Archive for John Dickson Carr

Strangeways

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2021 by dcairns

I’m intrigued by poet Cecil Day-Lewis (and father of that other D-L) and his second life as crime writer Nicholas Blake. The mysteries of Nigel Strangeways are nicely, if unspectacularly written. Strangeways differs from most amateur sleuths in his being defiantly UN-eccentric. But there’s another key aspect to Blake’s mysteries which means the makers of the new version of The Beast Must Die might be struggling to find a sequel in any of the twenty extant Blake-Strangeways books.

Two of Blake’s novels have received more attention, particularly in the film world, than all the rest.

The Beast Must Die – nothing to do with werewolves – is the most popular of the novels. It’s an outlier, for a few reasons. Fair-play whodunits and cosy crime novels tend to keep emotion at a distance. The victims are usually either unpopular, dislikable characters (which provides lengthy suspect lists and obviates all that messy grief) or solitary figures without close dependents (or both). Or, if there are grieving loved ones, they’re shuffled off-stage as fast as decently arrangeable, or are portrayed so woodenly their bereavement has no disquieting effect on the reader. (I love how, in Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi mystery A Maze of Death, a character, noting the glassy underreaction of his fellow suspect/prospective victims in a Ten Little Indians scenario, deduces that they must all be amnesiac psychopaths, simply because they’re behaving exactly like the people in mystery novels always do.) In The Beast Must Die, the motivation for the murder is so distressing, and traumatic for the man involved, that it overwhelms the mystery aspect completely — so that the first two film versions, Román Viñoly Barreto’s Argentinian version of 1952, and Claude Chabrol’s French one of 1969, are able to excise Mr. Strangeways altogether, and the plot if anything gets better.

The other significant film connection with Blake is Orson Welles’ putative film of The Smiler with the Knife, abandoned in favour of what became CITIZEN KANE. This time, Blake himself largely dispensed with his protag, handing the story over to his plucky wife Georgia. She’s required to inveigle her way into the confidences of a fascist leader plotting a coup. Easy to see how Welles would have been interested in a political thriller like that, transposing the story to the US and casting Lucille Ball and himself as the heavy in a story that would have had aspects of NOTORIOUS avant la lettre.

Welles definitely definitely made the right choice for his film debut, but SMILER the movie remains an intriguing might-have-been. It might, actually, have provided its director with a solid commercial hit.

I can’t quite forgive Blake for killing off Georgia Strangeways between novels, though he gives Nigel a girlfriend later, the sculptor Clare Massinger, who’s quite good fun.

But the other aspect of Blake’s novels I’ve discovered is strongly negative: he can’t write mysteries. I have dim memories of a few of them I read a while back, but one, The Whisper in the Gloom (televised and Americanized and Disneyfied as The Kids Who Knew Too Much in 1980) depends on an inexplicable coincidence which really gets the reader wondering — but is left as an inexplicable coincidence at the novel’s end. Spoiler alert: it’s borrowed from Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, making the revised title very apt.

This seems like a big cheat, but The Ghastly Hollow and The Widow’s Cruise both play fair — the trouble is they’re amazing guessable. I rarely guess the solutions to mysteries, despite reading a lot of them, a bit about them, and having a sort of crack at it myself. Blake’s derivative side is evident in both books: TGH is a poison pen story possibly derived from Clouzot’s LA CORBEAU or Richard Llewellyn’s play Poison Pen, filmed in 1939; TWC is a kind of Bette Davis sister act. What Blake does with the stories is fairly original, I wouldn’t call him a plagiarist (though Gloom comes very close), it’s just that he utterly fails to hide his clues in plain view. He just leaves them lying in plain view, or actively thrusts them under our noses like an idiot magician forcing a card on us, but a card he really wants to conceal.

I can’t work out how Blake/Day-Lewis managed to spin out a career in mysteries as long as he did. His best two books have the least mystery, and every time the solving of the crime is central to the story, he muffs it. Still, I guess it kept him fed while he wrote his poetry, and kept his soon-to-be-distinguished son clad, so that was worthwhile. I admire his The Poetic Image (1947) as a work of criticism.

His books are very readable but I must stop reading them because they don’t satisfy. He’s like the opposite of John Dickson Carr: Carr’s impossible crimes, colourful detectives and jaunty dialogue are far more uplifting, far less real, and he plays far less fair. But at least you’ll never guess who done it.

The Trygon Empire

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on April 3, 2019 by dcairns

Oh good, I thought, almost as soon as THE TRYGON FACTOR started, this is a right load of rubbish. I shall be able to say witty and amusing things about it. Unfortunately, between then and now I started writing a novel, and now I can’t remember very much about it at all.

It’s based on an Edgar Wallace “shocker” and is a German-British co-production, and it obviously arrived at a time when the old “krimi” (many if not all of them based on Wallace books) were starting to look a bit old hat (starting??) and so needed spicing up, it was thought, with nudie ladies and blood. So you have this fundamentally naive and innocent worldview in this one, suddenly exploded with an exploitative bathtub murder. Yeah, I remember that bit.

She’s got one of those new uplift towels.

The movie feels like it could be comfortable being The Avengers TV show, only the story is at root rather mundane — nuns in a convent are secretly engaged in stolen gem smuggling — OK, it’s amusing that they’re nuns, but smuggling is so drab. Wallace used the idea of a charitable institution dedicated to reform doubling as a criminal enterprise on more than one occasion…

Stewart Granger is… affable, I suppose. And ridiculously tan. Kind of hilarious the number of Germans they have in the English countryside. One of these is the fascinated Brigitte Horney, who was in the Nazi MUNCHAUSEN. You could pair this with ZETA ONE as encompassing James Robertson Justice’s late-life sexual crisis.

There IS, early on, some really nifty camera operating, very tight movements choreographed between actor and cam. And some of the goofy sixties imagery is fun.

The interiors tend to be swank and groovy, which is peculiar because the views out of the windows are village shops and stuff. It does give the film a welcome dream-like quality. I feel like my disconnected memories of fragmented scenes and jarring tonal shifts are much like the experience of actually watching it. I’m not watching it again to see if I’m right.

“In 1928, it was estimated that one in four books being read in the UK had come from Wallace’s pen.” And yet this was a period in which we had John Dickson Carr, who is at least amusing and can write dialogue (after his stroke he could write nothing else, and his locked room mysteries devolved into bad radio scripts of the “This gun, which I am holding in my hand, is loaded” variety). Edgar Wallace couldn’t write dialogue to save his life, his plots generally have one idea apiece, are stodgy and mundane in their outcomes, lacking in any real suspense, and the social attitudes are all wearily conventional (Carr’s people are always getting plastered, his detectives are mad eccentrics, and the plots are bananas, which is something).

Depiction of people with learning difficulties… not enlightened.

You couldn’t turn Wallace’s diamond racket into a sexy spy thriller, because the tepidity is ingrained and refuses to die. You had to really poison those lukewarm waters, which I think is why we then got… the giallo.

THE TRYGON FACTOR stars Allan Quartermain; Nancy / Euryale / Alice / Nurse / Charlotte; Miss Knagg; Zarin Katharina II; Captain George Spratt; & Sir Lancelot Spratt.

The Ice Man Cometh and Goeth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2012 by dcairns

I had fond yet vague memories of THE NIGHT VISITOR, AKA LUNATIC (substitute title spliced in on a piece of cardboard in my VHS copy) — I knew it had some ingenious John Dickson Carr type plotting. In fact, that’s almost all it has…

Laszlo Benedek, near the end of his largely televisual career (it’s 1971 — he’d make one more movie in ’77), directs, with an interesting Scandinavian/British cast (the movie isn’t too precise about where it’s action is occurring, but we’re assuming some Northerly clime).

Max Von Sydow is Salem, unjustly committed to a bleak fortress of an insane asylum, at the connivance of his sister, brother-in-law, mistress and lawyer. But he’s getting out at night and killing them, as we learn in scene 1 (this info could usefully have been held back a little). The police are baffled because whenever they check on Max, he’s back in his cell with no sign of how he could have escaped. The perfect alibi.

If John Dickson Carr, master of the locked-room mystery, had written this, we’d have been tempted with some supernatural explanation, possibly astral projection, and a good bit of terror would have resulted — of course, some perfectly rational explanation would have emerged in due course. In Scooby Doo, this was always disappointing, but Carr just about made it work, dispelling the shadows with a wave of his logical wand.

The film’s real highlight is the prolonged, wordless sequence where we learn just how Max is effecting his nightly getaways, all rather suavely worked out and neatly presented. The whole thing comes with an ironic pay-off and good performances from a distinguished cast —

Liv Ullman is one of the rotters who stitched Max up. Liv and let die. Per Oscarsson is another. As Per usual. They make a beastly couple, but in their favour they do own a delightful parrot. Possibly a Norwegian Blue. The blue would be on account of the cold.

The local detective is played by a gallon of whisky wrapped inside a thin layer of Trevor Howard. The head of the asylum is Andrew Keir — Quatermass! I like to think he’s treating his patients with rocketry.

If only the film had more to it than its neat plot, it might be a minor classic. It’s certainly a movie which could be remade today in the light of all the Scandinavian noir we’re seeing. Trevor even has a Scandi jumper like that woman on The Killing. Movies with nothing but a good plot (and, admittedly, a superlative cast) make good remake fodder, if anybody’s listening…