Trouble is My Business (2018) 113 min.
A Lumen Actus Production directed by Tom Konkle
(This review originally appeared in the print publication The Dark Pages: The Newsletter for Film Noir Lovers, March/April 2018 issue.)
I’m sure there’s an axiom written down somewhere for people involved in any creative endeavor: the more time that separates you from any historical era, the harder it is to recreate it. It’s certainly true of film noir. If you have enough money, you can replicate the suits, the dresses, the cars, the hairstyles, and all the rest. That’s the easy part. The real challenge is in deciding whether you’re going to do a homage or a parody, a tribute or a send-up. That decision will determine the writing, acting, direction, pacing, and practically every aspect of the project. Trouble is My Business is that rare film that manages to give audiences a visual noir feast as the backdrop of an excellent story, all the while incorporating comedic elements that never waver into the territory of parody.
Even from the very beginning, we sense we’re in good hands. A lonesome trumpet yearns over a piano and strings as the credits appear in a font that could be a first cousin to the one used in Double Indemnity. Outside a city building, a man wearing a trench coat and a fedora waits. A sedan approaches, its headlights burning into the night before the car stops. The man gets in and with the upper portion of his face illuminated, says to the driver, “Take me to the cemetery. She’s still alive.”
In a flashback (What film noir is complete without one?) we learn that the man in the trench coat is Roland Drake (Tom Konkle), a P.I. facing an eviction notice and feeling the aftereffects of a failed missing persons case. Into his office walks Catherine Montemar, a dark-haired beauty in a black dress handing Drake another missing persons case: Catherine’s father has just disappeared and she fears her sister may be next. As easily as Catherine walks into Drake’s office, she also slides into his bed, but the next morning Drake wakes up alone with blood-soaked sheets. As Drake tries to process this, there’s a knock on his door. A loud knock.
As with most good film noir stories, this is just the beginning.Trouble is My Business is filled with familiar film noir touches that will surprise audiences not by their inclusion, but rather by the care taken in breathing life into them. It’s easy to make a scene more “noirish” by adding slanted shadows from window blinds, slowly spinning ceiling fans and two-piece rotary telephones, but not so easy to have the essence of noir seep through. Case in point: when Jennifer Montemar (Brittney Powell) hires Drake to find out what happened to her sister Catherine, Drake isn’t quite sure she’s on the level. Drake’s skepticism is conveyed visually as he circumnavigates both his desk and the seated Catherine, all the while walking in the shadows of the ceiling fan. The camera follows both players in this cat-and-mouse game as Drake gains confidence and Catherine loses hers. Or does she? It’s a moment that’s better than it has to be. Seasoned noir audiences notice and appreciate such things.
Fans will also appreciate a tip of the hat to several classic noir films. Caspar Gutman’s story of the black bird in The Maltese Falcon (1941) comes to mind during Jennifer’s tale of a stolen family diamond. A nice Vertigo (1958) moment occurs when Drake stands outside the Montemar mansion looking in. A movie marquee in the background of one scene announces the showing of Build My Gallows High, the novel on which Out of the Past (1947) was based. Such touches are most welcome, like an unexpected visit from an old friend.
Konkle’s performance as Drake is everything a noir fan could ask for: an average Joe with an everyman face, a wise-cracking manner, and that precarious balance of intensity and indifference that eludes so many actors attempting P.I. roles. Powell (Stacy’s Mom) is stunning as Jennifer: tough and desperate, vulnerable and vehement, coy and aggressive. Although Vernon Wells as Detective Barry Tate goes a bit over the top, the supporting performances are generally excellent. (Jana Banker does more acting with her eyes in a few brief moments as a hotel receptionist than most actors can do given an hour.)
Director Konkle stays true to the roots of film noir, yet isn’t afraid to have fun. Trouble is My Business has a strong noir look and structure that will appeal to veteran film noir fans while the action and comedic elements could win over less-seasoned audiences. Such a balancing act is hard to pull off, but Konkle and company have done a masterful job doing so. Trouble is My Business is a marvelous independent film that deserves a wide audience. You can visit the film's website and watch the trailer there (or here, below). The film is available on various streaming and digital platforms. You can also find Blu-ray and DVD editions of the film, including both color and black-and-white versions, at Amazon, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, and other online retailers.