Archive for Maj Sjowall

Beck X: Curtain Call

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2022 by dcairns

STOCKHOLM MARATHON begins with a tense scene of a clearly traumatised girl escaping from a window and walking across the roof of a glasshouse… the glass starts to crack…

It’s effective, though it doesn’t extend itself to breaking point and the music is unhelpful, and then the inevitable slomo… it also has nothing to do with the supposed source novel, The Terrorists, the final installment of The Story of a Crime, the ten-volume adventures of Martin Beck by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö. Start as you mean to go on. The entire movie has nothing to do with the book, despite a Stan Lee type cameo by Sjöwall.

Somebody in charge of this series of (straight-to-video?) Martin Beck films, starring Gosta Ekman, made the decision to strip out the CONTENT, the political attitude underpinning the detective story. No doubt the filmmakers weren’t Marxists. But you don’t have to be a communist to agree with a lot of the authors’ critique of Swedish society and western civilisation in general. In fact, rather than pushing their own worldview (Wahlöö “a little bit Stalinist” according to his partner), the authors mostly confine themselves to taking satiric/despairing potshots at the status quo, only offering a solution in the last word of the last book, in the form of a crossword puzzle solution, the single word “Marxism.”

Like most of the books after the first three, The Terrorists hares off in various narrative directions, splitting up the protagonists and assigning many of the key scenes to characters other than Beck. This apparently seems like a problem to those adapting them, but needn’t be: the most faithful films seem to be the most successful.

One strand omitted by screenwriters Rainer Berg & Beate Langmaack is the story of the naive girl done in by society. It’s central to the novel, showing how social services, the police, the justice system, can conspire to destroy one powerless individual. The heart of the book. Parallel to that is the story of the terrorist gang, the only thing retained by the moviemakers, though in fact their story about a threat to the Stockholm Marathon (shades of FOUR LIONS) is nothing to do with the novel’s scheme about assassinating a controversial American politician.

The big ironic twist in the book — spoiler alert — is that after Beck and his team manage to thwart the highly-trained assassins, a lone nut — the girl whose life has been ruined — slips past them and murders, not their right-wing yank, but the Swedish prime minister.

I can see how, just eight years after the real assassination of Olof Palme, the real Swedish prime minister, as he exited a middlebrow Swedish comic film, THE MOZART SISTERS, Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s childish glee at offing the country’s leader might have seemed in poor taste. All the more reason to do it!

The filmmakers double down on the “lone nut” approach in order to deliberately rob their story of any political significance. They really have a genius for finding the least interesting direction at any turn. Since there’s not much of value that can be said about an artefact like SWEDISH MARATHON, there now follows a short disquisition on the dramatic vs. the interesting.

“Many things in life are interesting; not many things are dramatic,” said Dan O’Bannon in an interview for, I think, Screenwriter or Screenplay magazine which condensed all the insights from all the screenwriting books on the market into a few short paragraphs. O’Bannon promised that by following the principles of dramatic structure, pretty much any chump could write an entirely worthless script which the reader would nevertheless feel compelled to finish, or at any rate were the atrocity to be committed to celluloid, the viewer would find themself watching to the end (and probably cursing themself for it).

Raul Ruiz, meanwhile, asked why only a three-act structure based around a central conflict could be interesting? Why couldn’t a film detailing all the activity in a Brueghel painting be interesting, for instance? O’Bannon has the answer: interesting, yes, but not necessarily dramatic.

Ruiz is not primarily a dramatic filmmaker, I’d say: he does something harder, I think, because he has to sustain the audience’s interest with less obvious hooks. Where he does detail dramatic problems, there are likely to be lots of small ones rather than one big dumb one. There are plots, often quite complex — related events unfolding sequentially, but a synopsis of a Ruiz film might indeed end up sounding more like a description of a huge, detailed painting.

We’ve all seen too many films where the filmmaker hooked us and reeled us in, but offered no reward for the journey. Since the three-act structure is a boringly familiar trope (one reason it works so well may just be that we’re subconsciously familiar with it, so that it’s comforting to know where we are in the story), it’s incumbent upon anyone using it to offer some Ruizian INTEREST — in the form of psychological or social insight, ideas of any kind, aesthetic surprise, behavioural authenticity, something thematic or stylistic out of the ordinary run, possibly connected to but extending beyond mere PLOT, which E.M. Forster, citing the example of Scheherezade, justly defined as a trap for brutes.

Sjöwall & Wahlöö obviously used their narratives for a sociopolitical purpose, which seems one of the most suitable uses for a detective story. Psychology is certainly possible, but the Mechano-set construction of a cop story can get in the way of that. Which makes it an even better trick if you can do it. These Martin Beck movies offer plots which, fascinating on the page, become sterile when rendered on the screen with the INTEREST strip-mined away, cardboard characters moving along the string of a murderboard without a centre.

Beck 9: Cold Call

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2022 by dcairns

I’m sorry but the Martin Beck adaptations with Gosta Ekman are just NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO WATCH.

Apparently original co-author Maj Sjowall appears in all of them, like Stan Lee, but I haven’t spotted her. I don’t really know what she looked like in the nineties but she was cute as a button when the books were being written.

POLISMORDAREN aka THE POLICE MURDERER, adapted from the novel generally translated as Cop Killer, is completely without interest, except where it’s purely incompetent. The novels mix tones quite freely, but Sjöwall and partner Per Wahlöö always know what effect they’re after, even when mingling violence with humour. But this straight-to-video yawn, directed by Peter Keglevic, stages a key shooting incident with both tragic flute and slomo for epic tragedy, and slapstick pratfalls for farce. There might be a way to make that work, but not here.

One good thing: this geezer looks exactly the way I pictured him in the novel.

The book has some fun stuff — the killers from the first two novels in the series reappear. One is chief suspect in a sex killing in an out-of-the-way village. He’s done it before, served his time, but due to Sweden’s forgiving laws, been released as no longer a threat to society. Now, that book has been filmed as ROSEANNA in 1967, but it had also been adapted as an Ekman vehicle in 1993. But they could hardly feature the same killer in this piece, made a year later. Swedish justice isn’t THAT lax. The journalist killer from the second novel, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, also appears, still working for the press, under a new identity. Both characters really do seem to have settled down, though “the man called Folke Bengtsson” is still deeply weird.

So, none of that features in this adaptation, and I guess it couldn’t. What’s left? There’s a petty crime spree that ends in fatalities, and it’s tied in a coincidental way to the initial sex murder (staged with an unwelcome lasciviousness). One crime provides a clue to the other, a trick Sjöwall & Wahlöö were very keen on, as in The Man on the Balcony, where the witness who can identify a child killer is himself a violent robber.

This isn’t the strongest of the novels — the series is probably at its best from around volumes three to seven. But it’s very engaging. The film version, not so much. It reminds me way too much of nineties episodes of Taggart, Scotland’s own cop show, which outlasted its leading man, who was visibly dying of alcoholism onscreen (his afternoon closeups were rumoured to be filmed with a crewman on each side holding him up by the arms). The show went from dingy video in its early days to a glossier preudo-cinematic look which never achieved actual style or scale: much like this.

Also, we say “Polis” in Scotland too. Pronounced “Poe-liss.” So the cop cars in Beck are strangely amusing.

Michael Tapper’s book Swedish Cops dishes up an impressive amount of backstory — the various true crimes that inspired Sjöwall & Wahlöö, including the case that gave us the concept of Stockholm Syndrome, though the book and the show never get as far as a hostage situation.

“More than in the novels,” Tapper writes, “the films linger on Beck as a tragic hero, living the lonely, heartbroken and empty life of an inspector. Only his daughter comforts him from time to time. Repeatedly, we see images of Beck’s sad face accompanied by a melancholy piano score, in hindsight almost a blueprint for the sad, lonely and frequently ill Swedish inspector in innumerable novels and films. During the completion of the films, a statue called Det svenska tungsinnet (“Swedish Melancholia”) with actor Gosta Ekman’s features was completed by the actor’s wife, director and artist Marie-Louise Ekman. It is installed in the Altona Park in Malmö.”

Perhaps worth mentioning: the eighth Beck novel, The Locked Room, was adapted for Czech TV as Záhada zamčeného pokoje in 1986. I don’t think it looks very interesting — people in rooms talking in flat, uninflected shots — but you could argue that’s a decent approximation of the novels’ prose style and their dour hero. Anyhow, it’s here if you want to try it. Let me know if it turns out to be gripping.

One more to go!

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…