Vancouver cult classic Skip Tracer comes home

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      Skip Tracer makes another of its periodic stops at the Cinematheque on Monday (February 1), reminding us again that one of the all-time great Canadian movies is a Vancouver special through and through. Made a little more than 10 years before Expo by rookie filmmaker Zale Dalen, Skip Tracer captures Vancouver as a frigid city-on-the-brink, full of isolation and hard light, the perfect interzone for its tale of cold-blooded debt collector John Collins (David Petersen) whose sociopathic cool begins to crack as he races for his fourth consecutive “Man of the Year” award at a seedy finance company.

      Skip Tracer is really coming out of the reality of that time,” says Dalen, in a call to the Straight from his home in Nanaimo. “I’m very proud of lots of things about it, and one of them is that it was kind of predictive. This whole consumer society was just gearing up. That’s a lot of what the film is about and people recognize that as kind of an interesting historical thing.”

      He was clearly tapping into a fresh current of global anxiety that transcended the film’s regional voice. Skip Tracer was met with considerable domestic acclaim on its release in 1977, but an intense cult devotion took hold in the UK and Germany in the ‘80s. With each homecoming, it returns to a denser and ever more callous Vancouver.

      Dalen was just shy of 30 when he made his debut feature, recalling a shoot with“a lot of vibes going on,” including a bipolar wardrobe supervisor who went off the rails and key personnel caught up in some ugly relationship issues. “I also ended up firing my best friend, which was really, really hard to do,” he says, softly. “You end up firing your best friend, and you wonder what the film is costing you.”

      Still, the results buzz with the energy of youth and talent, set to guerilla mode. Dalen cops to the stylistic debt owed to Francis Coppola’s dour 1974 thriller, The Conversation—“It was the intensity and the moral stance it was taking that was such an influence on Skip Tracer,” he says—with Petersen holding everything together as he magically fashions a sympathetic character out of a hardboiled asshole. Dalen found his lead (and a few supporting players) at the Tamahnous Theatre, which happened to sit right next to his office. “I was so fortunate, I knew I had the man there,” he says of Petersen, whose character on the page had all the personality of a torture device. This is a man whose Kitsilano apartment is decorated with nothing but a CB radio and a set of weights.

      “I thought that was a wonderful image of a guy who has really stripped himself down to the bare essentials,” says Dalen. “He’s a super hustler, energetic, very ambitious, shallow in his attitudes towards life and victims of the system. There’s a thing in the movie that only one person I know of has caught, when he’s kicked out of his private office and he puts the picture of his wife and kids underneath the blotter on his desk. For me, that’s the whole back story. He’s the guy who sacrificed everything in his personal life to be successful in his business role, and it turned him into an automaton who just does the work.”

      Vancouver theatre vet John Lazarus is equally memorable as a bumbling newbie who wants to partner with Collins and mainline some of the incumbent Man of the Year’s winning amorality. More chilling than either of them is a bellicose colleague (he heckles a stripper at one point) played by the mysterious entity Rudy Szabo. “Rudy was a wonderful guy,” says Dalen. “He was a steel worker, not really an actor, but what I loved about him, of course, was the face. Holy shit—what a face.”

      Permanently damaged friendships, steel workers, debt, debt, debt—behold Vancouver’s ‘70s gestalt bleeding into 16mm celluloid.

      Dalen’s future was looking good after Skip Tracer, but only as good as Canada’s anaemic film industry. A script about cocaine trafficking went unmade, written a few years before the drug would become the defining black bag commodity of the Reagan administration, pointing again to Dalen’s clairvoyance. There was talk of making a kung fu movie with Toronto’s Robin Spry, whose political thriller One Man had impressed Dalen, not least of all because it was made through the NFB. (He didn't like them and “they didn’t like me,” he laughs. “I had a terrible reputation at the time.”)

      He remembers meeting filmmaker Phillip Noyce at the Toronto International Film Festival. “A delightful bloke,” he says. “We had a great talk, and we were essentially equal in our careers in terms of what we’d done. He’d just finished Newsfront, which I thought was a fabulous movie, and we ended up buddying up in the bar. But he had the cachet of being Australian.” Dalen, in contrast, had the burden of being Canadian. Noyce went off to join the A-list in LA, while Dalen “never managed to make that jump. I ended up going into television.”

      His whacked 1990 feature Terminal City Ricochet has its fans, largely thanks to Jello Biafra (“I loved working with him”) and its creative debt to Vancouver’s punk scene, but it was a deeply compromised enterprise. “I enjoyed making it but the guy that was pissing in the soup was [producer] John Conti,” he says. “He had this punk rock advisor who kept turning it into a political statement. He’d write three pages of political diatribe that was just unplayable, so I got into huge conflicts with the producer, and everybody. At one point the production guarantor decided to bring in a line producer to make sure that we actually got the movie made, and it kinda went off the rails. It didn’t quite work. On the other hand, it’s a fun movie, and I absolutely love it!”

      Dalen entered civilian (ie. non-movie) life in the early 2000s, although he’s recently been busy over at posting some pretty charming personal work. The gregarious Genie-nominee remains far too modest about his film career—“I didn’t have the chops, I wasn’t quite smart enough, I didn’t quite make it, you know? I’ll take full responsibility”—but even he can’t ignore the mojo that still radiates from his debut. “Artistically I feel Skip Tracer was a huge success. It did exactly what I hoped and intended it would do,” he says. “It’s the film that just won’t die.”

      Skip Tracer screens at the Cinematheque on Monday (February 1) with Zale Dalen in attendance