Archive for Green for Danger

Piss and Vinegar

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2015 by dcairns

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For some reason, even for a confused liberal like me, it’s often extremely satisfying to see a policeman protagonist smacking suspects around and GETTING ANSWERS. It’s something that seems to just work in drama, and it can even be amusing, which speaks to something dark and stupid in human nature. Also, maybe it’s pleasing because it acknowledges something we believe goes on, but which isn’t always admitted in reassuring fictions. Still, after the recent massacre in Paris, there was something satisfying about watching both of Claude Chabrol’s Inspector Lavardin films (POULET AU VINAIGRE and INSPECTEUR LAVARDIN), in which glinty, flinty Jean Poiret plays Dominique Roulet’s quirky copper (likes his eggs just so), beating up witnesses, letting killers off on a whim, stitching up those who may not be precisely guilty as charged.

“Life is absurd,” is Lavardin’s philosophy, and the films are charming and entertaining because of not despite their ethical shock factor — it’s liberating to see a character who cares nothing for the accepted rules of his profession and operates entirely according to his own sensibility. The disturbing undercurrent is the certainty that these methods ARE used, and are not so whimsically funny in real life.

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Lavardin is like Kurosawa’s Sanjuro character from YOJIMBO and SANJURO, upsetting the accepted codes of his genre and being so popular doing it that an immediate sequel becomes necessary. While Kurosawa boldly cast the same actor, Tetsuya Nakadai, as Toshiro Mifune’s opponents in both films, killing him off each time, and Sergio Leone repeated this trope with Gian Maria Volonte in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (even though FAFDM has nothing in common with SANJURO except that it’s a sequel to a version of YOJIMBO), Chabrol was not quite so shameless: he waited until Lavardin got his own TV show (Les Dossiers Secret de l’Inspecteur Lavardin) to recast ex-wife Stephane Audran.

The first film enjoys a slow, convoluted set-up, one of those things where one worries that the various dastardly characters, their dysfunctional relationships and covert schemes will never fully become clear, or that one won’t be clever or French enough to understand them. Lavardin enters quite late in the action, because the deaths don’t start until midway. It’s a familiar structure from movies like GREEN FOR DANGER or FARGO or the TV show Columbo or its antecedent, QUAI DES ORFEVRES. Whereas FARGO and Columbo show the elaborate set-up to a crime, concealing nothing, and QUAI DES ORFEVRES pretends to but keeps something up its sleeve, Lavardin’s first case echoes Inspector Cockrill’s (Launder & Gilliat wanted to star Alastair Sim in a whole series of Cockrill adventures after GREEN FOR DANGER, based on Christianna Brand’s delightful whodunnits, but the star refused to repeat himself) — we see and hear plenty, but not enough to fully understand the key elements. Then Lavardin comes along and not only catches up with us in record time despite everyone lying their heads off, he supercedes our understanding and cracks the case (and a few heads).

Enjoyable as this is (with a surprising number of plot elements from PSYCHO — crazy mother in cellar, car winched from ravine), the sequel is even better, starting as it does with a corpse on a beach (the word “PORC” etched on his chubby back). This means Lavardin is on the scene in an instant, and we discover the intricacies of the case through his beady, skeptical, humorous but reptilian eyes.

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I’ve heard it suggested that Chabrol came to despise mankind or at least his characters, but this does not quite seem to me to be true. There’s a bit of Clouzot’s wry affection (seeing mankind at its worst but rather liking it anyway) and there’s also the Coen defense, that these are genre exercises and the people AREN’T REAL. The filmmakers want their rats to not only run a maze, but an obstacle course. It’s all in fun, except when it’s not.

I’ve not quite decided if Chabrol’s latter-day authorial cynicism amounts to full-scale misanthropy. He seems too jocular for that. But if you want to see traditional detective stories reinvigorated by a change of attitude in the central character, Lavardin’s your man.

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To get both films you have to buy two box sets, it seems. But hey, that means more Chabrol.

The Claude Chabrol Collection – Vol. 2 [DVD]

In desperation, the pun “Poulet au Vinaigre” which means Chicken with Vinegar but also “vinegary policeman” has been substituted with the title COP AU VIN, which is easier for Brits to understand except it doesn’t really mean anything.

The Essential Claude Chabrol Vol. 1 (3 disc box set) [DVD]

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Raking over the Ashes

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2009 by dcairns

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Art, which we can barely see, by Felix Topolski, creating a modern version of 18th century cartoons.

THE RAKE’S PROGRESS, directed by Sidney Gilliat, is the film Francois Truffaut says he likes when Hitch asks him if he ever saw any Launder & Gilliat movies. In FT’s opinion, GREEN FOR DANGER “didn’t quite work,” a frustratingly brief critique, but not as frustrating as the fact that, having raised the subject, Hitchcock doesn’t offer an opinion himself.

Well, time has been good to GREEN FOR DANGER, which has received the deluxe Criterion treatment and been discovered by American cinephiles who would mostly have been unaware of its existence. Here in Britain it’s an acknowledged classic, which means that the general public is even more unaware of its existence. A sort of combination of whodunnit, character comedy and giallo, GFD is a delightful, quirky and intelligent entertainment from the pinnacle of British cinema’s golden age. THE RAKE’S PROGRESS, meanwhile, is almost impossible to see — unscreened on television for years, never revived, unavailable on tape and disc.

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I finally tracked down a curiously flickering copy of the film, which proved mildly disappointing, but not by any means bad. Detailing the misadventures of a reckless, increasingly caddish scamp, played by Rex Harrison, the movie seemed most useful as an illustration of the late Leslie Halliwell’s ability to colossally miss the point.

Halliwell, a ubiquitous film writer who penned the first film dictionary I owned (and just about the only one available here in the 80s, save Ephraim Kurtz’s less all-encompassing but far more intelligent rival volume), once wrote that the climax of THE RED SHOES suggested that Powell and Pressburger had run out of ideas and couldn’t think of how to end their film, which kind of demonstrates the scale of ass the man could be. With THE RAKE’S PROGRESS he surpasses even that: “with silly endpapers in which, quite out of character, the rake becomes a war hero.” The reason that’s dumb is that the entire point of the film illustrates a notion of Gilliat’s, which I suspect is true, that a certain kind of man — arrogant, reckless, fearless, motivated by thrill-seeking and attention-seeking — who is a total liability in time of peace, can be a very useful asset in time of war. The film’s greatest achievement may be the fact that it makes this point forcefully (it’s hard to see how anyone could miss it) without insulting Britain’s WWII heroes.

Sexy Rexy begins the film being heroic in a tank, and then we flash back to his youth, getting sent down from Oxford for climbing monuments (and putting chamberpots on top of them — the inter-war equivalent of TP-ing, I guess), a relatively harmless jape, it’s true. Meanwhile he’s carrying on with a friend’s girl, a less innocent form of fun.

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His M.P. father finds him a job in a South American coffee business, an opportunity he blows when he realises how inefficient and inhumane the corporation is (nothing about exploiting the natives, however: Sexy Rexy gets himself fired after a researcher is made redundant). Returning to England, Rex seduces his friend’s girl again, but she’s now the guy’s wife, so that ends badly. A short career as a racing driver offers some success, but when the major European races are cancelled due to impending war, Rex is on his uppers again.

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Now comes the strongest part — Lili Palmer (real-life Mrs. Harrison) enters the film (1hr 10mins in) as a Jewish refugee looking for a husband who can get her British citizenship. She has a bit of money to pay Rex’s debts, and motivated by some genuine unselfish feeling (hearing a Hitler speech booming out in the night) he agrees to help. But he’s not that nice — he invents a £3,000 debt in England which she has to pay too (this cleans her out), so that he can pocket the money. This is pretty nasty behaviour for a hero in a film of this period. Of course, the joke’s on him when his equally caddish best mate embezzles the money from him and loses it in a stock market gamble.

I was delighted to realise this must have been a film my late friend Lawrie assisted on. He worked on GREEN FOR DANGER the previous year, as replacement 3rd Assistant Director, and told me he had made a film with Harrison and Palmer, but didn’t seem to remember what it was. Mainly he remembered them constantly swearing at each other, “the filthiest language I’d ever heard” — and he had been in the Royal Air Force.

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After destroying his marriage AND his father, Rex drifts into the seedy night-life of the taxi-dancer, at which point I realised the film was following the same path as Hitchcock’s DOWNHILL, which I had just seen. What makes THE RAKE more fun than the sombre (but still enjoyable) Hitch silent, is the way Rex manages to have a fair bit of fun on his road to ruin, and is generally completely guilty of everything he’s accused of. He’s a refreshingly irredeemable swine for a film of this era, and it’s a courageous way to depict an officer and a gentleman in 1945 (we also get glimpses of police corruption, class prejudice in action, quietly tolerated adultery, and a few other surprises). My guess is that Launder & Gilliat were still in their left-leaning, angry young men phase (they turned conservative soon after, as men if not as filmmakers: some of their later works do still show sparks of wild invention).

The ending is sweet. Rex’s pal and a senior officer look at his body in a bombed-out cellar, and hear of his dying words, “…a good year.” The officer remarks that it’s men like Rex who have made it one. The witness to the death says that he thinks Rex was referring to the champagne bottle he’d been glugging from. “He died as he lived: drinking champagne he hadn’t paid for.”

The officer says he considers the remark in very poor taste, and strops off.

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“You’d have appreciated it,” says the cad to the dead rake.