The Donald Strachey Mysteries (TV movies) – review

Title: Third Man Out and Shock to the System
Directed by Ron Oliver
Genre: detective/mystery
URL: Third Man Out at Amazon and Shock to the System at Amazon
Other Information/warnings:Some full frontal nudity and bad language
Summary:Third man Out and Shock to the system are TV movies based on the detective novels by Richard Stevenson

My review:

Don Strachey is a private investigator. He’s ex-army, a straight shooter, brave, tough as nails, rough around the edges and distressingly prone to abusing the blue badge system when parking his grotty little Toyota. Like most PIs, his bread and butter is chasing cheating spouses, and some of them take exception to his snooping. Some of them rather violently. His job’s not glamorous, but he’s good at it. Unusually for this kind of character, he’s happily married and monogamous, with his spouse being supportive of his job.

Don Strachey is also gay. How do we know this? Well, not because he’s hitting bad guys over the head with his handbag, lisping, dressing up in drag, or listening to Barbra Steisand in his car. We know it the way we know a character is straight – by how he sees himself, who he fucks, and who thinks he’s fuckable. He self-identifies, without fuss, as gay, his partner is a man, he’s shown being hit on by gay men who know he’s gay. Don Strachey is the least camp gay character you will ever see on TV, and possibly one of the most interesting.

The character is the creation of Richard Stevenson, and so far there are two TV movies based on the books, Third Man Out and Shock to the System with a third due to be released this year, all directed by Ron Oliver. The films feature the former child actor, Chad Allen as Strachey. Allen is perfectly cast. Not a tall man nor conventionally good-looking, he’s still got presence, charisma – totally believable as ex-Army, he can play the tough scenes as well as the emotionally intense ones with equal ease. He’s got star quality, and he makes the films work.

The first film is weak, especially compared with the second. It mostly serves to introduce the ensemble who come together much more coherently later on. We meet Donald’s spouse, political aide, Tim Callahan (the charming and pretty Sebastian Spence), the bluff, straight-talking Detective Bailey (Daryl Shuttleworth), and the ditzy Kenny Kwon (Nelson Wong) who provides some much needed humour in both films. We get the set up – that Donald left the army because his homosexual affair with an officer was discovered, that he’s been working as a PI long enough to have a bit of a name as the ‘gay detective’, and that he’s in an established relationship with Tim, with whom they’ve just bought a new house. The elements are similar in both films – a ‘gay’ issue is highlighted, Donald is involved because of his reputation, and it becomes very personal to him as he delves into the convoluted plot, solving it with the help of Tim, Detective Bailey, and his own wits and bravery. However, in Third Man Out, the writing lets them down ( the screenwriter was replaced for the second film) and the director goes for some cutesy film noir referencing which just does not work. The acting is also overall much weaker – the alleged crime victim, John Rutke (Jack Wetherall) and his lover, Eddie (Woody Jeffreys) are unattractive characters and the actors don’t play them subtly enough to make them remotely two, let alone, three dimensional. The plot – concerning death threats and murder of Rutke, a gay activist who specialises in outing closeted gays who don’t support gay rights – isn’t subtle either, but it’s really let down by clunky writing, and we end up feeling as manipulated as Strachey does by Rutke. There are some good bits – any scene between Tim and Donald is magic so far as I’m concerned, and Tim on his own is also fun. I also like the fact that they’ve gone against the established clichés with Bailey, and some of the minor characters like the motel manager, while cariactures, are vivid enough to be memorable in their own right. The beautiful Sean Young turning up in a cameo was a bonus as well. As a whole, though, Third Man Out is no masterpiece, and falls towards the low end of TV movies quality.

It would be a shame if it put people off the series though, because Shock to the System is a much better film, a cracking good story, and where you feel the cast and director finally hit their stride. The things that are clumsily handled in the first film – the semi-gratuitous frontal nudity and beefcake scenes – are more gracefully integrated. The writing is much sharper, the film noir references are much more subtle (why yes, that is the Maltese Falcon in Dr Cornell’s office!) and the ‘gay’ issue du jour – reparative therapy – is handled in a much more complex way. The putative villain, Dr Cornell, isn’t particularly villainous, and they avoid the trap of making the people behind the therapy obviously creepy and misguided. Dr Cornell, the owner of the therapy organisation, is played in a nuanced and believable manner by Michael Woods, and Anne Marie Loder is convincing as his wife – you never feel these are bad or evil people, and as it is for Strachey, that in itself is rather disturbing.

The plot is intricate, and kept me guessing right up to the reveal. The issues arising from the story are also intricate. Does being gay ruin your life? Would being ‘cured’ and being able to pass as straight, make it easier for a gay person? Is being gay a choice, and can that choice be unmade? Controversial, painful stuff and this is where Chad Allen’s understated playing of Strachey and the handling of his back story really pays off. It’s a theme which arose and was handled clumsily in the first movie – Strachey’s regrets over past choices, what he lost when he was outed and forced from the army – but here, you see just how very painful it was for him, and how a man like him, who’s not ashamed at all of his sexuality, could still see why some people turn to reparative therapy. The sad thing is of course, is that it’s not the gay people who are sick, but the society which penalises homosexuality and makes it a burden, when it should just be a fact of life. Tim and Donald represent two different ways society forces gay men to change how they want to live their lives, and two different ways of dealing with it. The scenes where they talk about this, to me, were very moving.

But it’s not all serious – there’s some wonderful humour, lots of funny quips and one-liners. Kenny Kwon as the loopy secretary had me in stitches, Tim and Donald had some fast and funny dialogue and Strachey himself gets a fair few zingers to deliver. I adore the way Tim and Donald’s relationship is shown – it’s tender, it’s loving and comfortable. The sexual attraction is there and not shied away from, but they love each other as people and that’s front and centre at all times. It’s another way these two films subvert the way gay characters are shown elsewhere in TV and film.

Cinematically, the pacing is good, the directing is straightforward and decent quality for this kind of film, and the TV movie budget isn’t as limiting for this genre as it would be in others. The cast as a whole works well, and the standard of acting is pretty high. In fact, the only really bad acting comes from Morgan Fairchild in a cameo as the murder victim’s mother – but no one ever accused Ms Fairchild of being a great actress. She’s a B-movie queen and we watch her because she’s pretty, but not half as pretty as the supporting cast! Ladies, I’m telling you – this movie is damn easy on the eye. Shock to the system is heartily recommended.

The Donald Strachey films should not be seen as just gay movies because that presupposes a limited audience. They deserve to be seen by anyone who likes good detective stories, because that’s what they are. These are movies with gay characters, with broad enough appeal for those not particularly concerned with gay issues, to still be interesting and entertaining. In short, it’s exactly where we should be at in the way gay people are portrayed in the media and so very rarely are.