Director, Writer, Editor: Zale Dalen
Producer: Laara Dalen
Cinematographer: Ron Orieux
Music: J Dodd, Linton Garner
Highlight Communications; 94min; color
David Peterson (John Collins), John Lazarus (Brent Solverman)
Back when Canada’s tax shelter movement was in full bloom, which encouraged dentists and lawyers to make movies with a 100% tax write-off, there were still films that didn’t attempt to be ersatz Hollywood commercial product, which was the norm for tax shelter fare. Take Skip Tracer. This unsettling work opened in 1977 to good reviews on the festival circuit, and then, like all Canadian cinema not done by David Cronenberg, didn’t play well at the box office and slipped away, only to be occasionally revived in second-run venues whenever they do a “Best of…” Canadian retrospective, or to be shown on Bravo (when they still showed films to honour their CanCon requirements, instead of “Flashpoint” reruns. It only once made a fleeting appearance on home video (released to VHS under the title Deadly Business).
Skip Tracer is guerilla filmmaking at its finest. Shot in roughly a month in the fall of 1976 for $145, 000, this is a lean, mean movie that unsparingly depicts the dirty things people must do to make a living. Our “hero” is John Collins, a repo man who is in a slump. Usually he is the top man of the year in terms of successfully collecting from delinquent debtors. During his downtime, he shows the ropes to an eager young man, Brent Solverman. Through Collins, we learn that the trick to surviving this business is to be heartless.
Collins is a quick-witted cynic who seldom finds anything cheerful in his life. When I first saw this film, I wasn't too crazy about David Peterson's performance: I thought he was straining too hard- straining with too much emphasis in his dialogue. On repeated glances, however, I realize that this is probably how Collins would act- playing over the top to perhaps disguise his shallow interior.
Sometimes Collins doesn’t practice what he preaches, as there are moments when he lets his humanity precede his call of duty. Perhaps it is for this reason that he is no longer is the top dog of the company; as a result he no longer has a private office, and his effects have been moved to the common, open concept section of the bureau. It seems that Collins is as much at war with the competition in the office as the people who owe money. Most tellingly, he gets stabbed by someone he attempts to collect from.
The key to Skip Tracer’s success is its constant element of surprise. The identity of his assailant remains unsolved. Even the resolution of his consistent efforts to collect from a recurrent foil named Pettigrew, is shocking. We are mostly observing a few moments in Collins' life. Therefore the film is as disjointed and uneven as life is, just as in the films of John Cassavetes or his greatest disciple, Rob Nilsson. All scenes in the film serve less to tell a story than to witness different facets of his character. A more conventional film would naturally have the identity of the stabber resolved, or Collins' new partner would come to his rescue (if anything, Brent practically disappears from the plot, just as life could have it). This incident nonetheless is the catalyst for Collins’ change in character.
Not too long before this scene, Collins is subtly trying to tell a client to get a loan through a bank instead of through his company, because the man would get charged a higher interest rate by this firm. After he recuperates from his wound, Collins adapts a "fuck you" approach to everyone: the clients who always give him the runaround, and the agency that is always screwing him.
This striking film is written, directed and edited by Zale Dalen and produced by his wife Laara. The film is mostly shot in long, single takes, which add to the element of surprise. The frame is so wide that anything could intervene. One memorable segment features Collins hammering away at a drain pipe that one of his deadbeats is hiding in. It is so uncomfortable to watch, as there are no safe cutaways- you are being forced to watch just what Collins puts up with in his daily routine. But also Dalen has a great eye for detail. Occasionally he will cutaway to involuntary gestures that people make, so you can really tell what they're thinking behind all that tough talk.
Filmed in canvases muddy browns and heightened whites, Skip Tracer has a washed-out look that compliments the gritty material. Shot in the less picturesque avenues of Vancouver, this film is also an impressionistic essay about the cramped world in which Collins lives. His realm is a claustrophobic office space with papers a mile high, a tiny bachelor apartment, seedy strip joints, bungalows with crying kids and expensive TV sets, and flat undeveloped suburbia with fancy houses in which ten-cent millionaires hide.
Skip Tracer puts to shame most of what passes itself off as Independent cinema today. In contemporary usage, this term has been homogenized enough so that films with commercial ambitions made by smaller studios fall under this banner. It also puts to shame the mitigating factors that affect much of our country’s artists. After the critical success of this film, Zale Dalen’s follow-up picture, The Hounds of Notre Dame, was poorly handled, and has largely remained unseen, even in the usual slipshod ways in which Canadians must stoop to view their own country’s cinema. Dalen’s resume of sporadic feature films includes the futuristic punk fantasy Terminal City Ricochet, and the unreleased ensemble romantic comedy, Passion. Like many of our filmmakers who remained north of the border, he had spent much of his career directing television, as the feature films got fewer and further between.
Nonetheless, Skip Tracer is a dark horse milestone in Canadian cinema. It is a movie that didn’t deserve its early retirement from the limelight, but still, because it is an unsettling piece that one never truly shakes off, it keeps re-entering our psyche for play dates on the revival circuit. However you can see this, Skip Tracer is essential viewing.
(updated from a piece in ESR #3)