“I’m gonna kick up some dirt”
A senior film student at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, Mike Falconi went noir for his thesis short That Terrible Jazz. The piece has an obvious affinity for past cinematic greats with hard-boiled dialogue, a stoic lead, and the missing persons mystery at its core, but his love for the genre inevitably becomes overshadowed by the resource limitations such a project inherently finds itself combating. It’s tough to critique acting when most of the performers are likely as green as their director, so I’ll just chalk the theatrics to inexperience and move on. The same goes for two confrontation scenes more laugh track-ready than injected with suspense. As a first attempt, however, one should applaud the effort.
Professionally shot with a bottomless budget for cigarettes, Falconi and company have done well scouting locations and dressing everything in a high contrast black and white. Such things help the aesthetic considering the digital medium takes away a lot of the grain that gave character to similar work previously. Rather than go full throttle into the hazy smoke of a The Man Who Wasn’t There or give it a contemporary makeover a la Brick, That Terrible Jazz stays true to tradition with the means made available to an undergraduate. This means shirts and ties, an iconic private detective hat, and an old school rotary phone. Falconi does up the ante on his titles, though, taking a page right out of the 40s for his graying drop shadows.
The story itself is thematically appropriate as local nightclub owner Nicky (Timothy J. Cox) hires the unflappable Sam Sellers (Ephraim Davis) to locate that night’s act’s sax player gone missing. Witnesses like the man in question’s bandmates, possible girlfriend (Elizabeth Alksne‘s Bethany), and potential rival in the musician he replaced (David A. Rodriguez‘s Jimmy) are confronted for spotty stories and half truths until Sellers finds himself putting the pieces together before arriving at the right place at the right time. Some backstory like an impending divorce are sprinkled in to add depth, but in the end Sellers is simply a servant of the law and his own personal code. The relationship revelation only explains an early moment of flirtation of which we didn’t need clarification.
I think the film could have either used more of these details and an expanded runtime for a deeper tapestry or less so we can focus on the case rather than wondering if Seller’s personal issues come into play. The result plays like a vignette from a larger tale, one with more resonate purpose than the domestic issues that a flimsy MacGuffin of a bar show provides the impetus for anyone to even care Wynn DuMont (Gyasi Howard) is gone. There are no stakes—it’s amazing to think how one connected punch resulting in a black eye or bandaged face could bond us to Sellers and enter the film rather than merely watching from the periphery. Little more than a capable fanfic hitting the noir notes, Falconi needs to discover a way to make it his own.
Watch it for yourself on YouTube.