Archive for James Hadley Chase

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.

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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.

 

Jack La Rue — Sexual Outlaw

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2009 by dcairns

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Apart from being a pre-code smut-holocaust, THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE is a quite weird adaptation of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (later adapted by Tony Richardson, disastrously according to received wisdom). Some American TV writer once said of that book, “Faulkner thought he was going to the limit by having his heroine screwed with a coke bottle. He didn’t know television.”

But the anonymous wag is wrong, imputing the coke bottle of Fatty Arbuckle legend to Faulkner’s antagonist, impotent hoodlum Popeye, who in actuality uses a corncob to rape Temple. Although I doubt that distinction would cut much ice with a jury.

In bowdlerizing the story for the screen (even pre-code Hollywood had its limits), screenwriter Oliver HP Garrett (awesome pre-code credits including A FAREWELL TO ARMS,  NIGHT NURSE and CITY STREETS) has dispensed with the impotence and the corncob because you can’t have one without the other and you certainly can’t have the other. As a result, Popeye is transmuted to Trigger, a highly sexed bandit who has no problems whatsoever in the downstairs department, other than keeping it in his pants. The whole first half of the film becomes a quasi-pornographic fantasy along the lines of THE SHEIK, with Temple Drake, embodied by a smouldering Miriam Hopkins, characterised as a brimming flagon of lust who becomes a slave to her own desire awakened by Trigger.

All this is, if anything, more offensive than Faulkner’s classified pulp nasty, because of what’s implied rather than stated, if we take it as in any way representing anybody’s views about male-female relations. Taken as fantasy, this kind of thing was obviously very popular with audiences of both sexes back then, and the idea of a sexual passion that overcomes all moral scruples is still one that exerts some fascination.

The film’s second half, with Temple killing Trigger, and then being faced with the dilemma of whether to clear an innocent man for one of Trigger’s killings, even though this will incriminate her in his death, is quite a compelling moral maze melodrama, although it’s even further from Faulkner’s book, which takes a considerably darker turn.

Anyhow, apart from the seething Miriam, and Stephen Roberts’ strikingly fluid and sinuous direction (the great Karl Struss is on camera), and the odd sight of William Gargan as a lawyer in very obvious lipstick, the movie’s main attraction is Jack La Rue as Trigger. With his ugly/handsome face and implacable macho arrogance, he comes across like a cross between Treat Williams and an erupting sperm volcano. He’s a pinstriped obscenity and he’s looking right at us.

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Fast-forward fifteen years or so and La Rue is BACK! The film is NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH, a 1948 British flick that attracted unprecedented critical opprobrium (unmatched until PEEPING TOM, 11 years later) for daring to tell a low-class American pulp story in the UK. Ken Hughes’s JOE MACBETH somehow got away with this a few years further down the line, perhaps because it adds Shakespeare into the mix for that necessary touch of class.

Amusingly, the novel NO ORCHIDS is based on is by James Hadley Chase, a British bookseller whose real name was Rene Brabazon Raymond (!). Mimicking the snappy American dialogue he saw in movies, and cribbing from a dictionary of slang, Raymond/Chase turned out a string of sexy shockers which have proven popular with filmmakers — Patrice Chereau’s THE FLESH OF THE ORCHID with Charlotte Rampling, based on a quasi-sequel to No Orchids, is probably the finest adaptation.

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New York, England.

While the Raymond/Chase transatlantic literary drag act excited little critical distaste, something about the first movie adaptation shocked our middle-class pundits to the core, as Brian McFarlane observes in Outrage: No Orchids for Miss Blandish, an essay appearing in the collection British Crime Cinema, published by Routledge. Something about the idea of a British production erasing its own national signifiers and doing its best to merge with the lower end of the Hollywood mainstream was deeply offensive to British sensibilities — and we didn’t have the model of the spaghetti westerns to point to as a defense, not that that would have helped, since that genrewas despised for decades too. 1948 was a rather good year for British cinema — perhaps our best ever, so the film’s blatant embrace of American noir style and content seemed particularly offensive.

The problem is surely as much to do with class as culture. When American films shoot in the UK, we’re grateful for the $, and generally try to claim some of the glory (cf the Film Council boasting of record box office for British films, and including the Harry Potter movies, produced by Warners). Richard Lester’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS was nominated for an award as Best British Film, despite being a French story, shot in Spain, by an ex-pat American director, with a mainly American cast, and the production being listed officially as Panamanian. Nobody protested, although Lester was a bit nonplussed. If Michael Powell had decided to shoot a film of THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, recreating New York in the studios at Pinewood, as he had Tibet for BLACK NARCISSUS, it’s likely that the debate would have concentrated on whether the choice was artistically wise. But to film a trashy potboiler on these shores, with Dermot Walsh (a Scot) and Sid James (a South African) essaying Amurrican accents, was somehow beyond the pale.

Of course, the reviewers had to justify their outrage by claiming that the film was both shoddy (inferior to the American originals) and vile. The movie is actually decently made, although it lacks the sweaty intensity of TEMPLE DRAKE — Linden Travers is no Miriam Hopkins, and Jack La Rue at 46 is no Jack La Rue at 31. He looks OK, but his face has drooped, and his intensity has slumped from 11 to about 4. He’s more hangdog than horndog.

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As for vile, the film is pretty intense for 1948, with far more gratuitous violence than TEMPLE DRAKE, some of it quite protracted or explicit. The sex is mostly pan-to-the-fireplace stuff, although La Rue seems to place his big paw into the front of Travers’ dressing gown bathrobe at one point. But it’s probably the film’s attitudeto the transgressive stuff that caused the offense — and of course, since this was a faux-American film of a faux-American novel, a defense on the grounds of realism was unlikely to convince anyone.

Interestingly, writer-director St John Legh Clowes, in adapting the novel, has altered La Rue’s character, Slim Grisson, in much the same way Garrett changed Popeye to Trigger. Slim goes from being an impotent, mother-dominated loony nutjob to being a self-directed, sexually powerful alpha male. This time round the sex is consensual, since Slim is “too proud” to take a woman who doesn’t want him, but Blandish yields to his blandishments anyway. His behaviour towards her is rather gentlemanly, although he continues to murder everyone else in cold blood. What remains controversial is Blandish, a kidnapee, falling in love with her kidnapper, in what is presented as true love rather than Stockholm syndrome. 

At the film’s conclusion, the nice, normal people have managed to get Slim shot by the police and Blandish returned to her millionaire father, and they’re just congratulating each other on their virtue and effectiveness and normality normalcy and preparing to skip off into the sunset, when there’s a scream, and they rush into the Blandish boudoir. She’s gone out the window, unable to live without her bit of rough hunk.

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The defenestrated heiress lies dead on the pavementsidewalk twenty storeys down, with unfeeling pedestrians trampling the orchid lying by her outstretched hand. I can see the symbolism Clowes is aiming for here, but it’s actually pretty funny how every damn shoe manages to descend on the crushed plant. Apart from the inappropriate hilarity, what’s most striking is the slap in the face delivered to the healthy, happy-ending sexuality of the heroes — the film really is a celebration of the abnormal and anti-social. And that was an unheard-of thing for British movies in 1948… apart from in the morbid romanticism of Powell and Pressburger, of course.

Another film of NO ORCHIDS is Robert Aldrich’s ’70s remake THE GRISSOM GANG. I’ve been unable to ascertain whether Grisson or Grissom is the name used in the original book. Kim Darby is a bland Blandish and Scott Wilson plays Grissom as the damaged creep of Chase’s novel, in a faithfully grubby and unpleasant version. Projectionists had to sterilise the light after it passed through the celluloid.