The Blue Dahlia is the only film scripted solely by Raymond Chandler. IMDb lists 40 films and TV titles to which Chandler’s name has been attached but most of these are adaptations by other writers of Chandler’s novels or short stories. At other times Chandler was part of a screenwriting team. Given Chandler’s antagonistic relationship with Hollywood, his partial involvement as screenplay writer on several films is not surprising. The circumstances which led to The Blue Dahlia were unusual and perhaps depend a great deal on how the studio system in the mid 1940s worked. Chandler’s time at Paramount was coming to an end but suddenly the studio was faced with a potential disaster. Alan Ladd, the studio’s leading male action star, was due to return to military service and they needed a property for him at short notice to go directly into production. John Houseman, a producer at Paramount at that time knew Chandler and he was the only one at the studio who shared an English public school background. He used this leverage to get Chandler to agree to write an original screenplay very quickly. George Marshall a veteran director who was very efficient if not particularly creative was assigned alongside Veronica Lake and William Bendix as the other two leading players, both of whom had worked with Ladd successfully at the studio.
Chandler wrote the first part of the screenplay quickly and just as quickly Marshall shot scenes. Soon Marshall ran out of scenes and according to Al Clark’s account in Raymond Chandler in Hollywood (Proteus Books 1982), Chandler experienced a writer’s block. The only solution to the problem, bizarrely, seems to have been that Paramount agreed to Chandler’s request that he be allowed to finish the script while constantly drunk. He’d been on the wagon for a few months and believed that the alcohol boost would enable him to write again. The studio agreed. At this point they would probably have agreed to anything. They had tried to offer Chandler a big bonus to finish the film but he’d been insulted by this affront to his professionalism. He was more concerned about letting down Houseman. The script was duly finished at some risk to Chandler’s health. But what kind of script could these circumstances produce?
The Blue Dahlia would eventually be seen as a typical film noir narrative. It begins with three navy aircrew returning from the South Pacific. The suggestion is that all three have suffered some form of exhaustion and Buzz, the William Bendix character, has a large metal plate in his cranium which causes him some physical distress and in an early scene reveals that it leads him towards some erratic behaviour. Jonny Morrison (Alan Ladd) is the officer pilot in the crew and the third member is George (Hugh Beaumont), a level-headed older man who was a lawyer before his call-up. I’m not so sure about the film noir status of The Blue Dahlia. Apart from the returning service personnel angle there isn’t very much that is distinctively noir.
The plot is, of course, quite complex but is focused on Johnny’s home visit where he finds his wife Helen (Doris Dowling) now resident in a ‘managed’ bungalow park in LA. She’s throwing a party and in an intimate conversation with the owner of ‘The Blue Dahlia Club’, Eddie Harwood (Howard da Silva). All is not well in the Morrison household and Helen has some explaining to do. After a row, Johnny leaves, throwing down his automatic pistol on top of the blue dahlia flower brought by Eddie. Johnny is walking in the rain when a car pulls up and a young woman (Veronica Lake) offers him a ride. So far everything is quite conventional. The characters of the bomber crew are perhaps different as a trio but there is nothing distinctive until this meeting of the film’s two stars. Neither character knows the other’s identity yet but there is a playfulness about the dialogue in the car and in the next scene when she stops at a hotel on the coast, the dialogue becomes enigmatic but still playful and it is delivered with pauses as he tries to say goodbye:
Lake: “What’s the idea?” (he tries to sneak off when she goes into hotel lobby)
Ladd: “It’s the end of the line.”
Lake: “Is it?”
Ladd: “It has to be. It’s a long way back to Malibu.” (that’s where she had been heading when she picked him up)
Lake: “What about you?”
Ladd: “I’ll make out and if I knew how, this is where I’d say thanks – for everything.”
Lake: “I didn’t do it for thanks.”
Ladd: “I know that.” (he turns and leaves)
Lake: “Well don’t you even say good night?”
Ladd: (stopping to reply) “Goodbye – and it’s tough to say goodbye.”
Lake: (she runs up to him) “Why is it? You’ve never seen me before tonight.”
Ladd: “Every guy’s seen you before, somewhere, the trick is to find you.”
I’m something of a novice at attempting to assess the quality of dialogue, but this exchange seems to offer something different. I think it demonstrates what Chandler could bring to screenplays. For my money it shows the attraction between the two characters with Johnny wanting to continue the verbal game they have been playing, but feeling vulnerable after the row with his wife and Joyce (Veronica Lake) still up for more. As in a romance narrative, we expect that their will be obstacles but we know their relationship will develop and they should be together at the end.
The problem with the story is that while the relationship is developing, the narrative is interesting but once we are into the the last third it begins to struggle. It seems that Chandler’s ending caused problems for the US Navy who then put pressure on the studio. The ending we have now doesn’t work in terms of the ‘reveal’ of the killer of Helen Morrison. When Johnny learns he is a suspect, that will be one barrier to his immediate future with Joyce as he will be on the run or trying to clear his name. It seems that director Marshall also changed the script in the last scene. The final scene is also ironic in the way it rounds up all of the characters for the reveal, much like the ending of an Agatha Christie story. Chandler at other times seemed to want to avoid such set-ups, feeling that he was writing very different kinds of crime fiction.
One pleasing aspect of the film for me is the camerawork by Lionel Lindon. He had spent all of his career at Paramount in 1946 having finally moved up to cinematographer in the early 1940s after many years as camera crew. If the film does not display the more expressionist work seen in Double Indemnity, also at Paramount, it does at least suggest an attempt to use compositions in interesting ways. In the two stills above Lindon appears to be aiming for deep focus compositions which link characters at crucial moments. I’m not sure that the focus is as sharp as it should be but it is clear enough to work. The Blue Dahlia is clearly an ‘A’ feature, showcasing Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. I’m not completely sure about these two but Ladd certainly has a gravitas and a calm authority that works well (but he seems very jowly for a relatively young man). But his short stature is sometimes a problem. It’s OK when he is paired with Lake but confusing when he is seen with Doris Dowling who clearly has to stoop at times. The supporting players are good and Howard Da Silva especially stands out. Veronica Lake had a relatively short career blighted by alcohol but in the mid-1940s she had a significant following, largely it seems because of her hair. In this film her character resembles some of Chandler’s young women in other stories. The Big Sleep, the Chandler adaptation by Howard Hawks also came out in 1946. It would be interesting to compare Alan Ladd’s relationship with the Veronica Lake character in this film with Bogart as Marlowe dealing with General Sternwood’s daughters.
Raymond Chandler received a second Oscar nomination for his script, this time for him alone after the joint nomination with Billy Wilder for Double Indemnity. But the recognition didn’t dissuade him from leaving Hollywood and Paramount. He would return for an abortive attempt to work with Hitchcock on Strangers on a Train (1950), but that’s another story. The Blue Dahlia is available as a Blu-ray in the UK from Arrow. The disc includes a video presentation by Frank Krutnik, author of In a Lonely Street: film noir, genre, masculinity (Routledge 1991). The Paramount trailer below emphasises the three studio contract stars who had played together successfully in several features.
I re-watched The Maltese Falcon in order to remind myself of the Dashiel Hammett narrative and his characters. This is part of my Raymond Chandler research. Hammett was a few years younger than Chandler but the two men both served in the Great War. The big difference was that Hammett started writing crime fiction for Black Mask in the early 1920s, a good decade before Chandler, and his novel-length stories such as The Maltese Falcon were sold to Hollywood in the early 1930s. Hammett had already worked as a Pinkerton’s detective before he started writing and his approach to writing was one of Chandler’s early influences when he too started writing for Black Mask.
The 1941 film was the third use of Hammett’s novel, following The Maltese Falcon (1931) with Bebe Daniels in the Mary Astor role and Satan Met a Lady (1936) a slightly changed adaptation with Bette Davis and Warren William. This version had the same cinematographer, Arthur Edeson, as the 1941 film. There are also possible later versions. This is a good example of the way in which the studios re-cycled properties in the 1930s. There are several reasons why the 1941 version has remained in the public consciousness where the older films have fallen from view. One is that this was the first film directed by John Huston who also wrote the screenplay, having become established at Warner Bros. as a writer in the late 1930s. Huston was seen as gifted young man whose writing credits dated back to the early 1930s. His directorial début came at a precise moment and coincided with the rise of Humphrey Bogart into the front rank of Warner stars. This was partly because of his performance as Roy Earle in High Sierra earlier in the same year which was another crime fiction literary adaptation (from W. R. Burnett) written by John Huston. Finally, The Maltese Falcon has been seen as either an early film noir or as a film that pointed in the direction of the noirs that were to come. This last reason why the 1941 film has been remembered is, I think, a case of retrospective invention. The film noir claims are rather thin and I think most of this is based on a similar coincidence in the 1970s when Bogart was in the midst of a revival of interest in his star persona and film noir was just starting to be discussed in detail by film scholars and fans.
The Maltese Falcon is set in Hammett’s San Francisco rather than Los Angeles. The setting is more or less contemporary for the late 1930s/early 1940s and the narrative begins in the offices of Sam Spade (Bogart), a private eye in partnership with Miles Archer. A similar office would appear in the first full Chandler adaptation, Farewell My Lovely (1944). Spade, however has a helpful and loyal ‘secretary’ in the form of Effie (Lee Patrick), who is brave, smart and sassy – she is a considerable asset in Spade’s business. Spade receives a visit from a woman who he eventually discovers is a ‘Brigid O’Shaughnessy’ played by Mary Astor. Spade soon realises that Brigid is not what she actually appears to be and that she can’t be trusted. Yet he also finds himself attracted to her. But Spade himself is no angel and he too is adept at spinning tales. What follows is a series of murders and the appearance of three more characters who would become iconic figures in Hollywood. First Peter Lorre arrives as ‘Joel Cairo’, then Sydney Greenstreet as Mr Guttman and finally Elisha Cook Jr. as the gunsel. Lorre was already a Hollywood figure and had come to America after his lead role in M (Germany 1931). It was Greenstreet’s first cinema role after many years on the stage in the UK and US. Elisha Cook Jr. racked up over 200 credits for minor roles in a career lasting more than 50 years. The joke among filmgoers was whether or not his character would survive until the end of the film. The Macguffin in the story is the ‘Black Falcon’, a valuable relic in the form of a statuette that Guttman seeks to acquire and Brigid claims she is about to collect. The plot doesn’t really matter that much. It is the interaction of the characters that engages the audience. There is also a role for Ward Bond as a Police Detective.
What I most noticed this time were the very quick dialogue exchanges and in particular Bogart’s delivery. Bogart delivers his lines at pace and sometimes as he’s going out of the door as he’s finishing a line. It’s very snappy and the pace never let’s up. But Sydney Greenstreet is a perfect foil in his scenes responding to Bogart in calm measured tones. Bogart earns possession of the screen in his first genuine starring role but the the acting honours arguably go to Mary Astor. It’s an unusual role for a woman in this kind of ‘tough guy’ drama. She plays on her seeming gentility and projects a softer image all round to cover her duplicity.
The film looks very good on a DVD from a Bogart box set. Arthur Edeson’s work behind the camera is as good as his experience suggests it should be but it doesn’t really introduce the noirish elements that are about to come from the influence of the European directors and cinematographers. Much of the film is set in hotel rooms and corridors and generally compositions are designed to cover character interactions. In those images with only one or two characters, low angles are often used . None of these comments are meant as criticisms. The cinematography and set design complement the performances in telling the story and the music too is designed to give the sense of a mystery that is proving difficult for Spade to unravel. Overall it is a stunning achievement by John Huston. I can’t better the description by the New York Times when the film was re-released in 1973 (one of many revivals):
. . . hard, precise and economical – an almost perfect visual equivalent of the Dashiell Hammett thriller. Bogart is backed by an impeccably ‘right’ cast . . . (quoted in Humphrey Bogart by Nathaniel Benchley, Hutchinson 1975)
That nails it. It’s a ‘version’ of Hammett, perfectly executed, a work of art and an entertainment. I’m still doubtful about its influence on later ‘tough guy’ thrillers, although it certainly helped the careers of all involved. Dashiell Hammet clearly knew how to write such stories and Huston served him well. But the difference in a film like Double Indemnity is remarkable. The combination of Chandler and Wilder adapting Cain is something else – which we’ll get to eventually.
I’ve waited several years to see this, having learned about it as the first adaptation of the novel by Hubert Monteilhet (Le retour des cendres) that formed the raw material for Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (Germany 2014). It’s a very different film from Phoenix, but representative of its production context. The film is set primarily in Paris but shot at the MGM-British studio at Boreham Wood. I’m not sure if there were any B-unit shots in Paris, or stock footage. It is presented as a very beautiful B+W ‘scope print with Christopher Challis as DoP.
The basic plot offers us Michele Wolff (Ingrid Thulin) who we meet first in late 1945, arriving in Paris by train. She has been in a Nazi concentration camp and has made it back to Paris after a period of recuperation in a German sanatorium. Flashbacks reveal that in 1940 she was a wealthy widow working as a doctor in Paris and with a stepdaughter Fabienne (Samantha Eggar) in boarding school in England. Michelle had taken a younger lover, a Polish chess champion, Stanislas Pilgrin (Maximilian Schell) and the couple were married immediately before she was seized by the Nazis as a Jewish woman. The only other principal character is Dr Charles Bovard (Herbert Lom), Michele’s colleague at the clinic.
When Michelle returns she is unrecognisable after the ravages of the camp but Bovard organises plastic surgery and the main narrative development in the story is that Stanislas does not recognise her, even though she gets back close to how she looked before. He believes the woman he married is dead but hatches a plan to steal her wealth which French law has frozen until death is confirmed or Michele is found alive. The remainder of the narrative becomes a mystery thriller involving the four principals.
The film belongs to the broader 1960s phenomenon of Hollywood films made in Europe. It was made by the Mirisch Corporation for United Artists and the novel was adapted by the celebrated Hollywood writer Jules Epstein. But the production was essentially British with John Dankworth as music director joining Challis, by this time one of the leading British cinematographers (including the later films of ‘The Archers’ (Powell and Pressburger), and British heads of department throughout the rest of the creative team. Samantha Eggar was at this point the rising young star of British cinema, having made The Collector with Terence Stamp for William Wyler in the same year. Herbert Lom was established as a fine star actor in the UK, having arrived as a Czech migrant in 1939. Many of the supporting cast were originally French but domiciled in the UK whereas Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell were at this point known across Europe. Thulin, one of Bergman’s company in Sweden in the 1950s, appeared in French, German and Italian films as well as going back to Sweden. Schell was seen as the major German actor of his generation who worked in the UK or the US as well as Germany. Overall the cast of Return from the Ashes do manage to convey a Parisian sensibility, even though they are working in English. This is in contrast to the hairstyles and costumes in the film which, following Hollywood conventions, are faithful to the 1960s more than the 1940s. (Whereas Phoenix makes a good stab at conjuring up the Berlin of 1945-6.)
The producer-director of the film is J. Lee Thompson, a surprisingly prolific director for one who came to directing later than most. Born in 1914 he started to write plays as a teenager and gradually through the late 1930s his scripts were used for stage plays and some films. He continued as a writer up to the time of his war service and briefly afterwards until he got the chance to direct his own work in 1950. His second film,The Yellow Balloon proved to be his breakthrough work and throughout the 1950s he was a prominent director in the UK with several hits which were also critical successes. He gradually moved into larger scale films with international stories and actors and had a huge international success with The Guns of Navarone (UK-US 1961). Several other Hollywood successes followed and by the 1970s he was still making films but most of them were not up to the standard of his 1950s British films. Thompson was a Bristolian and it looks now as if the Bristol-based ‘Rediscovering Cinema Film Festival’ based at Watershed in the city is getting interested in exploring Thompson as a filmmaker. I think Return from the Ashes is a worthwhile film. The source novel has an unusual story which in this adaptation is played with the kind of climactic sequence which prompted the distributors to copy Hitchcock and beg audiences not to give away the ending. The effectiveness of the narrative depends on the camerawork by Challis and the strong performances of the four principals. I find it difficult to describe the intensity of the performances but Thulin and Schell are dynamic. Lom provides the strong and steady background and Eggar provides the beauty, the petulance and the nastiness that the part demands.
The HD print I found online is currently available on the best known video-sharing site and I’m grateful to the person who uploaded it. I don’t think I’m likely to find the second adaptation in 1982 which was made for French TV with the title Le retour d’Elisabeth Wolff (the Michele character).
This little gem was broadcast as part of Talking Pictures TV ‘Late Night Friday’ schedule in the UK. Generally described as a ‘crime noir’, it’s perhaps better classified as an example of the semi-documentary police procedural cycle of films started by Jules Dassin’s The Naked City in 1948 and eventually becoming a staple of US TV as well as developing a UK equivalent. But He Walked by Night also has its own important features, primarily the camerawork of John Alton. Alton literally ‘wrote the book’ on noir night-time location shooting, characterised by intense shadows. Painting With Light was published in 1949.
There are several other stories about its production that are worth mentioning. It was independently produced by Brian Foy, a veteran of studio ‘B pictures’, and distributed by Eagle-Lion, the company set up as part of J. Arthur Rank’s attempt to distribute his British films in the US (which meant Rank distributed this US indy in the UK). Foy gathered together some of the highly experienced filmmakers he knew from his studio operations including the writers John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur and director Alfred L. Werker. However, there is a strong suggestion that at least some of the directing duties were by an uncredited Anthony Mann. Mann directed T-Men in 1947 for Brian Foy Productions with Higgins as one of the writers and John Alton behind the camera. A similar kind of film with ‘Treasury Men’ working undercover to root out fraud, T-Men is another form of ‘procedural’, also released by Eagle-Lion. Finally in terms of production stories it’s worth noting that Jack Webb, who has a small role in He Walked by Night as a backroom technician, would soon go on to produce and star in a radio series developing the police procedural idea and titled Dragnet (1949-57) and in turn this would become one of the most iconic US TV shows of the 1950s (1951-59 plus later series). There were also a couple of feature films and all this can be traced back to Webb’s experience on He Walked By Night.
The police procedural idea was to take the idea for a film on a real case and to film on location in Los Angeles. Roy Martin/Morgan (Richard Basehart) is a burglar specialising in the then new electronics goods market(radios, TVs and tape recorders etc.) He has also acquired an arsenal of weapons and one night when he is disturbed by a police patrol car he ends up shooting a police officer. This sets off the procedural narrative which ends in a chase through the Los Angeles storm drain system, something used since as either an LA-set device or using sewers and underground tunnels in other locations – but this may be the first use and it benefits greatly from Alton’s camerawork. I enjoyed the film very much though I was struck by the moment when the officers in a patrol car hear over the radio that one of their colleagues has been shot. They are suddenly electrified and burst into action. I hope they would react similarly if any member of the public is shot. This shot reminds us that the film (and many similar procedurals that followed) relied on the co-operation of police forces which perhaps led to a selection of stories and an influence on how these were presented.
I believe that this film is now in the public domain in the US so it is widely available online but to really appreciate its visual qualities, you should seek out the best quality print (see DVD Beaver for disc options or check the streamers). Richard Basehart is excellent as the dangerous man on the run and Scott Brady and Roy Roberts give solid performances as the the two police figures leading the hunt.
This is the second of the Italian police films – poliziotteschi – in a five film package from Arrow. I’ve included some background on Italian police thrillers in my post on the first film in that collection, Savage Three (1975). You might want to read that first to get a more informed perspective on this second film. As we would expect it shares many elements with Savage Three. Once again we have a trio of almost nihilistic killers but this time the trio comprises two men and a woman. The woman, Sylvia (Annarita Grapputo), is just as vicious as the men. The second difference is the social class context. The leader of the trio is Tony (Cesare Barro), the son of a super-rich local ‘businessman’ Enrico Ardenghi who is able to buy local officials and ‘fix’ most problems. I’m not sure about the translation of the Italian title. My own attempt at translating it produces ‘Like Hot/Spicy/Angry Dogs’ – I know only that arrabbiata is a dish which offers a chili and tomato sauce with penne pasta. ‘Rabid’ suggests that the trio are almost crazy with rage. At moments they may be, but not throughout. Arrabbiata is said to be associated with the Lazio region around Rome and I assume that is where the narrative is located. The third member of the trio appears completely underdeveloped as a character. His function seems to be simply an indicator of the sexual tension/excitement of violence in the trio as he watches Sylvia and Tony together.
The local police inspector who hopes to find a way to both arrest Enrico and solve the murders and thefts is Commissario Paulo Muzzi (Jean-Pierre Sabagh aka Piero Santi). He is a younger man than in the first film and is in a relationship with a uniformed female police officer Germana (Paola Senatore). Following the convention of ‘personal contact’ between the Commissario and the principal suspects, Paulo meets both the father and son in various social situations. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the plot (in the moral sense) is that Paulo is prepared to ask Germana to dress as a prostitute in an attempt to entrap Enrico (who regularly visits a favourite sex worker in the local red light district). It is a dangerous ploy. Later Paulo ‘allows’ himself to be seduced by Sylvia. There is more overt sexual activity in this film than Savage Three. The earlier film included some scenes where sexual display was part of setting up violent action but in this film sex is used more as an attractive/exploitative element in its own right. Both the female leads and the three actors playing female victims are stripped for the camera almost as a given. (I understand that the director Mario Imperoli was better known for sex comedies.) The trio also attack a gay couple at one point. There are car chases, a motor racing track, a football ground, Sylvia on a motorbike etc. Overall it is a slicker but much more conventional film than Savage Three. It is presented in Techniscope and runs for nearly 100 minutes. The music seems more generic and less startling than that in Savage Three.
Poliziotteschi developed during the period of violent political unrest in Italy and Arrow presumably linked these two titles because they both present narratives that appear to ignore obvious political questions and instead to focus on the more general idea of a society out of control in which younger characters wilfully commit horrendous crimes. I’ve seen one review which suggests that this is a ‘juvenile delinquent’ picture. I don’t buy this the trio are too old and too privileged. Savage Three has an underlying intelligence and a clever play with metaphors but Like Rabid Dogs seems simply an exploitation film, even if it makes a gesture towards a political dimension in the narrative climax. There is an earlier film by Mario Bava, one of the most celebrated directors of popular Italian cinema, titled Cani arrabbiati (Rabid Dogs, Italy 1974) which is also available from Arrow. I haven’t seen it but it sounds a much more interesting film. Like Rabid Dogs, co-written and directed by Mario Imperoli seems to demonstrate an industrial imperative to exploit a currently successful genre cycle. I’m grateful to be aware of this kind of exploitation cinema as distinctive in a period of cinema history, but it has little to commend it to modern audiences. However, I still think the Arrow box set is a worthwhile venture based on these first two films and the selection of interviews.
Vigil is a 6 x 60 minutes serial broadcast on a weekly basis (i.e. with cliffhangers and no prior access for streaming) after a two parter over the Bank Holiday weekend. It has been promoted as being from the production company behind Line of Duty and is running in BBC1’s primetime Sunday 9.00 pm slot. The production company World Productions, founded by Tony Garnett in 1990, is one of the most successful in UK TV and now owned by ITV, but its shows appear on both ITV and BBC channels. The basic premise for the show is that a submariner dies under suspicious circumstances while serving on ‘Vigil’, one of the UK’s four nuclear submarines carrying missiles with nuclear warheads at all times. Because the ‘boat’ is still in British territorial waters, a police officer from the local force for the submarine base is transported to the submarine to investigate. Meanwhile a local trawler has been dragged beneath the waves by a submarine. Is ‘Vigil’ at fault or is there a second submarine in the same waters?
I find this serial particularly gripping for several reasons. It is an intriguing meld of different genre repertoires. It isn’t purely a police procedural because of the compromised status of the investigator DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones). The narrative possibilities of the police procedural are compromised by the naval military procedures and especially the strict rules about actions and behaviour on a nuclear submarine. There is a long tradition of generic narratives concerning an investigator who finds himself/herself restricted by the codes of conduct in an isolated community. But this turns out to be a complex case for DCI Silva and much of the legwork ashore has to be carried out by her DC, Kirsten Longacre. The police-Navy confrontation is further complicated by the appearance of MI5 whose interest might be prompted by several different aspects of the case. We are familiar to some extent with the idea of different branches of the police forces in the UK coming into conflict from Line of Duty and other police procedurals, but MI5 interest suggests another kind of narrative. Again there is a long tradition in UK film and TV of ‘secret service’ types interfering with all kinds of individuals who might threaten the ‘national interest’ (a highly dubious concept at best). Finally, in all contemporary thrillers we seem to have a personal story involving the lead investigator and ‘Vigil’ is no exception. From the opening credits I felt that ‘Vigil’ explores the playbook of The Bridge with a similar sounding opening song, aerial and long shot photography and trouble for its prime investigator.
So far we been offered three of the six episodes and without spoiling the narrative, we appear to have what might be termed a ‘peeling the onion’ narrative – everything that Amy and Kirsten discover seems to lead to a new layer of meaning and another possible narrative. Unlike with many of the recent crime fictions on TV I find myself gripped by the tension but not completely bewildered by the narrative. I’m impressed by the setting in and around a nuclear base meant to resemble the real base at Faslane, West of Glasgow on Gare Loch. Episode 3 ends with a chase on the streets of Central Glasgow with its steep inclines and the narrative feels securely located – unlike the the more generic scenes in Line of Duty, shot in Belfast but seemingly meant to be somewhere else. The sense of a recognisable environment carries through to the casting and I’m enjoying seeing Gary Lewis with his wonderful voice as the Detective Superintendent and Rose Leslie as DC Longacre, both highly convincing as are the navy personnel with Stephen Dillane as the Rear Admiral in charge back at the base. Suranne Jones is one of UK TV’s top actors now, vying with Sarah Lancashire for the best lead roles. Amy’s back story, emerging in flashbacks, some long and others literally ‘flashes’, will perhaps eventually reveal how she comes to be in the West of Scotland.
Vigil is written by a small team of writers with Tom Edge listed as ‘creator’ as well as lead writer. Edge has broad TV drama experience and also wrote the ‘part biopic’ Judy (UK 2019). There is a different director for the second three episodes and it will be interesting to see if there is any noticeable change in style. There appear to be two cinematographers as well. The serial is presented in a 2.00:1 aspect ratio, the kind of format I first recognised in ‘Nordic Noir’ productions (though they might have been slightly wider still). Vigil opens with dramatic shots at sea and the wider format gives it a filmic sense of expansiveness. This still seems quite daring for BBC1 (as distinct from BBC2 or BBC4 where different aspect ratios are more common). I should note that as might be expected, viewers with a naval background and especially submariners have criticised all the details of life underwater. I don’t think that authentic detail in what is a difficult environment to represent on screen without very expensive sets is a major consideration here. Instead, the three repertoires of genre elements and how they are used is the central concern. This has been the most watched TV drama of 2021 so far with 10.2 million watching the first episode on broadcast and catch-up.
I’ve been fully engaged for three episodes and I’m hopeful the second half will continue in the same vein. I you haven’t tried it yet, the first three episodes are on iPlayer in the UK.