Trouble Is My Business takes its name from a 1950 collection of four short stories written by Raymond Chandler about the private eye Philip Marlowe. This is to say that, from the outset, the film advertises its status as hard-boiled detective pulp fiction, which, in its cinematic versions, means film noir: movies featuring Marlowe like Edward Dmytryk’s Murder , My Sweet (1944), Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), Robert Montgomery’s The Lady in the Lake (1947), John Brahm’s The High Window (aka The Brasher Doubloon, 1947), or later neo-noirs with Marlowe like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Dick Richards’ Farewell My Lovely (1975) and Michael Winner’s The Big Sleep (1978).
The Marlowe-like dick here is Roland Drake, played by Tom Konkle, who also directs and co-writes (with co-star Brittney Powell). His opening line – “Take me to the cemetery – she’s still alive!” – also serves as a programmatic, reflexive comment on the genre which Konkle is disinterring here. For with its dry voice-over, its deep-shadow monochrome, its mid-Forties setting, and its melodramatic orchestral score (by Thomas Chase and Hayden Clement), Trouble Is My Business is less neo-noir than mimetic attempt to resurrect the real deal.
Down on his luck, low on cash and facing eviction, Drake awoke a few days earlier, woozy and alone in his bed but for a big trail of blood on the sheets. The problem is, the person who had shared this bed the night before was Miss Katherine Montemar (Powell) – society dame, client, heiress and femme fatale all wrapped in a body which would now seem to be a cadaver – and what remains of her are photos of Drake in a very compromising position. Struggling to work out what exactly happened to Katherine and why he cannot remember, Drake quickly becomes entangled in a case of multiple missing persons (Katherine’s father and her uncle have also recently disappeared), even as he is haunted by the fallout from a previous job which ended in murder and dented his otherwise solid reputation as a gumshoe.
What ensues will have Drake dancing in the dark with his ex-partner Lew MacDonald (David Beeler), Katherine’s sister Jennifer (also Powell), their wheelchair-bound mother Evelyn (Jordana Capra), Jennifer’s boyfriend John Shannon (Ben Pace), a strange butler (Mark Teich), crooked LA police detective Barry Tate (Vernon Wells), and any number of Russian mobsters, dodgy dealers and corrupt conspirators, all in pursuit of a cursed Montemar heirloom and a little black book filled with scandalous secrets.
The convoluted nature of the plotting, the wise-ass innuendo of the clipped dialogue, and the chiaroscuro lighting all go with the noir territory, while Konkle peppers his film with much more specific allusions to other classics, noir or not. This is very much a pastiche, and the stiltedness of some of the performances and line deliveries only adds to the sense that we have entered a world of pure cinematic artifice.
Trouble Is My Business does, however, for all its narrative complications, come with a certain flatness of tone – as though, in digging up this ossified filmic form, Konkle prefers reverentially to leave it undead rather than fully to resuscitate it. Consequently, none of the film’s many incidents ever quite seems to stand out from any other, or to show any real pulse. The overstretched duration does not help (although it no longer than, say, The Big Sleep). This feels not so much like a noir as like an exercise in noir – cleverly constructed, respectfully realised, but lacking the kiss of life. In a sense, though, perhaps that is the point. Rush to this genre’s grave, and you might find she is not still alive after all, but just a ghost playing in the flickery shadows.
© Anton Bitel