Friday, August 18, 2017

The Woman Chaser

Based on the classic pulp novel of the same name by Charles Willeford, The Woman Chaser (1999) debuted at the New York Film Festival where it went on to play on the festival circuit before doing rounds at art houses around the United States. The film was anchored by the unlikely casting of sitcom stalwart Patrick Warburton playing 1950s used car salesman that tries his hand at filmmaking. Unfortunately, the low-budget independent film ran afoul or ownership issues, which resulted in a lack of a home video presence and it disappeared, surfacing occasionally on the Sundance Channel. A few years ago, it resurfaced on digital platforms like Netflix and iTunes but with a lot of its source music (featuring the likes of Les Baxter) replaced but at least this fascinating neo-noir can finally be seen.

Richard Hudson (Warburton) is an ambitious, enigmatic individual that comes off the street and convinces the owner of a used car lot to give him control of it and in turn he sets up an efficient system to sell them. He does an excellent job and makes decent money but he feels restless and unfulfilled. Richard idolizes his mother (Lynette Bennett), a former ballerina, perhaps a little too much, and goes to the movies with his father-in-law Leo (Paul Malevich), a washed-up filmmaker.

One day, Richard gets a tearful epiphany: “Our lives were so short. So little time for creativeness. And yet we wasted it. Letting it slip through our fingers like goddamn sand!” He decides that he must do something creative. “I knew the time for fooling around was over. The time had come for me to create something. One creative accomplishment that would wipe away the useless days, tie up in a single package my reason for being here.” He decides that the creative outlet will be writing and directing his own movie entitled, The Man Who Got Away, about an average American truck driver. The rest of The Woman Chaser follows him on this crazy journey.

Known mainly for his sitcom work on Seinfeld and Rules of Engagement, Patrick Warburton finally got a juicy role to sink his teeth into and he goes for it as evident in a the scene where Richard passionately pitches his movie to Leo. Director Robinson Devor alternates between Richard addressing the roaming camera and Leo’s reaction. The actor is so convincing that we want to see this movie. I’ve always felt that Warburton looks like he came from another era and the film exploits this notion so that he fits right into the 1950s era film noir setting.

The actor is game and not afraid to look silly, like the montage of Richard frolicking on a beach with Laura (Emily Newman), his secretary. They do the usual things you see in these kinds of sequences, like running on the beach, laughing, and playing in the water only for Devor to cut to her hiking a football for him to throw her a pass so hard that she drops it, which playfully subverts our expectations. The director also expertly harnesses Warburton’s trademark deadpan sense of humor to maximum effect while also getting him to dig deep and show the tortured artist behind the used car salesman.

Traditionally, excessive voiceover narration is a bad idea – a crutch for lazy filmmakers (unless you’re Martin Scorsese), but here it works because Devor is simultaneously paying tribute to and playfully satirizing classic film noir. It also provides us with valuable insight into Richard’s mindset and worldview. Much of the film’s humor comes from the juxtaposition of Richard’s hard-boiled dialogue and the sometimes absurd imagery that plays with it, like when Richard joins his mother in an impromptu interpretative dance sequence that Warburton, with his hulking frame prancing about, plays completely straight and this is what makes the scene so funny.

The Woman Chaser features atmospheric black and white cinematography with a soundtrack populated by several choice cuts of Les Baxter lounge music, which only adds to the film noir vibe. In fact, it feels and looks like a long lost film from the era and would make for an entertaining double bill with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), it too a humorous black and white ode to filmmaking. Both Richard and Ed are passionate filmmakers that will do anything to get their films made, even if, in the former’s case, it means having sex with his lead actress in order to get the line reading he wants.

In 1996, filmmaker Robinson Devor picked up a copy of Charles Willeford’s novel The Woman Chaser in a mystery bookstore in Redondo Beach. He was so taken with it that he bought the rights, adapted it into a screenplay, and then shopped it around Hollywood with little success. It wasn’t that people didn’t like it, but that it wasn’t seen to have much commercial potential. Finally, Devor decided that he couldn’t wait any longer and would make it himself on a low budget.

He had to find someone that would be perfect for the leading role and also big enough of a name to get financing. He spent a year-and-a-half trying to get Jason Patric but when that didn’t pan out he sent the script to Patrick Warburton. Eager to get away from his memorable recurring character on Seinfeld, he came in and read for the part in the style of John Wayne. Devor thought it was funny but not right for the part. The actor came back several times and the director realized that “we would never get anyone closer with physique and comic delivery than this guy, but it did take us awhile to wipe away all the mannerisms.” To bulk up for the role, Warburton ate a lot of burgers and ice cream while also smoking unfiltered cigarettes. He gained so much weight that Devor was worried that his leading man might not fit into his period wardrobe.

The film was shot on 35mm color (printed in black and white) for $800,000 in and around Los Angeles in 38 days over a four-month period dictated by Warburton’s guest spots on the NewsRadio sitcom. Much of it was shot on weekends while Devor continued to work as an advertising copywriter during the week. This resulted in a challenging, guerrilla-style film shoot, marked by stealing shots where they could, long hours and no money. “We had to steal locations. I remember getting kicked out of a few locations,” Warburton said in an interview. With little money, Devor had to find locations that didn’t need anything added or taken away. “The secret was to spend a little money on locations that had flavor of the period.” He also used a lot of close-ups so that much of the set wasn’t visible. The black and white look also lent to the period feel.

The Woman Chaser imagines the film director as noir protagonist, applying the genre’s moody aesthetics to the tale of a man making a movie. For all of its absurd humor, it does say something poignant about the creative process. Where does the creative spark come from and how do we tap into it? Richard has a burning desire to tell a story and is willing to risk everything to realize his vision. It is his way or nothing. Artists should be free of convention and be allowed to think outside of the box. Convention stifles creativity and one has to admire Richard’s commitment to his artistic vision even if some of his methods are questionable. His uncompromising nature transforms him into a doomed noir protagonist as he sees his world unravel. This pushes The Woman Chaser beyond simple satire into something else – a hard-boiled ode to pursuing one’s artistic vision, consequences be damned.


SOURCES

Cullum, Paul. “The Man Who Got Away.” L.A. Weekly. July 19, 2000.

Dargis, Manohla. “The Movie Chasers.” L.A. Weekly. September 3-9, 1999.

Johnson, G. Allen. “The Woman Chaser: Brilliant Film Bombed; It’s Back.” San Francisco Gate. February 24, 2011.


Lybarger, Dan. “The Woman Chaser: Interview with Robinson Devor.” Nitrate Online.com. August 4, 2000.

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