Here is a good example of what can happen when a respected European director, who appreciates aspects of American culture, makes an American film that is dumped onto DVD by its (independent) US distributor and castigated by fans of US genre films. What’s worse in this case is that the film is an adaptation of one of the best books by a celebrated American writer of genre fiction and that the film features a stellar cast. It’s hard not to feel that a lot of people are not getting the respect they deserve because there are far too many ‘tunnel vision’ Hollywood fans out there. On the other hand, the distributor may have been right to foresee problems – but why did they put up money to help finance the film and agree to a distribution deal then? It’s likely that the film would have done better in a French language version. In fact, I don’t know if it was dubbed in France – where most of the tickets were sold.
In the Electric Mist is an adaptation of James Lee Burke’s novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, first published in 1993. It is the sixth story about Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux. The novel series has recently seen its twentieth entry (and these are not short novels). Shooting began in 2007 and updating the story to a post-Katrina world was just one of the changes to the novel made by co-writers Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski. Bertrand Tavernier initiated the project for his own company, Little Bear, with the American producer Michael Fitzgerald and the backing of the French TV channel TFI. Tavernier directed the film himself and it was shot by Bruno de Keyzer. Tavernier is one of the most ‘outward-looking’ of auteurs in France. He is one of the few French filmmaker-critics to have had kind words for British Cinema and he has made films in both the UK (Death Watch 1980) and the US (Mississippi Blues 1983) earlier in his career. He has a previous US crime fiction adaptation to his credit with Coup de torchon (France 1981), a successful film based on Jim Thompson’s notorious 1964 novel Pop. 1280.
There are two real issues at stake in the reception of In the Electric Mist in the US (and UK). The first concerns James Lee Burke and the second the US audience’s take on Tavernier’s approach. As I’ve indicated Burke is a prolific and celebrated writer. His website is unusually commercial for a writer (it offers ‘JLB’ merchandising!) but also presents his array of publications. As well as the 20 Robicheaux novels there are 9 novels about characters in the Holland family of lawyers and Texas Rangers and a further 5 ‘standalone’ novels plus collections of short stories. Over the years I’ve read many of the novels and I recently read The Wayfaring Stranger (2014), one of the ‘Holland Family’ stories set in the late 1940s. I enjoyed it very much and it was this reading that sent me back to thinking about In the Electric Mist. Burke’s strengths are his detailed descriptions of a range of memorable characters, his deep knowledge of the history of communities in Louisiana, Texas and now Montana and his commitment to what in the US are seen as ‘liberal views’. Each of Burke’s protagonists are ‘decent’ men with fatal flaws (often involving alcohol and a disregard for ‘proper’ procedures). All these protagonists seem to have had colourful childhoods and to be steeped in those community histories with strong commitment to forms of natural justice – i.e. against bigots, racists, fascists etc. – usually driving the narrative. The US book-buying public is large enough to allow Burke to have developed a significant readership who agree with (or at least tolerate) his politics. But what about the cinema audience? IMDB has comments by some of the right-wing trolls that Burke must recognise he attracts. More of a problem for me is that most of the narratives have a very familiar structure as well as familiar characters. Burke’s heroes often know the villains because they grew up with them. And they are also vulnerable because the villain invariably attacks/abducts the hero’s partner/children/parents etc. I can enjoy the novels as long as I have a big gap between reading them. Even so, like many others, I think they are all filmable and I’m surprised there haven’t been more adaptations. The only others I’m aware of are the 1996 Heaven’s Prisoners with Alec Baldwin as Robicheaux and a TV film of Two for Texas (1998) with Kris Kristofferson, a historical narrative featuring one of the Holland family. (There is also a 2015 short film based on a Burke short story, Winter Light.)
The relative lack of adaptations must have meant some anticipation for In the Electric Mist. Tavernier took a great deal of care in casting the film and in selecting locations. He took what is a broadly European approach and tried to cast actors from the South – and as far as possible from Burke’s ‘narrative territory’. Robicheaux is played by Tommy Lee Jones from Texas, his wife Bootsie by Mary Steenburgen from Arkansas. Other actors include Ned Beattie from Kentucky, John Goodman from Missouri (but living in New Orleans) and blues singer and guitarist Buddy Guy (born in Louisiana). Levon Helm from Arkansas plays the Confederate General Hood. Characters speak in thick accents using cajun French creole and other local speech forms. The music includes several zydeco tracks (the Black version of Cajun music) by Clifton Chenier. I can see this might cause problems and I switched the English subs on to watch the UK TV broadcast.
Allied to the use of language, Tavernier composes several scenes in long shot to create a rather different pacing for what viewers might assume is to be a typical crime fiction film. Most alienating of all, the script doesn’t ‘explain’ much – the audience has to pick up the clues. The plot involves the usual James Lee Burke ingredients. The action takes place in Iberia Parish where the ‘reformed’ alcoholic Robicheaux is a police officer who also runs a local bait shop and fishing operation. Three seemingly separate narratives develop. Robicheaux himself begins to see and then interact with a group of apparitions – a band of Confederate soldiers led by Texan General Hood. This is an example of the historical liberties Burke allows himself. Levon Helm was far too old to play the real Hood, who didn’t move to Louisiana until the Civil War was over. Robicheaux also ‘remembers’ seeing, as a child, a shackled Black man being shot running away from a police officer. This is prompted by the discovery of a skeleton with shackles which is ‘unearthed’ by Katrina’s floodwater. Robicheaux is officially involved in the investigation of the murder of a young bar girl. Finally, the local community is also disrupted by the arrival of a film crew (with John Sayles in a cameo as the director). Robicheaux’s bait shop is attractive to the film’s star (Peter Sarsgard) a frequently drunk young man who rent’s Robicheaux’s boat with his girlfriend (Kelly McDonald). Robicheaux is suspicious because of the involvement of a local gangster Julie Balboni (John Goodman) as an investor in the film. Robicheaux has known Balboni since childhood.
It’s an interesting story with unusual ingredients. The cast are all terrific, the film looks good and the music is great. I wish I could have seen this version in a UK cinema (but I’m grateful for the subs on TV). Many European audiences and filmmakers really love the best of Hollywood. Unfortunately the admiration is not always reciprocated. If you get the chance, try to see the full-length version of this film.
I’ve just caught an episode of Endeavour, ITV’s Inspector Morse prequel series. It’s a very impressive production with an excellent leading pair of Shaun Evans as the young Morse and Roger Allam as DI Thursday. Tonight’s episode was set in January 1966 with generally very good production design but thankfully not a soundtrack packed with pop songs. The musical references, appropriately for Morse, were mainly classical but there were two good live performances of r&b/blues in a nightclub. Barrington Pheloung’s music was always an important ingredient of the original series.
My interest here is to raise questions about genre and the global market for crime fiction TV. Inspector Morse (Carlton/ITV 1987-2000) was in many ways an influential TV export, not least because of its relatively large budget (arguably more than for domestic UK cinema features on an hourly basis). The most obvious reference for Endeavour in terms of period setting and narrative potential is the BBC series Inspector George Gently which began in 2007 with Martin Shaw in the lead. I was struck tonight by the central narrative thread which was shared by Inspectors Thursday and Gently as tough London cops who have had to leave London to work in Oxford and Tyneside respectively, but who are now facing up to the past they thought they had left behind. The London underworld, property development and town planning corruption as seen in the Endeavour episode are very much authentic 1960s crime narrative material. Endeavour scores because of the single-minded moral strength of the young Morse, very different to the unpleasant reactionary values of young Sergeant Bacchus in George Gently. I like George Gently but I do wonder if it doesn’t draw a little too much on the nostalgia repertoire of Heartbeat and its spin-off The Royal which filled ITV’s early evening Sunday slot. These were comic cop and doc dramas set in North Yorkshire in the 1960s, which fed voraciously on 60s nostalgia for cars, pop songs and other aspects of popular culture (I say this from only the very briefest of glimpses of long-running series and I’m happy to be corrected).
A slightly closer reference for George Gently and Endeavour might be Jericho with Robert Lindsay as Inspector Michael Jericho – a high-budget Granada series broadcast in 2005 and set in London in the 1950s. This was seen as linked to the success of ITV’s Foyle’s War with Michael Kitchen as a police inspector working in London during 1939-45. That series has recently returned, reportedly because of public demand and has moved into the immediate post-war period. Soon another new ITV ‘mini-series’ (2 x 1 hour) Murder on the Home Front will be broadcast dealing with the Home Office pathologist and his secretary investigating a series of murders in London in 1940.
I think we have here a quite distinctive crime genre repertoire covering crime fictions with ‘personal’ stories (i.e. interesting characters with back stories?) set in the 1940s-60s and drawing on crimes of the period in social/cultural/political terms. On the other hand, a much broader repertoire of ‘crime fiction mixed with costume drama’ could be seen to include a very large number of UK crime fiction production on TV over the years. The original Sherlock Holmes and more recently Ripper Street, Agatha Christie’s Poirot and other stories are all effectively period drama, but not treated in the same way as this current trend. These earlier series feel more like attempts just to use a colourful backdrop rather than to explore something about the time period in question.
Endeavour (the mysterious first name of the Morse character, if you weren’t aware) feels like the most ‘serious’ of these historical crime fictions, perhaps because of the personality of the central character. Some of the others exploit the comic potential much more and in the case of the BBC hits Life On Mars (2006-7) and Ashes to Ashes (2008-10) the comedy is partly social satire and postmodern ‘play’ mixed with science fiction. These two series also dealt with the slightly more recent past of the 1970s and 1980s.
I guess I have two questions for others interested in TV crime fiction in a global context. First, is this a peculiarly UK genre? I remember as a child watching the US series The Untouchables (1959-63) and there has been a more recent Canadian series of Murdoch Mysteries (2008-) but neither of these seem quite the same as Endeavour/Gently/Jericho etc. I’m hopeful of Young Montalbano which I think we’ll get in the UK later this year? Do you agree that there is a distinctive new genre repertoire? If so, how do you think we should begin analysing it?
I thought I’d spotted most of the major Nordic crime writers but there always seem to be more. Arne Dahl is the ‘crime fiction pseudonym’ of Swedish writer Jan Arnald. It looks like a kind of anagram but it makes me think of Arlene Dahl (a B picture contract star at MGM in the 1940s/50s). Arne Dahl has written around ten crime novels about a team of elite police officers known as the ‘A Group’. The first of these has been translated into English as The Blinded Man and was published by Vintage in 2012. The first five novels were each adapted for television as 3 hour films, presumably shown in two parts. That’s how BBC4 have decided to show them in the UK in their favoured Nordic Noir slot on a Saturday night. Part 1 of The Blinded Man was screened under its Swedish title Misterioso – the title of a Thelonious Monk track featured in the film.
I suspect that many of the Killing/Bridge fans won’t like this as it is certainly not a procedural/melodrama with a careful script. I worried that it might be a US type SWAT squad show but it looks more like Stieg Larsson territory with as much violence but possibly a little more humour. I was pleasantly surprised. In this opener we have a version of the Danish three-part structure. Someone is assassinating bankers (make your own wish here) while a bunch of Estonian gangsters is concerned about their operations in Sweden and the Stockholm police decide to put together an elite squad of misfits from all over Sweden to find the banker-killer. We even got the classic Dirty Dozen/Dirty Harry narrative device of a police officer who has done something dumb in catching a miscreant and is then whisked away to join the A Group – when he should be being disciplined. The rest of the A Group includes a short working class IT expert and a huge body builder type (who IMDB reports is played by a real one-time bodybuilder). The short guy is played by Matias Varela who currently has the highest profile with his work on the Easy Money franchise in Sweden. This large and short duo go out on a job and a suspect refers to them as Laurel and Hardy. A couple of the other funny scenes are quite deadpan and I was reminded of the work of Roy Andersson. This reference was strengthened by the use of music, jazz being important – but the camera and the fast editing were not at all like Andersson.
I found that 90 minutes whizzed by and the show seemed quite fresh. Only one of the six in the A Group hasn’t been properly introduced to us yet, but already they seem like an interesting crew. I’m looking forward to next week’s second part.
The third serial featuring police inspector Sarah Lund returns to the mix of elements of the first and for me represents a distinct improvement on The Killing II. Again it’s presented as 10 x 58 minutes episodes rather than the 20 episodes of the first outing. In the UK these have been transmitted as double episodes over five Saturday nights. I’ve found this too intense and we’ve watched the second weekly episode on the following Sunday evening – hooray for BBC iPlayer.
In retrospect, I think we can now see that The Killing II lost something by moving too far away from ‘family melodrama’. Its focus on the Danish armed forces and their role in Afghanistan didn’t allow the various narrative strands to cross-fertilise in quite the same way as in the first and third serials (even though there were both family issues and political intrigues). The three serials have all had the same mix of murder, families and politics but the balance of ingredients has shifted. In The Killing III there are as many as five ‘families’ or family situations. We learn something about parents and children in terms of ‘victim’, ‘perpetrator’, politician and both the main police officers. This allows the narrative to place Sarah Lund in almost impossible situations in which we are invited to consider her own relationship with her son as well as what her actions might mean in respect of the other families. I can’t think of any other film narrative with quite such a complex meshing of relationships.
[NO SPOILERS here if you haven’t watched the serial yet.] The serial this time links very big business (a major shipping company with a large presence in the Danish economy) with a general election and a focus on the main party leaders. The central narrative concerns the abduction of the young daughter of a shipping magnate (played by Anders W. Berthelsen – who has starred in several Danish films released in the UK). Sarah Lund is once more brought back from a less demanding post to head the investigation of a series of murders that will turn out to be linked to the abduction. Sarah’s familiar problems with her mother and her son are still in evidence. This might explain why she treats her new sidekick Juncker, a very eager and determined young man, in an offhand way. She also finds herself having to deal with an old flame who she hasn’t seen since her days at police college. Mathias Borch (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) works for Special Branch (‘PET’ in Denmark) and his presence is explained by the importance of the shipping company Zeeland to the Danish government. The Prime Minister who is soon to face a General Election is keen to keep Zeeland in Denmark as a major employer (the company is a conglomerate with many interests). Later we will discover that the PM’s family is also involved in some way with the central story.
The Killing has consistently deployed the main genre elements of the current cycle of Nordic noir. The female investigator is faced by male suspects and has to deal with the men who are her professional partners and bosses and also the majority of the political figures. In The Killing III there is a female political leader and, in an important role, a female political advisor. The writer Søren Sveistrup has been careful to make two of the other female leads less than perfect characters – but perhaps this means that their characters aren’t properly developed? Some of the themes of the third serial are very familiar from other Nordic noirs. The death which is eventually revealed as the inciting incident for the whole narrative concerns a young woman in care. The global perspective is limited in this case, but the narrative does manage to raise questions about Denmark’s open borders with Sweden and Germany and, through the shipping company, its links with issues globally. The first two serials involved journeys to Sweden. The climax of the third serial takes place in Norway. The politics of the third serial is ‘national’ and focuses on the Prime Minister. In some ways it pushes The Killing closer to Borgen with a focus on the pressure of party politics – and the leader’s family. Some blog comments have suggested that these machinations are less interesting than the local (mayoral) elections in The Killing I. I tend to agree with this and I think that the Special Branch involvement means that this third serial faces the problem of balancing the frustrations of the spy thriller type narrative – i.e. the truth can’t be allowed to ‘come out’ because of national security/paranoia of the rulers – and the requirements of the Nordic noir to critique social conditions and cultural changes in a liberal democracy. As a result, there seems to be an inevitability about the weight of expectation placed on the behaviour of Sarah Lund – as if her state of mind is indicative of the condition of Denmark.
The Killing turns out to be all about the state of Danish ‘public service’ and personal responsibilities expressed through the troubled social and working life of Sarah Lund. You do wonder if they might have called it Lund and made the comparison with Wallander more explicit. (In Germany the serial is titled Kommissarin Lund: Das Verbrechen or Inspector Lund: The Crime.) Lund is younger than Wallander, in her late thirties when the serials began in 2007, but she seems just as dysfunctional and as worn down by the job. Like Wallander with his daughter, Lund is a single parent making a less than good job of bringing up her son. Like Wallander too she is dogged in her pursuit of criminals and like him she makes mistakes, sometimes serious ones. Inevitably, the investigations are extended because of this – and the serial takes full advantage of the extra time to explore the frustrations of police procedures. But whereas Wallander operates in a generally peaceful small town in Southern Sweden, Lund operates from a base in Denmark’s capital city and is always under pressure from politicians and national police/security bosses. Again, where Wallander blusters, drinks too much and eats badly, Lund seemingly internalises everything. She doesn’t drink, smoke or listen to opera. Everything is bottled up, threatening to emerge in a violent eruption of some kind. In Killing III there is a moment of sudden ‘warm’ emotional release but it is over quickly. Inevitably, this repression builds up the narrative pressure on the last episode of the serial that ends with a climactic scene which for me works quite well – unlike the disappointing climax to Killing II.
Lund works well as a character. Although unknown in the UK before The Killing, Sofie Gråbøl has a strong star persona in Denmark which includes film, TV and stage work. She has just completed a month’s revival of her lead role in a stage adaptation of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander at the Danish National Theatre in Copenhagen. As Lund she offers a powerful performance as a senior female police officer displaying total commitment, single-mindedness and stoicism in the face of failure. She has the occasional flash of insight and she is able to recognise the importance of tiny clues but she isn’t a ‘superwoman’ by any means. As a female hero she doesn’t have to be glamorous – though even in her jumpers and jeans she is an attractive figure and on the odd occasions when her hair is down and she is more relaxed she becomes positively beautiful.
The Killing has been remarkably well covered in the UK press. The audience for the BBC4 screenings is around 1 million – significantly larger than the cinema audience for most subtitled films. This is also the audience most likely to read the ‘quality press’. The Guardian ran a Killing blog with around 2,000 comments for each of the five weeks of broadcasts. It’s interesting to read the article by Patrick Kingsley, a young British journalist who has cashed in on the popularity of Danish TV drama with a book on Danish culture for Brits. The ‘reader’s comments’ on his short article are fascinating. They reveal very different views on Denmark’s democracy, its liberalism, equality and cultural homogeneity – and the allegations of racism and xenophobia.
Even though the serial is taken to be a ‘Danish’ production by the Danish psb (public service broadcaster) DR, it is in reality a co-production with ZDF, the German psb and it is also supported by Swedish and Norwegian broadcasters. According to Wikipedia, the serial (or at least one of the three serials) has been bought be 120 countries. Unlike most Nordic films that are usually confined to their own domestic cinema market, Nordic TV genre series are widely seen across the Nordic region and now, thanks to the ZDF sales team across the world. (For a detailed analysis of Nordic Films and TV see this report – available to download as a pdf.) This is truly global television on a scale to match Hollywood. Borgen 2 starts in the UK on January 5th – I can’t wait!