Muriel Spark is an endless delight and not nearly enough good films have been based on her books. This film for television has a stellar cast and does a reasonable job of portraying her macabre humour, though it loses the subtlety of her novel (as inevitably movies seem to do) making it a little more homophobic (rather than just some of the characters being so) and spelling out the meaning in case viewers couldn’t put it together themselves. Spark has a delightful time playing with the tropes of drawing room mysteries and putting them to an altogether different aim. Well worth your time and available on YT if no where else.
Looking for things to read in these in-between times?
You’ll find plenty of fiction and non-fiction over at Pulp Noir Magazine.
Talking with Strangers (inadvisable!)
Playing Ripley (Highsmith’s favourite character on stage)
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (unusual noir)
Summer Wine (quaff at your own risk)
Opens Friday 6 March in the US
Don’t be put off by the title; it’s not an exposé of the current occupant of the White House, but an adaptation of the 1971 Charles Willeford novel of the same name. I went to a special screening thanks to the Woodstock Film Festival folks with my pal Peg Aloi AKA The Media Witch. There was a Q&A with producer William Horberg after.
The film stars the very tall pair, Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki, in the primary roles (I never noticed during the BBC Dracula how long Bang’s torso is) with Mick Jagger and Donald Sutherland in small pivotal roles. Scott Smith, who wrote A Simple Plan, scripted the film from the novel. He reduced the overwhelming misogyny of the book somewhat (‘Really?’ Peg asked). Horberg mentioned how his pal Neil LaBute was interested in filming the novel at one point. I shudder to think.
Art, grifting, theft and criticism: the book is a lot more deliberate about the last. Smith’s script takes the central themes and turns them into plot decisions. It’s more efficient and dramatic. I’m immersed in stories of art forgery at present for a project (yeah, there’s some Ripley in it, too) so this story has been swirling around in my head. Smith focuses on how the stories we shape in turn shape who we are, but the devil is in the details.
Bang and Debicki are excellent as Figueras (the Puerto Rican identity that’s a linchpin of the novel is dropped) and Hollis. Immediately drawn to each other but infinitely wary, too; he, because he has no authenticity—she, because she has too much. As an art critic on the make, he’s easily exploited by Jagger’s smarmy art dealer Cassidy to get an exclusive: one for each of them. Per Horberg, Jagger asked for rewrites of his part. Possibly just a power move, but the character is much more clever than in the books. It’s not giving away too much to say that he send Figueras to interview reclusive artist Jerome Debney (Sutherland) and to steal a painting from the man who’s only ever had one work displayed.
Berenice exists in the novel as an excuse for Figueras to ramble about his opinions on art and criticism at length (something I have an interest in though most noir fans may skip over the pages on Becket, Dada and Surrealism quickly) and as a plot point. It’s to Smith’s credit that she’s more than that in the film. It’s to Debicki’s credit that she makes her a believable character. The sweetness of her scenes with Sutherland is delightful (Horberg’s account of how he got him for the role spells out the importance of who-you-know-Hollywood). Smith has the elder artist spouting Yeats and Shakespeare not pretentiously, but as naturally as someone with a huge store of words hoarded over the years.
But I’m not sure why they changed the frankly even cheerfully sexual character into one who’s guiltily ‘whoring around Europe’ [cue eyeroll]. Ah, modern American puritanism. She’s ‘punishing’ herself by hanging around Figueras. He’s much more desperate and on the edge. In the novel he’s grafting as well as grifting. In the film, you get the feeling he’s scraping bottom more, thus easier to manipulate as Cassidy is more than willing to do. The transfer to Italy pays off in beauty (Visconti’s villa and grounds stand in for the collector’s summer home) what it loses in the seedy specificity of Willeford’s Florida. But in what world is this a ‘romance’ spiky or not? Only the Hollywood Reporter. Beautiful cinematography (David Ungaro) and music (Craig Armstrong) help build the neo-noir ambiance.
The guilty revelation at the final unveiling works well dramatically. In the novel the resigned self-sacrifice comes because Figueras realises he’s peaked. His confession to the crime is specifically to claim a false motivation. It’s a cover-up of the other crime that’s much more important to him and his legacy as a critic. He feels triumph.
The breakdown of the murder into two parts makes it that much more horrible. In the book Berenice is barely more than a cypher, so her only purpose on the road trip is being knocked off. In the film the first attempt is a heat-of-the-moment thing; Figueras seems shocked by his own violence and when he talks her back up the stairs to the flat, you almost believe that he regrets it. But the anger is deep; his own fears of failure. When she taunts him with the buzzing fly sound, his move is violent, sudden and final. But he is consumed by guilt and when the fellow critic points him to the ‘Mark of Cain’ the painter left—or rather, the fingerprint Berenice left on the canvas—he’s obviously stricken. There’s no triumph. Not for Figueras anyway; Berenice’s posthumous triumph hangs from the humble refrigerator door of her mother’s house.
On a whim, I watched Get Shorty again last night. I’ve been feeling kind of lousy lately and I thought it would be just the ticket. Of course it’s hard to miss with Elmore Leonard’s dialogue (though it happens, alas), but it struck me again that the soundtrack by John Lurie is part of the magic that makes the picture sing.
Finger-snapping New York feel but wandering in the sun: the keys give the walking pace, the horns the attitude, and the tick tick tick of the percussion is a lively mind ticking along looking for angles, opportunities. It’s of a piece with the Florida bright text of the opening credits and the trouble that kicks off the film.
Everything works so well in the film: Rene Russo’s intrigued grin (a criminally underused actor), Travolta hits all the right notes and conveys the sense of wonder of someone from a world away in love with Hollywood (before the reality sets in). I remember that feeling when I first moved there. You carry the romance for a while. Maybe some carry forever. What else? Delroy Lindo looking fine. Gene Hackman playing a clueless hack. Farina: ah man. Gandolfini giving such character. And all the swell folks taking bit parts like Bette Midler and Miguel Sandoval.
But the music pulls it all together, makes it seamless. It matches Leonard’s pacy dialogue. That’s what goes all wrong in the tepid ‘sequel’ Be Cool. Hollywood literalism: it’s about how the music industry makes everything a product (because yeah, Hollywood doesn’t do that, right?). So forget the original soundtrack, let’s stuff it full of product — seriously stuff it. A bloated bag of nothing but air.
Makes me want to get out my Lounge Lizards vinyl…
[Tangential digression: Elmore Leonard is often called the ‘Dickens of Detroit’ which is a disservice to both. I get it: popular, he writes intricately interweaving narratives of people from all walks of life, but Dickens was never funny. If you have to compare him to a nineteenth century writer, why not Trollope? Funny and cracking dialogue plus all kinds of people — but I mean, funny. But the Trollope of Tiger Town? Probably not going to catch on, is it?]
I blame Carol at the Cultural Gutter for kicking me off onto this tangent. To my film shame, I had not ever sat down to watch the entirety of Fritz Lang’s classic crime film, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse. As an academic, I am of course always in search of ways to supplement my paltry pay so I joked about turning to hypnosis or tarot or even advertising, as well as crime.
‘Why not combine them all, Mabuse style?’
She was right as usual. Put all my esoteric and criminal arts to use as a mastermind behind capers of a nefarious nature: genius! Only in fiction, surely! First I needed to sit down and enjoy Lang’s masterpiece of expressionist cinema, collaborating with his talented wife Thea von Harbou, who adapted one of Norbert Jacques‘ unfinished novels on the shadowy figure (yes, I’ve got to read the novels, too).
There’s just so much good here, even if you’re not contemplating a life of crime. Secret hideouts, nefarious plans, dapper grifters, glass alligators — and a medical school (in 1933) more diverse than many top ones are now. Cool special effects, too. So here’s a bunch of images to give you a reason to watch the film, too. Helps if you have the Criterion Channel or Kanopy. Click the images to embiggen. I’m going to work on my hypnotic stare now.
‘LOVE IS A GRIFT’: Now there’s a music video for the theme song!
GRAHAM WYND’s Love is a Grift out from Fox Spirit Books.
Words & Music © 2019 K. A. Laity (Nicnevin Music / ASCAP)
Victoria Squid – Vocals
Julie Beman – Piano
Eric Bloomquist – Bass
Rich Germain – Drums
Brian Slattery – Trombone
Produced and arranged by Julie Beman and Eric Bloomquist
Engineered and mixed by Eric Bloomquist at Cool Ranch Studio
Artwork by S. L. Johnson
Video remix from ‘Sing, Sinner, Sing!’ (1933) by K. A. Laity (via Internet Archive)
Ida Lupino brings her genius to the helm of this Karloff-hosted Thriller episode. If you think early television was mostly toothless, watch what happens to Ursula Andress. Bonus: modern dance-inspired witches sabat!
Enjoy a slice of noir.