Third Man Out
This is a very difficult movie to review because it’s not just a film – it’s a Donald Strachey film. Having read and adored all the Richard Stevenson Donald Strachey books, I have very fixed idea about the characters. And character is critically important in the novels. Although the plots are incredibly complex and intriguing, it’s really the character of Donald and his relationship with his lover Timmy that are addictive. So, does Chad Allen succeed as Donald Strachey? I had my reservations when I’d heard he’d been cast in the role. I was very wrong in my main assumption that Allen was too camp for Strachey – he’s not at all. The tough detective act is convincing, so I give him credit for that. Allen also has a very impressive body, which he shows off in the film subtlety yet erotically. However, he is just so tiny! Donald has such an amazing physical presence – he solves most of his problems by physically intimidating his victims. Allen had to crane his neck to see most of them! And I know it’s shallow to notice this, but his tiny physical stature sat uneasily with the punchy Strachey persona he captured so well. It was disturbing to see the juxtaposition of the two.
The star of the movie for me was Timmy. Sebastian Spence was physically perfect for the role(once I’d gotten over his unsettling resemblance to Wesley Wyndham Price)—exactly as I had imagined him. He was excellent with the material he was given, perfectly capturing the slightly effete yet doggedly devoted lover. But the great shame of the film is that the writers didn’t exploit this talent and make Timmy the rounded character he is in the book. This portrayal of the relationship between him and Donald didn’t capture the complex delights of the book version. It was distinctly different, much sweeter… one might even say sickly sweet. Donald never once called Timmy darling or sweetheart in any of the books, and it really grated to hear such silly endearments in the film. Donald and Timmy have a stormy, passionate relationship (Donald left his wife for Timmy) and spend most of their time fighting and working uneasily around silences – usually caused by Donald’s bad behaviour. None of this was presented in the film. You have to wonder why. Is the film an attempt to promote a positive gay image, regardless of the intent of the author? Watching the extras, I had to conclude that it was. This is a movie made by gay men with a gay agenda, presumably to present a totally watertight, gay relationship (marriage as Timmy refers to it constantly). What happened to the edgy, brittle love that so caught my imagination in the novels? I still vividly remember in one book Timmy lurching out of the car and vomiting in the gutter when he realises just how Donald had gotten information (a blow job) from a witness. The only thing film-Timmy might vomit is his exquisitely precise martini.
The original book was written in the seventies and fortunately the director decided to set the movie in modern times. I lived through the seventies, and once was enough. However, we now have major plot problems to resolve. The story centres around a collection of files, which contain salacious material on local, closeted, prominent men. In the book the files fall into different hands, get burnt, get saved from the fire – all of this central to the tension of the plot. In the age of databases, boxes of files look rather ridiculous. A laptop was weakly introduced and a website mentioned, but it all seemed rather forced to me. Similarly, the story resolves around the forced outing of the prominent men. Times have changed, and the shock value of being gay just isn’t what it was the seventies and that such blackmail is the centre of the plot didn’t ring particularly true. Would someone now really murder to keep their homosexuality secret?
The film also suffers from what must be the worst casting decision of the decade. John Rutka, the gay activist “outer” who hires Donald to protect him, is described by Stevenson as one of the most beautiful men alive. It’s a deliberate presentation of physical perfection to contrast with a dubiously corrupt soul. Much of the great tension and comedy of the book revolves around Donald’s reaction to this physical perfection. With his constantly roving eye, Donald is attracted, but he’s revolted (and guilty) at the same time. So, whom do they cast to play this great beauty? Uncle Vic from Queer As Folk! Jack Wetherall may be a recognisable gay actor, but he was clearly very uncomfortable in this role and quite spoilt the film for me every time he was in a scene.
However, despite all of this, I really did enjoy the film. Watched as a film, without any of the Donald Strachey background, it was a good evening’s entertainment. There was enough gay interaction between Timmy and Donald to create more than a warm glow. I missed the sparks of the relationship in the book, but maybe if they make another of the series they’ll feel confident enough to present some of the ambiguities of the novel (but I bet they won’t show the amazing sex Donald has with a gorgeous transgender actress!).
I guess my final thought is that writing this good deserves mainstream treatment, and this film clearly isn’t that. Why can’t a major studio do Stevenson like Fox has done Kathy Reichs? Gay writing is some of the very best writing around and Stevenson is one of its finest exponents.
The next in the series, Shock to the System, has been made but not out on DVD yet. I’ll definitely be buying it. Same cast, same film noir treatment, it looks to be a real treat. I’m not sure Chad Allen will ever be “my” Donald Strachey, but as a standalone gay series, this is pretty damn good.
As always with a TV/film adaptation of a much loved novel (in this case an entire series) I approached this movie with mixed feelings. Right from when I first heard about it and the casting of Chad Allen to play Donald Strachey gay P.I. Allen is at least a decade too young in terms of the book and nothing remotely like Robert Mitchum who Strachey supposedly looks like. Well as it turned out that didn’t matter, though I do have other problems. I accept it’s impossible to get the complexity of a book condensed into a feature length TV movie, so obviously compromises have to be made, bits left out. As it stands I think they did a decent job of it, especially as the novel was written in the 80s and is very much of its period. If the movie (made for gay oriented Here TV channel) brings Richard Stevenson’s work to a larger audience then I’m more than happy. If it inspires Stevenson to write another Strachey novel I’d be delirious.
The 4th Strachey book is one of the most difficult in the series, more outwardly political than the rest. The main theme concerns outing of closeted members of the Albany elite. John Rutka is a passionate activist, a man who stops at nothing to bring out into the open hypocrites like prominent politicians who vote against gay friendly legislation and then go home to their male lovers or use prostitutes to satisfy their desires. Now someone is out to get Rutka who asks Donald to take on his case: he thinks his life is at stake. That Rutka is a pathological liar who uses morally dubious methods to obtain the information that he uses against individuals is only one of Donald’s problems with taking on the job. Rutka uses Don like he uses everyone. However, he turns out to have genuine reason for his determination not to allow men in power to keep their secrets. Despite his misgivings Don takes Rutka’s case simply because if he doesn’t no one else will: the authorities just don’t care about what happens to a gay man especially one with as many enemies as Rutka.
Donald goes after the unknown Third Man (Rutka has a list of 3 names, one of whom will feature in his next report) with his usual grit and resolve, using methods as questionable as Rutka’s. At home is long-term partner Timmy Callahan, an ex seminary boy with a strong sense of right & wrong which this case puts sorely to the test. Apart from anything else the boys need Rutka’s generous cheque to help pay for costly renovations to the dilapidated house they’ve bought for a love nest. As I’ve said, Chad Allen does a good job bringing Strachey to life; however, I wasn’t so happy with what they’ve done to Timmy Callahan. Maybe it’s because the actor reminded me too much of Alexis Denisof’s (pre-Angel) bumbling Wesley? I don’t know. Timmy just seemed to lack required gravitas as well as being too young. They’ve made him rather silly, which might be endearing, but not the character I know and love.
The best aspect of the book is the relationship between Don & Timmy and that carries over into the film. I don’t really care about the rest. Stevenson’s plots are a hook around which he hangs the exploration of a longtime partnership with its ups and downs like any couple, but particular strains because both are men and from different backgrounds and life experience, who love each other but sometimes have a funny way of showing it. This novel features rather less of Timmy than others, so good to see the film kept him around so much, recognising how important the character is to understanding Strachey and, more importantly, to putting onscreen a happy ever after (mostly) gay relationship to balance the more usual portrayal of gay men as carefree bed-hopping gym-addicted party bunnies or self-loathing tragic figures.
The problem is Timmy doesn’t have much to do to explain his presence other than as prop for Strachey, the little woman role, keeping the home fires burning. He’s a Jesuit trained government lawyer not Susie Homemaker but you get little sense of that. I was afraid Chad Allen wouldn’t look macho enough to pull off Don Strachey ex Army Intelligence. Well, he does just fine. Timmy’s character, however, was too camp for my liking- he’s meant to be this Catholic boy struggling with being gay because he doesn’t see himself fitting the stereotype.
We do see how much Don relies on Timmy. What we don’t get so much in the movie is just how conflicted Donald is and what a big step being with Tim represents. There’s no mention of his failed marriage, though some background is given to indicate he has struggled with his sexuality. Part of the problem lies in that it’s a contemporary adaptation of a book written when gay marriage was unheard of, yet in the film that’s how they describe their relationship. I’m not sure Don would be quite so accepting of that however much he loves Tim. What I did really like was how we’re shown the sexual side of their relationship in short but intensely erotic and beautifully done scenes…for romance plus sex I forgive all the rest!
If you haven’t read the books you won’t have these problems. I enjoyed the movie despite them. I applaud Here for bringing Strachey to the screen- maybe they’ll ‘discover’ Joseph Hansen’s Brandstetter once they’ve done the Strachey books! I loved the look of the film, very hardboiled detective in the classic tradition, with washed out colours and an old-fashioned air that fitted its original setting, though with modern touches like computers, websites and cellphones. What’s really very sad is just how little they needed to update the central plot about outing. You’d think in 20+ years we’d have moved along in terms of tolerance and acceptance of gay people. Well I suppose we have in many ways. Except there is still reluctance- with good reason- for prominent people to be openly gay. The more we see stories like this one as part of mainstream entertainment, where a gay relationship is shown as just the same as a straight one, the better. If you’re new to Strachey you’re in for a treat. Watch the movie then go get the series in book form. If you’re already a fan then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. The essence of the books we love is there.