Archive for James Hadley Chase

Losey Week Revisited

Posted in FILM, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2020 by dcairns

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I did a week’s deep dive on Joseph Losey, years ago. This is another, larger deleted sequence from the essay I’m working on. Poor Evan Jones got cut, because it was just too sprawling and diffuse.

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Joseph Losey had been forced to leave to avoid testifying before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. He would gradually, by talent and sheer force of will, reinvent himself: in America he had specialised in thrillers; in Britain he slowly transformed into a maker of art films, a form which had almost no history in the UK.

But his first collaboration with writer Evan Jones was made for Hammer films. The Damned (1961), AKA These Are the Damned, is often falsely grouped with the sci-fi thriller Village of the Damned (1960) whose success the studio probably wanted to cash in on. In it, a teenage gang’s conflict with a visiting American (the dependably dull MacDonald Carey) brings them into contact with a group of children are kept underground and rendered immune to radiation, primed to take over the world “when the time comes,” as the head of the project says, bears more relation to Losey’s debut The Boy with Green Hair (1947) and his juvenile delinquent picture The Sleeping Tiger (1954).

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Look behind him! It’s The X-Files!

Jones was tasked with adapting H.L. Lawrence’s source novel, The Children of Light after blacklistee Ben Barzman’s legal troubles stalled his progress on the script. Talking to Michel Ciment, Losey sketched out a brief bio of his chosen replacement: “Actually he hadn’t, so far as I can remember, ever worked on a film before. His parents were landowners in Jamaica. He’s milky-coloured, and he makes no secret that his father was black. He was educated at Oxford, I think. His play was pretty strong and dealt with the relationships of a landowner and his peasants in Jamaica. We had a certain political kinship and we got along very well in other respects, too.”

The job had to be done fast: at Losey’s urging, he largely threw out the original story, keeping only the premise. He was still writing until the day before shooting started. It’s a bizarre movie with many dysfunctional elements: disparate plot threads are introduced in haphazard fashion, and the attempts to wrestle with youth culture are terribly square and unconvincing. The sci-fi aspects made Losey very uncomfortable too: he couldn’t believe in them. But somehow a certain stark force is realized: the subterranean children, who are cold to the touch, are a metaphor for both Britain’s public school system (in Britain, for some topsy-turvy reason, private schools are referred to as public schools) and for the populace as a whole: literally kept in the dark. One very effective touch is that rather than building up a single villain in charge of the scheme, Jones emphasizes the team, which includes favorite Losey actors Alexander Knox and James Villiers.

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Though nobody involved can breathe convincing life into the gang of delinquents led by a young Oliver Reed, who has not yet learned to whisper huskily, there are commendable efforts to avoid the tabloid news clichés: Reed’s character is obsessed with protecting his sister’s purity, “…because you’ve never had a girl yourself,” she charges. Losey’s command of visuals was increasing as he found more and more talented collaborators. Here, production designer Richard MacDonald creates frightening and dreamlike caves and classrooms for the little troglodytes, enhanced by  Elizabeth Frink’s sculptures of wingless, decayed birds. “Life has the power to change,” intones Knox, “After the first great explosion, strange, wonderful flowers, unknown before, bloomed in the desert.” The film continually aspires towards poetry, is dragged down by plodding convention, then soars again.

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Arthur Grant’s black-and-white widescreen images are edited by Reginald Mills, who cut Michael Powell’s classics and would go on to cut The Servant (1963, written by Pinter) and King and Country (1964) for Losey. The sound design, dominated by crashing surf, anticipates the roaring breakers that give Losey’s later Boom! (1967) its title (“the shock of each moment of being alive.”)

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Losey was able to make Eve the same year, a true European art film based on a novel by thriller writer James Hadley Chase, a prolific British plagiarist who established a career penning American pulp fiction despite never having been to the States, armed only with a dictionary of slang and a map. The star, Stanley Baker, was Welsh, the son of a coal miner: his stardom anticipated that of later working-class heroes like Connery and Caine. Here he plays a novelist whose book has elevated him into high society, apparently cutting him off from the wellspring of his talent: but in fact he’s an utter fraud, who stole the manuscript from his dead brother. His destructive relationship with the title character, played by Jeanne Moreau, and with the vulnerable Virna Lisi, leads to tragedy.

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Losey hated the book and got Jones to change the setting from Hollywood to Italy, incorporating footage captured at the Venice Film Festival. There’s no sense that this is meant to be a thriller, and the producers were aghast at its running time (168 minutes in Losey’s original cut). But the remaining hard-boiled elements help balance Losey’s tendency to self-serious artiness, resulting in one of his most fully-achieved films, and there’s a much stronger sense that Jones knows the kind of people he’s writing about here (his best character in The Damned is the sculptor played by Viveca Lindfors: Jones feels the strain when called upon to script the inarticulate). He also had a gift for acid camp, here personified by James Villiers as an aloof screenwriter, who protests at a wedding, “Why should an intelligent man like myself be subjected to this kind of tribal ritual?”

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Losey likes stuffing his films with art: the setting of Venice gives him a valid reason to do so. In fact, art is inescapable there. And Baker’s tortured intellectual, self-destructive and lashing out, suits him admirably. The pairing with Jones (blacklistee Hugo Butler also worked on the script) was proving fruitful.

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Next, Jones adapted King and Country (1964) from a radio play written by one of the participants in the true life story it told: during WWI, a private is tried for desertion. It’s a clear case of shell shock, what we now call PTSD, but the court of officers cannot accept that because they daren’t allow any excuse for a soldier not “doing his duty.”

The tiny budget and cramped sets are overcome by Losey putting the focus strongly on his central performances. Dirk Bogarde, his other favorite actor of this period, plays the officer charged with defending Hamp, played by Tom Courtenay. Courtenay, the star of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Billy Liar (1963) is another of the new breed of regional, working-class actors (in his case, Yorkshire) who retained their original accents and introduced a new, understated naturalism. There’s an electrifying contrast with Bogarde, a Rank Organisation matinee idol who successfully rebelled against his image and, like Losey, made the transition to the arthouse, eventually working with Fassbinder, Visconti and Resnais.

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The play had been essentially a transcription from memory of the trial. At Losey’s behest, Jones opened it up to include a mock trial conducted by enlisted men in which a rat, captured from a horse carcass, is prosecuted. Jones wrote this with a good deal of slang which, when combined with regional accents and somewhat difficult studio conditions (the film was originally intended for television and shot in a mere three weeks) result in some difficulties in audibility and comprehension, but this actually enhances the realism.

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Unlike many reflections on the Great War (e.g. the recent 1917), Losey and Jones’ film eschews sentimentality and heroism. It is bitter and angry. The uneducated and traumatized Hamp, who has simply turned away from the guns and tried to walk home, is as guiltless as the rat and equally doomed. What cannot be admitted is that the war is unendurable.

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The final Jones collaboration was regarded at the time as an unmitigated disaster, and is still a film maudit. In fact, in his later career, Losey practically came to specialize in the film maudit, or what John Waters enthusiastically embraces as “the failed art film.” But Modesty Blaise (1966), based on a popular newspaper strip and intended as a parody of the James Bond franchise. It was, on the face of it, an incredible case of directorial miscasting. As Losey’s friend Richard Lester later said, “The last person that would come to mind to produce a movie that fits the adjective ‘zany’ would be Joe Losey.” “Antonioni,” claimed Losey, “said […] that it was ridiculous to try and parody the thing that one was oneself doing.”

Apart from the question of humor, Losey also strongly disapproved of the Bond films’ flippant  “violence for violence’s sake,” an attitude that may seem quaintly prudish today, but it was important to him.

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The resulting film, a pop art/op art pastiche based around nothing of any importance, is very attractive and, on paper, very funny. Jones was particularly successful at writing a camp villain for Dirk Bogarde to play with bleached blond hair, getting ironically overwrought about innocent lives wasted. “A father of two children, probably with a split-levek house in Woking, and a rubber plant in the lounge. Why can’t they be bachelors?!” At its best it hits a tone not elsewhere attempted and hard to pin down. When leads Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp abruptly burst into song (the film is not otherwise a musical and neither of them can really sing) the movie is not fracturing its own approach, it’s fulfilling it.

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But part of the oddness is Losey’s approach and pacing, with his circling tracking shots which had now become a trademark: it moves like an arthouse drama, leaving way too much air around the witty dialogue. If you see it with an audience you can sense them trying to enjoy it, trying to hurry it along to be the thing it needs and deserves to be. Something like Barbarella (1968), carelessly shot and with about five good lines, works perfectly well, with a lot of burbling electronica to fill in the dead spots, whereas despite classic stuff like Bogarde pegged out on the desert sands calling out for “Champagne!”, Losey’s film seems to not know where the jokes are. Plus it’s 119 minutes long and it has no motor, because the central characters aren’t taking the situations seriously.

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The film’s failure broke up the Losey-Jones partnership: Losey went on to direct Pinter screenplays Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971) while Jones worked on a scattershot collection of films without much apparent momentum or focus, but including one classic, Wake in Fright (1971).

Behind the Crime Scenes

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2015 by dcairns

Two French thrillers with theatrical backgrounds, watched in succession with the connections emerging accidentally —

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Despite appearances, Fernandel is not actually going to eat the small, yapping dog.

First, Julien Duvivier’s 1957 comedy L’HOMME A L’IMPERMEABLE (THE MAN IN THE RAINCOAT — but how much better is the term “impermeable”!). This was Duvivier’s third Fernandel vehicle, after the first installments in the popular DON CAMILLO series, which Fernandel kept going until his death, but this one is based on Tiger by the Tail, a James Hadley Chase potboiler, just like RETOUR A MANIVELLE, which I recently enjoyed. Odd how a British writer who made his name ripping off American crime fiction using only a dictionary of slang and a road map (and, of course, a dog-eared copy of Faulkner’s Sanctuary) should find his greatest movie success in France, the semi-convincing Americana semi-convincingly transplanted across both the Atlantic and the English Channel (Chereau’s THE FLESH OF THE ORCHID being the prime example.)

Movie details the travails of a married clarinetist suddenly left alone when his wife leaves to nurse a dying relative. Ironically, the relative will recover but boatloads of other principal characters and walk-ons get offed, as the mild-mannered musician is tempted towards infidelity with a chorine from the theatre, and this leads inevitably, with WOMAN IN THE WINDOW logic, to homicide.

With “the face of a murderer,” Fernandel is immediately a suspect, and while avoiding being identified he tries to locate the real killer, assisted by a giggling blackmailer with a small yapping dog.

I thought with L’AUBERGE ROUGE, your basic hilarious masterpiece, that I’d finally warmed to Fernandel, he of the equine visage, but now I find that, away from the rigorous direction of Autant-Lara, which F did not care for one bit, he seems limited again, not only mugging quite a bit, but mugging in the same way each time. We know from the earlier film that his amazing melting-taffy face can be made to assume all kinds of funhouse mirror contortions, like a Basil Woolverton cartoon made (saggy) flesh, so it’s odd to see it settling into a few stock positions and leaving it at that. Still, I have to admit his timing is excellent and the timorous would-be philanderer becomes quite sympathetic as his nightmare situation endlessly intensifies.

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The real star of the show is Bernard Blier as the repellant little man who’s threatening to expose Fernandel if he can’t find anyone better to extort from. Blier was typically solemn as the third-act detective inspector in MANIVELLE, but here he throws off the dour habit of a lifetime to play a tittering creep with a full beard that gives his bald head an upside down appearance, and a seedy overcoat that flares out like a garden gnome’s smock.

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Up is down, black is white.

That inverted appearance is reflected in the scene where F discovers his first corpse, shot in the ceiling mirror of the tart’s boudoir, making the whole thing vertiginous and hallucinatory. What the movie lacks in belly-laughs (Duvivier shoots too close and cuts too fast, like many dramatically gifted filmmakers trying slapstick) it makes up for in a kind of comic anxiety which keeps escalating. This is what Polanski’s FRANTIC should have been like.

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LES INTRIGANTES is from 1954, and directed by all-rounder Henri Decoin. Most interesting today for featuring Jeanne Moreau in a meaty supporting role, it’s an unusual thriller in which the one death is an accident which occurs before the action begins, and the biggest crime is a false accusation which makes theatre boss Raymond Rouleau a murder suspect. Moreau plays his wife, and the film’s best moments revolve around her — she starts out as a very positive character, loyal and supportive. As her husband is driven into hiding by the covert campaign against him, she starts running the show on his behalf, and her power and competence emerge in conjunction with an affair with her husband’s persecutor. The movie condemns her, and seems to equate her abilities in the workplace with her sinister infidelity — but it doesn’t altogether condemn her: there’s no comeuppance.

As a director, Decoin seems to be mainly interested in legs — although he also gives us a subliminal flash of the Moreau bosom when baddie Raymond Pellegrin (very creepy) rips her dress off, which is apparently part of his infallible Gallic seduction technique (which also includes face-slapping and framing her husband — how can he go wrong?). But there are some very effective scenes, especially with all the lurking in theatre corridors.

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Raymond Rouleau has aged fairly well at this point, having lost the matinee idol/mannequin looks he sported in the forties. With his sports jacket and polo neck sweater, he looks a bit like the older Jacques Tati. Etchika Cherou is very cute and touching as the secretary who yearns for him, and Louis de Funes is well used in a supporting role that exploits his querulous, blinky schtick without overdosing us. Also, he seems less annoying with vestigial hair. Possibly because I didn’t initially recognise him and so didn’t get immediately put off.

Both movies had a paranoid atmosphere, full of anonymous denunciation and persecution, which made me think they were recycling anxieties from the Occupation, though perhaps that’s stretching.

The Chauffeur Always Honks Twice

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2015 by dcairns

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RETOUR DE MANIVELLE is a French adaptation of a James Hadley Chase novel — apart from changing a few names, esteemed scenarist Michel Audiard doesn’t seem to have Europeanized it much, even leaving rich drunk Peter Van Eyck’s Cadillac unchanged. Even in French, the origins of Chase’s story are obvious enough — the James M. Cain “love rack” structure, in which a wild love affair is used as motor for an escalating suspense thriller. But Chase has come up with some ideas of his own, including an insurance scam involving the triangle of unwanted husband, scheming wife and dopey hero which DOESN’T actually include a murder. That *is* unusual.

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Without getting into second act spoilers, I can say that Van Eyck devises an improbably scheme to torment his cheating wife — he blows his brains out, leaving a vast insurance policy which doesn’t come into effect until the following day, and which specifically excludes suicide, So, in order to claim, icy hotwife Michele Morgan and horny chauffeur Daniel Gelin have to conceal the death, preserve the body, and then fake the suicide to look like murder (no chance of making the bullet to the skull look like an accident). This is complicated by sweet young Michele Mercier and third-act detective inspector Bernard Blier, who is awfully good value. His smart working cop has a clever answer for every occasion, but is continually led up the garden path by all the manufactured evidence strewn in his way, with ultimately black irony. Gelin, who I mainly knew as the young lover in LA RONDE (and for being Maria Schneider’s estranged father), is very effective in  tougher role.

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But it’s Morgan’s film — she excels at coldbloodedness, as she always does, but what really chills the marrow is when she acts sweet — because she plays it so convincingly, despite our knowing it’s all fake. She could give Robin Wright lessons in House of Cards, which is saying a great deal. She’s accompanied by a sculpted torso, a gleaming reminder of how the men in her life have objectified her, and is able to make the character both terrifying and, in a feminist light, sympathetic or at least understandable.

Unfortunately, as far as I could tell the plot ceases to make sense in the third act. Given the improbable set-up (“We are not concerned with whether the thing WOULD be done, only if it COULD be done,” said fictional detective Dr. Gideon Fell), everything has been just about plausible until then, so it’s a shame. But it does deliver us into the right emotional place, which counts for plenty.

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Directed by Denis de la Patilliere, with some low-key sexual frankness, expressive use of depopulated frames and a relish for the white, palatial and underfurnished mansion where most of the intrigue takes place. He had a long life and career and was predictably loathed by the Nouvelle Vague.