Warren Oates carries himself like a rumpled overcoat of a man in Chandler, and as usual, just the sight of him is compelling. A man of unusual, unconventional charisma, Oates specialized in tough-guy losers who couldn’t hide their neuroses if they tried. But even driving drunk and talking to a severed head, as he spent much of Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia doing, Oates always carried himself with dignity. He may look like you feel on your worst day, but he always kept the spark of sympathy alive. Though he was the definition of a character actor, Oates had his fair share of leading roles in the 1970s, and held the spotlight well in films like Dillinger and Cockfighter. While those films have rightfully developed followings, the same can’t be said of Chandler, the sole directorial effort of Paul Magwood, now available through Warner Bros.’ online DVD boutique.

Sadly, it’s no lost classic. Oates stars as Chandler (“as in Raymond,” his character later explains unnecessarily), a private eye reluctantly drawn back into gumshoeing after making a go of working as a security guard. Mysterious men hire him to tail Leslie Caron so they can… Well, it’s hard to say. Magwood and producer Michael Laughlin took out an ad protesting the way MGM took the film out of their hands, recut it in an attempt to simplify the plot, and changed the music. The score, by George Romanis, is ridiculously intrusive, but if the plot was even more opaque than what made it to the screen, MGM had the right idea. It’s a confounding film that consists mostly of Oates traveling up and down the L.A.-to-Monterey circuit, protecting Caron from a series of armed men whose motives never become clear.

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The movie almost works as a plotless abstraction on film-noir themes, with Chandler looking like an old-school private dick in a 1970s world that’s passed him by. (Robert Benton’s The Late Show tried the same trick to better effect a few years later.) Oates is magnetic in his down-on-his-luck fashion, and Magwood reveals a neat eye for framing in a couple of scenes, particularly a sequence aboard a glass-roofed train. But near-incomprehensibility and the lack of energy do the film in. It’s one for curiosity-seekers only, Oates and all. (Available online through the Warner Archive.)

Key features: A trailer.