Caveat Lector

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QUIET PLEASE, MURDER! is a really nice, modest little wartime noir written and directed by a fellow who doesn’t seem to have gotten the breaks he deserved, John Larkin.

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Excitingly, as the film begins, there seem to be no good guys. George Sanders is Harry Fleg (a Scots word for fright), a murderous book thief who decides to forge copies of his ill-gotten Burbage manuscript rather than part with the original. He’s constantly espousing his cheesy psychoanalytic theories about guilty bad guys needing to punish themselves, and this is no doubt his own way of bringing down vengeance upon his head. It’s a glorious role for Sanders, who gets to say ~

“How many butterflies did you torture since lunch, hoping one would turn on you?”

The line he was born to say! Although, in fairness, George makes nearly every line sound like he was born to say it.

He says this one to his equally devious and neurotic partner, the silky Gail Patrick, whose job is to certify the fake books as genuine and help their sale. But she goes against his explicit instructions and sells a bogus folio to Sidney “Satan is his father!” Blackmer, whom I will always associate with the role of Roman Castavet in ROSEMARY’S BABY. Blackmer is buying treasures for the Nazis to fund their inevitable post-defeat retirement, and resolves to punish Fleg when he realises he’s been had.

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Enter the hero, Richard Jennings. I came to have a pretty complicated relationship with this fellow. He enters the story as a private eye, but soon makes a shady deal with Patrick, and I had him pegged as a villain. Once I realised he was meant to be the hero, I liked him a lot less. The actor didn’t seem appealing enough, and there was little reason to like the character. But then I warmed to the chap. True, his hair, seemingly close-cropped, exploded in flailing fronds like some hideous scalp-squid when he got punched. But the character is written with a nice semi-redemption, and is so resourceful I couldn’t withhold respect. Plus Jennings has interesting qualities. His voice has a nice, unusual timbre, like Kirk Douglas when he’s occasionally miscast as an intellectual.

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Jennings’ hair escapes, everywhere.

Most of the movie takes place in a library during a blackout, and the locked-in quality gives it a slight air of DIE HARD, only less frenetic (That first DIE HARD — that’s quite some movie! Try it if you don’t believe me). It’s nice that we have about five separate factions in the movie, all out to double-cross each other, and all behaving with as much intelligence as the plot will allow. The rogue’s gallery is a delight, and the MALTESE FALCON-y ambivalent hero is enjoyably rendered. Joseph MacDonald shoots it in lustrous monochrome. A good evening in!

I got a tape of it from Napier University library, and recommended it to the librarians there. Librarians are underrepresented in cinema, having had to make do with Rachel Weisz in THE MUMMY remake and sequels*, where she doesn’t actually get to grips with the Decimal Dewey system nearly enough. Whereas the plot of this one actually turns upon the act of filing.

*Jacques Rivette, however, has given due respect to the book people.

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17 Responses to “Caveat Lector”

  1. Gail Patick was also a fine figure of a woman in My Man Godfrey, every bit as attractive as Carole Lombard.

  2. Well, I might not go quite that far. But Lombard’s a little annoying in that film (I was waiting for her redemptive moment, by Hollywood tradition, but it never comes!) so I might prefer GP on personality grounds.

  3. I haven’t seen QUIET PLEASE, MURDER! but was interested to read that a model of the village in “How Green Was My Valley” makes an appearance in the film.

  4. Gail Patrick, being a liberal, was for many years blacklisted in Hollywood.

  5. Sounds interesting. I would actually watch it just for George Sanders, really.

    I rather like Gail Patrick :)

  6. I went to look for the model: for once, Bosley Crowther is right. I’ll try and link to an image of it later today.

  7. I would watch ANYTHING for George Sanders, Maiden. He’s not only fantastic as the embodiment of a certain type, but he can step outside that type and play anything else, too.

  8. Peter: beautiful shot of Gail Patrick :)

    dcairns: You said it! That’s why I love watching him as an actor.

  9. Just watched Gail in Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Lovely!

  10. Did I see a short on the Last Year at Marienbad DVD extras in a Parisian library? Had a look at imdb and I think it must be called “Ouvert pour cause d’inventaire”.

  11. Darn. I just did a better search and the film was in fact “Toute la mémoire du monde” in France’s national library. Glad we got that sorted out.

  12. Yes, that’s the one. Early Resnais, absolutely terrific. All his early docs are great.

    Did you finish your Truffaut retrospective?

  13. Murderous Book Thief? Time to leave the book trade I reckon.

    I also liked Charlie Sloan (?) in Small Faces explaining his method of Glasgow book stealing: holds up guns in each hand, “Gie us the fucking books!”

    That there Kevin McKidd came into my bookshop once and I got the instant fear, shit it’s Malky Johnson.

  14. Ah, but Kevin is a lovely lad. I’m planning to honour his marvellous work in Topsy Turvy soon. “Away, ya wee monkey!”

    I guess The Ninth Gate is the other main book trade movie, at least until some maniac tries to adapt White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings.

  15. Aye, I finished that off a few months ago (I watched all the Truffaut films in order apart from Jules et Jim which I’ve had on video since it was on TV one Saturday afternoon in 1999.) Thanks for providing me with a copy of Day for Night which was a highlight. The subtitles were a little tricky though as they were white with no outline so they didn’t show up too well in some shots. Also really liked the Antoine Doinel series, Pocket Money and The Wild Child.

    On the negative side I thought Mississippi Mermaid was the poorest film. I stupidly thought that it was going to be basically the same plot as Splash, having read a small description that didn’t give much away. The subtitles called the ship she sailed on “The Mississippi” and not the Mississippi Mermaid, so I thought Deneuve was going to turn out to be a mermaid for at least the first hour. I can’t tell for sure whether that added to or subtracted from my enjoyment. I have a theory that any film that continent-hops is in trouble – especially from the critics if it looks very expensive – and with this film I thought they were stuck for ideas so they just had them leave wherever they were staying after a day or so. It was far too long and just ended when they went to the same house as in Shoot the Piano Player. Only thing I really liked was Belmondo, he seemed to be genuinely in love with Deneuve but I wasn’t really feeling it from her.

    Anyone see the Kirsty Wark interview with Deneuve last night? Could have done with being an hour long to get a bit more interest out of it, I thought. I’m slowly watching the Fellini’s I haven’t seen yet at the mo, but there seem to be quite a few decent films on TV just lately that I’m taping and failing to find time to watch.

  16. I’d agree MM is a weaker one. It might be more fun expecting a real mermaid but then one would be unavoidably disappointed at the end.

    It’s based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, which I suspect is excellent, and probably has a better ending. Woolrich also inspired The Bride Wore Black, which comes closer to his style, and is quite a bit better.

    Continent-hopping is usually a problem, but FT gets away with it in Adele H. At first I got anxious that he was going to start the same story all over in a new climate, but then it’s the end of the film so that’s OK.

    Let me know if you need any rare Fellini! I have ALMOST all.

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