You can’t quite get your hands around The Woman Chaser, and that’s all for the good.
It’s a heap of contradictions that absolutely refuses to be compartmentalized. You’ll either love this slice of humorous sociopathic angst (and yes, in The Woman Chaser, there is such a thing as sociopathic angst) or (as some critics did) attempt to corner it as something it’s not. What it is, is vintage Charles Willeford (who was also adapted in two other underrated classics— Monte Hellman’s Cockfigher and George Armitages’s Miami Blues) and so true to the author that his widow approved every frame of this underseen treasure.
Directed by Robinson Devor, whose only credit up to this point was a wonderfully weird 30 minute documentary about Hollywood billboard phenom Angelyne (he has since directed Police Beat which I need to see and the infamous horse sex documentary, Zoo. You can’t say Devor isn’t multi-faceted) The Woman Chaser is something of a lost film. Released in 1999, the picture is still only available on VHS (according to my colleague Sean Axmaker, a small amount of DVDs were released, exclusive to Hollywood Video. They are sadly, OP.) and even that’s out of print. For whatever reason the picture hasn’t been released, regrettable for all those viewers who missed the picture in theaters. It’s an unnerving, hilarious slice Los Angeles life and wildly unique on top.
Adapted from pulp novelist Willeford’s 1960 novel of the same name and filmed (gorgeously) in a black and white transfer (from a color print), The Woman Chaser is faithful to its beautifully seedy genre. It’s serious, to a point, but never plays it straight, always aiming for a cockeyed joke that’s both reflexive and perfectly in tune with the picture. And yet, somehow it manages to refrain from something that’s especially annoying when it comes to film noir (probably my favorite genre of film) — tired ironic send-up. I can only imagine how tough it was to craft such an arch, subversive film that remains, to the very last frame, weirdly understated, but Devor is intelligent and talented enough to handle the task.
The story begins circa 1960 with grifter Richard Hudson (a brilliant Patrick Warburton, best known from Seinfeld and The Tick) fresh from San Francisco, purchasing a used car dealership in his hometown of Los Angeles. He’s a gifted, unscrupulous salesman (“anyone and everyone can be bought” he believes) who makes his dealers wear Santa Claus suits in the middle of summer. Richard preys on people’s vulnerabilities with a twisted logic that’s too complex to classify as mere evil—it's some personality quirk that’s all his own (for instance, he seduces an old woman collecting pennies for the church to see if she could be bought and also beds a teenager with the intent to harshly educate her). With obvious Oedipal fixation, he moves back home with Mother (Lynette Bennett), an aging beauty living in a Sunset Blvd. style mansion with her washed up Hollywood director of a husband, the gentle milquetoast Leo Steinberg (a great Paul Malevitz).
After a delicate, then frenzied (and hilarious) session of ballet dancing with Mother (one of the picture’s highlights), Richard comes to the conclusion that his life is meaningless unless he creates something ("Isn't making money the reason for existence?"). More specifically if he creates a work of art. Since other arts take too much time and skill to learn, Richard reckons that writing and directing a movie is just the thing. Convincing Leo to back him, he concocts the very Detour-esque B-noir The Man Who Got Away, a grim, existential tale about a truck driver who flees his life, then accidentally kills a little girl and is chased down by a vigilante mob. You never get to see the entire picture, but what you witness looks to be more than likely, soulful, gritty brilliance. I want to see this movie.
Releasing the picture proves difficult as it clocks in at 63 minutes (too short for theater s and too long for television), but Richard will not compromise—he will neither cut nor lengthen the thing and so, well, I won’t reveal what happens. The actions, philosophizing and points of Richard moving from conception to actual filmmaking are too intriguing to spoil, but one thing is for certain: Richard is a born auteur. He’s also a cold blooded narcissist (“To me!” he toasts while dipping in a pool) but a sensitive lug in moments of stress—somehow the son of a bitch cries, endearingly believably.
But then that could be an act—you have no idea with this character. Thanks to the refreshingly barrel-chested Warburton and his bombastic, staccato yet wry and enigmatic performance, the picture delivers an off-kilter world where absurd, scummy and sublime intermingle right on the edge. His performance lives in a movie that reveals a fascinating, yet strangely familiar insanity true to the spirit of Los Angeles where you can feel violated, entertained and inspired in the same twenty minutes.
Sophisticated and kookily innovative, Devor’s direction isn’t simply retro-nostalgia showing off its lovely mid century modern architecture and kitsch (though that is lovingly filmed). No, the City of Angels is a slick, rotting kingdom of scrubbed up close-ups, skewed angles—a twisted, cocky and wormy land that will fight your creativity and vision at any chance. With that, violently defending your work (which Richard does—and that’s all I will say) is the wicked solution but in the end, oddly inspirational.