P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968) ****

Exceptional down-and-dirty thriller and throwback film noir woefully underrated on release but with a brilliant mystery (or two), a touch of satire, red herrings, some great lines, and believable characters. Private eye P.J. Detweiler (George Peppard) is so down on his luck he is willing to play the lover so an errant wife can be photographed in a motel room. What little he earns goes on paying is debts. So he can hardly reject the chance of serious money as bodyguard to Maureen (Gayle Hunnicutt), mistress of rich businessman William Orbison (Raymond Burr), never mind that she initially treats him as a servant.

Orbison has a legendary mean streak – to save on paper secretaries have to type closer to the edge of the sheet, he forces wife Betty (Colette Gray) to account for every dime of her allowance to the point of almost making her beg. Sadism is another character trait. He enjoys watching animals die. The childless millionaire adds his mistress to his will for the sole purpose of upsetting every other potential heir. In front of guests at a prestigious party he forces Betty to acknowledge Maureen’s existence.

The title was changed for British audiences and came from a line in the film.

This apparently wealthy world is riddled with seedy inhabitants, whose only motivation is  greed, all desperate to retain status or inheritance and enjoying Orbison’s largesse, which, despite his miserly nature, he nonetheless flaunts. As well as Betty enduring ritual humiliation to enjoy a gilded lifestyle, his executive assistant Jason (Jason Evers) accepts being treated as a gofer in order to keep his position and the perks that go with it, and Maureen makes no bones about prostituting herself for temporary and future gain. Everyone has to kowtow, even the occupants of a West Indian island dependent on Orbison for investment, not only a kids choir welcoming Orbison on arrival, but a calypso performer singing a song in his praise.

As various threats, including narrowly missing a bullet, are made against Maureen, making a classical entrance in a red dress and alternating between helpless victim and femme fatale, with her creepy manservant Quell (Severn Darden) reporting her every move, inevitably Detweiler grows closer to his client, unaware that Orbison is planning to have someone killed.

That someone turns out to be Jason, whom Orbison suspects of clandestine activity with his wife, and whom Detweiler innocently kills. As this takes place on the island, where the death is hushed up, Detweiler begins to wonder if he’s a patsy and, paid off by Orbison, undertakes his own investigation, quickly entering more dangerous waters, viciously beaten up at Quell’s behest in a gay bar, narrowly avoiding death in the subway and literally finding himself in the firing line.

Detweiler’s character undergoes transition, too. From begging for scraps and turning the other way so as not to jeopardize easy income, he rediscovers his suit of shining armor, walking down some pretty mean streets, a diligent private eye who can no longer be bought off, determined to get to the bottom of what turns out to be a complicated mystery. Detweiler is no Marlowe or even Tony Rome, but rather despicable at the outset, employing all sorts of dodges, his interest in Maureen not slackening even after he knows she indulges in a quickie with Orbison. He takes too much at face value.

The unfolding mystery is superbly handled, involving proper clues and investigation, shoot-outs and fisticuffs, the outcome not what you might initially imagine. Although primarily an old school private eye picture, it’s great fun, with some wonderful comedy involving a dog, gentle satire on the West Indian island where political whitewash is the order of the day, and some touching romantic foreplay.

Peppard (Tobruk, 1967) is outstanding as the dupe who rediscovers his moral compass and his Detweiler is an excellent addition to the ranks of the private eye.  Raymond Burr, a far cry from his Perry Mason (1957-1966) television persona,  is easily one of the worst screen millionaires in his contempt for humanity and with his silver hair and bulk and scheming proves a slick adversary. Gayle Hunnicutt (Eye of the Cat, 1969) is allure on legs, brilliantly playing every man in sight, eyes never diverted from the prize.

Brock Peters (The Pawnbroker, 1964) has a standout cameo as the island’s cynical police chief. Susan Saint James (The Name of the Game, 1968-1971) makes her movie debut as Orbison’s slinky sex-mad niece.  Also putting in an appearance are Wilfrid Hyde-white (The Liquidator, 1965) as the island’s sycophantic governor, Colleen Gray (Red River, 1948) as the humiliated wife, Severn Darden (The President’s Analyst, 1967) as the odious Quell and John Ford regular John Qualen (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962).

This was the second of director John Guillermin’s George Peppard trilogy following The Blue Max (1966) and prior to House of Cards (1968). Generally dismissed as a journeyman, Guillermin brings a sly eye to this picture, the send-up of British colonialism, the master-servant aspects, an over-the-shoulder shot of an unknown assassin, the scenes in a bar which doubles as Detweiler’s office, the brutal beating in the gay bar, and a brilliant subway sequence adding layers to the movie. He is bold in his use of close-ups with Hunnicutt, some compositions almost a homage to the Bogart-Bacall chemistry, and brings out a world-weary performance from the usually cocky Peppard.

Philip Reisman Jr. (All the Way Home, 1963) fashioned the screenplay, delivering one of cinema’s most memorable final lines.