Archive for Claude Chabrol

Strangeways

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2021 by dcairns

I’m intrigued by poet Cecil Day-Lewis (and father of that other D-L) and his second life as crime writer Nicholas Blake. The mysteries of Nigel Strangeways are nicely, if unspectacularly written. Strangeways differs from most amateur sleuths in his being defiantly UN-eccentric. But there’s another key aspect to Blake’s mysteries which means the makers of the new version of The Beast Must Die might be struggling to find a sequel in any of the twenty extant Blake-Strangeways books.

Two of Blake’s novels have received more attention, particularly in the film world, than all the rest.

The Beast Must Die – nothing to do with werewolves – is the most popular of the novels. It’s an outlier, for a few reasons. Fair-play whodunits and cosy crime novels tend to keep emotion at a distance. The victims are usually either unpopular, dislikable characters (which provides lengthy suspect lists and obviates all that messy grief) or solitary figures without close dependents (or both). Or, if there are grieving loved ones, they’re shuffled off-stage as fast as decently arrangeable, or are portrayed so woodenly their bereavement has no disquieting effect on the reader. (I love how, in Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi mystery A Maze of Death, a character, noting the glassy underreaction of his fellow suspect/prospective victims in a Ten Little Indians scenario, deduces that they must all be amnesiac psychopaths, simply because they’re behaving exactly like the people in mystery novels always do.) In The Beast Must Die, the motivation for the murder is so distressing, and traumatic for the man involved, that it overwhelms the mystery aspect completely — so that the first two film versions, Román Viñoly Barreto’s Argentinian version of 1952, and Claude Chabrol’s French one of 1969, are able to excise Mr. Strangeways altogether, and the plot if anything gets better.

The other significant film connection with Blake is Orson Welles’ putative film of The Smiler with the Knife, abandoned in favour of what became CITIZEN KANE. This time, Blake himself largely dispensed with his protag, handing the story over to his plucky wife Georgia. She’s required to inveigle her way into the confidences of a fascist leader plotting a coup. Easy to see how Welles would have been interested in a political thriller like that, transposing the story to the US and casting Lucille Ball and himself as the heavy in a story that would have had aspects of NOTORIOUS avant la lettre.

Welles definitely definitely made the right choice for his film debut, but SMILER the movie remains an intriguing might-have-been. It might, actually, have provided its director with a solid commercial hit.

I can’t quite forgive Blake for killing off Georgia Strangeways between novels, though he gives Nigel a girlfriend later, the sculptor Clare Massinger, who’s quite good fun.

But the other aspect of Blake’s novels I’ve discovered is strongly negative: he can’t write mysteries. I have dim memories of a few of them I read a while back, but one, The Whisper in the Gloom (televised and Americanized and Disneyfied as The Kids Who Knew Too Much in 1980) depends on an inexplicable coincidence which really gets the reader wondering — but is left as an inexplicable coincidence at the novel’s end. Spoiler alert: it’s borrowed from Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, making the revised title very apt.

This seems like a big cheat, but The Ghastly Hollow and The Widow’s Cruise both play fair — the trouble is they’re amazing guessable. I rarely guess the solutions to mysteries, despite reading a lot of them, a bit about them, and having a sort of crack at it myself. Blake’s derivative side is evident in both books: TGH is a poison pen story possibly derived from Clouzot’s LA CORBEAU or Richard Llewellyn’s play Poison Pen, filmed in 1939; TWC is a kind of Bette Davis sister act. What Blake does with the stories is fairly original, I wouldn’t call him a plagiarist (though Gloom comes very close), it’s just that he utterly fails to hide his clues in plain view. He just leaves them lying in plain view, or actively thrusts them under our noses like an idiot magician forcing a card on us, but a card he really wants to conceal.

I can’t work out how Blake/Day-Lewis managed to spin out a career in mysteries as long as he did. His best two books have the least mystery, and every time the solving of the crime is central to the story, he muffs it. Still, I guess it kept him fed while he wrote his poetry, and kept his soon-to-be-distinguished son clad, so that was worthwhile. I admire his The Poetic Image (1947) as a work of criticism.

His books are very readable but I must stop reading them because they don’t satisfy. He’s like the opposite of John Dickson Carr: Carr’s impossible crimes, colourful detectives and jaunty dialogue are far more uplifting, far less real, and he plays far less fair. But at least you’ll never guess who done it.

The Sunday Intertitle: Wolfdunnit?

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2018 by dcairns

Today, for the Hammer & AMicus Blogathon, I’m looking at THE BEAST MUST DIE. No, not this one —

I haven’t seen the 1952 version of Nicholas Blake’s novel, but I have read the novel. Blake was the pen-name of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, father of Daniel, who moonlighted as a crime novelist. This his only book to have been adapted for the cinema, but his The Smiler With the Knife NEARLY became Orson Welles’ first film.

Not this one either ~

Claude Chabrol’s version of the same book is pretty good. Going by the cast list of the Argentinian version, it shares with Chabrol the unusual feature of eliminating the character of the detective. Blake/Day-Lewis created such a compelling pair of opposing characters in this story that his usual toff detective, Nigel Strangeways, just gets in the way. And in Smiler, he’s almost completely sidelined, his adventurous wife taking centre stage (Welles hoped to cast Lucille Ball, with himself as homegrown fascist villain).

But no, Amicus head Milton Subotsky chose to adapt a short story by Star Trek writer James Blish and give it Blake’s title (a biblical quotation) — but it’s STILL a country house detective story, with a slight twist. There will be spoilers ahead.

Taking this challenge seriously, I’m basically live-blogging this so you can see if I’m able to ID the skin-changer. Who’s hairy on the inside at this weekend party?

In my experience, seventies werewolves tend to wear plaid shirts, like lumberjacks (perhaps harking back to WOLFBLOOD, the silent movie combining lycanthropy and lumberjacking which I wrote about here. The first lumberthrope movie? So I’ll be watching this one waiting for someone to turn up in an ugly shirt, My money’s on Michael Gambon as the cast member likeliest to display hideous fashion sense. But I am aware of a complicating factor: the movie was also released, in an attempt to cash in on the blacksploitation craze, as BLACK WEREWOLF, which would seem to narrow the choices down to Calvin Lockhart and Marlene Clark. And is, quite frankly, a terrible title for a whodunnit.

We begin with a freeze-fame of our werewolf — ALSO a terrible spoiler — and the insinuating tones of Valentine Dyall, purring a redundant VO which is also spelled out in superimposed titles.

Helicopter shot over what looks like Scottish heather, but may in fact be the grounds of Shepperton, and Calvin Coolidge Lockhart is being hunted by a private army and a helicopter, through a wood wired for sound by Anton Diffring who sits aloof in a control room with a video wall.

This movie is THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND avant la lettre, isn’t it? Which is to say, Ten Little Indians with a video wall. I wonder if Robert Ludlum saw it and thought, “Needs a better title!”

The cast contains Dumbledore II, Ernst Stavros Blofeld (again), Ganja Meda, Irving Amadeus, the Grand Moff Tarkin and Reinhard Heydrich, so it’s quite a house party.

Two cast members lack iconic signature roles — but Ciaran Madden would reunite with Dumbledore Michael Gambon in 1992 when she played Mm. Maigret to his titular sleuth, and Tom Chadbon has a memorable bit part in JUGGERNAUT (“I’d spent it, hadn’t I?”) though of course I find all the bit parts memorable in that one.

Chadbon, whose voice here fluctuates between early Malcolm McDowell and anorak on the bus man, is an absolute joy in his puffy shirts.

The dialogue is a hoot — “One of our guests is a werewolf: I know it,” intones Lockhart. “Then why did you INVITE them?” asks his wife, quite reasonably. What adds to the strangeness is that most of the cast are either playing the wrong nationality — Anton Diffring is being Polish, Peter Cushing German — or are dubbed — Marlene Clark has been revoiced by Scottish jazz singer and actress Annie Ross, who performed the same service for Britt Ekland in THE WICKER MAN — or just have naturally amusing voices, like Chadbon and Gray (whose voice we’re used to hearing come out of Jack Hawkins’ mouth).

Anton sips his Bailey’s and gazes at his video wall like a kind of Thomas Jerome Teuton.

Director Paul Annett was an experienced second unit man for TV, shooting the location action sequences on film for British shows that would revert to video as soon as the characters moved indoors. For his sins, he does provide an endless car chase between Lockhart and Gambon that saps my will to live whenever I try to watch this movie. Maybe that’s why I don’t remember who the werewolf is — the car chase always defeats me. Well, this time, I’m as obsessed as Lockhart to get to the bottom of this, lacking only the attractive high cheekbones (with Lockhart and Cushing and Diffring and even Gray, this film sports perhaps the finest assemblage of cheekbones ever captured on celluloid — a thespic Himalayan range of facial promontories).

“Lost in time… and lost in space… and meaning…”

When the movie isn’t doing helicopter chases and such, Annett and ace cameraman Jack Hildyard (BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) manage a lot of stylish and dynamic shooting, prone to zoom abuse, it’s true, but it’s 1973 after all… it’s fair to say the movie does resemble a glossy TV thriller of the period (e.g. The Persuaders) more than a horror movie. Well Subotsky liked monsters but not gore or sex or violence or anything too disturbing…

Much of the film consists of Lockhart and Diffring spying on the guest bedrooms, searching for signs of incipient werewolfism in the invitees. As Anton watches Chadbon strip to the waist, he muses, “Lots of men have hair on their chests,” projecting the suave confidence of a man who knows whereof he speaks. “And on the backs of their hands?” objects Lockhart, as if this were the unlikeliest thing on earth. He’s never met Len Deighton.

The eyes, quite apart from being the windows of the soul, are the tasty bit.

After the first killing — offscreen, but leaving a gory aftermath — we see all their guests in their PJs — Charles Gray sports a vivid paisley dressing gown, and Gambon once again goes for a subtle but distinct check. The rules of fashion dictate he MUST be the wolfman in their midst!

But at dinner, he wears a brown velvet smoking jacket and a shirt with a collar of startling wingspan. Not a check in sight.

Gambon is definitely soft on werewolves, though — his first act as Dumbledore was to hire a lycan schoolmaster.

I bloody hate day for night photography, personally.

Like THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, this movie shares cast members with the almighty INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED, two of them this time (Lockhart & Cushing).

The Sunday Intertitle this week is from The Werewolf Break, where Valentine Dyall — The Man in Black — returns on the soundtrack to invite us to guess who the shaggy killer is.

 

It’s twenty past werewolf.

And in fact the ending pulls off quite a few cunning twists — I wasn’t emotionally engaged enough to really care who’s wolfie, but the reversals and revelations pile on top of one another turn it into quite a nice conclusion. Here comes the spoilers — first hairy hand is spotted on Marlene Clark, so that her hubbie has to administer the silver bullet, and then it turns out she’s been cross-infected by a golden retriever who’d been gored by the ORIGINAL werewolf —

— an Alsatian in a woolly waistcoat, finally revealed as —

 
 

BLOODY MICHAEL GAMBON! I KNEW IT!

This has been an entry in the Hammer Amicus Blogathon run by Cinematic Catharsis and  Real Weegie Midget Reviews.

Strangeways

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2016 by dcairns

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Finally reading The Smiler with the Knife, written by Nicholas Blake (who was really the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, father of Daniel) in 1939, immediately optioned by RKO and briefly developed by Orson Welles as his Hollywood debut, after THE HEART OF DARKNESS fell through and before CITIZEN KANE came through. It’s an item in Welles bios that always intrigued me.

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Years ago I read Blake’s The Beast Must Die, which has no relation to the Amicus werewolf whodunnit (spoiler: the werewolf dunnit), but which was decently filmed by Chabrol as QUE LA BETE MEURE in 1969, and as LA BESTIA DEBE MORIR in 1952 by my man Roman Vinoly Barreto. The best bit of the book is a lengthy confession written by a man plotting the murder of the motorist who drunkenly killed his child. Then Blake’s posh private eye, Nigel Strangeways comes along and solves it, and the story devolves into a conventional country house kind of thriller, sitting uncomfortably with the raw emotion of the killer POV sequence. Chabrol certainly noticed that, and excised Strangeways from his movie altogether. I haven’t been able to see the Barreto, but he may have done the same, or maybe he just changed the names. Has Nigel Strangeways ever made it to the screen?

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Poor Nigel is largely absent from The Smiler with the Knife too, with his wife Georgia, intrepid explorer, taking centre stage, going underground to unmask a fascist plot to take over Britain — the aristocratic leader of the secret society falls in love with her and she has to betray and outwit him. Events rapidly overtook the novel with the outbreak of war, but Welles planned to relocate the story to America, with the villain a Howard Hughes type. Ironic, since Hughes would end up owning RKO.

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Welles also included, according to Joseph McBride’s Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?, a Hearst-like newspaper baron called W.N. Howells — now, presumably Welles had in mind for himself the big bad guy role, whose character has quite a bit in common with his eventual role in THE STRANGER (secret fascist hiding in plain view, in love with a woman who does not share his sinister sympathies), but “W.N. Howells” sounds so much like a misheard “Orson Welles” that it’s hard to believe he wasn’t already sizing up the part for himself.

Blake/Day-Lewis makes his main villain a romantic millionaire figure, toying humorously with the affections of countless women but falling dangerously in love with Georgia. He also ends up blinded in a fire she starts, anticipating Welles role as Rochester in JANE AYRE EYRE. His styling as an “attractive brute” type may have been a stretch for Orson, but no doubt appealed, and one aspect of his description, his “oddly lumbering, bear-like gait,” fits Welles, no twinkletoes, to a tee.

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Nobody seems to have produced a really detailed synopsis of Welles’ adaptation, and it’s not published or available to read online, but I recall (correctly, I hope) that Welles wanted Lucille Ball for the lead. This would have changed Georgia’s character considerably, and a good thing too — Blake/Day-Lewis has to work hard to even begin to make plausible her role as an undercover agent when she’s well-known as the daughter-in-law of a Scotland Yard commissioner whose job is to expose the conspirators. I imagine Welles making her much more of a regular working girl, perhaps anticipating her role in the delightful 1947 thriller LURED (Douglas Sirk), in which she plays a taxi dancer going undercover to snare a serial killer.

The latter part of the book is a very Hitchcockian chase thriller, in the 39 STEPS mode. Welles had some kind of inherent antipathy to Hitchcock, co-existing with an attraction to often similar material (but what attracted him about it was obviously quite different). It would have been fascinating to see what he’d make of this.

Oh well, we’ll just have to make do with CITIZEN KANE.