Archive for The Smiler with the Knife

Strangeways

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.

Page Seventeen II: Die Harder

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2021 by dcairns

As they sank into the darkness I felt a strange chill, and a lonely feeling came over me; but a cloak was thrown over my shoulders, and a rug was thrown over my knees, and the driver said in excellent German:-

“This is the example. There was during my lifetime in the town of Maduara, the birthplace of the philosopher Apuleius, a witch who was able to attract men to her chamber by burning a few of their hairs along with certain herbs upon her tripod, pronouncing at the same time certain words. Now one day when she wished by this means to win the love of a young man, she was deceived by her maid, and instead of the young man’s hairs, she burned some hairs pulled from a leather bottle, made out of a goatskin that hung in a tavern. During the night the leather bottle, full of wine, capered through the town up to the witch’s door. This fact is undoubted. And in sacraments as in enchantments it if the form which operates. The effect of a divine formula cannot be less in power and extent than the effect of an infernal formula.”

“Many a man in love with a dimple makes the mistake of marrying the whole girl,” was James’s gleeful contribution.

And that was why he had never had his collar felt. As far as he was concerned the culprit was someone totally and absolutely unknown to him despite the shocking litter of relics, the smell, a head from time to time that stood around on an old plate for a while until the pong really got too fierce and it had to be junked. There were even moments, when he had read the exploits of this person in the press, when he had muttered to himself, You bet, this bastard’s got to be caught, he’s fucking animal. True, he had fleeting feelings that whoever had gutted this poor little bat here on page one was some other geezer that he might know just vaguely, he wasn’t sure, but didn’t he go out with a very nice-looking dark feller that he met in the boozer from time to time and then they both went out on a dragging spree? He would have to have a word with this feller next time they met, whatever his name was, he probably had lots. Still, give the mate a bit of margin – after all, just like himself, he was only going for a stroll, ripping off a bit of bird, it was the kind of thing the whole world did the whole bleeding time, why be choked if a bit of vinegar gets upset?

He wasn’t just black like a Negro, either; he was much blacker than that; he was he was black in the same way the night is: in fact, he was so black that anyone anywhere near him could hardly see anything. Just as a lamp gives out light, he gave out dark – and his name was Joe.

“Yis, maaster, ‘tes right,” Joe Sweetbread whined vivaciously. “Ghoost up to Yaarnold Cross. I seen en. Heh-heh. Churning butter. Poor Maid.”

Humanity is much more complex than any machine. An author can describe much about mankind and still leave much to his readers.

Seven paragraphs from seven pg. 17s from seven books distributed randomly about my flat.

Dracula by Bram Stoker; Penguin Island by Anatole France; Center Door Fancy by Joan Blondell; I Was Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond; The Spider’s Palace by Richard Hughes; The Smiler with the Knife by Nicholas Blake; Two classics by HG Welles: The Time Machine; The War of the Worlds, introduction by Isaac Asimov.

The Sunday Intertitle: Wolfdunnit?

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2018 by dcairns

Today, for the Hammer & AMicus Blogathon, I’m looking at THE BEAST MUST DIE. No, not this one —

I haven’t seen the 1952 version of Nicholas Blake’s novel, but I have read the novel. Blake was the pen-name of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, father of Daniel, who moonlighted as a crime novelist. This his only book to have been adapted for the cinema, but his The Smiler With the Knife NEARLY became Orson Welles’ first film.

Not this one either ~

Claude Chabrol’s version of the same book is pretty good. Going by the cast list of the Argentinian version, it shares with Chabrol the unusual feature of eliminating the character of the detective. Blake/Day-Lewis created such a compelling pair of opposing characters in this story that his usual toff detective, Nigel Strangeways, just gets in the way. And in Smiler, he’s almost completely sidelined, his adventurous wife taking centre stage (Welles hoped to cast Lucille Ball, with himself as homegrown fascist villain).

But no, Amicus head Milton Subotsky chose to adapt a short story by Star Trek writer James Blish and give it Blake’s title (a biblical quotation) — but it’s STILL a country house detective story, with a slight twist. There will be spoilers ahead.

Taking this challenge seriously, I’m basically live-blogging this so you can see if I’m able to ID the skin-changer. Who’s hairy on the inside at this weekend party?

In my experience, seventies werewolves tend to wear plaid shirts, like lumberjacks (perhaps harking back to WOLFBLOOD, the silent movie combining lycanthropy and lumberjacking which I wrote about here. The first lumberthrope movie? So I’ll be watching this one waiting for someone to turn up in an ugly shirt, My money’s on Michael Gambon as the cast member likeliest to display hideous fashion sense. But I am aware of a complicating factor: the movie was also released, in an attempt to cash in on the blacksploitation craze, as BLACK WEREWOLF, which would seem to narrow the choices down to Calvin Lockhart and Marlene Clark. And is, quite frankly, a terrible title for a whodunnit.

We begin with a freeze-fame of our werewolf — ALSO a terrible spoiler — and the insinuating tones of Valentine Dyall, purring a redundant VO which is also spelled out in superimposed titles.

Helicopter shot over what looks like Scottish heather, but may in fact be the grounds of Shepperton, and Calvin Coolidge Lockhart is being hunted by a private army and a helicopter, through a wood wired for sound by Anton Diffring who sits aloof in a control room with a video wall.

This movie is THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND avant la lettre, isn’t it? Which is to say, Ten Little Indians with a video wall. I wonder if Robert Ludlum saw it and thought, “Needs a better title!”

The cast contains Dumbledore II, Ernst Stavros Blofeld (again), Ganja Meda, Irving Amadeus, the Grand Moff Tarkin and Reinhard Heydrich, so it’s quite a house party.

Two cast members lack iconic signature roles — but Ciaran Madden would reunite with Dumbledore Michael Gambon in 1992 when she played Mm. Maigret to his titular sleuth, and Tom Chadbon has a memorable bit part in JUGGERNAUT (“I’d spent it, hadn’t I?”) though of course I find all the bit parts memorable in that one.

Chadbon, whose voice here fluctuates between early Malcolm McDowell and anorak on the bus man, is an absolute joy in his puffy shirts.

The dialogue is a hoot — “One of our guests is a werewolf: I know it,” intones Lockhart. “Then why did you INVITE them?” asks his wife, quite reasonably. What adds to the strangeness is that most of the cast are either playing the wrong nationality — Anton Diffring is being Polish, Peter Cushing German — or are dubbed — Marlene Clark has been revoiced by Scottish jazz singer and actress Annie Ross, who performed the same service for Britt Ekland in THE WICKER MAN — or just have naturally amusing voices, like Chadbon and Gray (whose voice we’re used to hearing come out of Jack Hawkins’ mouth).

Anton sips his Bailey’s and gazes at his video wall like a kind of Thomas Jerome Teuton.

Director Paul Annett was an experienced second unit man for TV, shooting the location action sequences on film for British shows that would revert to video as soon as the characters moved indoors. For his sins, he does provide an endless car chase between Lockhart and Gambon that saps my will to live whenever I try to watch this movie. Maybe that’s why I don’t remember who the werewolf is — the car chase always defeats me. Well, this time, I’m as obsessed as Lockhart to get to the bottom of this, lacking only the attractive high cheekbones (with Lockhart and Cushing and Diffring and even Gray, this film sports perhaps the finest assemblage of cheekbones ever captured on celluloid — a thespic Himalayan range of facial promontories).

“Lost in time… and lost in space… and meaning…”

When the movie isn’t doing helicopter chases and such, Annett and ace cameraman Jack Hildyard (BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) manage a lot of stylish and dynamic shooting, prone to zoom abuse, it’s true, but it’s 1973 after all… it’s fair to say the movie does resemble a glossy TV thriller of the period (e.g. The Persuaders) more than a horror movie. Well Subotsky liked monsters but not gore or sex or violence or anything too disturbing…

Much of the film consists of Lockhart and Diffring spying on the guest bedrooms, searching for signs of incipient werewolfism in the invitees. As Anton watches Chadbon strip to the waist, he muses, “Lots of men have hair on their chests,” projecting the suave confidence of a man who knows whereof he speaks. “And on the backs of their hands?” objects Lockhart, as if this were the unlikeliest thing on earth. He’s never met Len Deighton.

The eyes, quite apart from being the windows of the soul, are the tasty bit.

After the first killing — offscreen, but leaving a gory aftermath — we see all their guests in their PJs — Charles Gray sports a vivid paisley dressing gown, and Gambon once again goes for a subtle but distinct check. The rules of fashion dictate he MUST be the wolfman in their midst!

But at dinner, he wears a brown velvet smoking jacket and a shirt with a collar of startling wingspan. Not a check in sight.

Gambon is definitely soft on werewolves, though — his first act as Dumbledore was to hire a lycan schoolmaster.

I bloody hate day for night photography, personally.

Like THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, this movie shares cast members with the almighty INCENSE FOR THE DAMNED, two of them this time (Lockhart & Cushing).

The Sunday Intertitle this week is from The Werewolf Break, where Valentine Dyall — The Man in Black — returns on the soundtrack to invite us to guess who the shaggy killer is.

 

It’s twenty past werewolf.

And in fact the ending pulls off quite a few cunning twists — I wasn’t emotionally engaged enough to really care who’s wolfie, but the reversals and revelations pile on top of one another turn it into quite a nice conclusion. Here comes the spoilers — first hairy hand is spotted on Marlene Clark, so that her hubbie has to administer the silver bullet, and then it turns out she’s been cross-infected by a golden retriever who’d been gored by the ORIGINAL werewolf —

— an Alsatian in a woolly waistcoat, finally revealed as —

 
 

BLOODY MICHAEL GAMBON! I KNEW IT!

This has been an entry in the Hammer Amicus Blogathon run by Cinematic Catharsis and  Real Weegie Midget Reviews.