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The Unknown Girl / La fille inconnue,Belgium, France, Italy 2016).

Posted by keith1942 on December 18, 2016


This is the new film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. It bears their recognisable style and content: that is a social realist approach to a story that is fairly dramatic. As with most of their films the story is driven by character. However, on this occasion the plotting does seem to take control, which dilutes the impact and which is likely the reason why the film has received mixed reviews. In fact, after the Cannes Festival the brothers went back to the film and made changes, about thirty, which resulted in the film running seven minutes shorter. It seems that this affected the way that the main character, a local doctor in a suburb of Liege, Jenny Davin, is presented: she spends the film seeking the identify of a young dead woman,

“In the end, in the second version, one of the main differences from the version we showed in Cannes was that we brought it back into her mind, so that the audience is closer to Jenny.” (Sight & Sound Interview, December 2016).

When the film opens Jenny is working as a locum at the practice where the resident doctor is retiring. After surgery hours someone rings the door buzzer but at that hour Jenny, who is with an Intern Julian, fails to open the door. Next day she discovers that a young woman who is black, has been found dead; identity unknown but recorded on the practice’s CCTV. Partly from guilt Jenny sets out to identify the young woman. We follow her in this quest, both among the patients who are registered with the practice but also in the more dissolute areas of the Seriang suburb: the regular setting for Dardenne films.

Some reviews have characterised this quest as a detective film. I felt it closer to film noir. The police in the film are not that interested in the case. But Jenny becomes the seeker heroine, a rare phenomenon. The young black woman acts as the femme fatale, though she is more endangered than dangerous. And there is definitely an aspect of a chaotic world as Jenny seeks an answer. And the noir style of chiaroscuro re-appear intermittently in the film. There are no flashbacks but people do recount past events. And while we do not have a narrative voice the quest is filmed entirely from the perspective of Jenny.

The Dardenne brother also remarked that:

“At the beginning, we were talking about a doctor who was older and we needed to construct some form of intrigue around her. We had elaborated a more complex life for her – she had failed at some point – but we weren’t able to develop the story that way. We decided to chose someone younger. The face of Adèle Haenel triggered something in us: the innocence of her face.” [S&S Interview).

Adèle Haenel is a French actor. One of her earliest films was the excellent Water Lilies / Naissance des pieuvres (2007). Recently she was a feisty Madeleine in the unusual Love at First Fight / Les combattants (2014). She is really fine in the film as Jenny. She is onscreen for practically the whole of the film and her performance conveys the emotions and responses of the doctor with great subtlety. The supporting cast are [as usual in a Dardenne film] very good. Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), the intern, is important because he brings out aspects of Jenny’s character that clarify her motivations. Her character is presented with little back story: she is possibly an isolated person which makes her sense of identity with the dead woman more likely.

The film runs just under two hours and I was immersed all the way through. However, I did also have reservations, both during the screening and again afterwards. Some of the plotting seems to determine the characters rather than reverse: the latter is more typical of Dardenne’s films. There were several points where I was conscious of how Jenny’s contact with other characters was about forwarding the investigative narrative. After the film I also thought of some implausibilities, one being that the practice does not have a receptionist? There is a lot of plot play with the entry door and buzzer.

The film remains superior to any other new release that I have seen this month. Apart from the skill with which the filmmakers and their cast present this tale and its setting the film has familiar and important themes. There is a controlled passion and a strong compassion as the team thread their way through the disadvantaged spaces of a modern city, as they chart the situations of working class people and the migrants who exist among them and of dedicated people who attempt to service them.

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Nocturnal Animals, USA 2016

Posted by keith1942 on November 27, 2016

50805_AA_4167_v4lo Academy Award nominee Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow in writer/director Tom Ford’s romantic thriller NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Merrick Morton/Focus Features

Academy Award nominee Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow in writer/director Tom Ford’s romantic thriller NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Merrick Morton/Focus Features


This is the second film directed by Tom Ford. I was not taken with his first, A Single Man (2009). It was accomplished and offered a fine performance by Colin Firth. But it was so beautifully designed with scarcely a hair out of place. It reminded me of The Hours (2002), which was extremely well done but even in the baking sequence no flour was spilt. It also reminded me of I Am Love (Io sono l’amore, 2009), another spotless movie which made me long for Boudu to wander in and spit in the extremely expensive soup. Tom Ford was a designer and worked for Gucci prior to moving into film. It shows. His films are rather like a mannequin parade, style over substance.

Having noted this I found Nocturnal Animals a lot more interesting than the first film: I suspect that is due to the source novel by Austin Wright. It has Amy Adams, but the tight design constrains her enormously. Interesting in terms of gender treatment Jake Gyllenhaal is not so severely restrained. He plays the ex-husband, Tony Hastings, of our heroine Susan Morrow. Her philandering second husband, Hutton Morrow (Arnie Hammer) is away and Tony sends Susan a draft copy of his novel, something she has waited years to see. The story in the novel works as an insert in the main film, and features Jake Gyllenhaal, but not Amy Adams, playing a character, Edward Sheffield.

The whole film is an exercise in noir though the inset story plays much darker and strays into horror. In Tony’s novel Sheffield’s wife and daughter becomes the targets in a rather nasty ‘road rage’ incident. The theme of Tony’s novel is revenge: a point made when Susan, who works in a gallery, passes a pop art painting constructed round this word. Revealingly she has forgotten the painting though she acquired it for the gallery.

The whole film is beautifully designed and in addition includes numerous art displays, including one by Damien Hurst. The film opens with a gallery display of actual women on show in ‘art works’. These appear to be designed to comment on the position of women in relation to sexuality and objectification. The art works continue throughout the film. I did not recognise all of them but I was aware that i was constantly seeing examples of ‘good taste’ in the sense used by Pierre Bourdieu. I did recognise settings modelled on the work of Edward Hopper, including the final shot of Susan, which presumably points up the moral of the film.

I was especially unhappy about the opening gallery presentation. This, like at least one sequence in the story within a story, struck me as pornographic: presumably deliberately. Evelyn Waugh in his masterpiece, The Sword of Honour trilogy, has a character remark that ‘all pornography is about death’. This is central to this film. However, unlike say in a film by Ingmar Bergman, I did not feel there was a redeeming theme to counter this. I thought that both Amy Adams’s Louise Banks and Arrival (2016) are a more worthwhile trip to the cinema.

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Black Coal, Thin Ice, Bai ri yan huo, China / Hong Kong 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on August 29, 2015


I saw this film at the same time as two friends and we had rather different responses. One liked it, one disliked it: I think I was the most impressed. That is along with the Berlin Film Festival where the film won the Golden Bear. So I have spent a little time considering what it is about the film that impressed me.

The film was written and directed by Yi’nan Diao and it is his third feature released internationally. Black Coal, Thin Ice shares some concerns and plot issues with his previous film Night Train (Ye Che, 2007).It is sited in classic film noir territory, though for much of the film it is not clear whether the protagonist is a seeker or victim hero. Likewise it takes time to get a sense of the murder plot and to identify the femme fatale.

The cinematography of Dong Jinsong and the Art Direction of Liu Qiang provide an excellent noir world. There are the shadowy and sometimes neon-lit visuals. There are the enclosing settings and the wintry landscapes. This is the environment where criminality and chaos abound: and the ambiguity is heightened by the many times that a view or a setting is not clearly placed with the developing plot. There is some very effective editing: in particular a cut in a long travelling shot that transports character and viewers across five years. This also caries across the angst and uncertainties that plague the protagonist.

I found the performances very effective. Zhang Zili plays the investigator Fan Liao, whilst Wu Zhizhen plays the woman, Gwei Lun Mei, who comes to obsess him. Both remain partly undeveloped characters, which makes the climax and resolution the more effective.

The film is the more ambiguous because it is full of scenes whose function in the plot is unclear. I think this was the aspect of the film that most annoyed my less enthusiastic friend. I think I am probably less concerned with linear plots than some audience members. I actually enjoyed the digressions and seemingly unmotivated sequences that occurred regularly in the film. But I also thought that they contributed to the themes of the film. Noir constantly explores the problems of the world of the [usually male] hero: but great noirs [say Force of Evil, 1948) equally explore the problems of the world of the audience that is watching the film. This is how I read Diao’s film: the investigation and relationships of the plot are set against the a contemporary China full of dislocations and contradictions.

Diao’s two previous films explored family dislocation and the pressures of internal migration: and there is a sense of these issues in this film. I suppose the challenge for the audience was to keep tabs on what related to the film’s official plot and what related to the world in which that is supposed to occur. Just to offer a prime example: apparently the film’s original title translates as Daylight Firework Club. But we only encounter this late in the film and the closing sequence deals much more with this event than it does with the official noir mystery of the film.

So I enjoyed it immensely, but if you go to see it [preferably at the cinema – it looks and sounds great] be prepared for a less than straightforward 110 minutes.

Posted in Chinese film, Film noir | Leave a Comment »

The Third Man, Britain 1949

Posted by keith1942 on July 29, 2015

Third man ferris wheel

This classic film is being re-issued as part of the Orson Welles Centenary celebrations. Certainly Welles, oozing both his onscreen charm but also his shadowy otherness, dominates the film as Harry Lime. It contains some of his most memorable dialogue: his aside on the cuckoo clock is one of the most oft-quoted lines in English-language cinema.

But the film is also a tribute to the talents of a number of fine, mainly British, filmmakers. The director was Carol Reed is often dismissed by the appellation ‘metteur en scène’: a phrase that stresses reliance on collaborators as opposed to the supposed dominating talent of the ‘auteur’. In fact many of the great films depend exactly on such a constellation of talents, and this is especially true of British cinema where many a final film is much more than just the sum of its parts.

The film has a fine script by Graham Greene, adapted from his own short story. Certainly Reed’s direction benefits from the magisterial black and white cinematography of Robert Krasker. And his work depends to a degree on Vincent Korda’s atmospheric art direction. Both are ably served by the editing of Oswald Haffenrichter. And there is the inspired choice of Anton Karas’ music: his zither is as famous as dialogue of Orson Welles.

The cast, both leading and supporting players, is ‘pitch perfect’. Alongside Welles Joseph Cotton turns in one of his finest performances as Holly Martin. And Alida Valli is hauntingly beautiful and tragic as Anna Then there are Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee with brief but memorable appearances from Ernst Deutsch and Paul Hoerbiger among others. It is the combination of all these talents that makes the occupied and divided post-war Vienna so believable. This is a perfect gem of a movie.

the-third-man holly and anna

Reviewing it I enjoyed the witty and ironic early sequences in the film. This is very much down to Greene’s skilful script. But the players give just the right emphasis to the lines or placement: as with the recurring comments on Holly Martin’s literary output. I assume that the seminar with the Cultural Re-education Section’s ‘little meeting’ allowed Greene to air a few prejudices.

The noir landscape of the city is brilliant. Light and shadow not only advance the plot: as with the first appearance of Harry Lime. They create this world of chaos, corruption and criminality, which threaten the nominal hero and heroine.

The last stages of the film are more sombre but have even greater resonance. The underground sewer system provides the labyrinth, which is a recurring metaphor in film noir. Here Holly [the prince] hunts down the monster [Lime]. But as so often in the noir world, the death of the monster provides little relief or release.

Third Man lime

Then we have the cemetery. In the original Cretan version the princess [Anna] provides the means for the hero’s safe entry and exit from the labyrinth. But here Anna resolutely refuses to aid Holly. Thus the long take as she passes by the passive Holly leaving the audience to speculate on the fate or either character. This makes Holly a passive character in comparison to Lime. Another aspect of the irony that suffuses this film.

I revisited the film on a 2k DCP screening; both the dynamic contrast and the definition, especially in longer shots for the latter, seemed inferior to 35mm prints. There is a useful article on this version at:



Posted in British films, British noir, Film Directors, Film noir, UK filmmakers | Leave a Comment »

Polanski’s Ghosts

Posted by keith1942 on June 30, 2015

Polanski directing The Ghost.

Polanski directing The Ghost.


There is an off-quoted line in the Black Audio Film Collective’s documentary Handsworth Songs (1986):

“There are no stories [in the riots] only the ghosts of other stories.”

I remembered the line when I was mulling over Roman Polanski’s film The Ghost (2010). As with other directors honoured as auteurs his films often stimulate recollections of his own earlier films: ghostly traces or memories from the previous works. Thanks to Channel 4 (who screened the film more or less in the original aspect ratio) when I watched The Ghost again some of these ghostly references reminded me strongly of his classic Chinatown (1974) The S & S review also rightly suggested ‘ghosts’ from Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), Cul-de-sac (1966) and Frantic (1988) among others. The reviewer (Michael Brooke) makes the point that the film closely follows the original book by Robert Harris (who scripted the film with Polanski) but suggests that the plot and story world are in part what attracted Polanski to the property. Of course, both the book and the film use familiar generic elements, but the parallels seem to be to be stronger than that. Much of the film does adhere closely to the plot found in the book, as indeed does the dialogue. However, there are two significant changes, which I comment on below.

Filming Chinatown

Filming Chinatown

In Chinatown a private eye investigates first an affair with and then the death of a prominent Los Angeles citizen Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Swerling). The private eye becomes involved with the widow and her father, a corporate baron. His investigations lead him to discover fraud and corruption in the L.A. Water and Power Company. In The Ghost a writer who polishes and re-writes autobiographies for prominent people is hired to  ‘ghost-write’ the memoirs of ex-British prime minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). His predecessor, Mike McAra, has died in a drowning at sea. When Adam Lang is publicly pilloried for aiding secret CIA rendition of suspects, political secrets surface and become threatening.

The parallels with Chinatown are there most obviously in the two male protagonists of these films. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), the private eye in Chinatown, thinks he knows his trade, but by the film’s finale he is clearly out in depth in the world of criminality symbolised by the Chinatown district of Los Angeles. Ewan McGregor’s Ghost appears to be a smart member of a little-publicised authorial profession; but he also is soon out of his depth in the murky world of power politics. Both men appear in a scene where they look at evidence but fail to unravel the meaning of a word at the time. Jake talks to the Japanese gardener by the Mulwray pool, and only later realises the possible meaning of ‘glass’. The ghostwriter reads the opening chapter of Adam Lang’s memoir without realising the significance of ‘beginnings’. In the end Jake survives, unlike the ghostwriter, but he is equally destroyed by a world that is far more sinister and complex than any he has previously experienced.

Both men are victims of a woman who is essentially a femme fatale, alluring but dangerous. The women are deceptive and it is unclear to what degree they are responding to the hero or merely manipulating him. Ruth Lang [Olivia Williams] of The Ghost survives unlike Evelyn Mulwray née Cross (Faye Dunaway) in Chinatown, but both are equally the puppets of powerful men: men whose public persona is far removed from their actual ruthless real selves. John Huston’s corporate baron Noah Cross is prepared to go to any lengths to profit from the exploitation of L.A.’s dependence on water: and he is equally determined in pursuing his personal power. Tom Wilkinson’s Professor Paul Emmett pursues political power and profit with an equivalent ruthlessness, though we learn far less about his personal pursuits. Noah Cross is an actual father who literally embodies a classic myth of incest and the sexual exploitation of the child: Paul Emmett is a father figure rather than literal parent: but indirectly he controls Ruth’s sexuality through the arranged marriage to Adam Lang.

The secret in Chinatown is the manipulation of water whilst in The Ghost it is the identity of a CIA agent. However, in both films it is the search to crack the secret than impels the narrative. Moreover, that basic element water is key in the mise en scène of both films. We see water in Chinatown in the reservoirs, in the ocean, in a boating lake and in the pool of the Mulwray mansion. In The Ghost it surrounds the main action, on Martha’s Vineyard Island on the US eastern seaboard, and characters constantly cross over it or walk alongside it. And in both films the action that starts to crack open the secret is the drowning of an innocent man, Evelyn Mulwray’s husband in Chinatown, previous ghostwriter Mike McAra in The Ghost. Both are made to look like suicides but in reality they are the victims of a secret conspiracy. Moreover, a female witness in the case also dies, literally in Chinatown, comatosed in The Ghost. The first significant change from the plot of the book is related to the death in The Ghost. Late in the book the writer, fearing the close attentions of the CIA, meets an ex-colleague of Adam Lang, the politician Robert Rycart (Robert Pugh). He travels to New York City for the meeting. In the film they meet at the motel alongside the mainland ferry terminus for the Island. The sequence includes the writer joining and leaving the ferry, as he fears a repeat of the death of his predecessor Mike McAra. The change immediately conjures up both the plot and the symbolism of the earlier Chinatown.

There are crossovers elsewhere in the mise en scène. Both protagonists wander in desolate places like beaches and dried-up riverbeds. The framing and blocking in particular scenes offers hints as to the way the mystery will unravel. This is particularly true of the Asian servants in both households. One intriguing plot piece is that in Chinatown it is the Japanese gardener (Jerry Fujikawa) who inadvertently reveals to Gittes the key information around a man’s death by the pool in the Mulwray garden. In The Ghost, as in Chinatown, house servants are Asian, Dep and Duc. And it is the Vietnamese gardener (Hong Thay Lee) who offers the use of the car to our ghostwriter, and it is the car, which leads him to Paul Emmett and the secret behind the death of Mike McAra.

In both films photographs provide key evidence for the investigation. In particular a photograph of long ago that reveals an important but unknown relationship: Adam Lang with Paul Emmett in The Ghost and Noah Cross with Hollis Mulwray in Chinatown. The more recent film also uses technologies not available when Chinatown was produced or set. But in both cases the investigation depends partly on information provided by individuals and partly by commercial or state institutions: public records in Chinatown and the Internet in The Ghost. Both the L.A. Water and Power Company and the Central Intelligence Agency appear as large, secretive and corrupt institutions, balefully exploiting rather than protecting the citizenry they are supposed to serve.



In particular it is the final scenes of the films that have so many common elements. Both Jake Gittes and the ghostwriter are bought down by hubris. Jake meets the chief villain Noah Cross to expose his crimes, only to be overpowered by his henchman. The ghostwriter presents his discovery of the secret to Rachel Lang, who tells Emmett and death follows. In the final sequence of Chinatown shots are fired as a car drives away, the car halts, horn sounds and a girl screams. A crowd gathers, and then we see the dead woman. As Jake is led away into the darkened and emptying street, newspapers blow across the desolate space. In The Ghost a car speeds towards the writer and us. We hear a car bump, and see concerned or shocked pedestrians run towards an ‘accident’. As the light fades the pages of a manuscript blow across the desolate space. The latter is the second major change from Harris’ book and is similar to the way that Polanski altered the original script for Chinatown by Robert Towne.

The Ghost

The Ghost

Viewers are likely to take away a similar feeling from both movies, a tragic end in failure. The powerful remain unscathed and unexposed: the innocent have died: and the well-meaning but ineffectual hero has failed in his quest. There is a telling line in Chinatown spoken by Lieutenant Escobar (Perry Lopez) to Jake Gittes, “it takes a while for a man to find himself’. The tragedy of both of these films is that the man in question fails to find himself, or at least finds himself too late.

Originally posted on ITP World.

Posted in auteurs, Film noir, Hollywood, Literature on Film | Leave a Comment »

Into the Labyrinth – The Serial Killer Cycle.

Posted by keith1942 on January 2, 2015

The final labyrinth in Se7en.

The final labyrinth in Se7en.

One of the films I enjoyed back in 1996 was Se7en and it occasioned the following study. Whilst the film’s subject of multiple murders was not pleasant, the richness of its narrative and visual texture was immensely stimulating; it made me think again about serial killer films. It seemed to me an example of a classic genre piece, rather in the way that Double Indemnity defines classic film noir or Bladerunner the dystopian city. So I want to use Se7en to explore some ideas about the themes and motifs found in serial killer films, and the questions around film values that these raise. Se7en is (I believe) a fictional account, as are most of these films; even the ones that relate to recorded events (e.g. The Hawk (1992) to the Yorkshire Ripper) are obviously more fiction than faction. The facts of serial killings would require more than one article to discuss.

The Internet Movie Database lists 73 serial killer films, sticking mainly to recent versions and with a only few foreign language films. To be included in this pantheon of repetitive killings a film must have three victims. The crimes are defined by the need to kill rather than other motives for murder. They are committed by a gallery of murderers. from the teenage duo of Natural Born Killers, through the dream-like terrorism of Michael Myers, to the urbane aesthetics of Dr Hannibal Lector. These killers have appeared in the science fiction, horror and detective genres, even once in the style of a spaghetti western.

Such movies go back to the early days of cinema. Three classic variants date from the post First World War decade, products of an early creative movement in cinema, German Expressionism. The first, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1919), broke new ground both in its style, (conscious artificiality, stark lines and black and white contrasts) and in its story-line of a somnambulist (sleepwalker) murdering people whilst in a state of hypnosis. In 1922, the recurring story of Dracula was bought to the screen as Nosferatu: this vampiric serial killer threatened both film characters and audiences. In 1930, Fritz Lang’s M was based on the actual Düsseldorf serial child murders. Lang ended up in Hollywood escaping real-life fascist serial killers. He was part of an influx from Germany that was to heavily influence the themes and style of Hollywood, most notably in film noir; dark journeys through the city underworld, often fatal to the usually resilient film hero.

In England, the serial killer entered films in Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1926), which referred obliquely to the infamous Jack the Ripper. The Ripper re-appeared at regular intervals over the years, London and its fogs providing a suitably scary location for such deeds. In more recent times the cycle has proved fruitful, both for auteur fans, who seek singular works by a particular director, and Hollywood, which seeks films audiences are captivated enough by to pay to see. Two key movies come from the sixties, Peeping Tom and Psycho (both 1960). Each was seminal for this particular cycle. Each used a close focus on the serial killer to produce disturbing waves for the filmic heroes/heroines and the watching audiences.

Peeping Tom was rubbished by critics inflamed by its subject matter, virtually ending the film career of director Michael Powell. Psycho, an early example of mass systematic marketing, turned such horror to its advantage and was a key film in ushering in modern film packaging and consumption.

The 1980s saw exploitation in the teen market, with the `Freddie’ and `Halloween’ killings; and shared with the adult market were the less visceral explorations of Manhunter

(1986) and Silence of the Lambs (1991). The Alien trilogy provided an alternative science fiction nightmare, inhuman, but equally terrifying. The late 1980s and early 1990s were especially fruitful, with a number of popular key movies of which Se7en was one.

The environment.

Se7en, dark and dank.

Se7en, dark and dank.

Whilst some serial killer films “…are set in white neighbourhoods – surburbia, the farm belt, the backwoods.” (Taubin 1991) – this is not always so. Se7en is resolutely urban and multi-cultural, depicting a contemporary inner-city that is a modern hell. It makes explicit this long running motif of both serial killer films and noir films. The association with hell is firmly stated with the film’s liberal use of metaphors from two classic literary texts, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno. The characters refer to these stories and the film itself recreates some of their imagery, most notably in the stygian darkness and the continuous rain. This fits aptly with the noirish world which is common in serial killing movies.

Other films in the cycle repeatedly display infernal features, like Lector’s prison in Silence of the Lambs or the lock-up garage in the British TV Prime Suspect 1. The killer in Manhunter recycles the paintings and poetry of William Blake, another artist obsessed by hell. In the earlier The Boston Strangler (1967), the killer’s memories of one murder are intercut with a daytime task, stoking a furnace.

A recurring image is the hero searching dim, labyrinthine buildings and spaces or pursuing down never ending corridors. Mills’ (Brad Pitt) chase in Se7en is remarkably reminiscent of an earlier example in The Boston Strangler. Graham (William Peterson) in Manhunter flees Lector’s (Brian Cox) cell down an interminable and winding ramp. M includes a search through the labyrinth of a huge office block, followed by the trial in dark, gloomy cellars. The use of the Internet in Copycat (1996) can be seen as a modern labyrinth.

In the film noir, the hero is submerged in an underworld of vice and danger. Se7en resolutely incorporates this world into the serial killer cycle, so that the opening credits show light escaping darkness through the titles. The rest of the film is a slow journey towards the light of the final climax.

Heroes / heroines.

Somerset in Se7en.

Somerset in Se7en.

Se7en is typical of modern Hollywood in its use of a black and white male duo, however its characterisation of the black Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is not typical. He is a Renaissance man, intellectually and morally above the other characters. His understanding and intuition are displayed in the way that he analyses the problems and events. His systematic working methods exemplified in the library sequence, his persona emphasised by the record of classical music that is played by one of the guards. The attitude of his colleagues on the force is shown by the comment, “we’ll be happy when you leave”. He would seem to be a variant on such earlier investigators as Sherlock Holmes or William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose. Like them, he is a loner, unmarried and with no apparent social life.

If Somerset is a hero in the classical mode then Mills is very much the postmodernist. When Somerset suggests that Mills study Dante and Milton he uses, not the originals but, Student Notes to the `texts’. Unlike Somerset, he is married, but there are no offspring, only two dogs whom Mills calls ‘the children’. As the investigation proceeds it becomes apparent that, in a noir sense, Somerset is a seeker hero and Mills a victim hero.

In this film both central characters are male, however, other films have placed women centre stage. Most notable are Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in Silence of the Lambs, and recently the Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver) and M J Monahan (Holly Hunter) double act in Copycat. However these women’s success in the male world is somewhat problematic. Clarice is caught between Lector and Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), alternative good and bad father figures. Copycat, which uses Weaver’s star persona to develop a serial killer plot, did not do well at the box office.


The villain's lair in Se7en.

The villain’s lair in Se7en.

Many of the serial killer films concentrate on the pursuit and confrontation between the detective and killer. Sometimes there is a limited sympathy for a creature produced by the distortions of family, society or biology. This is true of both Mark (Carl Boehm) in Peeping Tom, and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho. But the latter, especially in its sequels, also presents a threatening monster who is more feared than understood. Amy Taubin comments, “. . . classic examples include Fritz Lang’s M (1931), Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and more peripherally, G W Past’s Pandora’s Box (1928). They depict, respectively, three pathological archetypes: the child murderer; the Bluebeard figure whose victims are wives (i.e. good girls); and Jack the Ripper who specialises in killing prostitutes (i.e. bad girls).”

On this basis, Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) and Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) are Bluebeards; the `tooth fairy’ (Tom Noonan in Manhunter) combines that with child murders; Freddie develops child murders in the epoch of the teenager; and Doe (Kevin Spacey in Se7en) is a Ripper type. However, Se7en’s emphasis on the religious and classical aspects also draws out the satanic side of the killer.

Doe is a Faustian character, both in his diabolical cleverness, in the environment of his flat, which reeks of the atmosphere of a coven’s lair, and in his usurpation of the prerogative of the deity to judge and punish. This aspect is present in other films; Lector tells Graham in Manhunter, that “if one does as God does enough times one will become as God is…”. This is the original sin of the archangel Lucifer, doomed to hell for aspiring to God’s unique position; the deadly sin of envy which is Doe’s sin in Se7en. Doe’s Faustian powers result in Mills falling under his sway. It is a victory for the power of evil that few of the other films care to essay. Whilst the Aliens and Freddie return again and again, we can be confident that a heroine/hero always appears to offer salvation. Se7en fulfils the logic of Paradise Lost with Satan successful and heroic.

This aspect crosses over with Dracula and the horror genre. In his study of Hammer Films (1973), David Pirie refers to Lord Byron, “in his conversation and poetry (he) took up the part of a fallen or exiled being, expelled from Heaven or sentenced to a new avatar on earth for some crime; existing under a curse, pre-doomed to a fate… which he seemed determined to fulfil”. His comments apply especially to the Bluebeard and Ripper types. Both Lector and Doe have the urbanity and aristocratic style of the gothic villain described by Pirie. The choice of English actors for the Lector characterisation brings with it the associations of the Gothic and the Marquis de Sade in Hammer films.

In an article on Peeping Tom (1994), Peter Wollen quotes Thomas De Quincey’s `Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’. This is an aspect consciously emphasised by Se7en; the film’s director of photography, Darius Khondji “saw these crimes as the work of an artist” and designed his lighting with this in mind. And the director, David Fincher, seems to have carried over both stylistic points and motifs from his earlier Aliens 3. In that film we (and Ripley) visit a penal colony, where the inmates are obsessed by religion (and played by mainly English actors). Their battle with the alien serial killer takes place in a labyrinth of a disused space colony facility. The climax occurs in the central furnace.


Tracy in .

Tracy in Se7en.

Amy Taubin comments, “almost all serial killers are white males who kill within their own racial group.” This is in fact true of only part of the cycle, The Boston Strangler is more egalitarian with black and white victims. In Prime Suspect one part of the series has white women as victims, the next both black and white. Se7en fits the dominant model, with its victims all white, but both male and female. Is this part of the explanation of the black Somerset as the seeker hero? In Dust Devil the killer, possessed by a magical spirit kills the white neo-colonialists and is pursued by a black policeman. Repressed fears surfacing?

Se7en is typical in other, more worrying ways. The key victim is Tracy Mills (Gwyneth Paltrow) with her unborn child and her presence in the film is essentially to set up the climactic revelation that subverts Mills. Women figure strongly as victims in all parts of the cycle, just as the killers are usually male. From Caligari to Copycat, good women, like children, make fine victims, being considered (in dominant values) as defenceless and in need of protection. So Starling and Hunter are welcome exceptions.

Equally value-laden, punishing bad women serves to protect patriarchy from subversion and is open to accusations of misogyny. From Lulu onwards, `Rippers’ look like a handy way of disciplining unruly women. In Se7en for example, though both the prostitute and her client suffer pain, the punishment is directed at the woman. That Tracy is pregnant would seem to relate to different fears: concerns about the threat to our society and its future. DCI Tennison

(Helen Mirren) in Prime Suspect decides to have an abortion as she unravels the gruesome tale of a Bluebeard sex killer. Se7en’s use of children re-inforces a similarly bleak view. Prior to the climax Somerset meets Tracy who tells him she is pregnant, but is unsure if Mills wants the child. Somerset admits that once faced with the same choice he opted for abortion. It is Doe’s final taunt, revealing to Mills his wife’s pregnancy, that seems to drive him over the edge. Satan has successfully suborned the hero and destroyed the future.

Other examples usually avoid such bleak endings. Manhunter, typically of Hollywood, closes by re-uniting the family; after Graham’s victory over the killer there is a cut to the quartet, father, mother, son, dog (plus pet turtles) on the family beach.

As myth.


The centrality of the labyrinth in the serial killer form takes us back to an ancient version of the story, That set on the island of Crete which housed the Minotaur. King Minos annoyed the gods by refusing to sacrifice a bull that appeared miraculously from the waves; the punishment was the obsession with the bull by the King’s wife Pasiphae resulting in an offspring, the Minotaur – part human, part bull. The Minotaur was imprisoned in the labyrinth and the subject city of Athens was forced to send young men and women as sacrifices for the beast. Theseus, crucially with the assistance of Ariadne, entered the labyrinth, slew the Minotaur and emerged victorious.

This potent myth has appeared and re-appeared many guises and in many art forms – including Shakespearean drama, opera and modern avant-garde art. It would certainly seem the basis of the majority of serial killer tales. Not just in the labyrinth but in the young innocent victims and in the necessity for the hero to confront and slay the monster. The numerous classical references in Se7en seem particularly appropriate in this sense. And the idea of sacrifice and atonement are also central to the film. Whilst the film does not end in a labyrinth it sends in an equivalence – a forest of pylons and cables poles which shield the monster and the seekers from the observation of the watching authorities. And it is the blonde heroine [though now dead] who leads the seekers into this lair- though to a radically different conclusion. But even here there are parallels to the original myth. The victorious Theseus occasions the death of his own father through negligence.


One of the seven deadly sins.

One of the seven deadly sins.

Whilst the audience’s initial memories of the films are often of the fear and trepidation caused by the serial killer activity, the best films do not merely titillate or make the flesh crawl. Over the genre there is a high degree of social comment, frequently placing the murderer and his/her acts within a very specific social context. Dr Caligari figures both as the manipulator of the murderous Cesare and head of the local asylum. There are two versions of this film, with different endings, but both pose questions about authority and repression.

M draws parallels between the criminal underworld, who organise a trial of the murderer, and the state police. In Hitchcock’s The Lodger an innocent Ivor Novello is suspected of the ripper murders and narrowly escapes lynch justice at the hands of a mob. A similar moral position is suggested in the sixties classics. Peeping Tom shows a killer produced by the sadistic psychological experiments of a father, the son killing and dying from the excesses of patriarchy. And the point has been made that Psycho does not simply play with notions of guilt and repentance in the death of Marion Crane. It is shot through with references to money and people’s responses to it – the film’s opening contrasts a lack of money with someone else’s excess.

Modern serial killer films have played with the contradictions of class, gender and racism to good effect. Silence of the Lambs has the central conflict between the ‘backwoods’ Clarice and the classier Hannibal Lector. The Boston Strangler has the upper class John S Bottomly (Henry Fonda) pursuing the working class and immigrant Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis). The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has lumpen proletarians wreaking vengeance.

Some films offer a strong dose of white fears of the return of the repressed black man, e.g. Candyman, though here any comment seems overwhelmed by shock tactics. Two films based on a real-life African story are better. Windprints embodies a naturalistic comment on apartheid and racism where the murders are instigated by white farmers on black people. Dust Devil is more non-naturalistic: there are overtones of witchcraft in its story of the possession of a white male who kills white colonialists in a Namibia passing from subjection to Independence. The film ends with the possession transferred to a white woman who strides purposefully towards the UN troop carriers policing the new land. Repression is really returning.

Many of the films raise issues of gender and sexuality, e.g. the preponderance of women as victims. The recurring use of knife-like weapons for the murders and accompanying mutilations carries phallic overtones. (One of the more disturbing aspects of Somerset is his skill with a flick knife). In psycho-analytical terms a killer like the murderer in M or the `tooth fairy’ in Manhunter manifests instinctual needs and drives at an individual level. A killer such as Doe seems to express the moral demands at a social level (see Wood and Walker).

With both examples it is worrying that the serial killer phenomenon is directed so frequently by men at women, children or sometimes homosexuals. In Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher (1969) Popaul, the serial killer, faced with the woman he loves turns the knife on himself. In a similar scene in The Hawk the wife uses a knife on her killer husband.

Silence of the Lambs, Prime Suspect and Copycat offer other women characters who resist and battle against this oppression. DCI Tennison (like Clarice Starling) excels in a male world of manipulation; but what is really interesting is that Prime Suspect encourages the audience to judge both her actions and their cost to Tennison. Her motherhood and her emotional life are the price of her work. In The Hawk, the same actress, Helen Mirren, plays Annie Marsh, the wife of a serial killer. Her growing suspicion has to overcome the stigma of prior mental treatment after childbirth and the patronising male attitudes of the police. After the killing of her husband, Annie observes police self-congratulations (in a scene strongly reminiscent of Prime Suspect) over the success actually engineered by her. The final image of her re-union with her children blends female independence and courage with the joys of motherhood.

An aspect of both the films and the literary texts is judgement. M notably ends on a trial of the murderer, not by the state but by the criminal underworld. In Se7en judgement is central to the development of the narrative through the device of seven deadly sins. As an ineffective police force fails to cope with `evil’, Doe assumes the mantle of judge and jury and takes the law into his own hands. He despatches morally unsound characters missed by the official judicial system; a continuation of the Ripper in Lulu. Se7en offers a particularly damming judgement on modern urban life. It is one of the bleakest views of the city following a decade of downbeat displays that make some early noirs look positively optimistic. Early in the film Somerset offers a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Long is the way, and hard that out of hell leads up to light”. This is the route followed by the narrative, from the opening titles, surely some of the darkest images ever seen on screen, to the final confrontation staged in the bleak, unrelenting light of the desert.

At this point the typical Hollywood ending, when a law enforcer provides the vigilante justice which the official system cannot provide, is reversed. As John Wrathall wrote in the Sight & Sound review, “it’s hard to imagine even the most morally degraded audiences cheering when Mills shoots Doe.” It is as dark as the ending of Aliens 3, where the abortion is achieved by the mother’s suicide. To avoid total despair the audience are left with another Somerset quote, (from Hemingway), “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for… I agree with the second part.” But still a world away from having Norman Bates and company safety tucked away in the sanatorium.


Gross, Larry (1995) `Exploding Hollywood’ in Sight & Sound, March 1995 (Natural Born Killers).

Kermode, Mark and Franke, Lizzie (1992) `Blowing Up a Storm: The Making of Dust Devil’ in Sight & Sound, September 1992.

Newitz, Annalee (date unknown) `Serial Killers, True Crime and Economic Performance Anxiety’, in Cineaction No 38 – the whole issue is around `Murder in America’

Pirie, David (1973) A Heritage of Horror, London.

Gordon Fraser Bernard Rose, Bernard and McCabe, Colin (1993) `More Things in Heaven and Earth’ in Sight & Sound, March 1993 (Candyman).

Taubin, Amy (1991) `Killing Men’ in Sight & Sound May 1991.

Taubin, Amy (1996) `The Allure of Decay’ in Sight & Sound January 1996, (Se7en)

Williams, David (1995) ‘The Sins of the Serial Killer’, interview with Darius Khondjii in American Cinematographer October 1995.

Williams, Linda (1994) `Learning to Scream’ in Sight & Sound December 1994 (Psycho)

Williams, Tony (1978) ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ in American Movies in the Seventies, Movie 25.

Wollen, Peter (1994) ‘Dying for Art’ in Sight & Sound December 1994 (Peeping Tom)

Wood, Robin and Walker, Michael (1973) Claude Chabrol, London: Studio Vista (They discuss the relevance of Freudian notions to serial killing).

Wrathall, John (1996) Review of Se7en in Sight & Sound, January.

Originally appeared in the itp Film Reader, itp publications 1996.

Posted in Film noir, Hollywood | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

The Big Sleep, USA 1946.

Posted by keith1942 on December 30, 2014

Marlowe with Vivian.

Marlowe with Vivian.

A reel treat at the end of the year was the screening of this classic film at the Hyde Park Picture House in an excellent 35mm print.

The film is classic in a number of ways. It is a star vehicle for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, whose silhouettes grace the background as the credits unroll. Apparently after the success of To Have and Have Not (Warner Bros. 1945) commissioned Howard Hawks to develop a follow-up, (this film also includes Bacall singing). It certainly seems that the box office success was very much down to audience’s delight in this new onscreen romantic couple. Some of the best moments in the film are the scenes between the couple. One, added late in the production to increase the star attraction, is a delightful conversation involving the risqué use of horse racing metaphors. And there is a two-handed telephone conversation between Marlowe (Bogart), Vivian (Bacall) and at the other end of the telephone a bemused police officer. If the lead couple are good, so are the supporting cast. Elisha Cook Jr. has one of his greatest and glummest screen characters in Harry Brown. And Sonia Darrin is the suitably hard-bitten Agnes. Even more memorable is Dorothy Malone as a Bookshop girl: there is superb moment as she takes off her spectacles and shakes out her hair.

Then this is a Howard Hawks’s movie; [Michael Walker has an interesting discussion of this aspect in The Movie Book of Film Noir, Studio Vista 1992). The professionalism central to Hawk’s films is here, even if the male camaraderie is downplayed. And Bacall beautifully projects the androgynous quality that often hangs about his heroines. The film’s production is well served in the cinematography by Sidney Hickcox, editing by Christian Nyby and Production Design by Robert B. Lee. The music by Max Steiner, as with the male lead, also recalls Casablanca (1942).

The complications of the novel by Raymond Chandler and this film version (scripted by William Faulkner, Leigh Bracket and Jules Furthman) are legendary. However, I reckon that one can follow it with attention and despite possibly apocryphal stories, all the murderers are identified. This is Chandler at his best – the book is a gripping read and a BBC radio 4 adaptation last year was also excellent.

The big question mark is whether to place the film in the private eye or the film noir genres. Certainly Bogart is a seeker hero and he encounters a world of chaos and criminality. The film also has light and shadow but not with the intensity of, say, another Chandler Adaptation Murder My Sweet / Farewell My Lovely (1944). And Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) lacks the malevolence of the really great noir villains. This was one of the films I discussed with students on ‘the World of Noir Course’ The consensus was that the film lacked a sharply defined femme fatale. The contenders would seem to be the two Sternwood sisters, Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Vivian. No serious femme fatale would suck her thumb in the manner that Carmen does. And Vivian ends up saving the seeker hero.

But then many great films defy easy categorization. What the film does offer is an absorbing and entertaining 114 minutes. The audience at this screening certainly enjoyed the film.


Posted in Film noir, Hollywood, Hollywood stars | 1 Comment »