A review requested by manwithpetgull, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The Woman Chaser has a teeny-tiny cult following, and this confuses me. It should have an extremely large cult following. Which is a contradiction, of course, and I mean... surely you know what I mean. Just for the fact that it's one of the only movies starring Patrick Warburton in the lead role, nestled right after his career-making run of episodes as a guest star on Seinfeld and just before The Emperor's New Groove and the short-lived live-action version of The Tick, the two properties that are mostly responsible for inaugurating the outrageously oversized affection some of us have for the deadpan, gravel-voiced actor (The Venture Bros., of course, solidified this process). Also, The Woman Chaser is a pastiche of film noir and the midcentury hard boiled L.A. fiction of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain done up as a satire of the filmmaking process. Basically, all of the ingredients you'd want to line up for a film to have breathless, worshipful fans who force it into the consciousness of all the rest of us over the years. And I guess it does have those fan, but there's only like, dozens of them, and it's now 18 years later as I write this, and The Woman Chaser remains obscure far beyond what you'd expect from the thing it is.

It's obscure far beyond anything it deserves, too. The Woman Chaser isn't, like, among the all-time great jokes at the expense of filmmaking or anything, but it's pretty enormously watchable (incidentally, you know how sometimes film critics like to complain about having to numerically quantify the quality of movies? Here I am, complaining away, and asking you to pretend that I didn't have to put a score on this one). Not to mention, pretty snappy and smart in the writing. It was adapted by director Robinson Devor from a 1960 novel by tough guy specialist Charles Willeford, with a considerable amount of fidelity as I understand it, but the movie is so much about being a movie that I cannot imagine how it could have worked as well in any other medium. The time is the 1950s, the place is Los Angeles, and the main character is a razor-sharp businessman named Richard Hudson (Warburton). Upon his arrival in Southern California, he looked around at the burgeoning car culture and decided quite quickly and quite rightly that the way to make his tiny fortune would be as a used-car dealer. Having thus carved out his cynical, slimy chunk of the American Dream, and finding himself bored in his success, Richard sets his sights on the only industry in L.A. more morally compromised than selling used cars, and decides that the real money is in making movies.

That'll do for a précis, and there's not much of a point in going any deeper: The Woman Chaser has a fully-developed plot and all, but watching it, it feels rather more like a string of anecdotes than a proper story. Basically, the film presents a chain of scenes in which Richard has to interact with some quickly-drawn figure of mildly exaggerated, grotesque character: his producer/father-in-law Leo (Paul Malevich), a pathetic sort whose prized possession is an ugly clown painting; his vaguely deranged mother (Lynnette Bennett); his horny but naïve stepsister Becky (Marilyn Rising); the down-rent movie executive (Ernie Vincent) at Mammoth Picture who agrees to finance Richard's bizarre, morbid project about a truck driver who runs over a little girl, The Man Who Got Away. Some of these people have something Richard wants; sometimes what he wants is just for them to get the hell out of his hair so he can focus on directing his magnum opus, which he grows increasingly certain is a radical, groundbreaking work that will stand as one of the great pieces of cinema.

We never see a frame of The Man Who Got Away, an exceptionally wise choice, since it allows the question of whether Richard is a genius or an arrogant bully and charlatan to remain open right up till a final scene that's downright Lynchian in its collapse of sanity and insanity, cinematic realism and surrealism, into one dazed tracking shot. What we do see is Richard in his full glory, and quite a thorny character he is. There is absolutely no sense in which he's a decent or likable man: he's loud and caustic, wholly dismissive of any viewpoint that's even a hair different than his own, a flatly amoral and selfish sexual partner (though calling him a "woman chaser" hardly seems right, given his pragmatic disinterest in sex even when he's having it).

And yet, still... the movie is entirely beholden to his perspective and his worldview. He narrates, and he is always, transparently smarter than the rest of the people in the film. As performed by Warburton, he of an almost comically square jaw and rich deadpan baritone, Richard is a hell of a seducer, selling us on his manic dream just as thoroughly as he sells it to the rest of the cast. Everything the character says and does is enormously off-putting; but he's off-putting with such charisma! It's entirely impossible to conceive of this film working without Warburton; the actor's precise mixture of generic movie star looks, ability to sound haughty and cruel without trying, and immaculate comic timing are critical in striking the balance whereby Richard is both appalling and captivating, sometimes during the same action. One wants to like Richard, even as he certainly does not deserve to be liked, which is as much as anything part of the film's satire. Handsome movie stars playing witty characters who concoct clever schemes are supposed to be attractive; so we are drawn to Richard.

It makes as much sense as anything. The Woman Chaser is a pretty thoroughgoing critique, satire, and parody of film noir and independent filmmaking, including itself (several times, it is offered as holy wisdom that movies must be exactly 90 minutes long, something that has never been true in the American film industry; but would you care to guess, to the minute, how long The Woman Chaser is?). Films are explicitly described as the art form you end up with when you're not talented, and the laborious task of financing an independent production is so mindlessly achieved as to invite scorn. It's as nasty to filmmakers as anything I can immediately think of, nastiest of all too filmmakers who create pulpy little tales of grubby people made on the cheap; exactly the bin that The Woman Chaser falls into, naturally enough.

The film's sense of humor (which is almost entirely impossible to characterise without just rattling off gags, and who wants that), and Warburton's note-perfect performance, are enough to demand that The Woman Chaser be taken seriously; but Christ knows, it's not a movie for everybody. It is pitch-black comedy, for one, with an apocalyptic view of human beings in general, and a great enthusiasm for letting its female characters twist in the wind. It's also a film that's rather more cunning and clever than it is actually funny, though that might just be me. And, quite unfairly of me, it's a film deeply in need of some kind of restoration before I can commit to calling it well-shot. The black and white cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau (shooting on color stock) might be gorgeous - and it's certainly high-contrast enough to be uniquely striking - but it's also muddy in ways that feel more a matter of how the negative has been stored than how it was meant to look.

But it's all a hell of a thing, anyway. It's not completely original; by the time this came out, the Coens had been doing their "sarcastic travesty of midcentury clichés" routine for a few years already, and there's unmistakable resonances with both Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski here, without those films' ingenuity. That being said, "oh, this pastiche of classic and contemporary film norms with a brilliantly warped central performance isn't up to the standards of Barton Fink" is just about the most unfair bar one can set for a period film about midcentury L.A., and if The Woman Chaser ends up feeling like a resource-strapped late-'90s indie in a lot of ways, it is a surpassingly ambitious, strange, and enjoyable one.