Archive for A Night to Remember

Mr. Peachy, murderer

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on September 2, 2014 by dcairns

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THE OCTOBER MAN (1947) is written and produced by Eric Ambler and directed by Roy Ward Baker, the team who would make the best Titanic movie, A NIGHT TO REMEMkyER. It’s a modest little thriller with John Mills as a vulnerable chap released from psychiatric hospital after a breakdown brought on by a bus crash in which a child in his care was killed. (At times of stress he tugs knots in his handkerchief, recalling the rabbit he made from his hanky to entertain the kid in Scene 1.) He moves into a guest house full of rather unsympathetic people, and then there’s a murder and he becomes prime suspect.

The film takes an age to get underway and then wastes its most interesting personality, Joan Greenwood, in a colourless girlfriend role, but Mills gets to do his tormented bit, and others like Kay Walsh and Catherine Lacey are on hand. I very much enjoyed the dingy atmosphere, all studio-created, and the names — the hotel is run by Miss Selby, there’s a Mr. Pope and a Miss Heap. The previous occupant was Mr. Leaper, but he left for Australia so we don’t meet him. Best of all is Mr. Peachy.

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It’s no spoiler to reveal that Peachy is the killer — not only do we realize this as soon as someone turns up throttled, we realize he’s going to be a murderer before anyone is dead. Maybe it’s his glasses. Disturbingly, as played by Edward Chapman he looks a bit like Eric Ambler himself. He’s psychotic, with a creepy sexual fixation on his eventual victim, but he’s also devilishly cunning. I kind of wish he’d been more sane because then it would have been nasty sane person versus nice mentally-fragile person.

Interestingly, it turns out that Peachy is not his real name, leading us to wonder what kind of man would CHOOSE to be called Mr. Peachy? A madman, I suppose.

I have been working on a script set in a boarding house in the forties with lots of silly names, which my collaborator and I enjoyed making up. I will tell you one: Eustace Crump, armchair bully. But poor Eustace was surplus to requirements so we deleted him after a few pages. Some other time, Eustace!

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Louche lips

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , on July 23, 2014 by dcairns

ambility

Latest second-hand shop acquisition — The Ability to Kill, by Eric Ambler. Ambler is my favourite spy writer, a bit like Graham Greene, whose mode he anticipated, but without the booby-trapping with Catholic allegories and wildly depressing bits. Ambler wasn’t brilliantly served by the movies, though Welles produced JOURNEY INTO FEAR and Walsh directed BACKGROUND TO DANGER based on his novels. Jules Dassin’s sprightly TOPKAPI is probably the best.

But Ambler also worked as screenwriter, chalking up the odd classic like A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, and a few decent programmers like THE OCTOBER MAN.

The Ability to Kill is a collection of non-fiction — several of the pieces are reportage on true murder cases, and they’re quite fascinating, but there’s also humorous essays on spy-spotting. The true professional spy, says Ambler, can be identified by the singular quality of loucheness, and he further claims that loucheness itself can be measured on a sliding scale of 1 to 10.

1. I wonder who pays for his/her clothes.

2. But I thought that he/she came with you.

3. There is something about him/her that I don’t quite like.

4. That mouth of his/hers is quite peculiar.

5. I wouldn’t trust him/her farther than I could throw him/her.

6. This one’s straight out of the woodwork.

7. Thank goodness he/she is three tables away.

8. Better feel to see if my passport’s safe.

9. I feel I ought to warn some authority about him/her at once.

10. I must get to a telephone.

Sessue Hayakawa The Bridge on the River Kwai

Ambler also recounts an amusing story about Bangkok which I hope is true. His point is that Bangkok is a strange place, and prolonged residence can give rise to a specific neurosis:

“A slight fever is followed by mild dysentery. Then, after a few days, you find yourself adopting a sort of Dali-esque attitude to life that is not far removed from whimsicality. This is the tertiary stage. Not only occidentals become infected.

In the Garden of the British Embassy in Bangkok there is a life-sized statue of Queen Victoria. When the Japanese army entered the city in 1942, they took over the embassy as a military headquarters, and the local Japanese commander gave orders for the statue to be boarded up. But after a few days in Bangkok, he found that something was troubling him. It was the statue. Queen Victoria it had been who, at the turn of the century, had recognized Japan as a great power. Japanese history books approved of her. No disrespect ought to be shown to her effigy. And yet, the political situation made it difficult. In the end he compromised. The boarding would remain, but in order to cause Her late Majesty the minimum of inconvenience, he gave orders for two small eye-holes to be cut in the boarding so that she could look out.”

Finally, in a piece called The Magic Box of Willie Green (reminding me that Ambler also scripted THE MAGIC BOX, about cinema pioneer William Friese-Green), Ambler discusses the plight of the screenwriter, and it’s some of the wisest stuff on the subject I’ve ever encountered. He goes into the various pitfalls that can render a writer either unemployable and embittered, or a worthless hack, as well as sketching the way he can navigate the perils and emerge with self-respect intact. I confess I didn’t fully understand this last part, because I guess I have to find my way there myself. From that serene pinnacle, once achieved, I hope to look back and fully grasp Ambler’s analysis of the problem.

Praise the Titanic

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on April 3, 2012 by dcairns

Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria and Spike Milligan as McGonagall in Joe McGrath’s THE GREAT MCGONAGALL, filmed in Glorious Brownoscope.

Marvelous Mary had her annual William Topaz McGonagall anniversary dinner, in honour of Scotland’s great contribution to literature, the world’s worst poet.

That dynamo of dourness, John Laurie, reads a McGonagall “classic”.

For the first time I heard the theory that the Great McGonagall might have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, which I guess would explain why he never quite took in the fact that his poetry wasn’t greatly respected, nor any good. An artist like Modigliani could continue in the face of universal indifference driven by the fact he knew his work was great. The only difference with McGonagall is that his unshakeable self-belief was entirely misplaced. He should have had unshakeable self-disbelief. The only difference between William McGonagall and a genius, in other words, is that William McGonagall was not a genius.

Last year I composed a couplet in the McGonagall style (no scansion or rhythm, with a contrived rhyme at the end) to widespread acclaim at the dinner table. It was on the theme of the sinking of the Titanic, since McGonagall loved to versify about great disasters such as the collapse of the Tay Bridge. This year, since it’s the anniversary of the sinking, it was required of me to write the whole poem, despite the fact that nobody, especially me, could remember the original couplet. This is what I scrawled at dinner, based on the McGonagall principles of humorlessness, lachrymose bathos, fractured sing-song beats, and clunking repetitions —

ODE ON THE SINKING OF THE SHIP “TITANIC”

It was in the year of nineteen hundred and twelve

That the Titanic into the ocean did delve.

She sank like a stone, though of steel she was made

And the passengers on deck were extremely dismayed.

When she set sail from Liverpool dock

The crowds at the harbour did clamour and flock

For none did suspect that this unsinkable boat

Could ever do anything other than float.

But midway across the Atlantic came a voice full of dread

From a desperate lookout who cried “Iceberg! Dead ahead!”

The the ship turned to starboard to avoid the collision

The Fates did not smile but just laughed with derision

And the vessel was ruptured, its hull torn

And started to sink, which the captain did mourn.

To the lifeboats the passengers hurried at speed

But could not all fit in, so some ended up deid.

Including one passenger from the fair town of Dundee

Who could not find a seat and was thus lost at sea.

And many other casualties were the people in steerage.

They would not have been there had they been in Burke’s Peerage

And had the White Star Line sufficient lifeboats provided

All those souls would not have perished when the ship and iceberg collided.

A word of advice — if you have the option, skip the 3D conversion job of James Cameron’s “timeless classic” and see the newly restored A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, scripted by Eric Ambler and directed by Roy Ward Baker, both at the top of their game.

“I’ll see you your Leo DiCaprio, Mr Cameron, and raise you one David McCallum.”