Witnesses is a global crime/mystery series in the now familiar long-form narrative format. It has inevitably been compared to various other examples of what is becoming a global model, derived from the success of The Killing and The Bridge. Like the Scandinavian serials, the second season was broadcast on BBC4 in the UK ending a few weeks ago. (Season 1 was broadcast on Channel 4.) The key common element is a pair of police investigators in which the woman is the lead figure. What makes Witnesses ‘different’, at least in the first two seasons/series/serials, is the setting and the inclusion of some of the tropes of the horror film.
The location is Northern France. The police team is based in Lille and the action seems to range across the whole Nord-Pas de Calais region with an emphasis on the coast in both series. In fact, the action spreads all the way to Mont-Saint-Michel and Granville in Normandy several hundred kilometres away. The distances are so great that they detract from the realism of some of the plot devices, but conversely heighten the fantasy elements. Some of the Scandinavian narratives make use of similar settings but it occurred to me that Witnesses might also share something with the Welsh serial Hinterland. A second possible reference for me was the stories of Fred Vargas whose crime novels have the same mystery elements and sometimes use similar locations (e.g. by the coast or in rural Normandy). Although Vargas has been adapted in France, I’m not aware of any overseas sales.
The two central characters are Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier) and Justin (Jan Hammenecker). Sandra is the typical ‘maverick’ cop and Justin is the more stable partner who is generally in the background , but whose personal life is also explored. Each of the two seasons so far features a similar credit sequence with Sandra striding towards the camera along a ‘boardwalk’ past a row of bathing huts. She then reaches a dilapidated hut which blocks her path and she opens its doors to reveal a fantasy figure. In the first season this is a wolf (see below) and in the second three strange children. The music in the title sequence by the UK ‘trip-hop’ artist Tricky with Francesca Belmonte has an ethereal tone which underlines the potential fantasy of the stories. The song’s title is ‘We Don’t Die’ and the lyrics fit the stories so well I’m intrigued to see what the writer-creators Marc Herpoux and Hervé Hadmar (who also directs) will come up with next. The first story begins with the discovery of the corpses of people recently buried but now dug up and arranged in family groups in public places such as a show house on a new estate. As Sandra investigates she uncovers a connection to her former boss in Lille who has become something of a local celebrity.
In Season 2, the story begins with the discovery of a bus parked on a country road. Inside the bus are 15 frozen corpses of men who disappeared some time ago. Eventually the investigation will uncover a complex interweaving of stories which will eventually entrap Sandra herself and in which she will team up with a woman who herself disappeared and is then discovered three years later, unable to remember what happened to her. This is Catherine Keemer, rather confusingly played by the wonderful Audrey Fleurot, the rather tempestuous lawyer from Engrenages (Spiral). My confusion was because Series 6 of Engrenages followed Witnesses a week later on BBC4 and I found myself ‘catching up’ on Witnesses while watching the first episodes of Engrenages. Sandra and Catherine end up sleuthing together in Witnesses and a rather stylish couple they make – two tall, slim, thirty-somethings with flowing tresses and a similar dress sense.
Apart from the characterisation around Sandra and Catherine, there two noticeable aspects of this second narrative which distinguish it from similar series. First are the aesthetics, dominated by occasional uses of aerial shots of the coast and forests of the region, the cinematography in general and the use of music, the overall effect of which is to create a sense of mystery and unease. Ironically, there is a sense of the romantic and the gothic, even when action takes place around a wind farm. The mystery/horror tropes are signified in several ways, all of which take us into the complex plotting around the history of an orphanage located on Mont Saint-Michel. This is a great location (and a world heritage site). The best recent orphanage narrative is arguably El orfanato (Spain 2007) and this one uses some of the same tropes with drawings by children and photographs from some time ago. The children seem to have been fascinated by the story of the Minotaur. The focus on children also draws in both Catherine and Sandra. Catherine is close to her eldest child, a young teenage daughter and Sandra has two younger daughters. I won’t spoil the plot any further but the links seem clear as well as the dangers for the two women. I’m always intrigued by the ways in which these kinds of crime narratives share sometimes quite specific plot ideas and details with others released around the same time. Witnesses reminded me of elements in both Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman (2017) and the UK TV series The Fall (2013- ). Witnesses is a female-centred narrative created, written and directed by men. That’s just an observation, but I’m now intrigued by Engrenages 6 in which Audrey Fleurot is again a leading character in a narrative with Caroline Proust as top-billed – but with a largely male supporting cast. Gender is clearly an issue in the episodes I’ve seen so far and perhaps it’s time to think again about gender and crime fiction?
I enjoyed Witnesses but I think it was too long (8 x 1 hour episodes) and too complicated. By the end I had forgotten elements of the first two episodes and I’m not sure I fully appreciated the narrative resolution. The first season was only six episodes and that seemed right.
After burying myself in Patricia Highsmith adaptations for a couple of weeks, it was quite refreshing to switch to this little gem of a Georges Simenon adaptation. The Blue Room stars Mathieu Almaric and he directs the film himself. The film is only 75 minutes long but none of the time is wasted.
Julien (Mathieu Almaric) is the owner of a business selling and renting out agricultural equipment in Central France. He has an attractive modern house, a beautiful wife and child but he has met again the girl he desired at school. She is now helping to run a pharmacy in a nearby town and she has an older husband who is ailing. She is very much up for an affair and the couple meet for afternoons together in a local hotel with a ‘Blue Room’ that becomes their regular site for passion.
The film is presented as a sequence of short scenes with ellipses. It reminded me somehow of Chris Marker’s La jetée (France 1962) – which is a narrative made up of still images. The story is narrated via flashbacks – Julien’s memories – and through the questioning by the local examining magistrate and a prison psychologist after a crime has been committed. Finally, there is a court scene in a traditional small town courtroom with locals crammed in to witness events. Much of the interest in the film is in its formal precision. The aspect ratio is Academy 1.37:1 and Almaric explains the reasons for this in the film’s Press Notes. This choice seems to be becoming more common. For me, it worked as this is a ‘chamber film’ with a clear sense of entrapment and the squarish ‘enclosed’ screen space seemed appropriate. Almaric says that the panoramic feel of widescreen would have created something different. The other two factors are the use of carefully chosen musical scoring from Grégoire Hetzel and photography that depends on many quite static shots composed by Christophe Beaucarne.
This kind of film defeats some conventional perspectives. I’ve seen it described as an ‘erotic thriller’. IMDb lists the various classifications in different territories. In the US, the MPAA has it as ‘R’, presumably because there is some full-frontal nudity (‘graphic nudity’!). In the UK, the BBFC has it as a ’15’ . In Germany it is ’12’ and in France it is for ‘Tous publics’. The film isn’t directly ‘erotic’ and the nudity is post-coital – I’m not sure it is a ‘thriller’ either, although there is one scene that might make you jump. What is transgressive is that the nude bodies are presented in a realist way. It’s a hot day. Sex has made the lovers sweat, there may be semen and there is certainly the drama of a spot of blood dropped on a white towel – a lip has been bitten in the heat of passion. Any eroticism is really in the mind, in the thrill of the secrecy of an affair and in the woman’s open desire – and the man’s acquiescence. Esther is played by Stéphanie Cléau who is also credited as co-writer of the film. She is physically taller than Julien and also more confident and assured in herself. I don’t think she is a type as such, even though we learn little about her – and what we do know comes from Julien’s memories. (I say this because some US reviews refer to ‘similar’ Hollywood genre movies which I think work quite differently.) Stéphanie Cléau is not a film actor. Her experience is in theatre as a writer and indeed there is something compellingly different about her brave performance. Almaric says that since Julien’s wife Delphine is played by an actor (Léa Drucker), it was important that Esther wasn’t a ‘known face’ because then it would be a contest between two actors. Esther is the initiator of the way the affair moves – Julien is in some ways the ‘willing victim’. All three leads are excellent.
On one level this is the story of how an affair can destroy a marriage, mapped out in the clinical investigations by a magistrate and a psychologist in prison. On a second level it is a cinephile’s treat, a delirious mix of influences and connections. Simenon’s novel comes from the early 1960s and it is a familiar story he had honed over many years. He’s been adapted many times and Amalric tells of how he acquired the rights at a time when he had a gap in projects and the chance to make a chamber piece in a short time. The most obvious lineage for the ideas in the film is from Simenon to Chabrol via Hitchcock. There is that same sense of a bourgeois affair, especially in small-town France. Rather than a thriller though, it is like a mystery – a ‘whydunit’. We get strong clues to how one crime might have been committed but we aren’t sure how another might have happened. Even more of a mystery/intrigue is why Julien would stray from his wife and child. In the most memorable line from the film, Julien reflects, “Life is different when you live it and when you go back over it after”. The trailer below offers a good sense of the formal qualities of the film. I’m struck again by the power of the music to suggest or perhaps to question emotions. Amongst a string of influences (Preminger, Fritz Lang) Almaric and Hetzel have created a blend of Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann with Truffaut’s use of Georges Delerue in La femme d’à côté (1974).
This is a film to watch and re-watch. In the UK the film has been in a handful of cinemas (Picturehouses claims it provided one of their busiest ‘Discovery Tuesday’ audiences) and is also available on VOD.
The film’s trailer (in the correct ratio – the US trailers falsely represent the film)
This extraordinary film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s third novel The Blunderer published in 1954 in between The Price of Salt (that later became Carol) and The Talented Mr. Ripley. The French title means ‘The Murderer’ – I’ve also shown the English, Italian and German titles in this post. As far as I can see, the film follows the novel fairly closely – shifting the action to the area around Nice in the Alpes-Maritimes region of France, but keeping the names of the characters. I confess that I was quite surprised that the behaviour of the characters in the film was indeed based on Highsmith’s characters – but then I shouldn’t be surprised. The film’s narrative is actually very recognisably ‘Highsmith’, but the presentation is definitely odd.
In outline we have the familiar Highsmith model – two men linked in some strange way, involving murder and with the female characters mainly functional rather than ‘active’. The wonderfully named Melchior Kimmel is a bookseller who one night murders his wife after arranging an alibi. An architect, Walter Saccard, is trapped in what he feels to be a painful marriage and is chasing a young music student. He reads about the murder of Kimmel’s wife in Nice Matin and decides to visit the bookshop. Later he investigates Kimmel’s alibi and sets in motion the extraordinary incidents that will tie the two men together. The third crucial (male) figure in the narrative is a deranged police detective, Corbi – the like of which I’ve rarely seen before. Highsmith certainly doesn’t do police procedurals! I won’t spoil the narrative any more if you want to read the novel.
Co-productions were common in France in the early 1960s, especially with Italy and Germany. (In 1963 there were 36 ‘French’ productions and 105 ‘co-productions’ listed for the French film industry –Encyclopedia of European Cinema, ed Ginette Vincendeau, Cassell/BFI 1995.) In this case, the co-production was presumably a factor in the casting of Gert Froebe as Kimmel. Others in the audience expressed the view that Froebe was dubbed (he swears in German several times) and that Yvonne Furneaux (who had been at Oxford and worked in the UK film industry) was also dubbed as Saccard’s wife Clara. My poor ear for French couldn’t distinguish if this was the case – much of the dialogue seemed to be shouted anyway! The important production issue is really that this is an example of what François Truffaut famously dismissed as ‘le cinéma de papa’. Le meurtrier was scripted by the team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, Truffaut’s main villains, and directed by Claude Autant-Lara, a director he put in the same category. Truffaut wasn’t alone. Most of the critics on Cahiers du cinéma loathed directors like Autant-Lara. Jacques Rivette in 1957:
I think that Autant-Lara, Clément and Clouzot are all sickening . . . people who have been corrupted. (quoted in Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s, ed Jim Hillier BFI, 1985: 39)
Rivette was arguing that Autant-Lara and the others were simply interested in making money and that they would refuse to work ‘on the street’ like Rossellini, making ‘social films’. This perspective needs to be placed carefully in context. Like much of the Cahiers polemic there are many issues to be aware of. Truffaut’s charge was that the ‘cinema of old men’ was too attached to literary sources, that it relied on tight scripts and studio sets and that it peddled a form of middle-brow entertainment with little artistic expression. Truffaut himself used similar kinds of ‘literary texts’ early in his career, ranging from literary novels to Série Noire thrillers and his true cinematic auteur, Alfred Hitchcock, had already adapted Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train in 1951. By 1963 when Le meurtrier appeared, Truffaut’s charge had lost much of its impact following René Clément’s Highsmith adaptation Plein soleil, released in 1960. Clément was another of the ‘old guard’ but his version of The Talented Mr. Ripley was in glorious colour, had a great Nino Rota score, camerawork by Henri Decaë (who photographed Truffaut’s 400 Blows) and outstanding performances by a young Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet. In fact it has been claimed to be Highsmith’s favourite of the adaptations of her work (she died in 1995). Seeing it today Plein soleil looks as fresh, youthful and exciting as anything from La nouvelle vague. But is this true of Le meurtrier?
Much of Le meurtrier is shot on location around Nice and these scenes feel ‘modern’, but the interiors are shot at the Victorine Studio in Nice and these aspects do feel quite old-fashioned. The reality is that Autant-Lara and his collaborators were indeed ‘old men’ as seen by Truffaut. The director was nearing 60, the writers were roughly the same age or older. Many of the others in the creative team were born before 1914. This doesn’t make them poor filmmakers but it does help to explain part of the animosity of young critics who wanted themselves to be young filmmakers. Two other bits of trivia may or may not be interesting. The shoot included two couples. Marina Vlady (who plays Ellie, the music student) had been married young to Robert Hossein who plays the deranged detective. They had already split up by 1959. Later Vlady would become known as the central ‘character’ in Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (France 1967). Yvonne Furneaux married the director of photography on the film Jacques Watteau in 1962 – before or during the shoot. Maurice Ronet is the real star of the film and he seems to have been happy to appear in the films of the ‘old guard’ and those of the New Wave filmmakers.
I don’t think all this background necessarily ‘explains’ why the films feels so ‘odd’ but it helps. I was certainly ‘entertained’ by the film, even if I found some scenes to be quite poorly executed. Highsmith’s narratives are often dependent on very unexpected behaviour by characters and by coincidences accidents that might be expected in melodramas. In the other adaptations these are acceptable and perhaps hardly noticed because of the performances and the maintenance of a tone that accommodates the violence and the black comedy. I wasn’t sure that was the case in Le meurtrier. Sometimes it was impossible to ‘suspend disbelief’. Who, it might be asked is ‘The Blunderer’ of the title? It could conceivably be any of the three leading male characters. Kimmel is overweight and very shortsighted (his glasses remind us of Strangers on a Train). Saccard lies very badly and makes a string of mistakes in what he does and how he talks to the detective – and the detective himself is just extraordinary. The music score has been interpreted as an attempt at the kind of scoring used by Hitchcock, especially with Herrmann. I didn’t think it worked and it only made it more difficult for me to work out what kind of film this was.
I understand that Keith Withall is going to write something about the overall technical aspects of the prints in this season. In this case, we had been ‘warned’ that the DCP had been created from a worn 35mm print and that we might expect scratches. These turned out to be very minor. There were two issues for me. The print was quite soft and faded – as if there was a lack of contrast in the black and white images. This meant that several interior scenes which appeared to have been lit/designed to create film noir images were instead simply grey or murky. The second issue was that the presentation was supposed to be 2.35:1 as the film was shot on ‘Franscope’. To my eye, although it looked like a ‘Scope shape, the image was squashed vertically so that the characters were slightly flattened and ‘fattened’. Gert Froebe became even more immense, but so did Maurice Ronet and Marina Vlady, the ‘glamorous couple’. I’m not sure how this could have happened and it could have been an issue about projector settings and the DCP as much as with the transfer from film. Finally, as with the two previous screenings, the mono sound seemed ‘bright’ and ‘harsh’. These niggles aside, however, I’m grateful to have had the chance to see this example of mainstream French cinema of the early 1960s.
For details of the ‘Adapting Miss Highsmith’ Season go to the website.
My second Patricia Highsmith adaptation in the touring film season was The Glass Cell at HOME in Manchester. This time it looked to be a DCP from an old video copy. The image was degraded but the subtitles were pristine digital and the sound was the same loud and ‘over bright’ mono as at the Hyde Park in Leeds in Deep Water (France 1981). The image didn’t really do justice to the work of cinematographer Robby Müller and, as with editor Peter Przygodda, this was his second Highsmith adaptation in a row, following Wim Wenders’ Der Amerikanische Freund (1977), based on the novel Ripley’s Game (1974). The Wenders connection is also carried through in the shape of director Hans W. Geissendörfer who was a founder member of the Filmverlag der Autoren which produced or distributed many of the films of the ‘New German Cinema’. The Glass Cell is a more ‘popular’/conventional film than most of the New German Cinema films, but it is still a film that deserves attention. The ‘production supervisor’ on the film was Bernd Eichinger, one of the most important figures in German cinema from the mid-1970s up until his death in 2011. The three leading players were all well-known in European cinema. Both Helmut Griem and Dieter Laser were leading German players with international production experience and Brigitte Fossey was borrowed from French cinema.
The film’s plot is familiar and very much what we might expect from Highsmith (it’s an adaptation of a 1964 Highsmith novel with the same title) – it even includes the train which brings Phillip Braun (Helmut Griem) back to Frankfurt after a five-year prison sentence for causing death and injury through shoddy work as an architect on a building project. Quickly explained in an expressionist flashback in the first few minutes of the film, this is quite difficult to grasp in terms of detail and I’m not sure that the subtitles explain enough about the legal questions. Phillip is still convinced that he was set up by Lasky (Walter Kohut) the crooked accountant/speculator on the building project. Somehow, a large sum of money is missing and the assumption is that Phillip has taken it and used cheap and unsafe substitute materials. During his nearly five years ‘inside’ Phillip has suffered mentally and also seems to have lost something of his status as husband and father with his wife Lisa (Brigitte Fossey) and his son Timmie, both of whom seeming to have fallen for the slick lawyer David Reinalt (Dieter Laser) – who was supposedly Phillip’s top legal counsel in his defence. Reinalt still maintains that Lasky is behind all Phillip’s problems. He tries to help Phillip find a job, but also seems to be overly supportive of Lisa and Timmie.
As in Deep Water, Highsmith’s story is about a faltering marriage in which the husband is prompted to take drastic action. In this case, however, there is a more acute police presence placing the criminals in jeopardy. I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure, but I found the resolution of the narrative curiously satisfying. There are several recurring Highsmith tropes and direct similarities with Deep Water. Once again there is a bright child of the marriage – Timmie plays the flute and he gives a performance attended by his parents. There is a party where Phillip loses control. As in Der Amerikanische Freund, one of the marriage partners is engaged in art work. Lisa decorates pots and she works in a bookshop. There is mileage in the possibility of an expressive mise en scène based around artworks but because of the murky print it was difficult to see much detail. The whole film is dark and brooding (underlined by the soundtrack early on) but whether deliberate or a function of the degraded image, I can’t be sure. The main action is set in mid-winter so the darkness is realistic. In his notes on the touring season’s website, Pasquale Iannone praises Müller’s streetscapes and there is indeed a deep sense of gloom and despair in Helmut Griem’s walks through the city. As Iannone also points out, the adaptation changes the novel by focusing much more on the ‘post prison’ events, but heightens our understanding of Phillip’s internal anguish by having the letters to him in prison from Lisa read out on the soundtrack. The violent action in the narrative is well-handled and one scene in particular in a raucous beer hall is very effective. Other scenes in apartment blocks feel Hitchcockian in chance encounters with potential witnesses – a nice bit of play with a dog in a lift.
I enjoyed the film despite the image quality and, as in Deep Water, the real pleasure came from the performances and the direction. Helmut Griem as the central character is excellent with a look of utter calm that suggests both coldness and possibility of despair. Brigitte Fossey is equally compelling. I’m definitely going to try to see more of the films in this season. The Glass Cell was a West German entry for Best Foreign Language film in the 1979 Academy Awards. There are four more films in the season coming to HOME and also more screenings at the Hyde Park in Leeds, Showroom, Sheffield and Rio, Dalston and other venues. Please support this excellent season.
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!