Archive for Christopher Fowler

A Wing and a Prayer

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2008 by dcairns

His Ward is his Bond.

So, I watched Frank Borzage’s CHINA DOLL, which has a character played by Ward Bond with my name (Father Cairns), although I wasn’t actually aware of this until I checked the IMDb because nobody seemed able to pronounce the name. Most of the cast seemed to be using the Irish name “Kearns”, whereas from Victor Mature’s slobbery great mouth the name emerged as more like “Corns”.

You don’t get many Cairnses in the movies, so that was something. Curiously, I just came across a fictional Cairns in Christopher Fowler’s sixth Bryant and May mystery, The Victoria Vanishes. Since Fowler has been known to drop by here, I wondered if he drew the name from life. But since CHINA DOLL was made ten years before I was born, I can’t claim to have inspired that one.

The name Cairns, in religious circles, is mostly associated with a namesake of mine from the Church of Scotland, but Bond’s character is apparently Catholic (he has nuns in tow, one of whom plays Frankie and Johnny on sax for comic relief). Borzage himself was a member of some unusual Catholic branch of Masonry, or something odd like that.

The film, a WWII-set romance between airman Victor Mature (“a melting waxwork of Dean Martin” — B. Kite) and poor Chinese girl Li Hua Li (“introduced” to the West in this film, then back to making films in Hong Kong and Taiwan for the next twenty years, making her one of the more successful people to have been “introduced”). Blind drunk one night, misanthropic Big Victor accidentally buys Li as bonded slave for three months, falls in love, and reconnects with humanity.

The script has nice lines: when Vic’s colonel (Denver Dukes of Hazzard Pyle) tells him that life on earth isn’t so bad, the boozy curmudgeon retorts, “Everybody leaves it sooner or later.” But Mature plays the character as too soft, so that his conversion lacks force. Shot in America with stock footage enhancement, the film is minus atmosphere and shadow. It’s a shame this weaker effort has surfaced on DVD when so little Borzage is available, although it finally looks like the emotionally exhausting masterpiece SEVENTH HEAVEN is being released, and another silent classic, THE RIVER, is out in its incomplete glory.

Borzage is going to be one of my very favourite filmmakers once I’ve seen enough of his work. MOONRISE is simply one of the greatest films I know, and STREET ANGEL and SEVENTH HEAVEN are terrific. Between the silent movies and the late blossoming of MOONRISE, Borzage seemed to get distracted with a lot of inappropriate and mediocre assignments from MGM, and CHINA DOLL is a production of John Wayne’s Batjac company, so it keeps veering between manly combat and Borzagian spirituality and sentiment.

Intercut baby playing with dog tags with Dad blasting Japs out of the sky. John Woo, take note.

While I normally agree with Chairman Mao somewhat on the subject of religion, I find Borzage’s take on it sufficiently idiosyncratic and personal to be engaging — STRANGE CARGO (1940) must be the weirdest tract ever filmed. In one scene, serial killer Paul Lukas, rejecting an offer of salvation, walks off into the jungle, then spots Borzage’s camera, which approaches him hopefully… “No!” snaps Lukas, and storms off, disappearing from the film unpunished, presumably to continue his murderous lifestyle. A simply wonderful, chilling, utterly peculiar moment.

Patrons: as interracial sex is taking place, the management present this shot of a wet window.

As director and co-producer, Borzage seems to have invested plenty of interest in CHINA DOLL (he was a flyer himself), as the religious and romantic aspects show. But it doesn’t quite fire on all cylinders. The Production Code forbade Mature and Hua Li from kissing, which is disgraceful but doesn’t actually hurt the film — I don’t actually want to see the cute Chinese girl get enveloped in the skin-dripping face of Big Victor anyway, and her saluting him makes for a more novel and touching solution.

Peculiar Crimes and Unexplained Deaths

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2008 by dcairns

dead cool

I’ve got an alternating thing going on with my reading at the moment — first I read one of Derek Raymond’s frazzled pulp nasties featuring his nameless police sergeant investigating horrific cases for department A14, Unexplained Deaths, the crappiest, least respected division of London’s Metropolitan Police (“the Met”) —

— then I read one of Christopher Fowler’s warmly elegiac, highly imaginative and thoroughly researched crime shockers featuring octogenarian detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, investigating bizarre crimes for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a crappy and little-respected offshoot of London’s Metropolitan Police.

It seems to provide the variety I need.

While Raymond’s relentlessly downbeat policiers can put you into a bit of a suicidal depression, staved off only by the shameless purple-noir vivacity of his prose, (“He gave me one look, one of the straight kind, turned and got into the back of the Rover. It took off in a puff of rubber fury.”) and hilariously dated yet brilliant dialogue, Fowler’s more gentle work combines lashings of noir grimness and evil with the warmer Agatha Christie tradition in which crime-solving is a civilized, intellectual pursuit. It’s a lovely blend. White Corridors features a classic John Dickson Carr type locked room mystery, as well as a more psychological plot in which the readers perceptions are cunningly twisted around.

It was Carr who created The Department of Queer Complaints to solve Impossible Crimes, and in some respects Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit is a descendant of this august body. Both writers eschew the supernatural while simultaneously evoking it: crimes and settings redolent of the unearthly are shown to have rational explanations, but in Fowler there’s little sense of the paranormal being “explained away” — an eeriness still lingers. His books are also crammed to rupturing with obscure lore and local history, much of which I’m filing away in the drawer of my brain labelled “Useless Information That Makes Life Worthwhile.”

Apparently there’s a movie/TV option on the Fowler books, while I’m trying to interest anybody I can find in films from the Raymonds (Chabrol has already done one — Raymond was always more welcome in mainland Europe, even writing a Parisian policier specifically for the French market) so this post isn’t entirely off-topic.

I feel I should intensify this London crime mood with some suitable film viewing — the wonderful DEATHLINE (known as RAW MEAT in the US — how dreadfully vulgar!) would seem to form a sort of stylistic link between the two series of books. In that sensational ’70s horror cult classic, Donald Pleasance’s irascible Inspector Calhoun manages to royally piss off everyone he meets, much like Raymond’s Sgt. or Fowler’s cantankerous fossil Bryant, while tracking down a cannibal navvie on the Underground.

It’s a film I’ve enjoyed numerous times, particularly for the irrepressible chemistry between Pleasence and his subordinate, Norman Rossington (the Beatles’ manager in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT). But I hope soon to have the DVD in my sweaty mitts so I’ll be unable to resist giving it a spin. (If only they’d made a whole series with Pleasence as Calhoun, tackling a modern Spring-Heeled Jack, hippie satanists and the Highgate Vampire. Calhoun is the true embodiment of the British copper’s particular brand of sarcasm. Are all policemen sarky? Our Johnny Hoppers seem particularly good at it.)

Norman Rossington story: when screenwriter Charles Wood spotted Rossington, playing an enlisted man, up front with the officers in the preparation for the final CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, he asked why Rossington wasn’t with the rest of the troops. “Because *I* am a highly-paid featured player,” retorted Rossington. Quite right.

Well, there are only five of Raymond’s series and six of Fowler’s, so this ecstasy can’t last, but while it does I’ll be steeped in London pea-soupers and cockney rhyming slang.

Here is some Cinephile’s Rhyming Slang, which will allow you to discuss movies without The Law getting wise to you:

Apples and stairs = featured players. (As in, “Who are the apples in that new Soderbergh?”)

Hoochy-coochy = Bertolucci.

Dirty Den = mise-en-scene.

La Dolce Vita = Cinecitta. (Also works the other way around.)

Bronx cheer = Lars Von Trier.

Dame Kiri = auteur theory.

Demon barber = Manny Farber.

Aneurin Bevan = SE7EN. (As in, “It had a moody, Aneurin-style title sequence.”)

Medically Ethical = Apeechatpong Weerasethakul.

“It puts you in mind of the days of Jack the Ripper!”

I love the London street scenes in KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS, even though they don’t look remotely like London streets. This being Universal Studios, I suspect they might be using bits of the mittel-European village set from FRANKENSTEIN.