Tagged: crime melodrama

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.

The Siege of Pinchgut (UK-Australia 1959)

The Siege of Pinchgut is remembered as the fifth film made by Ealing Studios in Australia and also the last film made by Ealing as the entity headed by Michael Balcon. By 1958 Ealing had negotiated a deal to make films at ABPC’s studios at Elstree and release them in the UK through Associated British Pathé (although Rank still distributed The Siege of Pinchgut in various European territories). This last film was made mainly on location in Sydney with some scenes shot back at Elstree. The cast is mainly Australians in the smaller parts but with leading players from the UK and Hollywood star Aldo Ray in the lead role. I’ve known about the title for a long time but delayed watching it until now – in preparation for a Zoom event led by Dr Stephen Morgan, the Australian film scholar based in London. I’m not sure what I expected but ‘Pinchgut’ turns out to be a local name for a 19th century fort built on a rocky outcrop located in the wide entrance to Sydney Harbour. Its official title is Fort Dennison and it was used as part of the penal colony’s operations in the 19th century and as a defensive feature for the harbour in the 20th.

Luke (Carlo Giustini) and Aldo Ray as Matt Kirk. Neatly reflected in the mirror are Heather Sears and Barbara Mullen

The plot of the film is straightforward. An ingenious prison break sees Matt Kirk (Aldo Ray) evading recapture and seemingly set for an escape from Sydney with his brother Johnny (the Canadian actor Neil McCallum who was based in the UK). British character actor Victor Maddern plays Burt and Italian actor Carlo Giustini plays Luke, the other two members of the gang who spring Matt. But the boat taking them out Sydney harbour breaks down and drifts towards Pinchgut and its three inhabitants, the Fulton family. Matt Kirk believes he was wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit (but he does have a criminal background). His aim is to persuade the Attorney-General of New South Wales to grant him a re-trial. But now he can’t escape the city and negotiate a re-trial from a safe place. I don’t want to spoil the plot of a suspense thriller but the authorities become aware of the four men on the island and that the Fultons, father, mother and daughter (Heather Sears as second lead in the film in the same year that she appeared in Room at the Top), are hostages. At this point the narrative becomes a tense siege drama because of the presence of an ammunition ship in the harbour. Kirk threatens to use the naval gun on the island to fire at the ammunition ship and its cargo of gelignite. Such a move could kill thousands as had been seen in various wartime explosions such as that in Bombay in 1944 (which one of the gang had observed as a naval rating). On the other hand, the island is within range of sharpshooters stationed on the Harbour Bridge.

The sharpshooters on the bridge

The police are heavily armed when they aprroach the island

The film is in my view a well-made and engaging genre film. It was submitted to the Berlin Film Festival in 1959 at a time when commercial British films were often accepted at festivals and it was shown in competition for the Golden Bear. However, it wasn’t particularly successful at the UK box office and it received a thumbs down from some UK-based critics. The Kine Weekly described it on release in October 1959 as a “hearty action melodrama” and a “very good British booking”. The Monthly Film Bulletin Review by ‘JG’ (possibly John Gillet?) suggests that the central issue of Kirk’s ‘innocence’ is not properly established but equally the some of the dubious decisions of the politicians and the police authorities aren’t satisfactorily worked out. In the end the film strives for its ‘entertainment’ impact with Aldo Ray’s presence appealing to the US market. Charles Barr in his Ealing Studios book takes a similar line but expresses it slightly differently, accusing the film of a confused stance over the violence in the film – as much the violence of the authorities as of the gang. The film gives a kind of moral endorsement to the authorities that they have not earned. Barr suggests that this confusion is “typical of the weakness of ‘fifties Ealing”. I can see that these analyses have some force but it’s a pity that Barr has such a clear agenda in his overall study of Ealing that he doesn’t spend time on any of the plus points about the film.

One of several ‘noir’ images with expressionist lighting in the fort

The Siege of Pinchgut was directed by Harry Watt, the former documentary director from the 1930s who moved into fiction features with Ealing during the war and who made five features as part of Ealing’s attempt to create a ‘Commonwealth’ presence for the company. He made two films in East Africa and three in Australia, beginning with The Overlanders in 1946. Ealing attempted to build up Australian filmmaking facilities by investing in the National Studios in the Sydney suburb of Pagewood but a combination of financial constraints on Ealing initiated by Rank’s John Davis and a lack of support by public funding in Australia stymied future development. The Siege of Pinchgut which used only location shooting in Sidney with interiors back in the UK, proved to be the last attempt by a UK studio to establish itself in Australia. Watt’s documentary background is featured in several aspects of the film including the evacuation of dockside Sydney and the attempts to remove the explosives from the ship. These ‘procedural’ scenes are matched by the excellent cinematography of Ealing regular Gordon Dines. I was reminded of his great work on Pool of London (1951) for the exteriors but also impressed by the studio work inside the fortifications of Pinchgut. I was struck also by the evacuation itself and the sense of an Australian city preparing for a major disaster. I was reminded of the other major disaster scenario of the period, the adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel about nuclear war, On the Beach (1959), shot presumably around the same time but in Melbourne. I think it is also worth mentioning that by making the fourth gang member an Italian, hoping to get back to Italy and buy his own fishing boat, this film, like Michael Powell’s They’re a Weird Mob (1966), points to some of the problems being experienced by Australia’s new migrants.

As in most sieges the telephone (and the TV) are important. This shot with the Fulton family (Gerry Duggan as the father) is one of several with great depth of field

Overall, I don’t think this film represents the kind of ‘sad’ ending implied by Charles Barr. I note that during the film’s Elstree shoot, Aldo Ray contributed to a fair amount of promotion for the film. I don’t know why the proposed production slate with ABPC didn’t take off – it may have been that the company became too interested in building up its TV interests. I certainly think this film is worth a watch. I recorded it from Talking Pictures TV which broadcast it in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. There is also now a new Network Blu-ray (Region B). Network discs are very good in my experience.

Working Girls (Filles de joie, Belgium-France 2020)

‘My French Film Festival’ is now running online until February 15. There are several features films that stand out plus a selection of short films. I picked out Working Girls for two reasons. It’s a Belgian film featuring three women living in France, in Roubaix, who work in a brothel in Belgium to make ends meet. I also recognised three of the leads in the film and especially Sara Forestier who impressed me greatly in Suzanne (France 2013), a film by Katell Quillévéré. I was also surprised to learn that the film had been selected as the Belgian entry for the 2020 ‘Best International Feature’ Oscar awards. It didn’t sound like the kind of film the Academy voters were likely to go for.

Conso leaving her high rise to join the other two for the drive

I’m interested in Roubaix as a location because it’s twinned with Bradford in the UK, sharing the traditional importance of the woollen industry and the more recent development of a significant Muslim population. Roubaix has been used as a location in several French films, most notably in the films of Arnaud Desplechin. Unfortunately, in this film, all we see of the town is a block of high-rise flats and suburban streets (which may well have been shot in a different location). The three women of the title meet in a housing estate car park and drive into Belgium to work. The only significant image of their journey is the road sign (with the EU flag) announcing they are entering Belgium. It  is a poignant moment for a viewer in ‘beleaguered Brexit Britain’. I’m wondering what will happen on Eurostar trains heading for Brussels when we can travel again after the pandemic?

The ‘rest room’ at the brothel

I’ve read several reviews and comments about the film, many of which stress that this is “not a film about prostitution”. That’s an odd statement I think. I think the source of this is the director’s statement that the film doesn’t cover some of the conventional themes associated with brothels in films.The film represents what goes on in a brothel, it deals to some extent with the procedures of the brothel and it focuses on the lives of these three ‘ordinary’ women whose circumstances have pushed them into this kind of work. In one sense the film is unusual in that the three women are French rather than migrants from Eastern Europe or further afield. (Wikipedia suggests that many prostitutes in Belgium are Bulgarian.) The last similar film I can remember is The Receptionist (Taiwan-UK 2016) in which the ‘girls’ are from China or Taiwan. The women in Roubaix don’t have to worry about immigration authorities but they do have lives not connected to sex work (they work under pseudonyms to protect their identities) and these can also be problematic. Axelle (Sara Forestier) is a mother of three small children who are looked after by their grandmother. The man she claims is not her husband is Yann (Nicolas Cazalé) who is around and seems to think he has rights re the children. Dominque or ‘Do’ is played by Noémie Lvovsky who was so good as the mother in Catherine Corsini’s Summertime (France 2015). ‘Do’ works as a nurse on the night shift. She has a husband and two teenage children to support. The third woman is Conso (Annabelle Lengronne) who is the youngest of the three, living on her own. In some ways she is the most vulnerable of the three. The three are aggressive towards each other but also supportive, realising that they must protect each other.

Axelle with her youngest child and her ex-partner Yann

The film opens with the three seemingly burying a body in the rain and mud. The rest of the narrative is therefore a long flashback, at the end of which we will discover the identity of the body. There is also a three-part structure to the flashback so we focus on each of the three women in turn. It’s significant that the writer on the film is Anne Paulicevich who spent a long time researching the background to her story which was inspired by a newspaper article. She visited a brothel regularly for several months talking informally to the ‘working girls’. The Internet Movie Database credits her as co-director of the film with Frédéric Fonteyne. Cineuropa and the film’s Press Pack list her as ‘artistic director’. I’m not quite sure what that means but I suspect that she worked closely with the three female leads and with the cinematographer Juliette Van Dormael. The brothel is, in this film, a female space, at least in the back room where the women chat. I don’t see a Hollywood remake in the current climate, even with the relatively small amount of nudity. The actual sexual encounters are brief and never really gratuitous, but there is also violence. The violence comes from men both as clients and outside the brothel, but we learn little about them.

Do entertains one of her older clients

I’m not sure what to make of the film. This kind of subject matter is always difficult to handle and to pitch to distributors and audiences. Paulicevich says in the Press Pack that she sees the women as ‘heroes’ and indeed the most successful aspect of the film is the interaction between the women and how they overcome problems. Paulicevich herself wrote the film because she had only just become a mother with a baby daughter and had left an abusive relationship. Frédéric Fonteyne reveals that the film had a working title of La frontière, suggesting both the border between the two EU countries, the border between genres, social norms, emotions etc. I think that might have been a better title but he said that he realised it would be misleading for audiences if they thought it implied trafficking. Fonteyne suggests it is a ‘political film’ in its treatment of violence towards women and female solidarity. I’m not sure about that and I’d like to see some reviews by women. I understand that prostitution is not ‘standardised’ across the EU. Belgian policy is to regulate an industry that is not illegal but in France brothels are illegal so that presumably explains the original newspaper story.

The film was low budget and shot in just 30 days partly in the brothel used for the research. It is clearly an achievement to produce such a film and the performances from the three leads are outstanding. I’m not sure if in the end Paulicevich Fonteyne have achieved their aims but I found the film engaging and worthwhile, mainly for the melodrama of the three women’s interactions, and I think it is definitely worth watching.

Beyond This Place (Web of Evidence, UK 1959)

Talking Pictures TV showed another rare and intriguing British film this week with this strange offering from 1959, distributed originally by Renown, the company linked to TPTV. I’ve given both titles as the film was released in the US by Allied Artists and it stars two well-known Hollywood names from the period.

There are many strange aspects of the production. It is an adaptation of an A. J. Cronin novel. Cronin’s work was the basis for many films, most famously The Citadel (1937), The Stars Look Down (1940) and Hatters Castle (1942). These were UK productions, but other adaptations were produced in Hollywood and, I was surprised to discover, in various Indian language cinemas. There have also been several TV adaptations in territories around the world. Beyond This Place is an adaptation of a novel written in 1950 – when Cronin was resident in the US. It had already been adapted for US television with Sidney Lumet directing in 1957. All of this suggests that a Cronin adaptation should still have been a ‘prestige’ production of some kind, yet this 1959 film was shot at Walton Studios (once Nettlefold Studios and in the late 1950s mainly involved in TV productions) by an independent producer. It was made in black and white and presented in 1.37:1, almost as if was produced for television.

Van Johnson as Paul and Vera Miles as Lena

But though it may seem a low-budget production, there is a starry cast and some well-known creatives are involved. It’s the second directorial feature for Jack Cardiff, the celebrated cinematographer, and also an early outing for Ken Adam, listed as ‘Art Director’. The camerawork itself is in the hands of Wilkie Cooper, a major figure in British cinema since his first film as DoP on The Foreman Went to France (1942). The two American stars are Vera Miles and Van Johnson and the British actors include Jean Kent, Emlyn Williams and Bernard Lee.

The confrontation before the murder with Bernard Lee as Patrick Mathry and Jean Kent as Louise Burt. Eira Heath as the murder victim, Mona Spurling, is in the background.

The narrative begins in Liverpool with Irish migrant Patrick Mathry playing with his young son Paul in the park. The time appears to be early in the war when Liverpool was the second most-bombed city in the UK after London. We then see Mathry visiting a young woman, but he leaves angrily when the woman’s room-mate intervenes just before an air-raid. After the air-raid Mathry is arrested for murder. The story then leaps forward to the present when Paul Mathry (Van Johnson) arrives on a merchant ship from America. With four days leave he is determined to find out what happened to his father and he finds a helpful librarian Lena (Vera Miles). Paul discovers that his father was found guilty of murder but was not hanged and instead is serving a long sentence in HMP Wakefield. Shocked by his discovery (his mother had told him his father had been killed during the war and she and Paul had subsequently been evacuated to New York) he begins to investigate the murder case, helped by Lena.

Vera Miles in a subdued ‘good girl’ role – her familiar star persona?

This brief description should already raise questions. The murder was in 1941 so Paul should only be in his mid-twenties (in the novel I think he is a recent graduate, working on ships to see the world). Van Johnson was 42 when the film was shot in 1958. He was always a fresh-faced actor but it doesn’t make too much sense to cast him in the lead. Vera Miles, at the time under contract to Hitchcock after The Wrong Man (1956), would have been in her late twenties, possibly a little old for the part, but otherwise OK. The plot later reveals that she is Canadian, but her accent is not pronounced.

There is a considerable amount of location footage in Liverpool in the film and this is what originally attracted me. As in some other Liverpool set films, there are trips on the ferry, through the Mersey tunnel and around the waterfront and the docks. This latter location raises a set of questions about genre. A chase sequence through the docks at night is atmospherically shot, making great use of bright lights and dark shadows, reminiscent of John Alton’s late 1940s work. This sequence could come from a film noir – as could the delving into a past murder case and the character of the chief witness, the ‘other woman’ played by Jean Kent. But much of the rest of the narrative feels more like a family melodrama. Cronin was well-known as a writer of exciting dramas that often feature a crusading character and conflicts built around questions of social class, privilege and injustice. That’s the case here too. As Paul investigates it becomes clear that his father’s trial was a career breakthrough for both the prosecuting counsel and the senior police investigator. Lena is a potential romantic partner for Paul but she too has a back story that raises questions about social issues. When I watched the film I had the very strong feeling that I was seeing a film from 1950 rather than 1959. The Academy ratio and the noir lighting are probably the main reasons for this. Jean Kent became a star as a young woman in the 1940s often playing ‘good-time girls’, femmes fatales or darker characters in melodramas. A couple of years after Beyond This Place she played Queen Elizabeth I in ITC’s tea-time TV series, Sir Francis Drake (1961-2).

Paul meets Louise in the club she owns – this image could easily come from a ‘Brit film noir’ in the late 1940s.

I enjoyed many aspects of the film despite its flaws. The Cronin story was adapted by Kenneth Hyde and the screenplay then produced by Ken Taylor. There are several changes to the original story and I get the impression that too much might have been crammed into the script. I found the film fast-moving but several commentators complain it is slow-moving. Perhaps this is connected to the confusion over genre expectations? The Liverpool setting works well in terms of location shooting but like those other Liverpool set films produced from London (e.g. The Magnet, 1950 or Waterfront, 1950), there are no genuine scousers, or at least actors with recognisable scouse accents, amongst the cast. I’m not sure the UK title helped the film – what does it mean? (The US title is more generic, but at least it offers something familiar.) I realise that I don’t really know the Cronin novels or the other film adaptations, though I have heard episodes of radio serials and of course as I a child I couldn’t avoid the BBC adaptation of Dr Finlay’s Casebook, which ran for 8 seasons between 1962 and 1971. Cronin (born in 1896) was Irish-Scottish by background (Paul in the novel of Beyond This Place lives in Belfast) and trained as a doctor. His medical training perhaps turned him away from religion to which he returned in the 1930s when illness and convalescence turned him towards writing which came to him very easily. Religion and medicine are both important elements in his stories. He was one of several popular novelists whose novels were adapted during the studio period of filmmaking. Some of that solid storytelling is certainly evident in Beyond This Place and I think I’ll now be more prepared to look at some other Cronin adaptations.

The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón Greece-Germany-Netherlands-Sweden, 2019)

miracle-of-the-sargasso-sea-leather-kikipapadopoulou-1

Lost in Mesolongi

As cinemas are not an option at the moment I’ve taken advantage of a free offer from MUBI and so am plunging through two films a day to catch up with its ‘one new film a day’ distribution pattern. I won’t see them all but the opening of The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea was promising enough to stick to the end though, generically, it was slightly misleading. The excellent Angeliki Papoulia plays Elisabeth who is busting terrorists in Athens only to be chucked to the backwater of Mesolongi, on the coast west of the capital. There she’s the chief of police and the narrative resumes 10 years on where she has become as corrupt as the cops she seemed to be evading at the start.

Her wayward cocaine-snorting, gun waving detective reminded me of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (US, 1992). The setting, in the marshes and lagoons of Mesolongi, reminded me of Marshland and the relative remoteness of the location is important. Here social rules become looser and police presence isn’t necessarily welcome. The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea goes further than Marshland as some characters seem to be losing their grip on reality somewhat; there are scenes re-enacted from the bible with no, as far as I can tell, link to the narrative. Director Syllas Tzoumerkas, who co-wrote the interesting Suntan (Greece-Germany, 2016), wrote the film with co-star Youla Boudali who plays Rita, the bullied sister of an egomaniac drug dealer (Christos Passalis oozing sleaze). Rita works in the eel-processing factory, detailed in gruesome documentary detail, which links the area to the Caribbean’s Sargasso Sea as that’s where the eels go to breed. Peter Bradshaw suggests the location is a metaphor for renewal though one of the comments below his post suggests it’s more to do with decay. The latter is more likely given the film’s ending.

Papoulia has appeared in three of Yorgos Lanthimos’ films that epitomise the current arthouse favourite ‘Greek weird cinema’. Lanthos’ films do nothing for me (see The Favourite) but I’ve nothing against ‘the weird’. However, as I couldn’t find even the most tenuous connection between the bible re-enactments going on, and the presence of Albanians also seemed to be significant, the film seemed half complete. Maybe it’s my own lack of religion that makes me blind to the allegory. However, the film is worth seeing if only for Papoulia’s ‘bad cop’; such a rare thing to see in a female character. Here’s a review of an earlier Tzoumerkas film, A Blast .

Walter Presents: Code 37, Sex Crimes (Belgium 2009)

The vice squad team in Ghent: (from left) Kevin (Gilles De Schrijver), Charles (Marc Lauwrys), Hannah (Veerle Baetens) and Bob (Michael Pas)

‘Walter Presents’ is the ‘authored brand’ of foreign language TV dramas offered by UK broadcaster Channel 4 via selected slots on its secondary channel More4 and on SVOD via its All4 streaming service. ‘Walter’ is Walter Iuzzolino, the Italian TV producer who finds the programming for Channel 4. The SVOD service is free to access in the UK, though it requires registration. I’m accessing it via Apple TV. Code 37 (the original title) is unusual in being an archive series/serial which ran in Belgium for three seasons in 2009, 2011 and 2012 – 39 episodes (of approx. 47 mins) in all. There was a standalone feature film in 2011, also titled Code 37. I’ve watched the first half of Season 1 and it’s been an interesting experience.

The narrative is set in the Flemish city region of Ghent (Gent) in East Flanders. The dialogue is mainly in Flemish with English subs and the occasional phrase in English. Episode 1 begins with the new boss of the city’s vice squad, Hannah Maes (Veerle Baetens) arriving on her first day at a murder scene in a hotel. She meets her new team and swiftly claims the case (of a guest murdered in her room) ahead of the homicide squad because, she argues, the woman in her 30s was clearly strangled during a ‘choke sex’ act. I’m not sure that the narrative establishes how this could be proven – i.e. whether this was a sex ‘game’ gone wrong or a deliberate act of murder. The episodes appear to be organised as one case per episode, so the team have barely 40 minutes to find the person responsible. In addition this first episode shows Hannah settling in to her new apartment after returning from working with American crime teams in Chicago. There is also a brief flashback to something that happened several years earlier in her parent’s home. This was clearly traumatic and marks Hannah as a young woman who is driven by her early experience of violent crime. Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander is a possible influence on the script and I note that Veerle Baetens once starred in a theatrical musical production of Salander’s ‘heroine’ model, ‘Pippa Longstocking’.

Code 37 is in many ways a conventional crime series. Hannah relaxes by playing vinyl records (her mother’s collection’) of classic Motown. One element that is different is Hannah’s ‘team’ which comprises three typical misfits. Charles is an asthmatic chain smoker close to retirement and Kevin is a young man with blonde curls which along with his wide grin make him appear like a naughty choirboy. He is the ‘computer wiz’. Finally there is Bob, the macho slob who cracks bad jokes and cranks out the sexist remarks about Hannah – out of her hearing.

This unlikely team is supposed to investigate ‘sex crimes’ and it does mean a slightly different approach to the standard police procedural. I imagine that a ‘vice squad’, like a ‘drugs squad’ will see a different balance in their work between the private and the personal. They will spend time in an alternative world which they need to understand. They may have to go undercover and they may have to make moral decisions about behaviour that they might not otherwise meet. The broadcaster may feel that with an SVOD offer it is possible to represent sexual acts more graphically than on terrestrial channels. This series has been sold to North American channels and I’ve seen one commentator suggesting that this European show might ramp up the sex but moderate the violence compared to US series. I’m not sure that is necessarily something I’ve noticed so far. The show comes complete with warnings about sex and violence but the registration process would be unlikely keep out the average savvy 11 year-old.

The weakness of the format is the short amount of time in which to set up a case for the team to investigate and apprehend the culprit(s) as well as exploring Hannah’s back story. But do the writers and director manage to get round the problem? I admit that after a couple of episodes I couldn’t really understand why the series seems to be so highly rated on IMDb. But there was something there that kept me watching (the box set binge attraction?). I’m glad I did because after eight episodes I’m enjoying the show a lot. The three team members who I thought were comic characters are being gradually fleshed out. Bob has got his comeuppance and Charles and Kevin prove to be competent and interesting characters with back stories that are slowly being revealed.

Veerle Baetens is the star attraction as Hannah and a strong addition to the growing group of female leads in TV crime fictions.

But the show stands or falls on Veerle Baeten’s Hannah and she is very good indeed. The character is similar in some ways to both Lisbeth Salander and Saga Noren but she isn’t as extreme as either of them. She has two other narratives to negotiate. The first is the trauma of a ‘home invasion’ at her parents’ house. Hannah is now trying to re-open the cold case and investigate it on her own. She is also trying to decide what to do about a possible relationship with her neighbour who lives on a barge behind her apartment. The cold case is introduced by the same flashback sequences each time Hannah visits her father. I do find this irritating but gradually more is being revealed so I’ll live with it. But the biggest surprise is the variety of cases the squad is required to investigate and the ways in which Hannah not only organises the work efficiently but also how she deals sympathetically and patiently with a wide range of victims and perpetrators. The code by which Hannah operates is spelled out in the first episode – if a sexual act between two people is consensual by both parties that’s OK. But if someone is forced it becomes a crime to be investigated. Presumably this will eventually be tested in an episode that involves BDSM? It is tested out in a different way in Episode 2 in which the team discover that a young woman is an exhibitionist who likes to strip and dance provocatively for a man in an apartment some distance from her high rise block. She sends him texts when she is about to start and he uses a telescope to watch her. This is clearly consensual but voyeuristic behaviour like this is, in general terms a crime, as Hannah reveals to the man whose wife and children are unaware of what he is doing. Because the young woman is involved in another incident which involves violence and is connected to her exhibitionism, the voyeur must be investigated. This risks his exposure and the possible break-up of his marriage and/or the loss of his job as a schoolteacher. This strikes me as an interesting moral dilemma for Hannah and her team – and one repeated in different ways throughout the series.

I’m assuming Belgian law is not dissimilar to that in France and other parts of Europe (i.e. it differs in some respect from English Common Law) but still the actions of the vice squad in arresting suspects and interrogating them seems to be free of some of the restrictions which have become common in UK crime fiction narratives. Again the short time available may mean that everything is streamlined for the narrative. The series has a team of writers and directors, the most used being the writer Hola Guapa (13 episodes) and the director Jakob Verbruggen (19 episodes). Verbruggen went on to direct both US and UK series including The Fall in the UK in 2013. Jan Vancaillie photographed the whole of series 1. I thought at first that the format would limit the range of locations but we do eventually get to see a bit more of the Ghent city region which has roughly the same population as Bradford (around half a million) but not the same range of landscapes I suspect. Ghent also seems much less of a multiracial city compared to both UK cities and to Brussels and Liège (with which I’m more familiar). The camerawork does attempt hand-held sequences and also both long shots and big close-ups. The latter often signal the flashbacks for Hannah’s trauma.

I will definitely complete at least Series 1 and if you are a crime fiction fan I would certainly recommend the series. If you stick with it past the first two or three episodes I think you will enjoy it as much as me. Don’t be put off by the sleazy connotations of ‘sex crimes’, the range of stories and the ‘human interest’ angles are all there.