[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
Los Angeles, circa 1950. The mood is set with sharp b&w photography, kitschy Polynesian-tinged lounge music and salsa-laced jazz. The Capitol Records building looms large in the background of impeccably composed shots. Patrick Warburton (doomed to spend his life remembered as Puddy from the sitcom Seinfeld) strides onscreen, jaw locked in single-minded determination, voiceover narration dripping with matter-of-fact contempt for the chumps he’s about to fleece with his newly purchased used car lot. “Isn’t making money the reason for existence?” he explains with deadpan sincerity.
Warburton’s smarmy Richard Hudson is a small-time misanthrope and womanizer with a perverse relationship to his mother (Lynette Bennett), a former ballerina who stares at herself naked during heart-to-heart talks with her son. It only gets weirder from here.
Bored with his life and tired of passionless sexual conquests, he’s inspired to make his own film: The Man Who Got Away, a road movie of doom and existential angst (imagine a collision of Detour and Vanishing Point). With the help of his father-in-law Leo (Paul Malevitz), a one-time Hollywood producer on the outs, Hudson pours his soul into this bargain basement feature, expressing his whole sour take on life into a masterpiece. (Of course, we have only his dubious word on this assessment.) When the studio hijacks his vision, he becomes downright psychopathic and goes on a violent, vicious, thoroughly irrational reign of vengeance.
Director Robinson Devor, adapting Charles Willeford’s pulp novel of toxic, self-justified human amorality, lovingly crafts a B-movie vision of L.A. past. Warburton looks every inch the thick beefcake would-be star, a Richard Egan or John Payne, just the kind of leading man this low-budget thriller would have landed had it actually been made in 1958.
Warburton, with his thick face and flat baritone delivery, never actually sinks into parody, though his straight-faced, self-deluding delivery does have its moments of complete weirdness, such as Hudson’s lumbering, mind-boggling ballet duet with his mother. But when it comes time for him to sink into cold, psychotic malevolence, Warburton is too removed from the character’s curdled core to sell the part.
Devor, meanwhile, gooses the picture with an undercurrent of camp as if to cut the venom of Hudson’s sociopathic dive, and directs the rest of the cast with an overbaked sense of theatrics. That’s the danger of nostalgic genre pastiche, but it’s hard to fault him completely. The Woman Chaser is a highly entertaining film that still packs much of the punch and the offbeat quirkiness of Willeford’s sociopathic novel, but Devor wears his cynicism like a borrowed suit. It’s just not a convincing fit.