Archive for John Dickson Carr

Beck 8: Close Call

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2022 by dcairns

The history of BECK – THE LOCKED ROOM (BECK – DE GESLOTEN KAMER, 1992) is given on the IMDb in a comment by one Joyce Hauchart:

Directors are human too. This movie was first planned to be filmed in Scandinavia, after fund problems it was relocated to Belgium in a Dutch-Belgian co-production. The new producer, Ralf Boumans, died during pre-production. A third producer was found, Antonino Lombardo. Meanwhile Jacob Bijl, director, was trying to contract good actors and technicians. He found the best actor in Belgium, Jan Decleir to play Martin Beck.

Finally there was a release date, which unfortunately coincided with the movie Daens. This film was Oscar nominated for best foreign movie and shown in every theater.(Best movie the Belgians ever made) But what about Bijl’s ambitions? His release date was postponed, then the cinema proprietor, almost bankrupt, was not allowed to show the movie due to debts. The film was finally shown. It played non advertised for one week at 10 PM at night during two weeks in Belgium.

Jacob Bijl worked 10 years on this project, to see it flop, due to circumstances beyond his control. People who have seen this picture on TV say, great movie. It’s true. It is perfect for people who like plain detective stories and show us the ambitions of Martin Beck in the best atmosphere Sjöwall and Wahlöö could have wished. I’m not saying this, Maj Sjöwall did.

One advice: rent his movie and enjoy great acting, also by Dottermans. Afterwards remember how this film came to your screen.

Whew. It’s a hair-raising, heart-breaking story. Do I agree that the film is great? I have reservations, but I have to give Bijl credit — he’s faithful to the book, sometimes maybe even TOO faithful, and all his changes make sense. I wish Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö had always had such sensitive adaptors.

The film, like the book, picks up from the events in the previous volume, so that you can read this as a sequel to Bo Widerberg’s MAN ON THE ROOF, only one in which the hero’s near-fatal shooting has caused him to get younger, thinner, and transferred him and everyone he knows to Belgium. No wonder they all look puzzled.

Another reason for the general befuddlement is the case Beck is assigned as “occupational therapy” as he tentatively returns to detective work. A badly decomposed ex-warehouseman has been found, shot dead in a sealed room, with no weapon present. An impossible crime, and possibly a perfect murder, since it went undetected for smelly weeks. Can Beck, who doesn’t read John Dickson Carr mysteries, crack the case?

Sjöwall & Wahlöö make Bijl’s job harder — I’m pronouncing his name “Bill” until someone tells me otherwise and I suggest you do the same unless you know better — as usual, there are subplots woven through the story to the point where we can’t really call them “subplots” — more like interplots. Anyone converting book to film would have to remove SOME of the connective tissue, probably strive to make Beck more central to the action, and cover those parts of the story that the authors tell you about but don’t actually dramatise in SCENES. Bijl does pretty well with all this. I’ll just give a few examples:

The book begins excitingly with a bank robbery in which a have-a-go hero fitness instructor is fatally shot. The robber turns out to be an otherwise sympathetic character just trying to survive and raise a tiny daughter — there’s a whole spate of bank robberies in progress, and a new character, Bulldozer, a moronic DA, has commandeered most of Beck’s murder squad to investigate — the principle robbers are planning one big heist so they can retire — the guy who supplies them with groceries while they’re holed up, is involved with the lady heister without knowing of her larcenous tendencies — Beck, finally extricated from his loveless marriage, meets the locked room corpse’s former landlady — Beck is being threatened with promotion, a prospect he fears since the last thing he wants is a desk job that’ll bring him into even closer contact with the managerial idiots he most dislikes.

Bijl manages to weave all of the above elements into his story. To make it work in a linear fashion without the flashback info Sjöwall & Wahlöö occasionally drop in, he has to move the initial bank shot to much later in the story, which gives his film a slower, less dramatic start, though the creeping camera moves inside the hermetically sealed room with the foul flyblown corpse, looking like a claymation cast-off, are maybe the film’s most stylish bit.

Beck’s injury was sustained in an earlier film and so isn’t much help in screen terms. Sjöwall & Wahlöö give Beck a bizarre and ludicrous series of nightmares about presidential assassinations, which would really play on screen but I wish they’d been adapted into something comparable. Film noir and dream sequences go hand in hand. When the back procedurals fail on the screen it’s either because they’ve been miscast and chopped up, or rendered too flat, tending to plod. This movie is a bit ploddy. The nightmares could compensate for the low-key start, and weave Beck’s psychological recovery through the story more.

Beck is Jan Decleir, heavy-set, bearish, yet sensitive. Els Dottermans is intriguing and self-contained as the stick-up girl, and unlike in the book Beck is drawn to her rather than the landlady. This is out of character for Beck, I feel, but then the movie character is never going to be an exact reproduction of the book and it does make the character’s relationship MUCH more central to the narrative. However, it seems less likely that she’d embark on a bank robbery AFTER meeting cute with a detective who (unlike in the novel) has been seconded to the special robbery unity.

Making our heroine also a killer is an odd choice — in the novel, it’s even odder. It raises the stakes for her, and pays off in the ironic conclusion, in which a killer will escape punishment for the murder he committed, but be punished instead for one he DIDN’T. But in the moment, it’s odd. Sjöwall & Wahlöö are either displaying their contempt for have-a-go hero types who would risk their lives to protect a bank’s money, or for fitness instructors.

The amazing disguise

In the movie, the slain man works not in a gym, but in some kind of organized crime, so that his murder is actually doing society a good deed, thereby supposedly excusing our heroine. This won’t do — she didn’t know who he was when she shot him. It’s too convenient, morally, it’s special pleading, and it doesn’t really get her off the hook.

Bijl also devises a climax where the girl is in jeopardy, a conventional trope but one that creates a more somewhat satisfying dramatic spike, something the book doesn’t bother with.

Stand-out performance is from Warre Borgmans as the crim type who acts as grocery boy for the bank robbers and is also romantically involved — HE thinks it’s romantic, anyway — with Dotterman. Borgmans is sleek, shiny, mild-mannered, and a little on-edge — tipping over into Peter Lorre -style shrieking histrionics and panic-sweat as events move, a touch laboriously, towards their climax.

A little more money to splash around, a better score (everyone was too in love with the way synths could sorta sound like real instruments in the early nineties, myself included), and a little more fearless flamboyance could have tipped THE LOCKED ROOM over into being the minor masterpiece it needed to be. It’s still a creditable piece of work. Possibly the last really worthwhile Beck adaptation to date — meaning I have two more of those damn Gosta Ekman telefilms to sit through. Will they finally get good? I will also probably watch an episode or two of the insanely long-running TV show.

One more thing: Bijl omits the lesson on locked rooms from the novel, In my opinion, it’s not as helpful a text as the chapter in John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Men, in which colossally fat sleuth Dr. Gideon Fell expounds on all the possible solutions available to a locked room. There are surprisingly few, but somehow they rarely help a reader solve a whodunnit. But, in case you want to enhance your armchair detection skills (though I usually find it easy to detect my own armchair), here are the only possible tricks, in generic form:

  1. The room isn’t truly sealed: some hidden egress allowed the killer to either get in, or to reach in (by hand or using a weapon) to do the deed.
  2. The room IS truly sealed, but DESPITE APPEARANCES the killer is STILL INSIDE IT.
  3. The crime was committed before the room was sealed, DESPITE APPEARANCES. In The Mystery of the Yellow Chamber, named by Fell as the greatest mystery ever written, [MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT] the heroine receives a beating, then locks herself in her room, has a nightmare about it, and cries aloud. When the door is broken in, nobody can work out how the bruises could have been administered in an empty, locked room, and the girl is too traumatised to explain.
  4. The crime was committed after the room was UNsealed, despite appearances. I forget which Poirot it is in which the victim has some kind of attack in a locked room, they break in, and the culprit, pretending to nurse the fallen man, falsely declares “He’s been stabbed!” then DOES stab him when everyone else has gone to get help.

I think that’s it. Just four. And of course I’m not going to reveal which one it is in this case. Reading the book, I contrived a harebrained notion, which was wrong in every detail, but did actually fall under the right general heading (ie the right number from the list above). Although, come to think of it, the solution combines elements of TWO of the methods above…

Yellow Chamber Journalism

Posted in literature with tags , , , on January 18, 2022 by dcairns

My first NEW piece for the new Chiseler is UP. Deals with master of the locked room mystery John Dickson Carr, AKA Carter Dickson AKA Roger Fairbairn.

Republished at the same site is a piece on the First Mrs Bogart, Maya Methot, written with Phoebe Green.


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.