Archive for Psycho

Beck 7: Call the Shots

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2022 by dcairns

With an extremely strong reputation in its native Sweden, MAN ON THE ROOF, adapted from the seventh Martin Beck novel, The Abominable Man, is not only the most faithful adaptation thus far, but certainly the best. And the two qualities are not unrelated. While it’s possible to adapt a book with fidelity to its events and still get the tone completely wrong — see the first version of THE MALTESE FALCON for evidence — it doesn’t hurt if the person doing the adapting has some trust in the original work. The second necessary quality is understanding. Bo Widerberg, writer-director of TMOTR, has both.

The novel risks repeating the premise of the previous entry in the series: a man, pushed beyond endurance by social forces, takes an insane and bloody vengeance on those who personify said forces. In Murder at the Savoy, the victim is a businessman who embodies the worst qualities of Swedish capitalism. In The Abominable Man (Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle) the victims are the police, who, as an institution and a few individuals, have comprehensively destroyed a man’s life until he goes full Charles Whitman.

We begin with the murder of a senior copper in hospital, a chilling and ultimately exsanguinary scene — there’s a long-held static shot just staring at a corridor, mostly empty, waiting for something awful to happen, that puts me in mind of EXORCIST III. The music, resembling an emphysemic bumblebee playing a folded paper and comb, is unsettling. The eyeball staring from between the curtains, a swipe from Argento’s DEEP RED, is alarming — and arguably wrong for this kind of realist film. And then we’re in a handheld, fast-cut assault, blood slathering every surface, as the killer strikes with an ex-army bayonet (a device seldom exploited in horror movies, oddly enough). There are some prosthetic effects here, I think, but rather than lingering on them like Lucio Fucki, to get his sadistic money’s worth, Widerberg cuts so rapidly we’re not quite sure just what we’ve seen, which makes it much more powerful — overwhelming in its speed and savagery. Janet Leigh’s rubber stomach in PSYCHO, penetrated by kitchen knife with subliminal brevity, is probably at the back of his mind. One might compare it to the icepick slaying that opens BASIC INSTINCT, but there the strictures of the MPAA shifted things from full-on Fulci mode to a more Hitchcockian swiftness, so we don’t see Rob Bottin’s effect of the steel point going up the victim’s nostril, emerging at the top of the nose and reentering the eye, for which I am grateful personally.

Widerberg’s handheld approach, a mere documentarist tremor elsewhere in the film, becomes a frenzied set of lunges here, and enables us to feel that WE are slipping chaotically in the murderee’s spilled gore. It’s characteristic of the film that the vaguely vérité observational style becomes something more furious and expressive/expressionistic during instances of violence.

Widerberg is in take-no-prisoners mode. Though his source novel is frank and bold, he does tend to amp things up, stressing the disgusting details, even everyday ones like a toddler with a filthy backside (in the book, a throwaway line of dialogue, now a disgusting chocolaty image). And Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s deadpan, low-affect dryness, though still admirably present, is joined by a sometimes startling intensity.

The casting is tip-top. There’s nobody I objected to. Almost nobody, except the mousy Ronn and the gruff Hult (above), is the way I pictured them from the book, but I didn’t mind. They were close enough. Beck (Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt) is older and fatter. Larsson (Thomas Hellberg) is more rock ‘n’ roll — but a goofy Swedish rock ‘n’ roll. Kollberg (Sven Wollter) is slimmer. But they’re all fine. Torgny Anderberg, who plays the ineffectual police chief Malm here, plays the series’ other ineffectual police chief, Hammar, in the nineties series with Gosta Ekman. He’s very effective at being ineffectual.

I note with satisfaction details like Beck building model ships, and sleeping on the couch (he’s gradually withdrawing from his marriage, in a very passive way). While the books stress that Stockholm is polluted and falling to bits, Winderberg’s camera can’t help but see how colourful and attractive much of the city looks. Oh well, you can’t do anything about photogenics, unless maybe you’re Tom Hooper.

The only characters not present are Krisitiansen and Kvant, who make their final appearance as a comic team in the novel. Since setting them up would take too much time and be a distraction, Widerberg quite sensibly replaces them with some anonymous cannon fodder. It’s the kind of tweak I can cheerfully allow.

It’s a film of two halves — the typically plodding initial investigation yields to a full-on siege situation as the vengeful gunman takes to his rooftop. Then we have helicopter assaults, tear gas, all kinds of mayhem, presented on a spectacular scale and with rather disconcerting relish by the director.

An oddity of this book is the way it features several gory cop-killings, while the authors insist that the dangers of working for the police force are routinely exaggerated. In the interests of drama, Sjöwall and Wahlöö have done quite a bit of that exaggeration themselves: an undercover policewoman is endangered in Roseanna, a junior detective murdered in The Laughing Policeman, Kollberg gets stabbed in The Fire Engine that Disappeared, and this one is the bloodiest yet (but Widerberg adds even more carnage). So the point is worth making, and over the next couple of books they make it repeatedly: it’s in the interests of the police to exaggerate the dangers of their job, and by citing “assaulting a police officer” as the reason for their own violence, they get to fake the statistics with impunity.

The only thing that doesn’t quite come off in this one is the very ending. Like Capra’s MR. SMITH, Beck ends the novel unconscious, and things are concluded with a strange, funny line from Larsson (he’s a strange, funny man) — its abruptness is the whole point in the book, but it must have seemed TOO abrupt for the film, and Widerberg adds a zoom-in and b&w freezeframe on the slain killer, mistimed to make things both abrupt AND fussy. But this is a quibble: the film is a rarity (my first Widerberg, though): everything seems loose and free, and at the same time JUST RIGHT.

THE MAN ON THE ROOF stars Valle Munter; King Hrothgar; Mr. Big; Inspector Andersson; Dirch Frode; ‘Mandel’ Karlsson; Linus; Märeta; Evald Hammar; and Jean Sibelius vanhana.

Dr. Crime

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2021 by dcairns

I’m rapidly buying up all John D.MacDonald’s Travis McGee books, and almost as rapidly burning my way through the CRIME DOCTOR series of Columbia B pictures with Warner Baxter. The McDonalds are better, but the Baxters have a comforting cosiness — not noir, though they’re shadowy thrillers all right. Every one of them has a somnolent scene of WB wandering around a dark interior by flashlight or candlelight. But they’re neat and unambiguous.

Michael Gordon, whose career makes no sense, did the first, in which the character’s radio origin story is replayed, and forgotten about thereafter. Like Arnie in TOTAL RECALL he goes from being a bad guy to a good guy by having his memory wiped. Seems like the prisons could save a lot of money by reforming prisoners with a simple blow on the head.

Olin Howland as a rogue phrenologist, COME ON!

The most cinematically important film of the series — which isn’t really important at all, but bear with me — is THE CRIME DOCTOR’S MAN HUNT, directed by William Castle. One can’t imagine that the directors of this series had much script input, but it’s a curious fact that Castle’s later fondness for publicity gimmicks and trick processes went hand-in-hand with a passion for tricksy plots. It’s sensibility that makes sense, unlike Michael Gordon’s (CRIME DOC, CYRANO DE BERGERAC, PILLOW TALK?). It even fits with his rep as a bit of a con artist. Narrative tricks and pranks. Remember also that he produced LADY FROM SHANGHAI and ROSEMARY’S BABY, and imagine how prosaic those movies would look if he’d been allowed to direct them.

Oh, we also watched THE WHISTLER, another radio spin-off directed by Castle and co-written by CRIME DOC scribe Eric Taylor, which borrows the “kill me” plot from Jules Verne’s The Tribulations of a Chinese Man from China, a wild variation on which turns up again in LADY FROM S. Decades later, Marc Behm would sell that plot to the Beatles as basis for their second film, with Ringo as the depressed man who hires a hitman to off himself — but then the team found out Belmondo was filming the same storyline, though Richard Lester didn’t know it was stolen from Verne until I told him…

But back to CD MAN HUNT, which isn’t about a man hunt at all — the titles to these things are pretty random, and a couple don’t even mention the Crime Doc, Robert Ordway, in the title. This one has a story by Taylor but script by Leigh Brackett. It’s no BIG SLEEP but it’s decent. There are signs of haste, like a character’s real name being revealed as Armstrong, seconds before a reference to “strong arm men.” A reference to “the Benway house” which clashes bumpily with the lead character’s name. But it’s a neat story. Major spoilers follow, but are you really going to watch the film? If so, use the embed above.

Ellen Drew appears in an apparent dual role as sisters, one good, one evil, but after that’s revealed (and it’s not too surprising, as Drew uses the same tragic delivery whether she’s wearing the bad sister blonde wig and specs or not), a new wrinkle is added: one sister is dead and the other has developed a split personality in order to replace her. After the mystery has been solved, Warner B. delivers a dollarbook Freud mansplaining that feels very familiar, but the film it’s recalling, PSYCHO, hadn’t been made yet.

It’s really kind of touching that Castle directed a film which seems to provide a template for PSYCHO — did Robert Bloch see the movie, I wonder? — and then later be reduced to copying Hitchcock with HOMICIDAL, which reverses the gender disguise element. And, again, gives us an insight into how prosaic PSYCHO might look if Hitch weren’t directing it.

Having watched about half the CD movies now, I am resigned to running out soon, but Eric Taylor has forty-odd other credits, including (ulp) BIG JIM MCLAIN, SON OF DRACULA, a bunch of Ellery Queen pics, BLACK FRIDAY…

Cinephrenia

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on November 6, 2021 by dcairns

Somehow, all the other times I’ve watched DEAD OF NIGHT, I haven’t thought about PSYCHO. This time, I did.

It’s Cavalcanti’s ventriloquist dummy episode. There’s a case of split personality. In the end, the dominant personality, the one that doesn’t really belong to a living entity but to a dead squatting puppet of a thing, takes over. And an authoritative psychoanalyst explains it all to us.

Hitchcock was a voracious cinephage and would probably have checked out DEAD OF NIGHT out of curiosity, but the film’s inclusion of four actors from his own THE LADY VANISHES — Michael Redgrave, GoogieWithers, Basil Radford & Naunton Wayne — would have made it even likelier. If he didn’t see it when it was new, he might have been drawn to it later while getting into short story adaptation for his TV show.

But what made me think it certain that Hitchcock had seen the Ealing compendium was the dissolve/wipe at the end of the dummy story, where Michael Redgrave’s rictus grin remains onscreen, Cheshire Cat fashion, for some time after the rest of him has faded away. Well, actually, in the end it’s his haunted eyes that linger longer.

Hitchcock, of course, has refined things by having Simon Oakland, with his baby’s-knuckles face, summarise the backstory with added dollar-book Freud, BEFORE showing Norman/Norma in his blanket, and before the lap dissolve from smiling face staring right at us to Marion Crane’s car being exhumed from the swamp, with the semi-subliminal embalmed grin bleeding through the celluloid as the shots merge.

And I think it’s likely Jack Clayton was influenced by that when he made THE INNOCENTS a year later, a film with a couple instances of the unusual three-layer dissolve, none of them quite as memorable as Hitchcock’s, but very fine nevertheless. It’s a technique that could stand being used more, and the fact that it turns up in two scare films made within a year is surely uncoincidental.