Archive for Walter Matthau

Beck #4: Roll Call

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

The fourth book in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series, The Laughing Policeman, not only became the first non-American winner of the Edgar Award for crime fiction, it became the first modern Swedish novel to become a Hollywood movie. Since it was the seventies by the time that happened, Stuart Rosenberg’s film can leave out the double meaning of the book’s title, and just leave it as an ironic dangler. (See also STRAW DOGS and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but note that Roman Polanski felt compelled to add a scene to CHINATOWN that made the title literal.)

Screenwriter Thomas Rickman (THE COAL-MINER’S DAUGHTER) has changed lots of other stuff too, and I would say that practically all his changes make things worse, though a good many of them probably couldn’t have been avoided. And, since the cast is great and enough of the intriguing story remains, what we have is actually a really pretty good policier. Watching the films around it that got everything wrong, I can appreciate this one much more in spite of the cliches and reactionary stuff.

Walter Matthau is Martin Beck — only here he’s a San Francisco detective called Jake Martin. Like Beck, though, he sleeps on the couch, though the movie has no convenient way to make it clear that this is his choice, part of the policeman’s long, slow, voluntary break-up with Mrs. Beck. As in the books, Martin is surrounded by a variety of other cops of varying degrees of competence, but none of them really resembles the characters in the novel. The always-welcome Anthony Zerbe is required to play a shouty boss character that surely felt somewhat tired even then, but the addition of Bruce Dern and Louis Gossett Jr adds welcome flavour.

Someone has massacred all the passengers on a bus, then gotten clean away. One of them turns out to be a young detective. Is it a random homicide (of the kind far more common in the US than Sweden) or is some more secret motivation at work. Dern uses an authentic cop word to describe mass shooters: “they’re kronky,” he says, meaning crazy. But I believe, from my reading of John D. MacDonald, that kronky really signifies someone who’s twitchy, suspicious, clearly hiding something. The word has now been superseded by the similar hinky.

Cinematographer David M. Walsh’s (MONTE WALSH, SLEEPER) visuals take advantage of fluorescent strip lighting’s tendency to turn green when photographed on film, giving the film a hazy, ghostly pallor that’s somehow very pleasing. Rosenberg, who made COOL HAND LUKE and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, has a deft way with a long lens, so the film has both a slight documentary grit and a Hollywood sheen. The TransAm Building becomes a major supporting character of the Frisco scenes.

The most unfortunate and dated change from the book is Rickman’s rewrite of the villain character. In the book, he killed an ex-lover who was threatening to derail his upcoming prosperous marriage. Now, years later, he enacts a massacre to take care of a dangerous witness and the cop who, on his own time, has been investigating the cold case. Rickman makes it a sex killing, but also makes that nonsensical by typing the character as gay. “A fruiter,” insists Dern’s character, about nine times too often. Complete with Van Dyke beard, a tonsilar aberration which has haunted Beck films since ROSEANNA.

And here, at last, are Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and he’s GOT THAT BEARD.

Showing homophobia in the police force is just realistic, even commendable, but the film in no way distances itself from Dern’s attitude. Even about ten years earlier, in THE BOSTON STRANGLER, the filmmakers understood that gay men were unlikely to become sex-killers of women. If Dern’s character, a part-time asshole, fixated on this sex angle and were proved wrong, that would be one thing. But the nonsensical homophobic theory proves to be correct in the film. The bad guy killed a woman because he’s queer.

Martin/Beck is given a bit of an explosive temper, too, which is different from the novels but not really a bad thing per se. It’s just that Matthau’s rages seem triggered by sexual matters, strip shows and gay bars and prostitution. The audience is encouraged, I think, to see sexual liberation as part of a general moral slide that ends in murder. Even though there’s a suggestion that the murderer committed his first killing to cover up his homosexuality, since “things were different just a few years ago.” So sexual repression is, it would seem, more dangerous than even the sleaziest commercial exploitation.

The final big change is the most destructive — Rickman adds the inevitable car chase, with the killer ending up on a bus so that we’re back to square one. DIRTY HARRY was just two years previous, so Rosenberg has a hard time making this seem fresh or exciting. The dated cliches have a certain nostalgic value, it’s true, but they basically represent a failure of imagination. Returning to the opening crisis is technically sort of a good idea, in principle. But it plays out as boring. It’s to the credit of Rickman’s dialogue and what’s left of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s plot and all the good acting and filmmaking choices elsewhere that this is only a moderate blemish.

Rewriting all the minor characters — removing incompetent kops Kristiansen and Kvant, for instance, tends to soften the novel’s criticism of the police. We do get Anthony Zerbe as one of those perpetually furious, exploding police chiefs, but the books’ exposure of the way the police force is politicised and the bosses are more concerned with covering their own asses is missing.

The “Swedish nympho” — actually just a highly-sexed and pragmatic young woman in the book — is absent, but we get Joanna Cassidy as a lesbian nurse. She’s kind of a positive portrayal — the movie wants her to be titillating, and Cassidy is suitably glamorous, but it’s a very rare example of a lesbian in a mainstream Hollywood film who isn’t either a murderer or a murder victim. Some kind of weird flirtation with Dern confuses the issue. What we see quite clearly in the movie is that Hollywood finds lesbians titillating and gay men disgusting and frightening. It’s not as bad as FREEBIE AND THE BEAN in this respect, but then, nothing is.

Lou Gossett Jr is on hand, too, looking very cool. I was impressed by him telling off Dern for provoking some Black guys — “You’re making it harder for the next cop.” Dern pays no heed. On this viewing, the line struck me a little differently. Faced with a clear example of a white cop being unprofessional and kind of racist, Gossett’s character’s first loyalty is to the force. This seems somewhat true to reality, even if it’s not specifically what the filmmakers intended: some African-American cops do see to see themselves as cops first, and can be as racist as many white cops. Sjöwall & Wahlöö repeatedly talk about the culture in the police force that insists on group unity and an us-against-them attitude, where the “them” is the whole of the rest of the population.

The book’s ending could have worked really well on screen, I think — relying on a character reaction, it could have played a little like the end of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, the other entry in Walter Matthau’s public transport duology, making excellent use of that amazing fizzog. In the book, Beck’s teenage daughter presents him with a record of the title song, by Charles Penrose. Beck’s family find it hilarious, but the constitutionally glum Beck doesn’t crack a smile. But at the end of the book, he gets a phone call that cracks the case — the murdered cop had come up with the right answer. Ironically, however, this piece of the puzzle shows up after the case has already been resolved, so it’s a black joke by fate of the kind the books are full of. And Beck, at last, gets the joke.

But, instead, we get an ironic pay-off as a forgotten plot point reemerges as a laughable dead end (it may have inspired the grim gag at the end of Mamet’s HOMICIDE), a reminder that even if you follow every clue in the most professional manner, the universe is likely to have the last laugh. In that sense, it feels absolutely in keeping with the original authors’ sardonic view of the world.

THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN stars Charley Varrick; Freeman Lowell; Sgt. Emil Foley; Zilkov; Prof. Nelson Schwartzkopf; Zelmo Swift; Wonder Woman; Dr. Ernie Lombardi; Zhora; and Sherrif J.W. Pepper.

Beck and Call

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2022 by dcairns

I’m reading the Martin Beck Swedish police procedurals by the husband and wife writing team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Because Beck is such a glum son of a bitch, and the books take their cue from his mordant attitude, I’m alternating them with the jollier (and far less realistic) Nero Wolfe mysteries of Rex Stout (favourite crime writer of both P.G. Wodehouse and his creation Bertie Wooster). So that’s my fiction intake covered for a while. There are forty Wolfes but only ten Becks so I can retire Wolfe and his smug secretary/legman/Boswell Archie Goodwin for a bit once the Becks are exhausted.

I guess the Beck novels are copoganda. The authors were Marxists, but this oddly translates into them being very keen on their detectives, as caring professionals in a flawed society, but quite contemptuous of the ordinary patrolmen, embodied by the comic double act of Kristiansen & Kvant, lazy, bickering bumblers who trash crime scenes and occasionally succeed by pure luck.

The books were intended to form one gigantic ten-volume novel, serving as an examination of Swedish society and its discontents. This is arguably rendered imperfect by the books’ need to invent serious crimes that Sweden was comparatively untroubled by at the time: a serial rapist-turned-sex-killer, a serial child killer, a mass shooter. But it’s easy enough to separate the crime novel conventions from the social commentary.

The books have a slightly contrived prose style, an exaggerated flatness. Martin Beck is always “Martin Beck,” they never abbreviate him. And when the first killer is caught, he’s always “the man who was called ***” with his full name. But it’s clear why this was done: Wahlöö was an established author and Sjöwall a newbie. They each had distinct styles. Preparing the novels in detail, they each wrote alternate chapters, working at night as they had kids and day jobs. The contrived style was created to unite their approach so the reader wouldn’t feel jolting changes.

All ten books have been filmed and there’s currently a long-running TV show, so I’m going to do a partial review of the cinematic/televisual material, comparing it to the books. The books started transferring to the screen quite early on, and one of them was even adapted by Hollywood (THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN). Versions of Martin Beck have been played by Walter Matthau, Derek Jacobi, Russian Romualds Ancans, and various actual Swedes including notably Gösta Ekman. And, of course, the directors, a diverse squad including Bo Widerberg and Stuart Rosenberg, along with their screenwriters took the stories into areas not planned by the original authors.

Oh, and Per Wahlöö, who died almost immediately after he and Sjöwall finished the tenth and final book, also wrote the novel basis for KAMIKAZE 89, the bizarre scifi cop movie starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder, so I should certainly watch that too… It looks amazing.

I don’t think I’m going to explore the Nero Wolfe adaptations, though, even though there are surprisingly few of them. The fact that they got Lionel Stander to play Archie Goodwin, TWICE, tells me that they didn’t really have a handle on the series.

TO BE CONTINUED

Reversible Mayonnaise

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2021 by dcairns

PETE ‘N’ TILLIE, directed by Martin Ritt, scripted by Julius Epstein, from the novel Witch’s Milk by Peter de Vries, has some of the feeling of one of those Neil Simon films Walter Matthau made so many of but which Carol Burnett, his co-star here, somehow avoided. Even though it’s shot by John A. Alonso of CHINATOWN fame so the Frisco locations look nice. The material just doesn’t seem to permit any striking stylistic choices, unless we count the late Rene Auberjonois’ impersonation of Tillie’s gay best friend. Based on this and the casting of Michael Hordern as a “queer” in THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, I don’t think Ritt had highly developed gadar.

The main stylistic departure from reality lies in Matthau’s jokes about his job in “motivational research.” He describes this as a business of finding out what the public “is looking for in the way of an automatic contaminator or an aftershave mint.”

Burnett barely smiles. “Anything else?”

Deadpan: “Well, we’ve just completed a survey for a dietetic shampoo and are now helping to launch a reversible mayonnaise.”

Burnett remains equally deadpan.

“Maybe you could help us out,” continues WM, “There’s a new men’s cologne that’s coming out, they’re looking for a name. I suggested ‘Armpit.'”

Not a titter. And I think these are GOOD JOKES. Does Tillie lack a sense of humour, does she just not relate to these particular jokes, is she really good at holding it in and doesn’t want to give Pete satisfaction of laughing at his quips (she has him pegged, not incorrectly, as a bit of a chauvinist lout)? If the couple-to-be don’t share a sense of humour, I wouldn’t have expected the relationship to last out the running time of this movie, which, spoiler alert, it at least comes close to doing.

Oh stylewise: to prove this is a proper movie, Alonso makes the car interiors seriously dark. Although the lighting suggests a fairly brilliant dashboard light. Gordon Willis would have just sat them in total darkness except when another car passes going the other way.

PETE ‘N’ TILLIE is pretty good — tragic bits, comic bits. Pete and his son play a prank on neighbour Henry Jones by secretly siphoning fuel into his gas tank to give him impossibly good mileage, which reminds me of the fantastic gag with the incredible expanding tortoise I may have told you about previously…