Archive for the Television Category

Beck 8: Close Call

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2022 by dcairns

The history of BECK – THE LOCKED ROOM (BECK – DE GESLOTEN KAMER, 1992) is given on the IMDb in a comment by one Joyce Hauchart:

Directors are human too. This movie was first planned to be filmed in Scandinavia, after fund problems it was relocated to Belgium in a Dutch-Belgian co-production. The new producer, Ralf Boumans, died during pre-production. A third producer was found, Antonino Lombardo. Meanwhile Jacob Bijl, director, was trying to contract good actors and technicians. He found the best actor in Belgium, Jan Decleir to play Martin Beck.

Finally there was a release date, which unfortunately coincided with the movie Daens. This film was Oscar nominated for best foreign movie and shown in every theater.(Best movie the Belgians ever made) But what about Bijl’s ambitions? His release date was postponed, then the cinema proprietor, almost bankrupt, was not allowed to show the movie due to debts. The film was finally shown. It played non advertised for one week at 10 PM at night during two weeks in Belgium.

Jacob Bijl worked 10 years on this project, to see it flop, due to circumstances beyond his control. People who have seen this picture on TV say, great movie. It’s true. It is perfect for people who like plain detective stories and show us the ambitions of Martin Beck in the best atmosphere Sjöwall and Wahlöö could have wished. I’m not saying this, Maj Sjöwall did.

One advice: rent his movie and enjoy great acting, also by Dottermans. Afterwards remember how this film came to your screen.

Whew. It’s a hair-raising, heart-breaking story. Do I agree that the film is great? I have reservations, but I have to give Bijl credit — he’s faithful to the book, sometimes maybe even TOO faithful, and all his changes make sense. I wish Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö had always had such sensitive adaptors.

The film, like the book, picks up from the events in the previous volume, so that you can read this as a sequel to Bo Widerberg’s MAN ON THE ROOF, only one in which the hero’s near-fatal shooting has caused him to get younger, thinner, and transferred him and everyone he knows to Belgium. No wonder they all look puzzled.

Another reason for the general befuddlement is the case Beck is assigned as “occupational therapy” as he tentatively returns to detective work. A badly decomposed ex-warehouseman has been found, shot dead in a sealed room, with no weapon present. An impossible crime, and possibly a perfect murder, since it went undetected for smelly weeks. Can Beck, who doesn’t read John Dickson Carr mysteries, crack the case?

Sjöwall & Wahlöö make Bijl’s job harder — I’m pronouncing his name “Bill” until someone tells me otherwise and I suggest you do the same unless you know better — as usual, there are subplots woven through the story to the point where we can’t really call them “subplots” — more like interplots. Anyone converting book to film would have to remove SOME of the connective tissue, probably strive to make Beck more central to the action, and cover those parts of the story that the authors tell you about but don’t actually dramatise in SCENES. Bijl does pretty well with all this. I’ll just give a few examples:

The book begins excitingly with a bank robbery in which a have-a-go hero fitness instructor is fatally shot. The robber turns out to be an otherwise sympathetic character just trying to survive and raise a tiny daughter — there’s a whole spate of bank robberies in progress, and a new character, Bulldozer, a moronic DA, has commandeered most of Beck’s murder squad to investigate — the principle robbers are planning one big heist so they can retire — the guy who supplies them with groceries while they’re holed up, is involved with the lady heister without knowing of her larcenous tendencies — Beck, finally extricated from his loveless marriage, meets the locked room corpse’s former landlady — Beck is being threatened with promotion, a prospect he fears since the last thing he wants is a desk job that’ll bring him into even closer contact with the managerial idiots he most dislikes.

Bijl manages to weave all of the above elements into his story. To make it work in a linear fashion without the flashback info Sjöwall & Wahlöö occasionally drop in, he has to move the initial bank shot to much later in the story, which gives his film a slower, less dramatic start, though the creeping camera moves inside the hermetically sealed room with the foul flyblown corpse, looking like a claymation cast-off, are maybe the film’s most stylish bit.

Beck’s injury was sustained in an earlier film and so isn’t much help in screen terms. Sjöwall & Wahlöö give Beck a bizarre and ludicrous series of nightmares about presidential assassinations, which would really play on screen but I wish they’d been adapted into something comparable. Film noir and dream sequences go hand in hand. When the back procedurals fail on the screen it’s either because they’ve been miscast and chopped up, or rendered too flat, tending to plod. This movie is a bit ploddy. The nightmares could compensate for the low-key start, and weave Beck’s psychological recovery through the story more.

Beck is Jan Decleir, heavy-set, bearish, yet sensitive. Els Dottermans is intriguing and self-contained as the stick-up girl, and unlike in the book Beck is drawn to her rather than the landlady. This is out of character for Beck, I feel, but then the movie character is never going to be an exact reproduction of the book and it does make the character’s relationship MUCH more central to the narrative. However, it seems less likely that she’d embark on a bank robbery AFTER meeting cute with a detective who (unlike in the novel) has been seconded to the special robbery unity.

Making our heroine also a killer is an odd choice — in the novel, it’s even odder. It raises the stakes for her, and pays off in the ironic conclusion, in which a killer will escape punishment for the murder he committed, but be punished instead for one he DIDN’T. But in the moment, it’s odd. Sjöwall & Wahlöö are either displaying their contempt for have-a-go hero types who would risk their lives to protect a bank’s money, or for fitness instructors.

The amazing disguise

In the movie, the slain man works not in a gym, but in some kind of organized crime, so that his murder is actually doing society a good deed, thereby supposedly excusing our heroine. This won’t do — she didn’t know who he was when she shot him. It’s too convenient, morally, it’s special pleading, and it doesn’t really get her off the hook.

Bijl also devises a climax where the girl is in jeopardy, a conventional trope but one that creates a more somewhat satisfying dramatic spike, something the book doesn’t bother with.

Stand-out performance is from Warre Borgmans as the crim type who acts as grocery boy for the bank robbers and is also romantically involved — HE thinks it’s romantic, anyway — with Dotterman. Borgmans is sleek, shiny, mild-mannered, and a little on-edge — tipping over into Peter Lorre -style shrieking histrionics and panic-sweat as events move, a touch laboriously, towards their climax.

A little more money to splash around, a better score (everyone was too in love with the way synths could sorta sound like real instruments in the early nineties, myself included), and a little more fearless flamboyance could have tipped THE LOCKED ROOM over into being the minor masterpiece it needed to be. It’s still a creditable piece of work. Possibly the last really worthwhile Beck adaptation to date — meaning I have two more of those damn Gosta Ekman telefilms to sit through. Will they finally get good? I will also probably watch an episode or two of the insanely long-running TV show.

One more thing: Bijl omits the lesson on locked rooms from the novel, In my opinion, it’s not as helpful a text as the chapter in John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Men, in which colossally fat sleuth Dr. Gideon Fell expounds on all the possible solutions available to a locked room. There are surprisingly few, but somehow they rarely help a reader solve a whodunnit. But, in case you want to enhance your armchair detection skills (though I usually find it easy to detect my own armchair), here are the only possible tricks, in generic form:

  1. The room isn’t truly sealed: some hidden egress allowed the killer to either get in, or to reach in (by hand or using a weapon) to do the deed.
  2. The room IS truly sealed, but DESPITE APPEARANCES the killer is STILL INSIDE IT.
  3. The crime was committed before the room was sealed, DESPITE APPEARANCES. In The Mystery of the Yellow Chamber, named by Fell as the greatest mystery ever written, [MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT] the heroine receives a beating, then locks herself in her room, has a nightmare about it, and cries aloud. When the door is broken in, nobody can work out how the bruises could have been administered in an empty, locked room, and the girl is too traumatised to explain.
  4. The crime was committed after the room was UNsealed, despite appearances. I forget which Poirot it is in which the victim has some kind of attack in a locked room, they break in, and the culprit, pretending to nurse the fallen man, falsely declares “He’s been stabbed!” then DOES stab him when everyone else has gone to get help.

I think that’s it. Just four. And of course I’m not going to reveal which one it is in this case. Reading the book, I contrived a harebrained notion, which was wrong in every detail, but did actually fall under the right general heading (ie the right number from the list above). Although, come to think of it, the solution combines elements of TWO of the methods above…

Year of the Rat

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2022 by dcairns

It wasn’t much commented upon back in 1984 but the advent of breakfast television in the UK — incredible to think we were so late in adopting it, but also incredible that anyone would want to watch television while getting ready for work — and if you were going to watch television, why would you watch GARISH and NOISY television full of IDIOTS?

Hang on, I’ve gone off the rails.

Start again: 1984, the year Orwell wrote about, was marked in the UK by the advent of breakfast television, and two of the stars of that new phenomenon were the Green Goddess, an exercise instructor straight out of Orwell’s book, and Roland Rat, a puppet rodent straight out of Orwell’s book. And it was the Chinese year of the rat. Not that Roland R actually ate anyone’s face off. THAT WE KNOW OF. But as O’Brien might have said, it’s the thought that counts.

I was at school. Thatcher was in power. I kept thinking, Why does nobody else see this?

Thirty-eight my god years later, the BFI has a Blu-ray out of Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier’s teleplay NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (no numerals for the BBC), which should have been out eight years ago but the Orwell estate is rather funny, which is why we never got a Bowie musical version of the book (but we did get Diamond Dogs so on the whole we won that round).

Trailers for this release made it seem like the greatest feat of restoration in human history, but inspection of the actual article clarifies the achievement: the play went out live but bridging sections had been shot on film to enable scene changes. It’s these bits that look as if they could have been shot yesterday. The live portions are your typical kinescope haze, but looking about as good as they ever could. It feels like we’re watching the action from inside Winston Smith’s little snowglobe.

Film and tube camera, side by side.

The double aesthetic is fascinating — both styles work in their distinct ways. The locations for filming are mostly BBC buildings so, like in The Goon Show‘s parody, 1985, Airstrip One and the British Broadcasting Corporation are conflated. The stark lighting of BBC corridors and post-WWII London makes for bold and striking imagery. Only the addition of Orwellian signposts makes it science fiction. Whereas Mike Radford’s film version, made in 1984, strove for the look of 1948, the year the book was written, this version is perfectly clear that 1984 is RIGHT NOW. Mainly I suppose because they couldn’t afford to make it anything fancier.

The one big special effect is an unfortunate affair. The painting — not a matte, not a backdrop, just a static painting — is technically decent enough to pass under the circumstances, but why does the Ministry of Truth have windows the size of office blocks, and why, when we see Winston Smith looking out one of them, is it suddenly a tiny porthole.

But that’s the only stupid bit.

The interior sets are strictly from poverty, and this works nicely. “Despair enacted on cheap sets,” as Errol Morris is always saying. The Ministry of Truth canteen is a bit of backcloth. The walls of Winston’s flat don’t even meet, so that the most felicitous nook in all English literature is compiled of a series of flimsy-looking flats you could post a letter between.

The show is so cheap it had Kneale himself as the voice of the televisor and production designer Roy Oxley is Big Brother. And a very effective BB he is too: he looks stern and noble, rather than shifty and sinister which is the dumb way of portraying him. Obviously BB would be from Central Casting and would look like an inspiring leader. Or, I suppose, like a cuddly clown. That could work…

In the leads we have Peter Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell — a few years later he would inaugurate Hammer Horror while she introduced kitchen sink drama with WOMAN IN A DRESSING GOWN. Cushing is amazing in this — like Karloff, he exploits a physical advantage, removing a dental plate to portray Smith in his final decrepitude.

“So much face-crime!” Fiona enthused. Cushing just can’t help showing us what he’s thinking.

As O’Brien we have the excellent Andre Morell, who was also a Quatermass for Kneale, also a Watson for Cushing’s Holmes, and his tormentor (again) in CASH ON DEMAND. Morell has a bluff, matey quality that works nicely in counterpoint to O’Brien’s more obviously vicious aspect. He’s cold, but superficially clubby, chummy. Affable. When the Thought Police come for us, they will be wreathed in smiles.

Donald Pleasence is Syme, and I don’t have to tell you how much entertainment HE brings — a warm-up for similar turns in the CIA-backed 1956 version (where he plays Parsons) and THX 1138. Parsons is an extraordinary gremlin called Campbell Gray, who looks, sounds and acts just like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s P.R. Deltoid, Aubrey Morris, so much so that I thought it could be him under an assumed name. Which would make this some kind of dystopian trifecta.

Also: Wilfred Brambell (in two small roles) and a pre-beard Sydney Bromley.

Highly recommended. I find the desaturated eighties version drab and dull, whereas this one delivers its moments of horror with a lipsmacking relish more in keeping with Orwell’s grand guignol tendencies. Instead of speeding up at the end, it slows down, delivering a series of grisly blackout sketches whose recurrent punchline is the death of hope.

Almost the best thing on the disc, however, is the original continuity announcer, a plummy gent (unidentified) who welcomes the people of Aberdeen to the BBC, regrets that the Scottish comedy they’d hoped to present has been postponed, worries a bit about what they’ll make of this offering, muses aloud that perhaps the people of Aberdeen have never SEEN a play, and sums up the thematic concerns of the work in a remarkably sophisticated manner. There we have it: the Reithian vision of the Beeb, to inform and educate as well as entertain, coupled with a good dose of condescension. It’s real time travel, quite a fitting epitaph for the British Broadcasting Corporation now that the government has finally decided to destroy it.

Meanwhile, actor Dan Stevens has appeared on the BBC’s The One Show (a wonderfully Orwellian name) and shocked the nation by uttering an actual political THOUGHT not sanctioned by universal consensus. The palpable terror in the room!

Film Directors with their Shirts Off: Jens Theander

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , on March 25, 2022 by dcairns

Watched CANDY FILM – WHEN CHILD PORN WAS LEGAL, which deals with the distressingly not-so-brief period (1969-1980) when child porn was indeed legal in Denmark. Seems when the country legalised porn, it went the whole hog. Making child pornography — i.e. child abuse — was still illegal. But distributing it was fine. Within Denmark, that is. But of course it seeped out, everywhere.

In my reading of the Martin Beck novels I’ve come across references to Sweden’s legalisation of “all kinds” of pornography, but it isn’t quite clear if the Swedes went as far as their freewheeling neighbours. A Google search confirms that child porn was completely legal there between 1972 and 1980. Astonishing. In archive film, a sociologist opines that the availability of child porn reduces assaults on children.

CANDY FILM – DA BORNEPORNO VAR LOVLIG is a gripping Danish documentary about this time. Nils Vest, who keeps his shirt on, discovers that his company offices used to belong to makers of kiddie porn, and sets out to learn more. His investigations focus on the brothers Peter and Jens Theander, who ran Rodox/Color Climax, the nation’s porn empire, with Peter (still alive today) focussing more on the smutty mags and Jens devoting his sleazy attentions to the movie side of the business.

They both look exactly like child porn auteurs SHOULD look, if it be admitted that such creatures need to exist at all. Peter styled himself, basically, as Satan, complete with pointy beard. Jens went for a more countercultural look, with bowl cut, thick glasses and frizzy beard combining to create an impression of intense unsavoriness mingling with possible mental infirmity.

It’s so helpful when people try to look like what they are.

The documentary, which Peter declines to be interviewed for, is absolutely blood-chilling. Appearing on a TV show in the 70s’, Jens proclaims that Rodox will be getting out of the paedophile business because the new films they’re being sent are too professional. It’s a head-scratching moment. It seems as if he’s saying that the films, which he’s insisting they don’t MAKE, suggest, by their lighting and camera style, the work of an organisation, meaning the child performers/victims have been trafficked, whereas anything that looks like a home movie is fine because the children are being abused within the safety of a family unit. The fact that he seems to think this is a good stance to take, one that will win the approval of his interlocutors and the TV audience, is mind-rending. The fact that his company, in fact, was still distributing underage smut films years afterwards, does not surprise: the ability to feel surprise can be worn away like sandstone, and this series reaches that point before the second of its three episodes has started.