Archive for Gosta Ekman

Beck X: Curtain Call

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2022 by dcairns

STOCKHOLM MARATHON begins with a tense scene of a clearly traumatised girl escaping from a window and walking across the roof of a glasshouse… the glass starts to crack…

It’s effective, though it doesn’t extend itself to breaking point and the music is unhelpful, and then the inevitable slomo… it also has nothing to do with the supposed source novel, The Terrorists, the final installment of The Story of a Crime, the ten-volume adventures of Martin Beck by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö. Start as you mean to go on. The entire movie has nothing to do with the book, despite a Stan Lee type cameo by Sjöwall.

Somebody in charge of this series of (straight-to-video?) Martin Beck films, starring Gosta Ekman, made the decision to strip out the CONTENT, the political attitude underpinning the detective story. No doubt the filmmakers weren’t Marxists. But you don’t have to be a communist to agree with a lot of the authors’ critique of Swedish society and western civilisation in general. In fact, rather than pushing their own worldview (Wahlöö “a little bit Stalinist” according to his partner), the authors mostly confine themselves to taking satiric/despairing potshots at the status quo, only offering a solution in the last word of the last book, in the form of a crossword puzzle solution, the single word “Marxism.”

Like most of the books after the first three, The Terrorists hares off in various narrative directions, splitting up the protagonists and assigning many of the key scenes to characters other than Beck. This apparently seems like a problem to those adapting them, but needn’t be: the most faithful films seem to be the most successful.

One strand omitted by screenwriters Rainer Berg & Beate Langmaack is the story of the naive girl done in by society. It’s central to the novel, showing how social services, the police, the justice system, can conspire to destroy one powerless individual. The heart of the book. Parallel to that is the story of the terrorist gang, the only thing retained by the moviemakers, though in fact their story about a threat to the Stockholm Marathon (shades of FOUR LIONS) is nothing to do with the novel’s scheme about assassinating a controversial American politician.

The big ironic twist in the book — spoiler alert — is that after Beck and his team manage to thwart the highly-trained assassins, a lone nut — the girl whose life has been ruined — slips past them and murders, not their right-wing yank, but the Swedish prime minister.

I can see how, just eight years after the real assassination of Olof Palme, the real Swedish prime minister, as he exited a middlebrow Swedish comic film, THE MOZART SISTERS, Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s childish glee at offing the country’s leader might have seemed in poor taste. All the more reason to do it!

The filmmakers double down on the “lone nut” approach in order to deliberately rob their story of any political significance. They really have a genius for finding the least interesting direction at any turn. Since there’s not much of value that can be said about an artefact like SWEDISH MARATHON, there now follows a short disquisition on the dramatic vs. the interesting.

“Many things in life are interesting; not many things are dramatic,” said Dan O’Bannon in an interview for, I think, Screenwriter or Screenplay magazine which condensed all the insights from all the screenwriting books on the market into a few short paragraphs. O’Bannon promised that by following the principles of dramatic structure, pretty much any chump could write an entirely worthless script which the reader would nevertheless feel compelled to finish, or at any rate were the atrocity to be committed to celluloid, the viewer would find themself watching to the end (and probably cursing themself for it).

Raul Ruiz, meanwhile, asked why only a three-act structure based around a central conflict could be interesting? Why couldn’t a film detailing all the activity in a Brueghel painting be interesting, for instance? O’Bannon has the answer: interesting, yes, but not necessarily dramatic.

Ruiz is not primarily a dramatic filmmaker, I’d say: he does something harder, I think, because he has to sustain the audience’s interest with less obvious hooks. Where he does detail dramatic problems, there are likely to be lots of small ones rather than one big dumb one. There are plots, often quite complex — related events unfolding sequentially, but a synopsis of a Ruiz film might indeed end up sounding more like a description of a huge, detailed painting.

We’ve all seen too many films where the filmmaker hooked us and reeled us in, but offered no reward for the journey. Since the three-act structure is a boringly familiar trope (one reason it works so well may just be that we’re subconsciously familiar with it, so that it’s comforting to know where we are in the story), it’s incumbent upon anyone using it to offer some Ruizian INTEREST — in the form of psychological or social insight, ideas of any kind, aesthetic surprise, behavioural authenticity, something thematic or stylistic out of the ordinary run, possibly connected to but extending beyond mere PLOT, which E.M. Forster, citing the example of Scheherezade, justly defined as a trap for brutes.

Sjöwall & Wahlöö obviously used their narratives for a sociopolitical purpose, which seems one of the most suitable uses for a detective story. Psychology is certainly possible, but the Mechano-set construction of a cop story can get in the way of that. Which makes it an even better trick if you can do it. These Martin Beck movies offer plots which, fascinating on the page, become sterile when rendered on the screen with the INTEREST strip-mined away, cardboard characters moving along the string of a murderboard without a centre.

Beck 9: Cold Call

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2022 by dcairns

I’m sorry but the Martin Beck adaptations with Gosta Ekman are just NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO WATCH.

Apparently original co-author Maj Sjowall appears in all of them, like Stan Lee, but I haven’t spotted her. I don’t really know what she looked like in the nineties but she was cute as a button when the books were being written.

POLISMORDAREN aka THE POLICE MURDERER, adapted from the novel generally translated as Cop Killer, is completely without interest, except where it’s purely incompetent. The novels mix tones quite freely, but Sjöwall and partner Per Wahlöö always know what effect they’re after, even when mingling violence with humour. But this straight-to-video yawn, directed by Peter Keglevic, stages a key shooting incident with both tragic flute and slomo for epic tragedy, and slapstick pratfalls for farce. There might be a way to make that work, but not here.

One good thing: this geezer looks exactly the way I pictured him in the novel.

The book has some fun stuff — the killers from the first two novels in the series reappear. One is chief suspect in a sex killing in an out-of-the-way village. He’s done it before, served his time, but due to Sweden’s forgiving laws, been released as no longer a threat to society. Now, that book has been filmed as ROSEANNA in 1967, but it had also been adapted as an Ekman vehicle in 1993. But they could hardly feature the same killer in this piece, made a year later. Swedish justice isn’t THAT lax. The journalist killer from the second novel, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, also appears, still working for the press, under a new identity. Both characters really do seem to have settled down, though “the man called Folke Bengtsson” is still deeply weird.

So, none of that features in this adaptation, and I guess it couldn’t. What’s left? There’s a petty crime spree that ends in fatalities, and it’s tied in a coincidental way to the initial sex murder (staged with an unwelcome lasciviousness). One crime provides a clue to the other, a trick Sjöwall & Wahlöö were very keen on, as in The Man on the Balcony, where the witness who can identify a child killer is himself a violent robber.

This isn’t the strongest of the novels — the series is probably at its best from around volumes three to seven. But it’s very engaging. The film version, not so much. It reminds me way too much of nineties episodes of Taggart, Scotland’s own cop show, which outlasted its leading man, who was visibly dying of alcoholism onscreen (his afternoon closeups were rumoured to be filmed with a crewman on each side holding him up by the arms). The show went from dingy video in its early days to a glossier preudo-cinematic look which never achieved actual style or scale: much like this.

Also, we say “Polis” in Scotland too. Pronounced “Poe-liss.” So the cop cars in Beck are strangely amusing.

Michael Tapper’s book Swedish Cops dishes up an impressive amount of backstory — the various true crimes that inspired Sjöwall & Wahlöö, including the case that gave us the concept of Stockholm Syndrome, though the book and the show never get as far as a hostage situation.

“More than in the novels,” Tapper writes, “the films linger on Beck as a tragic hero, living the lonely, heartbroken and empty life of an inspector. Only his daughter comforts him from time to time. Repeatedly, we see images of Beck’s sad face accompanied by a melancholy piano score, in hindsight almost a blueprint for the sad, lonely and frequently ill Swedish inspector in innumerable novels and films. During the completion of the films, a statue called Det svenska tungsinnet (“Swedish Melancholia”) with actor Gosta Ekman’s features was completed by the actor’s wife, director and artist Marie-Louise Ekman. It is installed in the Altona Park in Malmö.”

Perhaps worth mentioning: the eighth Beck novel, The Locked Room, was adapted for Czech TV as Záhada zamčeného pokoje in 1986. I don’t think it looks very interesting — people in rooms talking in flat, uninflected shots — but you could argue that’s a decent approximation of the novels’ prose style and their dour hero. Anyhow, it’s here if you want to try it. Let me know if it turns out to be gripping.

One more to go!

Beck 7: Call the Shots

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2022 by dcairns

With an extremely strong reputation in its native Sweden, MAN ON THE ROOF, adapted from the seventh Martin Beck novel, The Abominable Man, is not only the most faithful adaptation thus far, but certainly the best. And the two qualities are not unrelated. While it’s possible to adapt a book with fidelity to its events and still get the tone completely wrong — see the first version of THE MALTESE FALCON for evidence — it doesn’t hurt if the person doing the adapting has some trust in the original work. The second necessary quality is understanding. Bo Widerberg, writer-director of TMOTR, has both.

The novel risks repeating the premise of the previous entry in the series: a man, pushed beyond endurance by social forces, takes an insane and bloody vengeance on those who personify said forces. In Murder at the Savoy, the victim is a businessman who embodies the worst qualities of Swedish capitalism. In The Abominable Man (Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle) the victims are the police, who, as an institution and a few individuals, have comprehensively destroyed a man’s life until he goes full Charles Whitman.

We begin with the murder of a senior copper in hospital, a chilling and ultimately exsanguinary scene — there’s a long-held static shot just staring at a corridor, mostly empty, waiting for something awful to happen, that puts me in mind of EXORCIST III. The music, resembling an emphysemic bumblebee playing a folded paper and comb, is unsettling. The eyeball staring from between the curtains, a swipe from Argento’s DEEP RED, is alarming — and arguably wrong for this kind of realist film. And then we’re in a handheld, fast-cut assault, blood slathering every surface, as the killer strikes with an ex-army bayonet (a device seldom exploited in horror movies, oddly enough). There are some prosthetic effects here, I think, but rather than lingering on them like Lucio Fucki, to get his sadistic money’s worth, Widerberg cuts so rapidly we’re not quite sure just what we’ve seen, which makes it much more powerful — overwhelming in its speed and savagery. Janet Leigh’s rubber stomach in PSYCHO, penetrated by kitchen knife with subliminal brevity, is probably at the back of his mind. One might compare it to the icepick slaying that opens BASIC INSTINCT, but there the strictures of the MPAA shifted things from full-on Fulci mode to a more Hitchcockian swiftness, so we don’t see Rob Bottin’s effect of the steel point going up the victim’s nostril, emerging at the top of the nose and reentering the eye, for which I am grateful personally.

Widerberg’s handheld approach, a mere documentarist tremor elsewhere in the film, becomes a frenzied set of lunges here, and enables us to feel that WE are slipping chaotically in the murderee’s spilled gore. It’s characteristic of the film that the vaguely vérité observational style becomes something more furious and expressive/expressionistic during instances of violence.

Widerberg is in take-no-prisoners mode. Though his source novel is frank and bold, he does tend to amp things up, stressing the disgusting details, even everyday ones like a toddler with a filthy backside (in the book, a throwaway line of dialogue, now a disgusting chocolaty image). And Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s deadpan, low-affect dryness, though still admirably present, is joined by a sometimes startling intensity.

The casting is tip-top. There’s nobody I objected to. Almost nobody, except the mousy Ronn and the gruff Hult (above), is the way I pictured them from the book, but I didn’t mind. They were close enough. Beck (Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt) is older and fatter. Larsson (Thomas Hellberg) is more rock ‘n’ roll — but a goofy Swedish rock ‘n’ roll. Kollberg (Sven Wollter) is slimmer. But they’re all fine. Torgny Anderberg, who plays the ineffectual police chief Malm here, plays the series’ other ineffectual police chief, Hammar, in the nineties series with Gosta Ekman. He’s very effective at being ineffectual.

I note with satisfaction details like Beck building model ships, and sleeping on the couch (he’s gradually withdrawing from his marriage, in a very passive way). While the books stress that Stockholm is polluted and falling to bits, Winderberg’s camera can’t help but see how colourful and attractive much of the city looks. Oh well, you can’t do anything about photogenics, unless maybe you’re Tom Hooper.

The only characters not present are Krisitiansen and Kvant, who make their final appearance as a comic team in the novel. Since setting them up would take too much time and be a distraction, Widerberg quite sensibly replaces them with some anonymous cannon fodder. It’s the kind of tweak I can cheerfully allow.

It’s a film of two halves — the typically plodding initial investigation yields to a full-on siege situation as the vengeful gunman takes to his rooftop. Then we have helicopter assaults, tear gas, all kinds of mayhem, presented on a spectacular scale and with rather disconcerting relish by the director.

An oddity of this book is the way it features several gory cop-killings, while the authors insist that the dangers of working for the police force are routinely exaggerated. In the interests of drama, Sjöwall and Wahlöö have done quite a bit of that exaggeration themselves: an undercover policewoman is endangered in Roseanna, a junior detective murdered in The Laughing Policeman, Kollberg gets stabbed in The Fire Engine that Disappeared, and this one is the bloodiest yet (but Widerberg adds even more carnage). So the point is worth making, and over the next couple of books they make it repeatedly: it’s in the interests of the police to exaggerate the dangers of their job, and by citing “assaulting a police officer” as the reason for their own violence, they get to fake the statistics with impunity.

The only thing that doesn’t quite come off in this one is the very ending. Like Capra’s MR. SMITH, Beck ends the novel unconscious, and things are concluded with a strange, funny line from Larsson (he’s a strange, funny man) — its abruptness is the whole point in the book, but it must have seemed TOO abrupt for the film, and Widerberg adds a zoom-in and b&w freezeframe on the slain killer, mistimed to make things both abrupt AND fussy. But this is a quibble: the film is a rarity (my first Widerberg, though): everything seems loose and free, and at the same time JUST RIGHT.

THE MAN ON THE ROOF stars Valle Munter; King Hrothgar; Mr. Big; Inspector Andersson; Dirch Frode; ‘Mandel’ Karlsson; Linus; Märeta; Evald Hammar; and Jean Sibelius vanhana.