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Arts and Culture

'The Whistlers': A Noir Heist Film With A Certain Pucker Factor

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hardboiled criminals, femme fatale, stylish filmmaking - those are the hallmarks of film noir. The genre stretches from "The Maltese Falcon" to "Ocean's Thirteen." Critic Bob Mondello says it's time to add a twisty, new Romanian movie to the list. It's called "The Whistlers."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Amid the palm trees of La Gomera...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WHISTLERS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Spanish).

MONDELLO: ...The Pearl of the Canary Islands, Cristi, a police inspector from Bucharest, looks about as comfortable as a penguin - head to toe in black, speaking no Spanish. He's gotten caught up in a money laundering scheme he was supposed to be investigating and is seriously out of his element. Fortunately, there is someone who's come to greet him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WHISTLERS")

ANTONIO BUIL: (As Kiko) Do you speak English?

VLAD IVANOV: (As Cristi) Yes.

BUIL: (As Kiko) Gilda sent me to pick you up.

MONDELLO: He's told to turn off his phone. The police are listening. And then he's driven to a secure location to learn a language that's secure, a language called Silbo, made up entirely of whistles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WHISTLERS")

BUIL: (As Kiko) If the police hear the language, they will think the birds are singing. For example, my name, Kiko - (whistling). Buenos dias - (whistling).

MONDELLO: Gilda, the story's raven-haired femme fatale, is there. She's the one who first made contact with Cristi. And he's more than mildly smitten. But to impress her, he'll need to learn to, as Lauren Bacall once instructed Humphrey Bogart, put your lips together and blow.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WHISTLERS")

CATRINEL MARLON: (As Gilda) Ah (ph) - (whistling).

IVANOV: (As Cristi, whistling).

MARLON: (As Gilda) Che (ph) - (whistling).

IVANOV: (As Cristi, whistling).

MONDELLO: So OK, this is going to take some learning - from letters to words to phrases, and in several languages because of the people involved.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WHISTLERS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You whistle in Romanian for Gilda. She whistles in Spanish for Kiko. And Kiko whistles back to me. That way, we check that the message is correct.

MONDELLO: Sounds goofy, yes? Would it surprise you to know that there actually is a whistled language on La Gomera? I won't pretend to know whether it can be translated into Romanian or used effectively during a heist, but it exists, and at least in this movie, it can be subtitled. Credit the filmmakers with using it to set up a criminal enterprise with so many moving pieces that I could tell you how the pieces fit together and still not spoil much.

Writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu encourages you to look for sibilant connections, snitches who sing like canaries, a trek to Singapore, police whistleblowers. And for good measure, he throws in movie references to John Wayne, Hitchcock, all in the service of making "The Whistlers" not just noir-ish, but a hoot.

Does it hang together? Well, I think I can confidently say (whistling) without fear of contradiction. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERNARD HERRMANN'S "TWISTED NERVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.