debbie DeVilla
Costume designer: Carisa Kelly
Composer: David Shire
Casting: Jen Rudin

No rating, 90 minutes