Archive for Anthony Boucher

Beck #2: Long Distance Call

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2022 by dcairns

THE MAN WHO WENT UP IN SMOKE is an outlier — Martin Beck is sent to Hungary in search of a vanished journalist, his stated mission being to avoid an international incident, and spends his time wandering about in a desultory manner. The Beck books’ rich supporting cast do get to take part a little, though, via phone calls, investigations back in Stockholm, and for the last act when Beck returns home and (spoiler) solves the case.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö were evidently well-read in crime fiction and had seen a lot of movies: the next volume in the series seems to show the influence of Fritz Lang’s M, one of the first procedurals (predating Anthony Boucher’s coining of the term “procedural” in 1956, and his earliest literary example, V as in Victim, written by Lawrence Treat in 1945).

Big spoiler follows in the invisible (up in smoke) para below. Highlight it with your cursor if you want to read it.

(The central twist of TMWWUIS is that the journalist who has vanished in Budapest never actually went to Budapest. He was murdered at home in Sweden the night before his scheduled departure. His killer, an approximate lookalike, decided to throw investigators off the scent by stealing the victim’s passport and plane ticket, flying to Hungary and then mysteriously disappearing (sneaking back home and resuming his own identity). It’s a neat trick, and was still neater when James M. Cain thought up the basis for it in Double Indemnity. Maj & Per not only change the details, but plays the story backwards, following the investigator deceived by the trick, rather than the perpetrator/s.)

As a reading experience, TMWWUIS is maybe the least compelling of the series (Steady on: I’ve only read the first five, there may be other low points to come, but so far they seem to be improving if anything.) Even Beck marvels at how disengaged he is from this case, after becoming obsessed with the Roseanna McGraw murder the year before. But the twist is great, and the short appearances by the supporting cast of cops are very enjoyable: Kollberg is shaping up very nicely, and there’s a tiny appearance by the bumbling duo of Kristiansen & Kvant, lazy and stupid patrol cops, who will go on to provide much of the comedy relief and satirical slant that leavens the dour crimey aspects.

DER MANN, DER SICH IN LUFT AUFLOSTE is a 1980 German coproduction based on the book, starring Derek Jacobi, surprisingly enough, as Beck. I got hold of a low-res rip of a VHS pan-and-scan of a scratchy and discoloured print, dubbed into Russian, with no subtitles. As with ROSEANNA, however, the plot follows the book closely enough for me to vaguely follow it. Unlike ROSEANNA, it wasn’t possible to appreciate the work of director Péter Bacsó or cinematographer Tamás Andor — it seemed zoom-happy and undistinguished, but must have looked nicer when new. Was it always sicklied o’er with a green cast? It’s pretty unpleasant, not at all like the US film of THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN, which makes something eerily beautiful out of the tendency of fluorescent lights to photograph green.

Jacobi/Beck is called away from his summer holiday to go on this urgent investigation. We see him at his holiday home with his wife and his topless teenage daughter, but we don’t get much sense of Beck’s disenchantment with his marriage, which he allows to slowly disintegrate as the books go on. It might be implied in the dialogue, though. Did I mention I don’t speak Russian?

The film is a bit of a Europudding, which in fairness the novel invites. Jacobi is surrounded by real Swedes (at least one of whom went on to appear in the long-running Beck TV series and in Wallander) and Hungarians, making his presence a bit odd, but since everyone has had Russian voices transplanted into their throats, he doesn’t particularly stand out. I think he’s the wrong actor for the part, though. Bob Peck would have been good, if you want a British Beck. He even rhymes. But Bob Peck wasn’t particularly on the world’s radar in 1980. (I miss Bob Peck.)

Jacobi is great at nerves. Beck doesn’t really have nerves, he has sinuses and acid indigestion and a sort of grinding low-level glumness. He isn’t colourful, which Jacobi is by nature. Jacobi is an actor who wants to add to what’s on the page, whereas a good Beck actor should want to subtract. You need a man with the legendary minus factor — the kind of guy, as Ken Campbell put it, who is useful because you can bring him into a scene just as it’s threatening to get too interesting.

Jacobi knows what’s called for and gives an admirably low-key performance, but it’s still him giving it.

It being 1980, the fashions and settings are truly hideous, the rather admirable excesses of the 70s falling into a state of sartorial putrefaction. The settings don’t even seem particularly convincing. The white and gold trim of the Swedish Foreign Office strikes me as lurid. It rather smacks of roller disco.

Whenever I see a shot of a jet plane landing, I generally get a sinking feeling. It always feels like a dire way to convey the fact of travel, but cutting to the protagonist at passport control would be lame too, and airports are depressing. Herr Bacsó duly cuts to Jacobi getting his passport checked. The belt and braces approach.

When the film gets to Budapest and the cityscapes get slightly more interesting, the Russian dubbing abruptly gives out, and now the film has a UN-style simultaneous translation, a single Comrade talking over all the Hungarian dialogue in Russian. This, I admit, threw me for a moment. Then the dubbing returns, so it’s only the Hungarian bits this has been done to. So it’s going to keep alternating for most of the rest of the film. That should be fun.

A detective’s life is not actually full of jeopardy — he’s usually at the scene AFTER the unpleasantness has taken place. Sjöwall and Wahlöö have some neat strategies to get around this — by turning over stones in Budapest, Beck will eventually uncover some nastiness not directly related to his case, leading to some suitably unappealing sex and violence. But to keep the audience engaged in the meantime, a filmmaker is going to need (a) an unobtrusive but attractive visual style, and a good theme tune and (b) characterful supporting players. Here, I feel like only the music is good. It’s by Jacques Loussier (JEU DE MASSACRE, DARK OF THE SUN) and it sounds like the death spasms of a drunken dulcimer. Jangly.

The ever-present danger of the police procedural is the plod factor. This film plods. Only the music gives you any sense that anything’s going on. It’s amazing it succeeds so well.

Some of the book’s best stuff involves the Hungarian (secret?) policeman Major Szluka, played by Ferenc Bács here. The whiff of cold war paranoia seems heavily diluted here, perhaps because it’s a Hungarian coproduction with a Hungarian director (should perhaps have been a Swedish or German director so Budapest could be viewed through an outsider’s eyes, aligning us with Beck). In the book, Beck and Szluka come to an understanding as fellow professionals, but the edgy, uncertain start of the relationship is one of the key sources of tension in what’s otherwise quite a pedestrian investigation.

Derek Jacobi, action hero! The fight scene is as flat as everything else — though Sjöwall and Wahlöö are quite capable of describing things from a detached perspective, the (highly unusual) assault on Beck by members of the European underworld is properly hairy and suspenseful. Here, it’s just coverage. It needs to feel subjective, I think. One nice angle where a train passes over a bridge in the background… Then we just cut to a police car speeding to the rescue, flattening all suspense and taking us out of Beck’s experience. Must remember not to watch any more Bacsó films, unless anyone has any really passionate recommendations.

Bacsó has either greatly toned down the attempted seduction of Beck, or some Russian state TV censor has done it. A little bit of sex wouldn’t have hurt things, though the authors have a clinical, even forensic way of dealing with bodies, and Jacobi seems as unlikely an erotic hero as he does a punch-up artist. Anyhow, Beck declines the offer.

Excitingly, incompetent coppers Kristiansen and Kvant, who appear for the first time in this volume of the series, but only as a mention, get an actual walk-on here. But they’re not cast to resemble the books’ hulking idiots. Still, it’s nice to see the supporting cast — ROSEANNA, while fairly faithful to its source, left out most of Beck’s rather loveable colleagues. Though this scene doesn’t appear in the book, and though I can’t understand Russian, this seems like a very faithful reproduction of the kind of Kristiansen and Kvant scenes we get in The Fire Engine That Disappeared and Murder at the Savoy: called to account for their latest fuck-up, the two idiots lie pathetically, get caught out, throw one another under the bus, fall into humiliating recriminations. I’m prepared to give Bacsó some credit here, and note that he seems to have made more comedies than dramas.

They’ve changed the ending, though — instead of the depressing flatness of Beck’s solution — the crime turns out to be incredibly ordinary, with only the method of concealment lending it a certain panache — Bacsó concocts a crime passionelle and folie a deux, injecting a certain Gallic romance into the denouement. He also chooses this late point to introduce realistic gore, which isn’t inappropriate but is rather late in showing up.

And then the truly awful theme song comes in. “So confused / I donno what I’m gonna do / Ween or lose / I godda gedda new from you…” Good, I guess, to know that Hungary or Sweden has it’s own Shirley Bassey. Though it may be unfair to blame Bacsó for this musical intrusion, just as Neil Jordan doubtless isn’t responsible for the sudden invasion of MONA LISA by Phil Collins (“I really hate rock ‘n’ roll,” Jordan has said), the theme tune ends the film in the most gloriously inapposite way, and makes me glad I stayed the course. And I don’t scorn the fact that one of the minor actors slips comically on his way out of the penultimate scene, that’s the kind of muddy deflating comic realism the film needed more of.

Everything Else

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2018 by dcairns

“When you think about it, the entire history of literature is nothing more than people coming in and out of doors. Whereas science fiction is about EVERYTHING ELSE.” I went looking for this Ken Campbell quote to see which science fiction author he was quoting in turn, but all I found was John Briggs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, which attributes it directly to Campbell. I don’t think that’s right. John Brunner? Brian Aldiss?

My pulpy proclivities saw me reading almost exclusively science fiction as a teenager, but I got off that and onto crime later. Better prose. And into Wodehouse, a genre in himself. But I still have sympathy for the view that science fiction is the true literature of ideas. Lately I’ve been delving into SF anthologies and into David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, in search of mind-bending story ideas in concentrated form, with the idea of later pursuing leads, hunting down the novels of the scribes who impress me most in short form.

I mentioned Connie Willis before, in passing. She’s great – the ideas are certainly there (lots of time travel stuff) but she doesn’t shirk from the human, the emotional. The short story Chance, in The Legend Book of Science Fiction (ed. Gardner Dozois) moved me to tears. I’m not sure it’s really science fiction — more like a Kafkaesque extrusion of fantasy into a realistically-drawn story-world — but it’s just so damn sad. Even the amazingly happy ending is desperately bleak.

As part of my crime reading, I’d tried an Ellery Queen paperback found in a charity shop, The Player on the Other Side, which turned out to be actually written by Theodore Sturgeon, more usually a sci-fi guy. I’d read his excellent More Than Human decades back. He’s one of the best prose writers in genre fiction, so he not only comes up with arresting ideas, but he has the descriptive powers to do them justice. The Other Celia is anthologised a lot  I believe it turned up in one of the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine anthologies I acquired recently. Sturgeon also wrote two Star Trek episodes, which I mention merely because it seems remarkable now that a sci-fi TV show would seek out practitioners in the field as writers. God knows, the movies didn’t do so very often.

I think Sturgeon defined SF as, “A story with a scientific problem and a human solution.”

Another Star Trek writer, in a way, was my man Fredric Brown, whose story Arena was adapted so we could all enjoy the spectacle of Shatner wrestling with a lizard man. Brown does have a weakness for Federation-like interstellar hegemonies, though in his fiction these are as likely to be militaristic and evil as they are good. I slightly prefer Brown’s crime writing, where the wild ideas stand out as more exceptional, more out-of-place, but the story Come and Go Mad, ending with the line “Nothing matters!” delivered in a kind of lunatic shriek, is just extraordinary. Like Philip K. Dick or Cornell Woolrich, Brown strikes me as a writer continually on the verge of breakdown, which always makes things interesting.

I thought I read some Samuel R. Delany years ago, but it was actually some Clifford Simak — I have no idea why I confused the two, Delany is the better writer, though both are good. Driftglass, in the Dozois anthology again, sets up a fascinating future with surgically altered amphibious humans, only to play out a story that’s kind of Hawksian, only bleaker. “I’m a clumsy cripple, I step all over everybody’s emotions.” The great news is there’s LOTS more Delany for me to catch up on. Another one who writes great sentences.

I read two by Cordwainer Smith (the pseudonym of psychological warfare expert Dr. Paul M.A. Linebarger — his nom de plume encompasses two varieties of shoemaker), Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons — a story you just HAVE to read, in order to find out what the hell that title is about — but the answer disappointed me — and Scanners Live in Vain, which is rip-roaring space opera with a hellish dystopian angle. Probably an anti-commie tract, but mind-blowing, grim, ridiculous, epic. Most all of Smith’s fiction takes place in a far-future space empire called The Instrumentality, so as world-building it’s of great interest — I admire the obsessiveness.

Robert Silverberg’s The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol 1, 1929-1964 is full of goodies. I was really impressed by the early entries, such as Stanley G. Weinbaum’s A Martian Odyssey, which effortlessly combines Hawksian manly adventure on the red planet with a curiosity and sense of mystery about alien intelligence and culture.  The astronauts we meet are of various nations, but all male — the genre of thinking forward wasn’t always forward-thinking. But they’re such affable fellows! And it was 1929. The patriarchal view seems less defensible in the fifties stuff, but I found I liked the one John W. Campbell story I read better than I expected to. Campbell, of course, wrote Who Goes There?, the one SF story to actually attract Howard Hawks as co-adaptor, resulting in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Twilight has poetry to it, as well as an epic space-time scale, as well as a tall-tale/urban legend framing structure, with the yarn related by a mysterious hitch-hiker, that adds a strange resonance.

“Jim claims he doesn’t believe the yarn, you know. But he does; that’s why he always acts so determined about it when he says the stranger wasn’t an ordinary man. No, he wasn’t, I guess. I think he lived and died, too, probably sometime in the thirty-first century. And I think he saw the twilight of the race, too.”

The best character in Anthony Boucher’s The Quest for Saint Aquin is a talking robot ass. This one is a kind of post-atomic pastorale, a popular sub-genre, with the church driven underground by a fascist technocracy. Religious science fiction is a distinct sub-genre too, I guess: this has certain traits in common with John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (a favourite) and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I relate more to Wyndham, where the faith is an oppressive force.

Damon Knight’s The Country of the Kind — I had read this before, or maybe only part of it? (Who the hell gives up on a short story?) It’s excellent, if unlikely. I seem to confuse Damon Knight with Thomas Disch, whose Camp Concentration is a piece of terrific. The finale of Knight’s tale of a shunned psychopath somehow makes a call to random violence seem both inspirational and touching — it’s not seductive, it doesn’t make you want to be violent or suggest that the author is in favour of such things — it just shows you how, from a different perspective, such emotions could attach themselves where you wouldn’t think they belonged. Paradigms explode. Your mind is expanded, the way it ought to be by good SF.

Knight also wrote To Serve Man, famously adapted by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. The head-spinning paradigm shift in its purest form.

I have too many authors to choose from now, but nevertheless, hit my with your recommendations.