Fletch (1985)

Getting the story, one quip at a time

Irwin Fletcher, Fletch to his friends, is an investigative reporter for a Los Angeles newspaper. He writes his columns under the name ‘Jane Doe’ and prefers to work undercover. The tagline for the 1985 comedy Fletch, starring Chevy Chase in the title role, sums up his approach nicely: “Meet the only guy who changes his identity more often than his underwear.”

The film opens with Fletch scouring the beach, gathering info on a drug ring operating off the grungy LA shore. He is approached by Alan Stanwyk (Tim Matheson), a mysterious aviation mogul, who mistakes Fletch for a junkie and offers him $50,000 to shoot him at his home so he can avoid a slow death from bone cancer. Fletch (introducing himself as “Ted Nugent”) doesn’t buy it, suspecting that if a powerful man like Stanwyk is lurking around the beach, he must be involved in the narcotics business. But he agrees to kill Stanwyk (“sure”), walking away with his first serious lead in the drug ring story.

Fletch, directed by Michael Ritchie and based on Andrew Bergman’s adaptation of the popular Gregory MacDonald novel, doesn’t overreach with any journalistic platitudes. It’s more a parody of the crime-film genre than a journo-inspired lampoon. But Fletch’s approach to journalism reflects people’s fantasies of how a reporter works: without hesitation, unattached and dogged, every rough edge smoothed over with a graceful charm.

And while journalists may tweak their personalities to deal with different sources, Fletch becomes whatever character the occasion demands. Under deadline pressure from his editor, Frank Walker (Richard Libertini), and desperate to dig up more information, Fletch visits Stanwyk’s doctor (M. Emmet Walsh) introducing himself as Mr. Babar and complaining of kidney pains:

Fletch does the type of reporting a modern day scribe aspires to in the sense that he is a detective, always out in the field, reporting and gathering. The film serves as a perfect vehicle for Chase to showcase a variety of characters, each cut from the same sassy, irreverent cloth. At Stanwyk’s country club, he dons tennis whites and goes by “John Coctoastan.” While flirting with Stanwyk’s wife, Gail (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson), he stumbles upon his next lead.

If you’ve never seen Fletch, watch it twice to get all the jokes. Throughout this film, the one-liners are rapid; some are so understated that they whiz by before you’ve registered them. This is particularly true for the hastily made-up names that accompany each identity change (Don Corleone, Harry S. Truman, to name a couple). One of the funniest comes when Fletch is “Bob Poon,” an apologetic SEC investigator, and pays a visit to Gail’s father, Stanton Boyd (Kenneth Mars). On his way out, Fletch stops at Boyd’s secretary’s desk, and is able to acquire a source’s contact with a level of stealth that’s hard not to admire.

Eventually, Fletch comes to realize that the drug ring involves the LAPD. He promises to buy his editor “some new deodorant” if he lets him continue tracking the story in Utah. But after breaking into Stanwyk’s realtor’s office in Utah, he goes home to his LA Lakers-adorned apartment to find two cops waiting for him. They plant a bag of heroin at his feet and bring him to the station, where he realizes his editor has informed law enforcement of his story. He is brought to police chief Karlin’s office, where he is pressured not to publish:

Chief Karlin: I’m about to bust that beach open. And I don’t need some penny-ante Woodward and Bernstein to come along and get in the way of my men.

Fletch: Well your men just might be involved in this, I would think that would interest you.

The chief comes back with a likely answer. He’s got a bunch of undercovers, and if Fletch prints his story, it’s going to get in the way of his investigation: “You’re going to make the bad guys more cautious. Makes my job harder. If you print your story this week, and it gets some of my men killed, I can’t have that, Mr. Fletch.”

Fletch doesn’t back down from his intentions to print the story until Karlin places a gun in his face. “I’m a newspaper reporter. You don’t just blow away a reporter,” Fletch pleads, before agreeing not to print the story.

The film came out in 1985, an era when investigative journalism was robust, and the impact of Watergate was still on people’s minds. The hard-hitting, authority-questioning journalist was a hero and protector of the people. And yes, while this is a comedy, Fletch’s character is hopelessly romantic about his job, risking his life with his reporting. He manages to singlehandedly infiltrate this sordid, criminal world, all to the tune of a heavily synthesized keyboard score.

After his near-death experience, Fletch returns to the newsroom, to an unsympathetic editor:

Frank: Fletch, I need an article from you by tomorrow. And I don’t want any of these unsubstantiated charges about dope dealing cops or any of your horseshit paranoid fantasies about homicidal police chiefs. Give me something I can print!

To which Fletch holds out his middle finger and tells his editor to “print this.”

Fletch proceeds, going incognito with some novelty teeth and trying his luck as an airline technician who casually shares a name with Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy.

All of this resolves in a happy ending. Fletch gets his story printed, and even snags Gail Stanwyk as his new girl. Fletch is the good guy, and because we know that, cutting every corner to get the bad guys is completely acceptable. He sleeps with a source, breaks into private property, approaches every interview subject undercover, even impersonating a government actor, all with a breezy, flippant reserve. Boy, if real journalism were only like this.

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , , , ,