Archive for James M Cain

Beck #2: Long Distance Call

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2022 by dcairns

THE MAN WHO WENT UP IN SMOKE is an outlier — Martin Beck is sent to Hungary in search of a vanished journalist, his stated mission being to avoid an international incident, and spends his time wandering about in a desultory manner. The Beck books’ rich supporting cast do get to take part a little, though, via phone calls, investigations back in Stockholm, and for the last act when Beck returns home and (spoiler) solves the case.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö were evidently well-read in crime fiction and had seen a lot of movies: the next volume in the series seems to show the influence of Fritz Lang’s M, one of the first procedurals (predating Anthony Boucher’s coining of the term “procedural” in 1956, and his earliest literary example, V as in Victim, written by Lawrence Treat in 1945).

Big spoiler follows in the invisible (up in smoke) para below. Highlight it with your cursor if you want to read it.

(The central twist of TMWWUIS is that the journalist who has vanished in Budapest never actually went to Budapest. He was murdered at home in Sweden the night before his scheduled departure. His killer, an approximate lookalike, decided to throw investigators off the scent by stealing the victim’s passport and plane ticket, flying to Hungary and then mysteriously disappearing (sneaking back home and resuming his own identity). It’s a neat trick, and was still neater when James M. Cain thought up the basis for it in Double Indemnity. Maj & Per not only change the details, but plays the story backwards, following the investigator deceived by the trick, rather than the perpetrator/s.)

As a reading experience, TMWWUIS is maybe the least compelling of the series (Steady on: I’ve only read the first five, there may be other low points to come, but so far they seem to be improving if anything.) Even Beck marvels at how disengaged he is from this case, after becoming obsessed with the Roseanna McGraw murder the year before. But the twist is great, and the short appearances by the supporting cast of cops are very enjoyable: Kollberg is shaping up very nicely, and there’s a tiny appearance by the bumbling duo of Kristiansen & Kvant, lazy and stupid patrol cops, who will go on to provide much of the comedy relief and satirical slant that leavens the dour crimey aspects.

DER MANN, DER SICH IN LUFT AUFLOSTE is a 1980 German coproduction based on the book, starring Derek Jacobi, surprisingly enough, as Beck. I got hold of a low-res rip of a VHS pan-and-scan of a scratchy and discoloured print, dubbed into Russian, with no subtitles. As with ROSEANNA, however, the plot follows the book closely enough for me to vaguely follow it. Unlike ROSEANNA, it wasn’t possible to appreciate the work of director Péter Bacsó or cinematographer Tamás Andor — it seemed zoom-happy and undistinguished, but must have looked nicer when new. Was it always sicklied o’er with a green cast? It’s pretty unpleasant, not at all like the US film of THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN, which makes something eerily beautiful out of the tendency of fluorescent lights to photograph green.

Jacobi/Beck is called away from his summer holiday to go on this urgent investigation. We see him at his holiday home with his wife and his topless teenage daughter, but we don’t get much sense of Beck’s disenchantment with his marriage, which he allows to slowly disintegrate as the books go on. It might be implied in the dialogue, though. Did I mention I don’t speak Russian?

The film is a bit of a Europudding, which in fairness the novel invites. Jacobi is surrounded by real Swedes (at least one of whom went on to appear in the long-running Beck TV series and in Wallander) and Hungarians, making his presence a bit odd, but since everyone has had Russian voices transplanted into their throats, he doesn’t particularly stand out. I think he’s the wrong actor for the part, though. Bob Peck would have been good, if you want a British Beck. He even rhymes. But Bob Peck wasn’t particularly on the world’s radar in 1980. (I miss Bob Peck.)

Jacobi is great at nerves. Beck doesn’t really have nerves, he has sinuses and acid indigestion and a sort of grinding low-level glumness. He isn’t colourful, which Jacobi is by nature. Jacobi is an actor who wants to add to what’s on the page, whereas a good Beck actor should want to subtract. You need a man with the legendary minus factor — the kind of guy, as Ken Campbell put it, who is useful because you can bring him into a scene just as it’s threatening to get too interesting.

Jacobi knows what’s called for and gives an admirably low-key performance, but it’s still him giving it.

It being 1980, the fashions and settings are truly hideous, the rather admirable excesses of the 70s falling into a state of sartorial putrefaction. The settings don’t even seem particularly convincing. The white and gold trim of the Swedish Foreign Office strikes me as lurid. It rather smacks of roller disco.

Whenever I see a shot of a jet plane landing, I generally get a sinking feeling. It always feels like a dire way to convey the fact of travel, but cutting to the protagonist at passport control would be lame too, and airports are depressing. Herr Bacsó duly cuts to Jacobi getting his passport checked. The belt and braces approach.

When the film gets to Budapest and the cityscapes get slightly more interesting, the Russian dubbing abruptly gives out, and now the film has a UN-style simultaneous translation, a single Comrade talking over all the Hungarian dialogue in Russian. This, I admit, threw me for a moment. Then the dubbing returns, so it’s only the Hungarian bits this has been done to. So it’s going to keep alternating for most of the rest of the film. That should be fun.

A detective’s life is not actually full of jeopardy — he’s usually at the scene AFTER the unpleasantness has taken place. Sjöwall and Wahlöö have some neat strategies to get around this — by turning over stones in Budapest, Beck will eventually uncover some nastiness not directly related to his case, leading to some suitably unappealing sex and violence. But to keep the audience engaged in the meantime, a filmmaker is going to need (a) an unobtrusive but attractive visual style, and a good theme tune and (b) characterful supporting players. Here, I feel like only the music is good. It’s by Jacques Loussier (JEU DE MASSACRE, DARK OF THE SUN) and it sounds like the death spasms of a drunken dulcimer. Jangly.

The ever-present danger of the police procedural is the plod factor. This film plods. Only the music gives you any sense that anything’s going on. It’s amazing it succeeds so well.

Some of the book’s best stuff involves the Hungarian (secret?) policeman Major Szluka, played by Ferenc Bács here. The whiff of cold war paranoia seems heavily diluted here, perhaps because it’s a Hungarian coproduction with a Hungarian director (should perhaps have been a Swedish or German director so Budapest could be viewed through an outsider’s eyes, aligning us with Beck). In the book, Beck and Szluka come to an understanding as fellow professionals, but the edgy, uncertain start of the relationship is one of the key sources of tension in what’s otherwise quite a pedestrian investigation.

Derek Jacobi, action hero! The fight scene is as flat as everything else — though Sjöwall and Wahlöö are quite capable of describing things from a detached perspective, the (highly unusual) assault on Beck by members of the European underworld is properly hairy and suspenseful. Here, it’s just coverage. It needs to feel subjective, I think. One nice angle where a train passes over a bridge in the background… Then we just cut to a police car speeding to the rescue, flattening all suspense and taking us out of Beck’s experience. Must remember not to watch any more Bacsó films, unless anyone has any really passionate recommendations.

Bacsó has either greatly toned down the attempted seduction of Beck, or some Russian state TV censor has done it. A little bit of sex wouldn’t have hurt things, though the authors have a clinical, even forensic way of dealing with bodies, and Jacobi seems as unlikely an erotic hero as he does a punch-up artist. Anyhow, Beck declines the offer.

Excitingly, incompetent coppers Kristiansen and Kvant, who appear for the first time in this volume of the series, but only as a mention, get an actual walk-on here. But they’re not cast to resemble the books’ hulking idiots. Still, it’s nice to see the supporting cast — ROSEANNA, while fairly faithful to its source, left out most of Beck’s rather loveable colleagues. Though this scene doesn’t appear in the book, and though I can’t understand Russian, this seems like a very faithful reproduction of the kind of Kristiansen and Kvant scenes we get in The Fire Engine That Disappeared and Murder at the Savoy: called to account for their latest fuck-up, the two idiots lie pathetically, get caught out, throw one another under the bus, fall into humiliating recriminations. I’m prepared to give Bacsó some credit here, and note that he seems to have made more comedies than dramas.

They’ve changed the ending, though — instead of the depressing flatness of Beck’s solution — the crime turns out to be incredibly ordinary, with only the method of concealment lending it a certain panache — Bacsó concocts a crime passionelle and folie a deux, injecting a certain Gallic romance into the denouement. He also chooses this late point to introduce realistic gore, which isn’t inappropriate but is rather late in showing up.

And then the truly awful theme song comes in. “So confused / I donno what I’m gonna do / Ween or lose / I godda gedda new from you…” Good, I guess, to know that Hungary or Sweden has it’s own Shirley Bassey. Though it may be unfair to blame Bacsó for this musical intrusion, just as Neil Jordan doubtless isn’t responsible for the sudden invasion of MONA LISA by Phil Collins (“I really hate rock ‘n’ roll,” Jordan has said), the theme tune ends the film in the most gloriously inapposite way, and makes me glad I stayed the course. And I don’t scorn the fact that one of the minor actors slips comically on his way out of the penultimate scene, that’s the kind of muddy deflating comic realism the film needed more of.

On the Prowl

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on January 28, 2022 by dcairns

Revisiting Joseph Losey’s penultimate US film, THE PROWLER, I found it even better than I remembered. Commie filmmakers may not have been allowed to smuggle leftist propaganda into Hollywood (an absurd proposition) but Losey certainly managed to critique capitalism. He called this one a film about “false values” but to the modern eye it’s also about toxic masculinity, daringly embodied by a cop (Van Heflin, really startlingly good).

Called out to investigate the titular peeping Tom (though the title could at times equally apply to him), Heflin becomes obsessed with young married woman Evelyn Keyes (also very strong), whose husband, a DJ, works nights. They start an affair and, yes, things swiftly head in a DOUBLE INDEMNITY direction — but this variation on James M. Cain’s No. 1 plot spins things around agreeably: Heflin doesn’t let Keyes in on his devious plans, and then things unravel spectacularly with a series of disturbing twists.

Heflin is always good, if odd-looking: he resembles a monkey skull eating a child’s spade. Here, he sleazes and skeezes repulsively, gaslights his partner postpartum (with an actual gas lamp in frame), and then melts down spectacularly, Brett Kavanaugh style. We were agape, aghast, agog. Just like watching those damned hearings, where a kind of shrivelled pity vied with revulsion, and lost. Cinephilia meets rubbernecking.

The film has a great climax in a desert ghost town (the remains of the capitalist dream) — it feels positively apocalyptic — but the best locale is the “motor court” Heflin buys with the money Keyes inherits from her husband. His dream of earning money without work is fulfilled, but it’s hellish: the constant rumble of passing cars, the headlights sweeping the rooms, the motel-like shape of the room, with a radio between their beds (symbolism!). A paranoid setting for the disintegrating relationship. Dark, dark stuff. What’s blacker than noir?

The Schlub What Sends Me

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2020 by dcairns

Guest Shadowplayer Chris Schneider weighs in on an obscure but fascinating semi-noir —

Once upon a time I was a teenager who learned about films from his paperback copy of AGEE ON FILM. One title I learned of was ISLE OF THE DEAD, the Val Lewton supernatural mood-piece. Another was THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME.

THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME is a melodrama concerned with cash and adultery and death, one that’s very much a part of noir territory. You might even say, specifically, OUT OF THE PAST territory, since BELIEVE ME is 1947 and RKO and there’s music by Roy Webb as well as the presence of actress Jane Greer. All overlapping with OUT OF THE PAST, as the cognoscenti will tell you. Hell, one of the posters even employs the phrase “out of the past.”

My primary reaction has always been “Good … but not of a level with OUT OF THE PAST.” That’s still the case, but a recent TCM viewing has provoked some rethinking.

One poster for THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME shows the head of Robert Young (male protagonist) surrounded by the heads of Susan Hayward (second girlfriend), Jane Greer (first girlfriend), and Rita Johnson (wife). Young plays a no-better-than-he-oughta-be guy, an architect, who tries to hold onto both his wealthy wife and a girl or two on the side. We learn of this via courtroom testimony. Johnson finds out about Greer, and she buys Young a new job on the opposite coast. She learns of Hayward, who works in the same office, and his employment is threatened again. What Is To Be Done?

The whole screenplay, which was written by Jonathan Latimer of THE BIG CLOCK and THE NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES, is structured around Young messing up and some female — Johnson, Hayward — stepping in to take care of the situation.

The film’s producer is Joan Harrison, associate of Hitchcock and Robert Siodmak, and there’s a case to be made that THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME is a noir shaped by a female perspective, one where (for once) an *homme* is fatal rather than a *femme*. Young certainly is bad news. Unlike my favorite example of *homme fatal* noir, though — BORN TO KILL — Young’s character is not dynamically bad. He’s no Lawrence Tierney. He’s just a guy who shoulda known better yet keeps getting in trouble. And yet women are still drawn to him. My nickname for the film became “The Schlub What Sends Me.”

The primary influence here, outside of generalized ‘40s zeitgeist, is James M. Cain. I forget if Agee was the first to cite Cain. But (SPOILERS AHEAD) Young gets into an auto accident with Hayward and her charred corpse is mistaken for that of Johnson, which he goes along with — very much in the POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE style of ironic fatalism. The original screen treatment, we learn from TCM, was narrated from a jail cell (POSTMAN again). And there’s stuff about water as uncontrollable fate, stuff that’s justified by Johnson’s corpse being found next to a river and accentuated by Young and Hayward doing some deep-water swimming much like POSTMAN’s Lana Turner and John Garfield.

THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME has Irving Pichel as director, alas, which means that it lacks the visual flourish Tourneur brought to OUT OF THE PAST. It also lacks the epigrammatic dialogue which Frank Fenton (probably) gave PAST. But it looks good and is compelling and has some fine performances. Did I mention that Robert Boyle is a production designer? Among those performances would be Rita Johnson, a good actress with an unlucky career, and Susan Hayward, who’s fresher here than in her later Stalwart Woman Warrior persona. It’s the film that gave me a taste for Hayward.

Historic note: the print of THEY WON’T BELIEVE that gets seen, these days, is usually a rerelease version that’s missing 15 minutes. That’s a lot in movie time. I gather that the missing material involves Young and Johnson at a concert running into Hayward, ending up with Hayward and Young canoodling behind a curtain. Also something about a blackmail threat to Young.

THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME ends suddenly, with a flourish of violence, a bit like the end of Verdi’s TROVATORE. One expects someone — perhaps Greer? — to clutch their forehead and exclaim “ … e vivo ancor!”

I saw THEY WON’T BELIEVE ME when I was young and I liked it. I watch it now and I like it. And I live on.