Category: Literary adaptations

The Maltese Falcon (US 1941)

I re-watched The Maltese Falcon in order to remind myself of the Dashiel Hammett narrative and his characters. This is part of my Raymond Chandler research. Hammett was a few years younger than Chandler but the two men both served in the Great War. The big difference was that Hammett started writing crime fiction for Black Mask in the early 1920s, a good decade before Chandler, and his novel-length stories such as The Maltese Falcon were sold to Hollywood in the early 1930s. Hammett had already worked as a Pinkerton’s detective before he started writing and his approach to writing was one of Chandler’s early influences when he too started writing for Black Mask.

Bogart as Sam Spade and the three characters associated with the mystery of the black bird – Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet

The 1941 film was the third use of Hammett’s novel, following The Maltese Falcon (1931) with Bebe Daniels in the Mary Astor role and Satan Met a Lady (1936) a slightly changed adaptation with Bette Davis and Warren William. This version had the same cinematographer, Arthur Edeson, as the 1941 film. There are also possible later versions. This is a good example of the way in which the studios re-cycled properties in the 1930s. There are several reasons why the 1941 version has remained in the public consciousness where the older films have fallen from view. One is that this was the first film directed by John Huston who also wrote the screenplay, having become established at Warner Bros. as a writer in the late 1930s. Huston was seen as gifted young man whose writing credits dated back to the early 1930s. His directorial début came at a precise moment and coincided with the rise of Humphrey Bogart into the front rank of Warner stars. This was partly because of his performance as Roy Earle in High Sierra earlier in the same year which was another crime fiction literary adaptation (from W. R. Burnett) written by John Huston. Finally, The Maltese Falcon has been seen as either an early film noir or as a film that pointed in the direction of the noirs that were to come. This last reason why the 1941 film has been remembered is, I think, a case of retrospective invention. The film noir claims are rather thin and I think most of this is based on a similar coincidence in the 1970s when Bogart was in the midst of a revival of interest in his star persona and film noir was just starting to be discussed in detail by film scholars and fans.

Lee Patrick as Effie and Bogart as Sam with the package

The Maltese Falcon is set in Hammett’s San Francisco rather than Los Angeles. The setting is more or less contemporary for the late 1930s/early 1940s and the narrative begins in the offices of Sam Spade (Bogart), a private eye in partnership with Miles Archer. A similar office would appear in the first full Chandler adaptation, Farewell My Lovely (1944). Spade, however has a helpful and loyal ‘secretary’ in the form of Effie (Lee Patrick), who is brave, smart and sassy – she is a considerable asset in Spade’s business. Spade receives a visit from a woman who he eventually discovers is a ‘Brigid O’Shaughnessy’ played by Mary Astor. Spade soon realises that Brigid is not what she actually appears to be and that she can’t be trusted. Yet he also finds himself attracted to her. But Spade himself is no angel and he too is adept at spinning tales. What follows is a series of murders and the appearance of three more characters who would become iconic figures in Hollywood. First Peter Lorre arrives as ‘Joel Cairo’, then Sydney Greenstreet as Mr Guttman and finally Elisha Cook Jr. as the gunsel. Lorre was already a Hollywood figure and had come to America after his lead role in M (Germany 1931). It was Greenstreet’s first cinema role after many years on the stage in the UK and US. Elisha Cook Jr. racked up over 200 credits for minor roles in a career lasting more than 50 years. The joke among filmgoers was whether or not his character would survive until the end of the film. The Macguffin in the story is the ‘Black Falcon’, a valuable relic in the form of a statuette that Guttman seeks to acquire and Brigid claims she is about to collect. The plot doesn’t really matter that much. It is the interaction of the characters that engages the audience. There is also a role for Ward Bond as a Police Detective.

Bogart with Elisha Cook Jr.

What I most noticed this time were the very quick dialogue exchanges and in particular Bogart’s delivery. Bogart delivers his lines at pace and sometimes as he’s going out of the door as he’s finishing a line. It’s very snappy and the pace never let’s up. But Sydney Greenstreet is a perfect foil in his scenes responding to Bogart in calm measured tones. Bogart earns possession of the screen in his first genuine starring role but the the acting honours arguably go to Mary Astor. It’s an unusual role for a woman in this kind of ‘tough guy’ drama. She plays on her seeming gentility and projects a softer image all round to cover her duplicity.

The film looks very good on a DVD from a Bogart box set. Arthur Edeson’s work behind the camera is as good as his experience suggests it should be but it doesn’t really introduce the noirish elements that are about to come from the influence of the European directors and cinematographers. Much of the film is set in hotel rooms and corridors and generally compositions are designed to cover character interactions. In those images with only one or two characters, low angles are often used . None of these comments are meant as criticisms. The cinematography and set design complement the performances in telling the story and the music too is designed to give the sense of a mystery that is proving difficult for Spade to unravel. Overall it is a stunning achievement by John Huston. I can’t better the description by the New York Times when the film was re-released in 1973 (one of many revivals):

. . . hard, precise and economical – an almost perfect visual equivalent of the Dashiell Hammett thriller. Bogart is backed by an impeccably ‘right’ cast . . . (quoted in Humphrey Bogart by Nathaniel Benchley, Hutchinson 1975)

That nails it. It’s a ‘version’ of Hammett, perfectly executed, a work of art and an entertainment. I’m still doubtful about its influence on later ‘tough guy’ thrillers, although it certainly helped the careers of all involved. Dashiell Hammet clearly knew how to write such stories and Huston served him well. But the difference in a film like Double Indemnity is remarkable. The combination of Chandler and Wilder adapting Cain is something else – which we’ll get to eventually.

The Brasher Doubloon (US 1947)

This film offers a second adaptation by 20th Century Fox of Raymond Chandler’s third novel, The High Window (which was also the title for the film’s UK release). The first use of Chandler’s story was as the basis for a B Movie series film featuring Lloyd Nolan as ‘Michael Shayne’ and titled Time to Kill (US 1942). It was the second time that a Chandler novel was adapted for a film featuring a different character than Philip Marlowe. Farewell My Lovely was used for The Falcon Takes Over (US 1942) at RKO. Even though Fox saw only B movie material in Chandler at this point they reputedly paid him $3,500 for the rights. But this meant that they could re-use the material four years later in a more faithful adaptation at a time when direct adaptations of Farewell My Lovely (as Murder My Sweet, 1944) and The Big Sleep (Warner Bros, 1946) had been A movie successes for RKO and Warner Bros.

A studio publicity shot of Mrs Murdock (Florence Bates), Marlowe (George Montgomery) and Merle (Nancy Guild)

The High Window is probably less well-known than the first two famous novels listed above and it isn’t by any means the best Chandler adaptation, but it is entertaining and it does have some interesting features. Fox took a purely commercial decision to re-use the story material, but still in something of a B movie operation, to produce a 72 minute film. I’m not sure that it could be labelled a B simply because of its length but George Montgomery, who was a Fox B leading man, was the youngest and arguably lowest-ranked actor to play Philip Marlowe in the film adaptations. Montgomery was still only 31 when he played Marlowe. He’d been a boxing champion, stunt man and then a minor supporting player in films of the late 1930s. He’d grown up on a ranch in Montana and was seen as a good fit for B Westerns at Republic before signing a contract at Fox where for a time he continued in B Westerns. He did have several good selling points for the studio, including his stature as a 6′ 3″ athletic figure who also happened to be very good-looking. Fox did cast him in lead roles in A features with Maureen O’Hara, Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney and Betty Grable during 1942-3 but then war service intervened and on his return he found himself back in the Bs.

Nancy Guild, Fox ingenue?

Montgomery was an athletic Marlowe leaping over fences and cutting a dash in fights with hoodlums. At this time he sported a pencil moustache, giving him a connection to earlier male stars such as Clark Gable. In The Brasher Doubloon his Marlowe is summoned to a large house in Pasadena where he first meets a young woman working as a secretary for the wealthy widow Mrs Murdock. The young woman is Merle Davis played by Fox’s new starlet Nancy Guild (which studio publicists claimed ryhmed with ‘Wild’). Guild had signed a 7 year contract at Fox in 1946 aged just 21 but in this film (and seemingly in others) she first appears as a nervous young woman who nevertheless attracts Marlowe (remember that Montgomery is playing a younger Marlowe). The suggestion is that she is somewhat under the control of Mrs Murdock but she will assert herself later in the narrative. Marlowe discovers that his task is to find a rare coin, the doubloon of the title, which has been stolen from a locked safe in the house. The only obvious suspects are Merle and the widow’s son Leslie (Conrad Janis). Marlowe’s investigation will involve various shady characters played by Fox’s supporting players (several interesting character actors) and he will have time to pursue his attempts to seduce Merle before a final showdown with a twist that will reveal the secret back story.

Marlowe discovers plenty of corpses . . .

. . . and as usual antagonises the police

Overall, if I’d been offered this as a B picture in a 1947 double bill I think I would have enjoyed it and found it entertaining. It’s only because I’m looking back as part of research into Raymond Chandler in Hollywood that I’m disappointed in the adaptation. I don’t have criticism of Montgomery as Marlowe or of Guild as Merle. I find them both attractive characters and she reminds me of a less cynical and deadly version of Cathy, the Jane Greer femme fatale character in Out of the Past (also 1947). As directed by John Brahm, The Brasher Doubloon isn’t particularly ‘noirish‘. Brahm was another German emigré and he had already had some success with The Lodger (1944), Hangover Square (1945) and The Locket (1946) and his work on The Brasher Doubloon is fine with some interesting angles as the stills here suggest, but nothing too ‘disturbing’ in the way of other noirs of the period. The DoP was Lloyd Ahern, who was credited on his first film in that role after more than 20 years as a camera assistant. One of the problems might be that Chandler’s novel was adapted by Dorothy Bennett, a studio writer who was paid over $1,000 a week for the work. She cut out some major characters for the novel, making for a less complex plot. Perhaps this could have been a good thing? She cut out Mrs Murdock’s daughter-in-law and it strikes me that  if the novel had been adapted ‘faithfully’ we would have had Marlowe investigating a case in which, as in The Big Sleep, he visits a wealthy household with two young women, one of whom is a potential flirt and one who he finds attractive. The scene in which Marlowe first meets Mrs Murdock is very similar to the scene in The Big Sleep in which he first meets General Sternwood. Chandler is, after all, a writer more interested in characters and descriptions than in plotting. He repeats himself and is often not too worried about the coherence of his narratives. The Brasher Doubloon seems almost as interested in the romance as it is about the disappearance of the titular coin.

Is Merle a femme fatale? Here she attempts to make Marlowe strip to see if he has the doubloon.

Return from the Ashes (UK-US 1965)

‘Stan’ (Maximilian Schell) and Michele (Ingrid Thulin) play speed chess when they first meet

I’ve waited several years to see this, having learned about it as the first adaptation of the novel by Hubert Monteilhet (Le retour des cendres) that formed the raw material for Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (Germany 2014). It’s a very different film from Phoenix, but representative of its production context. The film is set primarily in Paris but shot at the MGM-British studio at Boreham Wood. I’m not sure if there were any B-unit shots in Paris, or stock footage. It is presented as a very beautiful B+W ‘scope print with Christopher Challis as DoP.

Charles (Herbert Lom) comforts Michele when she first returns to Paris from the camp

The basic plot offers us Michele Wolff (Ingrid Thulin) who we meet first in late 1945, arriving in Paris by train. She has been in a Nazi concentration camp and has made it back to Paris after a period of recuperation in a German sanatorium. Flashbacks reveal that in 1940 she was a wealthy widow working as a doctor in Paris and with a stepdaughter Fabienne (Samantha Eggar) in boarding school in England. Michelle had taken a younger lover, a Polish chess champion, Stanislas Pilgrin (Maximilian Schell) and the couple were married immediately before she was seized by the Nazis as a Jewish woman. The only other principal character is Dr Charles Bovard (Herbert Lom), Michele’s colleague at the clinic.

When Michelle returns she is unrecognisable after the ravages of the camp but Bovard organises plastic surgery and the main narrative development in the story is that Stanislas does not recognise her, even though she gets back close to how she looked before. He believes the woman he married is dead but hatches a plan to steal her wealth which French law has frozen until death is confirmed or Michele is found alive. The remainder of the narrative becomes a mystery thriller involving the four principals.

Stan with Fabienne (Samantha Eggar)

The film belongs to the broader 1960s phenomenon of Hollywood films made in Europe. It was made by the Mirisch Corporation for United Artists and the novel was adapted by the celebrated Hollywood writer Jules Epstein. But the production was essentially British with John Dankworth as music director joining Challis, by this time one of the leading British cinematographers (including the later films of ‘The Archers’ (Powell and Pressburger), and British heads of department throughout the rest of the creative team. Samantha Eggar was at this point the rising young star of British cinema, having made The Collector with Terence Stamp for William Wyler in the same year. Herbert Lom was established as a fine star actor in the UK, having arrived as a Czech migrant in 1939. Many of the supporting cast were originally French but domiciled in the UK whereas Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell were at this point known across Europe. Thulin, one of Bergman’s company in Sweden in the 1950s, appeared in French, German and Italian films as well as going back to Sweden. Schell was seen as the major German actor of his generation who worked in the UK or the US as well as Germany. Overall the cast of Return from the Ashes do manage to convey a Parisian sensibility, even though they are working in English. This is in contrast to the hairstyles and costumes in the film which, following Hollywood conventions, are faithful to the 1960s more than the 1940s. (Whereas Phoenix makes a good stab at conjuring up the Berlin of 1945-6.)

Stan and Michele when they first meet again after her return

The producer-director of the film is J. Lee Thompson, a surprisingly prolific director for one who came to directing later than most. Born in 1914 he started to write plays as a teenager  and gradually through the late 1930s his scripts were used for stage plays and some films.He continued as a writer up to the time of his war service and briefly afterwards until he got the chance to direct his own work in 1950. His second film,The Yellow Balloon proved to be his breakthrough work and throughout the 1950s he was a prominent director in the UK with several hits which were also critical successes. He gradually moved into larger scale films with international stories and actors and had a huge international success with The Guns of Navarone (UK-US 1961). Several other Hollywood successes followed but by the 1970s he was still making films but most of them were not up to the standard of his 1950s British films. Thompson was a Bristolian and it looks now as if the Bristol-based ‘Rediscovering Cinema Film Festival’ based at Watershed in the city is getting interested in exploring Thompson as a filmmaker. I think Return from the Ashes is a worthwhile film. The source novel has an unusual story which in this adaptation is played with the kind of climactic sequence which prompted the distributors to copy Hitchcock and beg audiences not to give away the ending. The effectiveness of the narrative depends on the camerawork by Challis and the strong performances of the four principals. I find it difficult to describe the intensity of the performances but Thulin and Schell are dynamic. Lom provides the strong and steady background and Eggar provides the beauty, the petulance and the nastiness that the part demands.

The HD print I found online is currently available on the best known video-sharing site and I’m grateful to the person who uploaded it. I don’t think I’m likely to find the second adaptation in 1982 which was made for French TV with the title Le retour d’Elisabeth Wolff (the Michele character).

Lullaby (Chanson douce, France 2019)

Louise (Karin Viard, left) with Myriam (Leïla Bekhti)

This title popped up on my DVD rental list and at first I couldn’t remember why I had put it there originally. I clearly missed the UK and US releases back in early 2020 but I quickly realised that it was a film by Lucie Borleteau (whose film Fidelio – Alice’s Journey (2014) I really liked) and that it was adapted from a novel by Leïla Slimani, whose first book I had read in 2019. Chanson douce as a novel won the Prix Goncourt and was a bestseller in France. In the UK it was translated as Lullaby and tellingly in the US it became The Perfect Nanny. These titles carried over to the films. I think the American title is misleading, but having said that, there are many films with the title Lullaby and I think that the ironic French title is arguably the best. But it seems that many UK and US reviewers had problems with the film, possibly because of their expectations.

Louise with Mila and baby Adam

Part of the problem may be that Slimani’s novel was inspired by a murder in New York carried out by a nanny and that in turn may have led some reviewers to think that the French film would be a form of horror genre picture. I haven’t seen any of the American films that have been identified with the genre, but I’m familiar with the titles and some of the plot outlines. For many reviewers it seems to be the case that a genre film fails if it doesn’t deliver the expected narrative closure or the various conventional narrative elements along the way. Lucie Borleteau presents a film narrative that is in parts almost ‘procedural’ about the daily duties of a nanny presented with a familiar social realist aesthetic, but then she shifts focus to the psychological breakdown of a character and interweaves this with ideas about fairytales, myths and folklore – and although she doesn’t deliver the expected shocks of a genre horror film, there are still shocking and surprising moments as well as challenges to some of the complacency we may feel faced with a familiar genre. Much of the discussion about the film centres on the ending. Borleteau doesn’t leave the ending ‘open’. She ‘delivers’ but not in the way we might expect.

Louise becomes the mother in many different ways

Myriam (Leïla Bhekti) is a mother of two small children, not yet at school (French children start school at 6, I think) and after being a full time mother for five years she decides that she needs to return to work as a lawyer. Her husband Paul (Antoine Reinartz) works as a music producer and argues that it will cost all of Myriam’s salary to pay for childcare, but she is adamant and they advertise for a nanny. The interview process that we see is perhaps a too familiar montage and it’s obvious that the best candidate is Louise (Karin Viard), although the staging of her interview does drop hints that things might not be what they seem. Perhaps the real purpose of the montage is not to simply create a gentle comedy but to emphasise the significance of the choice of an older white woman who is ‘French’. Louise is eager to please and to work longer hours and become more involved in the family’s affairs. If Miriam wasn’t so busy and focused on her return to work, she would probably have become suspicious of Louise much earlier. There are some subtle pointers to the nuances of bourgeois French life in the narrative. We learn more about Paul’s background, partly through the appearance of his mother Sylvie. Paul’s family seems more middle-class and he adopts a more professional pose in dealing with Louise. Even so he demurs to Myriam, about whom we learn little and who has a more friendly relationship with Louise.

Leïla and Paul take Louise with them on holiday. Is this wise?

The Press Notes for the film are available from UniFrance and I found them to be an interesting read. I think I’d already guessed something about Lucie Borleteau’s approach. She mentions Hitchcock and Polanski and their films Vertigo (for Kim Novak’s performance) and Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. I was reminded of an earlier film by a young director, À la folie . . . pas du tout (France 2002) directed by Laetitia Colombani who also mentioned Hitchcock and Polanski. That film too was criticised because it cast Audrey Tautou in a role that hinted at her rom-com persona being important but then switched to a much more disturbing narrative. I have a vague idea how French film schools work and I think they produce directors who are much more interesting than US/UK reviewers expect. Leïla Slimani is also interviewed in the Notes and she adds another range of references that Borleteau must have navigated. Slimani mentions Chabrol and also Jo Losey’s The Servant with Dirk Bogarde. Chabrol does seem quite important with his bourgeois satires such as La cérémonie (France 1995) with Isabelle Huppert as the disruptive interloper who ‘turns’ Sandrine Bonnaire’s maid against her employers.

The ‘family’ in the park

Lullaby as a film ‘belongs’ to Karin Viard, a vastly experienced actor, who seems able to tackle any kind of role. I last saw her in La famille Bélier (2014) in mainly a comic role. Louise is a very difficult role, I think, but Viard takes it in her stride. She might well have been initially cast by one of her previous directors, Maïwenn whose name still appears on Lullaby’s credits as a writer. For some reason Maïwenn left the production and Lucie Borleteau stepped in. She and Leïla Slimani seem to in agreement on the approach to the story. I wonder if the film would have been very different directed by Maïwenn? Either way this is a film primarily about women. There are five female roles of importance with Louise, Myriam and Sylvie plus 5 year-old Mila and Wafa, the mother who Louise meets each day in the square. There are moments in the film when racism directed against Maghrebi migrants seems about to become important though I don’t remember anything directed at Myriam (Leïla Bhekti was born in Paris to Algerian parents and she is a high profile star in France and married to Tahar Rahim). It’s more important that Myriam is a bourgeois parent who doesn’t mix with the other parents in the park and isn’t aware of Louise’s home district, an area of social housing an RER train ride away.

I found Lullaby an intriguing film and much of the time I could almost not bear to watch, fearful of what was going to happen next. Melodrama and horror are close together as expressionist modes of cinema and Lullaby is a form of family melodrama mixed with a psychological thriller that gets out of control. I recommend the film. Here’s the US trailer.

The Assassination Bureau (UK 1969)

Diane Rigg as Sonya Winter

This is perhaps an unusual film to be discussed on this blog but, apart from providing some light relief as an ‘entertainment film’, it does exemplify several trends in British and international cinema in the 1960s. The production team of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph developed mainly at Ealing Studios in the 1940s and early 1950s. They then sometimes worked separately but later re-united for several successful ‘social melodramas’ interspersed with various forms of comedy films. Dearden was nearly always the director with Relph the writer, producer and sometimes art/production designer. He performed all three roles on Assassination Bureau. By the late 1960s the pair were generally able to command bigger budgets, in this case producing at Pinewood with support from Paramount. They were also able to attract top talent such as Geoffrey Unsworth as DoP and Ron Grainer as music composer. The involvement of Paramount marks this as one of the productions to benefit from the significant investment in the UK industry by Hollywood studios in the second half of the 1960s.

Rigg and Reed together

The budget and Dearden-Relph’s track record also helped to attract a distinguished cast led by Diana Rigg and Oliver Reed. Diana Rigg, who died in September 2020 was never really a ‘film star’ as such, though she was undoubtedly a star (Shakespearian) actor on the stage and a very popular TV performer, mainly because of her stint as ‘Mrs Peel’ in The Avengers (51 episodes, 1965-68). That series sold well abroad so she developed the international appeal of a film star through TV. I would argue that the late 1960s through to the mid 1970s was an important period in her film appearances. Besides this film, the two I remember were The Hospital (1971) and Theatre of Blood (1973), both, like The Avengers and The Assassination Bureau, mixing comedy with other genres.

Oliver Reed was, by contrast, primarily an actor on film. IMDb lists 122 roles in a career lasting 45 years. He began as an uncredited youth in the 1950s and broke through in the 1960s in Hammer films, especially Joe Losey’s The Damned in 1962. By the late 1960s he was a leading man and appearing in some noteworthy films including Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971) and Michael Apted’s The Triple Echo (1972). These titles cast him opposite Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave. Mr Reed was a lucky boy in the casting process and the roles continued through the 1970s before his heavy drinking and wild behaviour made him well-known as a ‘celebrity’ rather than the talented star actor he could be. The film roles declined in importance – some were simply smaller roles, others were in not very good films. Some reviewers of The Assassination Bureau are not impressed by Rigg and Reed but they both seemed fine to me and I think they carry the film’s comedic tone very well.

The Bureau’s London HQ with Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed) in the chair (back to the camera)

The film’s plot is fairly simple. It is based on an incomplete book by Jack London that was finished in 1963 by another writer, Robert L. Fish (writer of the novel used for Bullitt in 1968), and adapted by Michael Relph. Sonya Winter (Diana Rigg) is a feminist in London a few years before the Great War in 1914. She discovers the existence of ‘The Assassination Bureau Ltd.’, a secret organisation that will accept commissions to assassinate public figures. Originally intended to target corrupt or morally reprehensible leaders, the Bureau now seems to kill anyone for a fee. Alarmed by the threat such a group poses for the general well-being, Sonya has the idea of commissioning an assassination, selecting the head of the Bureau himself, Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed) as the target. Amused, he accepts the commission and challenges the other members of The Bureau to attempt to kill him, thinking that it will enable him to re-organise the Bureau’s membership. He sets off across Europe to pre-empt his erstwhile colleagues, killing them before they can kill him. Ms Winter goes along to record the events for a newspaper she has convinced to take a punt on a female journalist but soon gets more involved than she expected. Some of the assassinations are quite clever but they all borrow genre elements from other films, some reminded me of scenes from Hammer films.

Philippe Noiret, one of the Bureau, is operating a Paris hotel with a difference . . .

The original novel belongs to a cycle of Gothic fictions/espionage/anarchist novel set in the 1890s or early twentieth century. The most obvious example is Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) but similar elements  are found in Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories. The Holmes links remind us also that recent Holmes films and have re-visited the era and the meta genre as well as being re-worked as ‘steampunk’ narratives.

Curd Jürgens and Telly Savalas in control of a Zeppelin

Finally, this kind of production is typical of the ‘international’ films of the period. Ostensibly a British film based at Pinewood, the funding is American and the third credit on the film is for Telly Savalas, who plays the newspaper owner prepared to hire Ms Winter – he later turns out to fulfil a rather different role. Although a familiar face in American film and TV, Savalas wasn’t a ‘star’ in the UK at this point. By the mid 1970s he would become much better known for the Kojak TV series. The international casting really refers to the various European stars who play the members of the Bureau. These include Philippe Noiret and Curd Jürgens. The less well-known Annabella Incontrera perhaps steals the picture as the wife of the Italian member of the Bureau. The locations used included Paris, Vienna and Venice – something that British productions had managed fairly consistently since the early 1950s.

The Assassination Bureau has appeared on Talking Pictures TV a few times and it reminds us of the period when the British cinema could still make and release films of this scale on a regular basis. But it was almost the end of the British studio system, especially with the withdrawal of Hollywood investment in the next few years. If you enjoy a good romp with a strong cast I think the film is quite entertaining.

Blood Relatives (Les liens du sang, Canada-France 1978)

Talking Pictures TV came up trumps again on Saturday night with a screening of an intriguing Claude Chabrol film. As it turned out, there were quite a few problems with the print, but if you can get past these there are several interesting aspects to the film. As a production this is an early example of a Canadian tax deferral scheme which was aimed to attract co-productions and France is perhaps the most likely co-production partner (after Hollywood – though I’m not sure Hollywood does co-productions as such). There have been several Montreal-shot films over the years. In this case the ‘property’ is an Ed McBain ’87th Precinct’ novel from 1975.

Sutherland with Aude Landry as Patricia

‘Ed McBain’ is perhaps the best-known pseudonym of Salvatore Albert Lombino who officially changed his name to Evan Hunter in 1952. Hunter was not only a hugely prolific writer of genre fiction but also of standalone novels. His books were often adapted for film and TV and he also worked as a scriptwriter, most famously for Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds. He was very popular in Japan with adaptations by Kurosawa (High and Low 1963) and many others. I’ve seen one comment that Chabrol was happy to re-locate the story of Blood Relatives in Montreal from New York and not have to worry about the trappings of the New York police procedural. One aspect of this is the creation of a police detective who I think is quite different to the familiar US type. The investigator Steve Carella is played by Donald Sutherland and overall the police in the film seem relatively laid-back but quite efficient in their operations. But although the narrative begins in the police station, this is not really a procedural. Instead it sends Carella into a deep investigation of a family and plays more like a crime melodrama. I can see why Chabrol would be interested.

Patricia’s brother Andrew (Laurent Malet) is interrogated

A teenage girl smeared with blood and with cuts to her arms and face bursts through a door collapses into a police station. The police then find the girl’s 17 year-old cousin dead from multiple knife wounds in a derelict building. The two girls had been at a party and were sheltering from the rain on their way home when they were attacked. The survivor Patricia (Aude Landry) describes the killer and the usual police work ensues. But the girl’s testimony will unravel and Carella finds himself more concerned with the Landry family – this is familiar Chabrol territory. The film’s title more or less tells you where the narrative is heading, so I won’t spoil any other aspects of the plot. I’ll simply state that several flashbacks are necessary to discover what happened to the unfortunate cousin Muriel (Lisa Langlois).

Chabrol on set with Sutherland in his tracksuit – not a standard detective type. (This is one of several images grabbed from IMDb.com)

In a career lasting over 50 years Chabrol made over 70 films. A small number of which were made for TV but even so this is a formidable total and inevitably his career has been divided into periods when he made critically accepted films and other periods when he made cheap escapist films. It isn’t always easy to distinguish between the two and since I’ve only seen a modest proportion of the 70+ titles (perhaps 18 or 19) I’m in no position to judge. However, I’ve run through the list looking to see if he had made any other films in North America before this one. It would appear not, but what I was surprised to discover is the number of his French films that include American actors – Bruce Dern, Mia Farrow, Rod Steiger, Anthony Perkins etc. It’s perhaps not a surprise then to find that Blood Relatives features Donald Pleasence and David Hemmings alongside Sutherland. There is a real flavour of a ‘European International film’ about the casting. Sutherland had previously been in films for Bertolucci and Fellini and Hemmings was in Dario Argento’s Profondo rosso as well as Antonioni’s Blow Up. The other roles are mainly played by Canadian actors apart from Stéphane Audran, whose role is the only real disappointment for me. She plays the drunken mother of Patricia and is almost unrecognisable. I did wonder if she was dubbed but I’m sure I’ve seen her with an acceptable English accent in other films. The other French actor is Laurent Malet who plays Patricia’s brother as a rather beautiful young man who exposes his muscles in tiny shorts. Chabrol had his regular cinematographer Jean Rabier with him but most of the other HoDs and crew appear to be Canadian.

Sutherland with an almost unrecognisable Stéphane Audran as Patricia’s mother

With Chabrol working in English and these interesting casting decisions, the film feels different from either French cinema or Hollywood, though there is still a recognisable Chabrol sensibility I think. I did feel at times that this was an example of a different kind of crime film, possibly derived from a novel by Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith – and Chabrol would later adapt both authors. I also somewhere got a whiff of Hitchcock’s Marnie. Partly this is because Sutherland’s cop treats a psychologically-scarred female character quite gently but firmly, much like Sean Connery treats Tippi Hedren in Marnie. I also remembered that Evan Hunter was asked by Hitchcock to adapt Marnie but he didn’t want to write the rape scene that Hitchcock required. You might the sense that if I was thinking about all these connections, I couldn’t have been following the narrative very closely. You would be wrong but I do think this is an odd film in some ways although it does make me want to catch some more of the Chabrol films I’ve got somewhere in the archive.

Muriel (Lisa Laglois) and her office boss (David Hemmings)

There is also the question of the print. DVDBeaver.com gives an interesting account of all the problems. The film seems to exist at various lengths from 90 to 100 minutes. I certainly think the version on TPTV had some cuts. Supposedly the film was to be presented in standard widescreen 1.85:1 but the TV print was closer to a panned and scanned 4:3. Even that didn’t look right on my TV’s 4:3 setting. In the end I found myself using the Zoom settings to achieve a 16:9 image that was slightly cropped top and bottom but was otherwise watchable because nobody was squashed or stretched. the BBFC (British Classification Board) tells me the Rank Organisation submitted the film for UK showings but in Canada and France the distributors were small independents.  The print is murky at times and may well have been copied from a VHS master. Still, I think it is an interesting addition to my Chabrol collection and kudos to TPTV for finding it.