Archive for March, 2022

Frobe Light

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2022 by dcairns

LE MEURTRIER aka ENOUGH ROBE, from the Patricia Highsmith novel The Blunderer, screened at Edinburgh Filmhouse a few years ago and through sheer carelessness I missed it. My sister,a big Highsmith fan, attended and enjoyed it. So, when I got hold of a copy, sadly only the German dub, I had hopes.

It’s… OK. I was hoping Claude Autant-Lara still had great filmmaking in him in 1963, because I always hold out hope for the cinema du papa even though I love the nouvelle vague also. Peaceful coexistence is my goal.

Unfortunately, the movie is only really compelling when Gert Frobe’s onscreen. He brings the entertainment. The leading man is Maurice Ronet, a good actor but perhaps not a true star presence. Yvonne Furneaux and Marina Vlady are too one-note as unsympathetic wife and sympathetic mistress. Robert Hossein is like a second Ronet.

Highsmith was rather clearly trying to capitalise on the success of Strangers on a Train, with another story of two men with murderous impulses locked in a life-and-death struggle. Here, Frobe is a guilty wife-killer, whereas Ronet is just guilty — he feels responsible for his wife’s death, but isn’t. However, circumstances are conspiring to put him in the frame, and Hossein’s neurotic detective is determined to nail both men, but setting them against one another.

Everyone is weird and twitchy in this, but only Frobe has the equipment as actor to really run with it. Hossein’s part would have been better handed to a more nervous and inventive player. Ronet has the right kind of glumness, but it gets tiresome. A gentle melancholy was fine for LE FEU FOLLET. This is melodrama.

Frobe — shambling, gurning, sweating and myopic — an uxoricidal Magoo — can’t steal the show because he isn’t in it enough. He steals the bits he’s in, though, leaving the rest of it hanging in shreds.

Haven’t read the book so I don’t know to what extent otherwise the flaws of the film are inherent in the story — I’ve found some of the Highsmiths I’ve read — Ripley Underground for instance — simply too implausible. The problem with this one is simply that Ronet, at the centre, doesn’t hold, maybe because he’s not active enough. But Highsmith protagonists are often active in ways that are hard to figure out — even Ripley doesn’t always seem to know why he’s doing what he’s doing, and Highsmith can’t help him.

Beck #4: Roll Call

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2022 by dcairns

The fourth book in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series, The Laughing Policeman, not only became the first non-American winner of the Edgar Award for crime fiction, it became the first modern Swedish novel to become a Hollywood movie. Since it was the seventies by the time that happened, Stuart Rosenberg’s film can leave out the double meaning of the book’s title, and just leave it as an ironic dangler. (See also STRAW DOGS and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but note that Roman Polanski felt compelled to add a scene to CHINATOWN that made the title literal.)

Screenwriter Thomas Rickman (THE COAL-MINER’S DAUGHTER) has changed lots of other stuff too, and I would say that practically all his changes make things worse, though a good many of them probably couldn’t have been avoided. And, since the cast is great and enough of the intriguing story remains, what we have is actually a really pretty good policier. Watching the films around it that got everything wrong, I can appreciate this one much more in spite of the cliches and reactionary stuff.

Walter Matthau is Martin Beck — only here he’s a San Francisco detective called Jake Martin. Like Beck, though, he sleeps on the couch, though the movie has no convenient way to make it clear that this is his choice, part of the policeman’s long, slow, voluntary break-up with Mrs. Beck. As in the books, Martin is surrounded by a variety of other cops of varying degrees of competence, but none of them really resembles the characters in the novel. The always-welcome Anthony Zerbe is required to play a shouty boss character that surely felt somewhat tired even then, but the addition of Bruce Dern and Louis Gossett Jr adds welcome flavour.

Someone has massacred all the passengers on a bus, then gotten clean away. One of them turns out to be a young detective. Is it a random homicide (of the kind far more common in the US than Sweden) or is some more secret motivation at work. Dern uses an authentic cop word to describe mass shooters: “they’re kronky,” he says, meaning crazy. But I believe, from my reading of John D. MacDonald, that kronky really signifies someone who’s twitchy, suspicious, clearly hiding something. The word has now been superseded by the similar hinky.

Cinematographer David M. Walsh’s (MONTE WALSH, SLEEPER) visuals take advantage of fluorescent strip lighting’s tendency to turn green when photographed on film, giving the film a hazy, ghostly pallor that’s somehow very pleasing. Rosenberg, who made COOL HAND LUKE and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, has a deft way with a long lens, so the film has both a slight documentary grit and a Hollywood sheen. The TransAm Building becomes a major supporting character of the Frisco scenes.

The most unfortunate and dated change from the book is Rickman’s rewrite of the villain character. In the book, he killed an ex-lover who was threatening to derail his upcoming prosperous marriage. Now, years later, he enacts a massacre to take care of a dangerous witness and the cop who, on his own time, has been investigating the cold case. Rickman makes it a sex killing, but also makes that nonsensical by typing the character as gay. “A fruiter,” insists Dern’s character, about nine times too often. Complete with Van Dyke beard, a tonsilar aberration which has haunted Beck films since ROSEANNA.

And here, at last, are Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and he’s GOT THAT BEARD.

Showing homophobia in the police force is just realistic, even commendable, but the film in no way distances itself from Dern’s attitude. Even about ten years earlier, in THE BOSTON STRANGLER, the filmmakers understood that gay men were unlikely to become sex-killers of women. If Dern’s character, a part-time asshole, fixated on this sex angle and were proved wrong, that would be one thing. But the nonsensical homophobic theory proves to be correct in the film. The bad guy killed a woman because he’s queer.

Martin/Beck is given a bit of an explosive temper, too, which is different from the novels but not really a bad thing per se. It’s just that Matthau’s rages seem triggered by sexual matters, strip shows and gay bars and prostitution. The audience is encouraged, I think, to see sexual liberation as part of a general moral slide that ends in murder. Even though there’s a suggestion that the murderer committed his first killing to cover up his homosexuality, since “things were different just a few years ago.” So sexual repression is, it would seem, more dangerous than even the sleaziest commercial exploitation.

The final big change is the most destructive — Rickman adds the inevitable car chase, with the killer ending up on a bus so that we’re back to square one. DIRTY HARRY was just two years previous, so Rosenberg has a hard time making this seem fresh or exciting. The dated cliches have a certain nostalgic value, it’s true, but they basically represent a failure of imagination. Returning to the opening crisis is technically sort of a good idea, in principle. But it plays out as boring. It’s to the credit of Rickman’s dialogue and what’s left of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s plot and all the good acting and filmmaking choices elsewhere that this is only a moderate blemish.

Rewriting all the minor characters — removing incompetent kops Kristiansen and Kvant, for instance, tends to soften the novel’s criticism of the police. We do get Anthony Zerbe as one of those perpetually furious, exploding police chiefs, but the books’ exposure of the way the police force is politicised and the bosses are more concerned with covering their own asses is missing.

The “Swedish nympho” — actually just a highly-sexed and pragmatic young woman in the book — is absent, but we get Joanna Cassidy as a lesbian nurse. She’s kind of a positive portrayal — the movie wants her to be titillating, and Cassidy is suitably glamorous, but it’s a very rare example of a lesbian in a mainstream Hollywood film who isn’t either a murderer or a murder victim. Some kind of weird flirtation with Dern confuses the issue. What we see quite clearly in the movie is that Hollywood finds lesbians titillating and gay men disgusting and frightening. It’s not as bad as FREEBIE AND THE BEAN in this respect, but then, nothing is.

Lou Gossett Jr is on hand, too, looking very cool. I was impressed by him telling off Dern for provoking some Black guys — “You’re making it harder for the next cop.” Dern pays no heed. On this viewing, the line struck me a little differently. Faced with a clear example of a white cop being unprofessional and kind of racist, Gossett’s character’s first loyalty is to the force. This seems somewhat true to reality, even if it’s not specifically what the filmmakers intended: some African-American cops do see to see themselves as cops first, and can be as racist as many white cops. Sjöwall & Wahlöö repeatedly talk about the culture in the police force that insists on group unity and an us-against-them attitude, where the “them” is the whole of the rest of the population.

The book’s ending could have worked really well on screen, I think — relying on a character reaction, it could have played a little like the end of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, the other entry in Walter Matthau’s public transport duology, making excellent use of that amazing fizzog. In the book, Beck’s teenage daughter presents him with a record of the title song, by Charles Penrose. Beck’s family find it hilarious, but the constitutionally glum Beck doesn’t crack a smile. But at the end of the book, he gets a phone call that cracks the case — the murdered cop had come up with the right answer. Ironically, however, this piece of the puzzle shows up after the case has already been resolved, so it’s a black joke by fate of the kind the books are full of. And Beck, at last, gets the joke.

But, instead, we get an ironic pay-off as a forgotten plot point reemerges as a laughable dead end (it may have inspired the grim gag at the end of Mamet’s HOMICIDE), a reminder that even if you follow every clue in the most professional manner, the universe is likely to have the last laugh. In that sense, it feels absolutely in keeping with the original authors’ sardonic view of the world.

THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN stars Charley Varrick; Freeman Lowell; Sgt. Emil Foley; Zilkov; Prof. Nelson Schwartzkopf; Zelmo Swift; Wonder Woman; Dr. Ernie Lombardi; Zhora; and Sherrif J.W. Pepper.

8) Napoli -Rosi

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on March 29, 2022 by dcairns

UNA CERTA IDEA DI NAPOLI is Francesco Rosi’s entry in the 12 REGISTI A 12 CITTA’ series, its ambition reflected in the fact that it has a proper title that’s not just the name of its setting. Rosi, of course, has scored a great city to make a film about. You have to think that Wertmuller and Lizzani drew short straws, though they still found plenty to celebrate.

This of course is Rosi’s return to the city he celebrated and mourned in HANDS OVER THE CITY back in 1963.

Scored with popular Neapolitan songs — as how could it not be? — with attendant phonograph crackle adding atmosphere — Rosi’s film, edited by Ruggero Mastroianni, looks great. Several of the other directors have used helicopters. But his city and his choice of music (O Sole Mio) make them that much more sweeping and impressive.

I tend to like the episodes in this series that eschew voiceover. Though a good VO can be an ornament to a documentary, nobody here has come up with an approach that escapes the curse of the travelogue or tour guide. In the documentaries of Franju or Resnais the narration assumes a powerful, poetic force, and is never a litany of tourist board facts. But Lizzani and Lattuada kind of fall into that trap. Rosi’s film manages to be “informative” with just images and music, and the way they’re juxtaposed. Vesuvius erupts — in paintings and sound effects, and the blast of lava changes the record.

More sonic disruptions are created by Mastroianni’s cutting — a fresh bout of helicopter shots is accompanied by aggressive eggbeater engine noise. Slowly cut into by church bells pealing. Then, Ruggero’s namesake, Ruggero Il Normanno, King of Sicily, appears standing in a niche, and a series of perfectly calibrated shots allows for a succession of kings to swap places with him, while the stone surround seems to stay the same. As a strategy, alternating between flowing movements and static cuts is eye-catching, but the execution here is dazzling. The little parade of statues is so effective, and so different from its surrounding sequences, that Rosi repeats it with new statues in a different location later in the film, so that it becomes a thing. You know, a thing.

The sound is a big part of the success here: when the bells continue over renaissance paintings of the city seen from above as if from Da Vinci’s helicopter, the chimes add to the sense of an aerial elevation. And then we cut to an actual helicopter shot. Hands over the city.

Religious music for shots of churches, but then it continues as we travel down mean streets, imparting an air of tragedy. Lattuada featured extremely narrow streets too, but he TOLD us about them. Freeing the soundtrack up for other material works wonders.

In general this little film is one of the best not so much for the way it creates moods through movement and music and framing, but in the way it BREAKS those moods with abrupt shifts on the soundtrack. Almost Godardian — but it’s very much Godard: Italian Style. So the jolts play in an exciting way, and don’t tend to feel like having a bucket of ice water thrown in your face, which is the sensation I sometimes get from JLG.

A brief modern bit — shots of women walking in the street, a very Italian thing to celebrate (there’s a whole segment of some Italian compendium that’s just watching women jiggle, I recall, and it’s made by someone otherwise respectable — Risi?). Pizzas are prepared. David Lean said of filming in tourist places, you have to include the expected sights, but you have to find fresh ways of presenting them. Here, it’s not so much the shots, it’s the cutting and sound.

Like Olmi, Rosi ends his show in the opera house, but he resists actually having anyone belt out a tune. Though some bits of his film are obvious — the disapproving montage of modern city life occurs elsewhere — his presentation, thanks to Mastroianni’s cutting, keeps defying expectations. Really nice.