The first word that comes to mind after I first viewed Unsavory Characters is ‘breathless’ as this is about as pure a vision as one can get. I believe in the last couple of decades, film-noir is a term that can and is frequently used a little too freely and out of context when describing certain crime films of recent times. Unsavory Characters is film-noir by definition, in a perfect tribute to films such as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) or in fact any product that comes in the form of some of the great Raymond Chandler pulp-fiction detective novels from that era.
Unsavory Characters is directed by the autonomously audacious Richard W. Haines whose name indie film aficionados will recognize as the co-director of Troma’s Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986) as well his littler seen yet better effort Alien Space Avenger (1989). Not even Haines can put a finger on his own style as he is a self-proclaimed ‘genre filmmaker’ who is like a filmmaking magician who performs honest tricks without use of optical illusions and always has a new bag of tricks up his sleeve.
The film perfectly blends B&W classical film-noir with a more contemporary style of the same genre which allowed director and film pioneer Haines to explore the same themes in different periods. The story concerns a pulp fiction writer Archer Royce (Eric A. Leffler) who is hard at work on his next novel. In finding the right inspiration for his work in progress, Royce places himself inside his own story which aptly takes place circa 1950. The film stock that is used for the segments set in 1950 is the exact type that was used in films of that period. These 1950s segments are my favorite of the film, only because it really looks like an old movie and Haines has achieved that look better than a studio ever could. As the plot in the reality segments further progresses that continues to inspire the 1950s footage (vis-à-vis Royce’s novel). Royce then meets a stunning femme fatale Kristen Bennett (Jacqueline Bowman) which is a vital ingredient when preparing a noirish cocktail. She leads Royce into her world of murder and he soon finds himself a real life character of one of his stories.
Is fantasy inspiring reality or is the other way around, in this cunningly dark take on life imitating art. Haines also used a similar theme is Alien Space Avenger (1989) where art imitated life, only here it is not that simple.
The final product is nothing short of remarkable, as it took Haines and his cinematographers quite a long time to research everything including lighting design to establish an exact replica of the look generated by such forties films as mentioned above. You have to respect a filmmaker that is that attached to their craft and on an extremely limited budget, Haines is able to create miracles of biblical proportions as I could swear that this film cost a small fortune, but it is quite the contrary. The score is also excellent, with all the right things falling into the right places making the film work on many levels. This film mesmerized me; everything from the performances to the aesthetics, no one who worked on this film should go unrewarded.
I am astonished that this film is hardly known to even exist as it is sheer brilliance on celluloid, and I personally think that Richard W. Haines has officially arrived and taken his place on the list of contemporary film marvels. This film deserves more attention, so hopefully I may inspire my readers to snag a copy of this classy film fare.
The DVD has a commentary by Haines which is a film buffs delight as he leaves nothing unsaid about his film. My only relatively small beef is the poor marketing strategy of the company who released the film. The cover models itself after L.A. Confidential (1997) in both font and the coincidence that the female protagonist looks like Kim Basinger. The film is good enough to stand on its own merit, and shouldn’t try and stand in the shadow of another, completely different film. My final word EXCEPTIONAL.