Archive for John Dickson Carr

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…

Pictures in the Fire

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on January 8, 2011 by dcairns

Mr Pond nodded; he seemed to be suddenly smitten with a fit of abstraction. At last he said: “I sometimes wonder whether things weren’t better when pictures meant the pictures in the fire, instead of the pictures on the film.”

Sir Hubert Wotton gruffly suggested, in a general way, the dingy fire in a Third-Class Waiting Room was not one in which he would prefer to look for pictures.

“The fire pictures, like the cloud pictures, went on Mr Pond, “are just incomplete enough to call out the imagination to complete them. Besides,” he added, cheerfully poking the fire, “you can stick a poker into the coals and break them up into another picture, whereas, if you push a great pole through the screen because you don’t like the face of a film star, there is all sorts of trouble.”

I picked up GK Chesterton’s The Paradoxes of Mr Pond second-hand, tempted by some very nice opening paragraphs. It’s more of the same: short stories of impossible crimes and paradoxes solved by a beatific eccentric. There’s a little less Christian propaganda than in the Father Brown stories, but you can rely on the criminal to turn out to be an atheist or a Jew, if one has been established. It’s for this reason that I prefer John Dickson Carr, who also provides colourful 1930s language (even in those books written in the 60s). Carr never propagandizes for anything except strong drink.

I was nearly finished the book when I hit the only really offensive story, which begins with a character deploring the mistreatment of the Jews in Europe (this was 1936). This character, unfortunately, is Wootton, the blustering bureaucrat who is always wrong, and he’s swiftly mocked by the comedy Irishman who makes some humorous remarks about kicking Jews, and then Pond tells a crime story in which the Jew turns out to be the bad guy. Had this been the first story in the book, I would have read no further. In fairness to Chesterton, he did write Eugenics and Other Evils, but that doesn’t let him off the hook.

Image from Julien Duvivier’s LYDIA.

Black Forest Gateau

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2010 by dcairns

Or do I mean “chateau”?

Duvivier time! LA CHAMBRE ARDENTE — THE BURNING COURT — from a novel by John Dickson Carr, master of the locked room mystery — has very little reputation, and it doesn’t quite gel in a plot-character-theme way, but it has some set-piece scenes that are as fine as anything in JD’s oeuvre (French for egg) — a misty nocturnal exhumation; an open casket funeral with guests waltzing round the deceased; an arboreal chase scene. Working with usual collaborator Charles Spaak, JD unpicks much of Carr’s plotting, and the impossible crime at the story’s centre (a figure in period dress is seen administering a fatal glass of eggnog before vanishing through a wall) is actually pretty easy to guess a solution to — but the film’s ending is still a dark surprise. A few characters do seem to be cut adrift by the narrative reworking, with a bland pipe-smoking hero particularly useless to the story.

The film this most resembles is Franju’s PLEINS FEUX SUR L’ASSASSIN, with its ancient country house setting, historical murder backstory, hints of the supernatural. Duvivier even has regular Franju collab Edith Scob on hand, lending her masklike beauty to the eerie going-on, along with the glamorous Nadja Tiller and the always-welcome spannerlike face of Helena Manson, a nasty nurse in Clouzot’s LE CORBEAU.

Curious parties are recommended to Carr’s The Hollow Man AKA The Three Coffins, which features two impossible crimes, one of which has a dazzlingly brilliant solution, and also a chapter in which overweight ‘tec Dr. Gideon Fell lays out all the possible solutions to the locked-room genre, simultaneously thrusting the answers to the mysteries at hand under our noses, and whisking them away before we figure things out.

Here are some of Carr’s crimes –

In The Hollow Man, witnesses in a snowy street hear a cry of “The next bullet is for you!” followed by a gunshot. Turning, they find a man slain in the middle of the road, a pistol lying some distance from the body. Nobody else is around, and no footprints except the victim’s are found in the snow, yet examination shows he was shot at extremely close range…

In The Sleeping Sphinx, I think it is, a crypt is found where tremendously heavy coffins have been moved about at random, and no footprints mar the smooth sand on the floor. This mystery has little to do with any crime, but it’s fun.

There’s one in which a curse predicts that a man will be stabbed with an awl. He turns up dead, a small round puncture wound in his body, no visible weapon, and he’s in a locked room with only a metal grille offer any access to the outside world, and the grille is too high for the victim to have reached…

In The Judas Window, a luckless hero is found unconscious with a dead man who’s been impaled through the chest by a crossbow bolt, seemingly from a high angle. Locked room. No accessible windows, hidden doors or usable chimney. Although the title is a clue.

Can you find the solutions? Everything is as I’ve told you, pretty much, with no secret entrances or supernatural gimmicks.

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