Archive for Suspicion

The American Problem

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 14, 2019 by dcairns

The following contains spoilers for Joe Eszterhas’s Number One Plot.

I remember thinking THE MUSIC BOX was OK, but now I’ve watched it again and it’s kind of not.

I think Costa-Gavras thought he could make intelligent political films in the US (post-producing them in France to maintain some distance) but maybe he was wrong. The most pernicious form of censorship, suggested Alexander Mackendrick, is self-censorship.

The screenwriter is Joe Eszterhas but I vividly remember that at the time most of us were not on to him. He had written FLASHDANCE (which I’ve never seen — the Wikipedia plot synopsis, however, is HILARIOUS, just a bunch of random incidents separated by dithering — I’ve been working on editing together old movie serial recaps, and this seems like one of those) and JAGGED EDGE and Costa-Gavras’ BETRAYED.

The big obvious joke with J.E. is that he always writes the same movie. Well, JAGGED EDGE (his signature work, it even shares his initials) is the exact same story as BETRAYED, THE MUSIC BOX and BASIC INSTINCT and I assume JADE. Someone is involved with someone else who may be a monster spoiler alert they totally are.

Though it was fashionable to say that JAGGED E. “kept you guessing to the very end,” I did notice, aged eighteen, that I was not guessing at all at the end. It was obvious to me that if Jeff Bridges wasn’t the killer, they would have to do a lot of tiresome explanation, SUSPICION-style, and also it wouldn’t be as dramatic. Still, let’s give J.E. (the man and the film) credit for doing a version of SUSPICION with the right, and less obviously commercial, ending.

Then he just does it again and again. In MUSIC BOX, for the first time the villain is a father, not a lover, and the crimes are historic. I recall the friend I saw it with back in 1989 saying, “The moment I saw that guy I knew he was guilty, but I was still sucked in.” Which is true. You do need to know how it’s going to turn out.

Flatly, is the answer. The very strong premise of a daughter defending her father on war crimes charges, complicated by the fact that the communist government of Hungary might be framing him because he’s a vocal anti-commie, seems like a good set-up, and it is, but they have no ending up their sleeve other than “Surprise! He’s guilty!” And since we’re not surprised, that’s not very gripping. They know they can’t trump up some kind of fight over a hunting knife and kill the guy. So they’ve got nothing.

I do like how Armin M-S’s credit appears over an animatronic likeness of him.

This being a J.E. script, all the men are inappropriately sweary or sexual, something that is more obvious to us post-SHOWGIRLS (written on the FLASHDANCE random-shit-and-dithering model) but was always a feature of Dirty Joe’s writing (JAGGED EDGE, Peter Coyote: “The guy’s got a rap sheet as long as my dick!”)

Costa-Gavras’ direction is smooth, there are some good-ish shots, but nothing breaks out of the Oscar-bait conventions of the script. When Jessica Lange walks by the Danube in search of inspiration, there are some shots of rippling water, but no cinematic poetry to lift us out of the merely photographic and suggest the emotional process the screenwriter has failed to write.

Freeze-frame ending. Ugh.

Fiona’s main observations: “This script is LEADEN,” and “That’s a really ugly dressing gown.”

Lange refuses the case because she’s too emotionally involved (mythic structure #101) then changes her mind after examining her knees in a mirror. She seems about to go full Sharon Stone. I have no idea what’s going on in this scene.

I like C-G, normally, because he weaves political considerations into rivetting stories, seamlessly, and because he is one of the best storytellers with the camera we have — he doesn’t get enough credit for his dynamic visual language. But it just feels like he has nothing to work with here. It’s like trying to sculpt soup.

And yes, Armin Mueller-Stahl is good, if a bit one-note (everyone is one-note, it’s an Eszterhas script).

Armin Mueller-Stahl’s Oscar campaign.

The best thing Joe Eszterhas wrote, a horrifying, craven piece of unintentional black comedy, is his letter to Mel Gibson. You will scream.

MUSIC BOX stars Dwan; Thronfolger; Hammett; Lyndon B. Johnson; Samuel; and Henry Portrait.

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Forbidden Divas: A Villain in the Villa or A Room with a Screw

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2017 by dcairns

David Wingrove’s back! With another Forbidden Diva piece, although, as he put it to me, “Perhaps it’s not really a ‘diva’ movie (Margaret Johnston and Dulcie Gray, anyone?) but the director Leslie Arliss seems like a candidate!” Now read on ~

A Villain in the Villa or A Room with a Screw

“It might be good to have a man about the house.”

– Margaret Johnston, A Man about the House

Do you adore films where genteel Victorian ladies feel their hearts start to throb with genteel and tumultuous passions? Do you revel in swarthy Latin seducers, their dark curls aglow with Brylcreem, their bronze torsos a-glisten with spray-on studio sweat? Do you yearn, above all, to travel to exotic back-projected locales where roistering peasants stomp riotously – the strains of a wild tarantella – on vast and overflowing vats of grapes? Or where palatial villas cling precariously to a cliff-edge, while the waves pound orgasmically, over and over, on the rocks below?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, A Man about the House (1947) may well be some sort of High Camp Holy Grail.

Two demure Victorian sisters (Margaret Johnston and Dulcie Gray) have been forced to live in ‘reduced circumstances’ and run a girls’ school in the wilds of suburban London. We experience their horror as their pupils play bum notes on the piano and, occasionally, use an incorrect form of the subjunctive! One day they receive an inheritance from their eccentric and long-vanished Uncle Ludovic, who moved to Italy and became “an artist” – and whose name cannot be mentioned in polite circles. (The exact nature of his offence is left to our imagination; perhaps not a great deal is needed.) This inheritance includes a large sum of money and a plush, if slightly dilapidated villa on a cliff-top outside Naples.

The two ladies make the journey down in inclement weather. They are still swathed in dour mourning black, not for their uncle – Heaven forbid! – but for their father, who has also recently died. Their names, by the way, are Agnes and Ellen Isit. This is pronounced EYES IT and not IS IT, which is a bit of a letdown. Personally, I can think of few things more fun than being named after an existential conundrum. The starchy and severe Agnes (Johnston) brings along her Scotch terrier; the sweet and rather fragile Ellen (Gray) brings her large and lazy tabby cat. Their train pulls into Naples as the rain pours down in torrents. Agnes is outraged to see that the stop has been marked NAPOLI. “Why can’t they call it Naples,” she sputters, “as we do?” She is the proud embodiment of a Little Englander abroad. No doubt Nigel Farage would find a use for her special talents.

But a stranger is waiting on the platform. A tall, dashing and vaguely sinister Italian named Salvatore. He was the uncle’s general factotum at the villa; he has come to welcome the ladies to their new home. Exactly what his relationship with Uncle Ludovic may have been is left, politely, to our imagination. We can hazard a guess when Ellen – on her first morning at the villa – unveils one of the late uncle’s paintings, which was shrouded in a heavy velvet curtain. It is an image of Salvatore, fully nude, in the homoerotic guise of the Great God Pan. Unusually for a portrait in movies, it is filmed strictly from the waist up. We see Salvatore’s nude and muscular chest, his impish and rather perverse smile, the twist of roses and vine-leaves in his lustrous black hair. The sisters may only have just met him, but we can tell – from the look of frozen shock on their faces – that they have got to know this man rather well.

As played by the swoonily handsome Kieron Moore, Salvatore is the one Italian in captivity who speaks in Neapolitan dialect with an Irish brogue. Moore is best remembered today for the disaster that all but destroyed his career, his pallid turn as Count Vronsky in the 1948 remake of Anna Karenina opposite an exquisite but rather bored-looking Vivien Leigh. In fairness, not a great deal can be done with a role like Vronsky – but the lovely Moore failed to do even that. Yet he was an up-and-coming heart-throb in British films of the 40s. Leslie Arliss, who wrote and directed A Man about the House, cast him a number of times. The leading auteur of bodice-ripping Gainsborough romances, Arliss had previously made a star of James Mason (The Night Has Eyes, The Wicked Lady) and Stewart Granger (The Man in Grey, Love Story). It is safe to say he was a connoisseur of dark and brooding male beauty.

It does not take long to work out that Salvatore is up to no good. His ancestors were a dynasty of feckless aristocrats; they once owned the land the villa is built on. Quite naturally, he feels the whole place is his by right. Our main element of suspense is about which of the two sisters will succumb to him first. His eye, of course, is on Agnes. She is the elder and heir presumptive to the estate. For the most part, Agnes glares at him in dour disapproval. (She has the air of Theresa May on a jaunt to Brussels – a stolid and unimaginative Englishwoman, forced against her will to have dealings with disreputable foreigners.) Yet one morning, Agnes discreetly but provocatively undoes the top button of her dress. She wanders out to meet Salvatore in the villa’s sunlit garden. There she sees him holding Ellen by the arm. Flying into a jealous rage, she promptly storms back inside. Salvatore had taken her sister’s arm only to stop the girl tripping over a stone. But in the warped eyes of Agnes, he is already guilty of betrayal.

Things come to a head at the annual grape harvest. As in any film with a pastoral Italian setting, the peasants pour them into an enormous vat and stomp on them with gay abandon. Salvatore frolics with a lusty local wench, whose bosom is in constant danger of spilling out of her blouse. He even induces Ellen to join the fun and tread some grapes herself! Agnes stays locked in her room, obsessively playing games of patience. Suddenly, she can endure no more. Flinging open the door to her balcony, she stands there like Death in a story by Edgar Allan Poe – glaring balefully down on the festivities. She shrieks out a single word: “SALVATORE!” All at once, he leaves off roistering and bounds up the marble staircase to her chamber. The soundtrack rising to a thunderous frenzy, he runs inside and the door swings slowly shut. A Man about the House may not be a Gainsborough production, but it has the same inimitable blend of depravity and coyness.

It is not long before Agnes and Salvatore are married. Every morning, he lovingly prepares her a special egg-flip. She begins to suffer from headaches, nausea and fatigue. When the Scotty dog dies after licking a spilled egg-flip off the floor, even Ellen starts to grow a tad suspicious. Having started off as a blend of Black Narcissus and A Room with a View, the film now morphs bizarrely into a Victorian remake of Suspicion. Never one to indulge in excessive displays of originality, Arliss even places a light-bulb in the drink that Salvatore carries up the stairs to his wife’s sickbed. Yet quite unlike the ending of the Hitchcock film, the finale of A Man about the House actually does make sound (if deeply disquieting) dramatic sense. Kieron Moore’s was a star career that never quite got off the ground, so a director was under no pressure to show that he was actually a nice guy.

Ultimately, A Man about the House is ‘not nice’ and all the better for it. Yet a full seventy years before Brexit, its message is alarmingly clear. It implies – and not even too subtly – that solid and respectable Britons would do well to steer clear of dodgy Continental types. It shows that any dalliance of that sort can only end in tears.

David Melville

Cosy Crime

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2016 by dcairns

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Fiona was having a tough time — she concussed herself on a door frame, and she quite her job after it became intolerable — and was looking for something light to read. I recommended some nice English murders.

First up was Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, which I first heard about through David Bordwell’s site. DB is a mystery fan, which makes sense as he’s fascinated by the art of construction — stories, sequences, compositions. And Berkeley is a master of construction, delivering in this book a mystery which arrives at a fresh solution in every chapter. The whodunnit seems to be an art form which attained decadence at once, with baroque twists coming into play immediately — Agatha Christie pulled off most of the major outrages (the detective did it; the narrator did it; everybody did it), while John Dickson Carr (AKA Carter Dixon) was content to perform infinite, mad variations on the locked room/impossible crime scenario. But Berkeley, a better stylist with a deeper interest in character psychology, combined outrageously twisty narratives with humour and a degree of emotional depth.

Like Christie and Carr, he had two main detectives, the mousey Mr. Chitterwick and the more flamboyant Roger Sheringham. The name Roger Sheringham is so rosy and British it makes me smile just to type it. Both appear as dueling criminologists in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and Chitterwick takes centre stage in The Piccadilly Murder, in which he witnesses what only later turns out to be a murder. He’s a funny little character and his adventures are lightly likeable, but Trial and Error is something more — Chitterwick is reduced to a supporting role while the protagonist is Mr. Todhunter, a rumpled bachelor who, upon learning he has a terminal aneurysm, resolves to rid the world of an outstanding human pest as a kind of farewell act — a humanitarian murder (for a crime writer, Berkeley is surprisingly pro-murder). The problem arises not with the crime itself, which goes quite smoothly after some difficulty in selective a worthy target (the year is 1937: Hitler and Mussolini are both considered). But an innocent man is suspected, then arrested, then convicted, and Todhunter finds he has staged his homicide too well — with no proof, he cannot convince anyone of his guilt, and Scotland Yard regard him as a crank. Enter Mr. Chitterwick.

The book is funny, devilishly clever (with only a couple of awkward moments where things have to be carefully arranged to conceal twists, and the trickery doesn’t quite convince), and the mild-mannered assassin is a delightful figure — Berkeley fairly puts him through the ringer.

Sheringham dominates in The Silk Stocking Murders, an early (1928) serial killer yarn which I’ve just begun (this 1941 thriller rips it off actionably), Panic Party, and The Second Shot. Ever ludic, Berkeley strands his cast of suspects in the first book on a desert island and has Sheringham grumpily refuse to do any investigating at all for the entire length of the book, on the grounds that heightening the atmosphere of mutual suspicion would be disastrous. Civilisation breaks down anyway, with distressing scenes reminiscent of both Lord of the Flies and THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL — usually, in these things, decorum is preserved even in the face of any number of lead-pipe-in-the-library assassinations. In the last chapter, rescued from the island, Roger clears up the case in a few sentences, but does nothing about it.

The Second Shot is equally odd — narrated by Cyril Pinkerton, a pathological prig, it builds up an atmosphere of anxiety until its intensely annoying lead character comes to seem pathetic, loveable and vulnerable, enmeshed as he is in a web of circumstantial evidence. Entering at the halfway mark, Sheringham makes things even hotter for him, shamelessly bullying the prissy squirt, clearing his name and even playing cupid in a charmingly unlikely romance. There’s a first-rate cad character also, for fans of cads (and aren’t we all?).

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Berkeley, like Carr, also wrote under pseudonyms, and as Francis Iles he’s the author of Before the Fact, filmed by Hitchcock as SUSPICION, and Malice Aforethought, which also tempted Hitch. Fiona and I fondly remember a 70s BBC adaptation with Hywel Bennett (it’s on YouTube). Truffaut’s book approvingly quotes the opening sentence: “It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter.” Better yet, it goes on, “Naturally his decision did not arrive ready-made. It evolved gradually, the fruit of much wistful cogitation.” Wistful cogitation is very fine indeed.

Fiona also followed me in reading Nicholas Blake’s The Smiler with the Knife, which Orson Welles once considered adapting, and became hungry for more Georgia Strangeways adventures. Sadly, Blake (AKA poet laureate and actor-dad Cecil Day Lewis) doesn’t seem to have provided any, using her as red herring in one book and muse to amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways in at best a couple more (The Beast Must Die being the best-known). Minute for Murder is a very good Strangeways yarn, set in the Ministry of Morale, a thinly-veiled version of the Ministry of Information where the author spent the war. Blake has a weakness for coincidence, but once you accept the premise that the MOM is a hotbed of adultery, espionage, blackmail and murder, it’s a psychologically acute, entertaining and even emotional thriller, featuring a British spy who operates in drag and delights in camping it up. It feels like Day Lewis, who we can assume didn’t normally get out much, was reinvigorated by his wartime experience, deskbound thought it was. Sadly, we learn in this one that Georgia Strangeways has been killed in the blitz.
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In The Whisper in the Gloom, Strangeways has a new romantic interest, sculptor Clare Massinger, so I’m not sure why Blake rendered him single. This one hinges on outrageous contrivance, such as a small boy acquiring a clue which seems to be his own name and age: Bert Hale, 12. This grabs the attention, but turns out to mean something quite different, and the coincidence has no alibi — characters in the book regularly dismiss some apparent situations as being unbelievable, which just makes the glaring improbability at the book’s core even more ludicrous. But there’s fun stuff with the kids reminiscent of HUE AND CRY, and a climax borrowed wholesale from Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (which the Master was just about to remake). When the Disneyland TV show adapted this, they called it The Kids Who Knew Too Much. True to form, Strangeways does not appear. Was ever a detective so prone to being deleted from his own adventures?