In the following four-paragraph plot summary, I have left out key details but, to play it safe, still identify it as containing POSSIBLE SPOILERS.
Taking time out from constant, loud, jarring flashbacks to bits and pieces of her witnessing the rainy, late-night, unsolved, months-earlier drive-by shooting death of her political reporter husband outside a roadside "coffee shop," and from tedious talks with her stubborn daughter, who is equally morbidly obsessed with it, Elizabeth Montgomery's Sara Scott, P.I., arrives at the office. She and her boss are about to be evicted for being three months late with the rent. After a lengthy phone-calling montage to flophouses, dives, and strip joints, Sara tracks down her boss at a mobile home, which is gyrating because he is inside with his new floozy girlfriend. So Sara shoots out one of the tires to get his attention.
Back at the office, Sara finds a fancy-dress, downcast blonde, who wants to hire a detective to find out if her doctor husband is cheating on her and who deals out a wad of bills as a cash retainer. How will Sara recognize him? "He's the only black man on the block." Sara tails the doctor to his office and then to a drug rehabilitation clinic where he volunteers and at which a female state senator and another government official happen to be speaking that day. The next day, she tails the doctor to a motel, where he meets a man who she first assumes for no apparent reason is his lover but later learns (posing as an FBI agent, using one of her album of collected business cards) from the desk clerk, is a reporter. Sara tails the doctor to an airport parking lot, where he is run down by an old-fashioned black sedan that appears, apparently as a symbol of some sort, throughout the film (including at her husband's shooting). A stewardess runs off with his bag and later turns up dead.
Sara's scruffy boyfriend Sam is vaguely introduced, and he helps her sneak into the state senator's home and, to little effect, bug it. This includes Sara watching intently from a closet, supposedly "disgusted" at the hypocrisy of it all, while the married woman and a cocaine-snorting "born gigolo" manager of the drug clinic romance each other -- "what they did to each other worked better than any sleeping pill."
Taking no precautions, Sam then goes undercover at the drug clinic, and predictably falls into danger. Meanwhile, the reporter from the motel turns up dead. Sara gets nowhere, and actually has flashbacks and breaks down, interviewing his hostile widow ("the nightmare had finally gone public"). After a supposedly chilling but ludicrously improbable attempt on and escape from danger by Sara, she identifies, somehow locates, and follows a murderous thug to and through the back door of the Sacramento state house after hours. She somehow finds the right office, listens as the plot threads of her husband's death, drug dealing, and political corruption vaguely and hastily tie together, and bursts in, gun drawn, on a politician and the thug, only to have another emotional breakdown, allow the thug to get the drop on her ("I don't know what's the matter with you, lady, but you sure blew it."), and fall apart into pitiful pleas for mercy. Help arrives out of nowhere. A light scene back at the office in LA shows that with some news exposure about Sara and her boss's role in the high-profile bust, business seems to be picking up.
The movie's strongest impressions are how miscast and out-of-place Montgomery seems to be in the role of a low-rent, hardboiled LA private eye (working for fat slob, boozing, carousing boss "Papazian" out of a drab office in a "bad location"), right down to her cynical, "tough-guy" narrations; how the character snaps from apparently determined, wisecracking, and experienced to pathetic and hysterical at the drop of a hat and back again (relentlessly described in the deadpan narrations); and how earnestly and flexibly Montgomery works away at the role.
It is the film's attitude and quirky contrasts that make it interesting. Dreary, depressing, maudlin material co-exists with mundane, cynical, silly, wisecracking elements. The cast, especially Montgomery and her screen boss and daughter, take their roles seriously, whether in the light or the serious moments. Beyond this, the insistently weird, artsy way the movie is filmed makes it feel as if it is about something urgent and important -- getting to the bottom of a life-or-death personal and political secret. At least some skeleton of story and dialogue supports the characters and the mood, perhaps owing to the book on which the movie is based.
The problem is that once the "provocative" touches thrown in for effect, "color," or humor and the stylistic, emotionally overwrought camouflage are cleared away, there is not much left. There is not enough to the thin characters and story, nor enough intelligent, sharp dialogue, to make the movie satisfying or meaningful in the end. The repeated flashbacks to Sara's husband's shooting, the overly stylized presentation (including big red lips that frame the screen at times, a plastic ketchup bottle being ripped through by a bullet, shattered eyeglasses, torrents and pools of rain, and all manner of strange shots, cuts, and camera angles), and related histrionics (screams, shouts, pleas, nightmares) not only become loud, trying, and unpleasant to watch. But they also recur so often and take so much time that they crowd out real character and story development. And I begin to wonder if a lot of the film's interest is not in watching characters embarrass themselves, rather than in genuine drama.