I’d never heard of this film, a reconstruction of ‘black panther’ serial killer Dennis Nielsen’s grim crimes, despite the fact it apparently stimulated a mini moral panic on its release. John Patterson’s excellent article fills in the background so I’ll limit my comments to a few observations.
The first thing that surprised me was the credits that announced this was ‘A film by Ian Merrick’; I thought that habit started later – perhaps a reader could comment. Merrick had some justification, unlike most of today’s director’s, for this ownership as he also produced. The film recreates, it says as accurately as possible and I have no reason to disbelief, how Nielsen moved from petty theft to murder and finally kidnapping. I certainly remember Lesley Whittle, his victim, 40 years later; no doubt due to the coverage the case received at the time. The film shows that the press, in search of a story, interfered with the ransom pay-off, possibly with fatal consequences. Of course the press wouldn’t do that now… News of the World hacked the abducted Milly Dowler’s phone not so long ago so they probably would.
The film has the authentic drabness of the ’70s, though it only seems like that in retrospect, at the time (as a teenager) it seemed fine to me. They were turbulent times in the UK: the electricity cuts caused by the 3-Day working week; IMF bail out; numerous strikes; the enthronement of Thatcher as PM. The last event, of course, was the worst as it has had a lasting effect through the neoliberal policies that have become the received wisdom of economics. Donald Sumpter is good in the role of Nielsen and Debbie Farrington is affectingly ‘innocent’ as his final victim. The ending, presumably based on fact, is truly bonkers: Nielsen is finally apprehended in a fight in front of a bemused group of people outside a chippy. It’s good that the BFI have brought this film out of the wilderness.
Marshland is a brilliantly executed crime thriller that grips throughout its whole 105 minutes. It has an arresting and original title sequence and its use of landscape and local culture is terrific. It’s only after several hours of reflection that I’m beginning to develop some doubts and they are mostly about the script. The trio of director Alberto Rodríguez and his co-writer Rafael Cobos plus cinematographer Alex Catalán, and indeed most of the creative team, have worked on two previous crime thrillers, all set in Andalusia. With Marshland they seem to have moved up a notch and the film has won several Goya Awards in Spain. The film’s USP is its historical setting in that difficult period following the death of Franco and the struggle to establish a real democracy in Spain at the end of the 1970s. The two detectives assigned to the case of a pair of missing teenage sisters in the marshlands of the Guadalquivir delta are a mismatched pair. Juan is an experienced officer from the fascist past and Pedro is a younger man committed to a democratic future. Juan has all the old tricks for ‘persuading’ witnesses to talk but Pedro, aiming to be ‘straight’, tends to annoy the locals with his challenges to ingrained ideas. The two men keep their distance from each other but they gradually learn how to work together. This latter is in some ways what the film is about – what must it be like to live in a country that has just ‘awoken’ after a nightmare of forty years? That person you meet, that person you work with might have all kinds of skeletons in their cupboards. How much do you need to compromise in order to get things done? Can you compromise and still stay true to a democratic ideal?
My slight worry about the film is that though this social sub-text should perhaps be the central concern of the narrative, instead the team seem more interested in making an American-style serial killer thriller. Most commentators have referred to the HBO series True Detective. I must be the only person who hasn’t seen the series which I understand begins in a similar environment in Louisiana and which also refers to a ‘cold case’ seventeen years ago that is now seen as re-opened with the detectives’ work on the original crime under scrutiny. Not having seen this model, I’m inclined to think of David Fincher’s work on Seven (1995) and Zodiac (2007) which both have a similar sense of period design, an almost fetishised sense of crime scenes, and an anger and commitment that drives the isolated investigator. The problem for me with Fincher’s Hollywood models is that they tend towards being ‘personal’ rather than ‘societal’ in scope – they are like gruesome puzzle narratives in which the narrative agents (police, journalists) suffer. They don’t say that much directly about the society that produces the crimes.
I prefer to think about Marshland in relation to other European crime thrillers police procedurals, especially Mediterranean narratives from Southern France and Italy (although to be pedantic this is technically an ‘Atlantic’ thriller). What is most important is that the two detectives come into a conservative, almost feudal, community from outside. I’m not sure how clearly this is explained in the script (the subtitles may miss nuances). There is a reference to a letter Pedro has sent to the press criticising the slow pace of change. Juan’s problems are revealed later in the narrative. Certainly there is a sense that they are being sent to this rural backwater from Madrid rather than to big city cases. Pedro hopes that success in the case will get him posted to a Madrid investigations team. When the two men come into contact with the local Guardia Civil they begin to realise that there are unwritten rules about crimes and relationships that are not necessarily investigated thoroughly and that assumptions are made about witnesses and victims of crimes. Although they are generally very different in style and tone, there is something of Inspector Montalbano in the way in which the local police operate in a community where many people know a lot but aren’t talking. The detectives also realise that this case is being pursued (where others have been neglected) because ‘somebody knows somebody high up’.
I’m most tempted by the potential links between Marshland and the South Korean film Memories of Murder (2003). Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece also begins in the ricefields with crime scenes in ditches and fields and local police officers feeling overwhelmed before a ‘big city cop’ arrives. Bong’s film is also set in the past – the 1980s – and deals with the investigation of a real crime. But his film seems both more comic, more brutal and more stark but also more ‘humanist’ and much richer in its political analysis – and it refuses the conventional ‘narrative closure’ of the crime film. But perhaps I’m being unfair – there are other aspects of Marshlands that also contribute meanings and the central feature of the narrative – young girls wanting to leave the region to have a future and being easily seduced by those offering opportunities – is in itself part of a social critique. Juan has a medical problem and this may be the reason he appears to hallucinate. On two occasions a single bird appears in a scene incongruously – rather like the cow that Vinz sees in La Haine (France 1995). Or are these merely signifiers of the mystical nature of life in the marshes? There is a woman in the narrative who is said to have ‘second sight’ – and she certainly knows something about Juan. There is also the wonderful credits sequence which uses photographic images created by the artist Hector Garrido. These (see the image above) are aerial photographs of the delta that make it appear more like a painting of the human brain. According to this web review of the film the overall visual style is also informed by the work of Atin Aya who took photographs of the people and landscapes of Andalusia between 1955 and 2007.
The cinematography is one of the strongest elements of the film. Besides the extraordinary aerial shots, the landscape gives opportunities for action framed in long shots across marshes and ricefields. The colour palette has been adjusted and the lashing rainstorms help to create the perfect environment for chases. One car chase was the most compelling I’ve seen for some time.
So, there is plenty to admire here and I’ll happily watch the film again to look out for the aspects of the script that I might have missed in the lead up to the action film ending. I think my real concern is with UK distributors and exhibitors. Marshland opened the week before Theeb, the Jordanian film I’ve written about on The Global Film Book blog. Both films are among the best I’ve seen this year but whereas Theeb opened in only 13 cinemas, Marshland has been much more visible in 32, playing once or twice a day in my nearest arthouse. I hope that Marshland becomes appreciated as a Spanish crime film rather than just an interesting subtitled alternative to Hollywood.
Marshland‘s UK trailer with examples of cinematography and use of aerial photographs:
This sequel came out four years after the success of The French Connection. The only characters who carry over into the second film are the drug dealer Charnier (Fernando Rey) who escaped at the end of the first film and Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman), the New York cop who first uncovered Charnier. The follow-up was written by Alexander Jacobs and Robert Dillon, both with crime thriller experience, and they invented what might have happened if Popeye went to Marseilles. The director too is changed. John Frankenheimer was an important filmmaker in the 1960s and into the 1970s. He lived (and worked) in France for a period and he spoke French. Apart from film editor Tom Rolf and composer Don Ellis (repeating his stint from the first film), the cast and crew are French with the distinguished cinematographer Claude Renoir and set designer Jacques Saulnier as the most notable figures.
Frankenheimer offers an audio commentary on the DVD telling us that he was a big fan of the first film and that he wanted to keep to the same documentary-style approach to shooting the film. But then, as he explains what happened, it becomes apparent that the film is slightly different in style – and very different in terms of the story. The story is simple. Charnier is still operating out of Marseilles and Doyle arrives in the city, on his own, with the intention of finding the dealer and closing the case. Of course, he expects to be working with the local police. But they don’t seem particularly willing to help him and he doesn’t speak French. Early on we learn that Doyle may be being set up but we are never introduced to his superiors in New York and we don’t know how ‘official’ his investigation is. (Also, we don’t know why he hasn’t got his partner with him.) With his porkpie hat, Doyle is very visible and is soon kidnapped by the villains. What follows is a tour de force by Gene Hackman – a character study of a man under great pressure. Doyle is a boorish lout but also a committed investigator. When the local police Inspector finally sets out to help him, Doyle will still be able to deliver the goods.
In his commentary Frankenheimer speaks of his huge admiration for Hackman’s acting. He explains that Hackman is often seen in longer shots (i.e. Medium Long Shot or Long Shot) because to frame him in closer shots would mean losing his expressive use of his body. Because of these long shots – emphasised sometimes by the visible use of zoom lenses – Marseilles plays a similar but differentiated role as an extra ‘player’ compared to the part played by Brooklyn in the first film. Frankenheimer is a master of large scale crowd scenes and the chase sequences here are more like those in vintage Hitchcock than the more tightly-focused chases in Friedkin’s film. We do get the chases through the streets (with an athletic Hackman doing his own stunts), but also we see tiny figures framed in wide vistas of the harbour and sea-front. Overall, the combination of cinematography, set design and choreography of action is excellent. The heart of the film, however, is the focus on Popeye when he is held by the drugs gang – reminding us that Frankenheimer was the great director of men under pressure in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seconds (1966).
In the first third and the last third of French Connection II, this does feel like a possible sequel to the first film, but in between it becomes something else. This is emphasised by a key decision. Whereas in the first film, the French dialogue between members of the drugs gang was subtitled, here there are no subtitles – we experience the world as Popeye does. French conversations are not translated and Popeye flounders in his attempts to question suspects (the Poughkeepsie joke survives from the first film and becomes even more surreal). This works very well when Popeye is told by the Police Commissioner (in French) to pack his bags. “Do I need to translate?” says the Inspector. Popeye shakes his head – he isn’t so dumb that he can’t ‘read’ intonation and facial expressions.
As I’ve argued many times, French and American crime films are often in dialogue with one another. Here, Popeye abuses French police officers, the French language, French culture generally and causes mayhem with his violent methods. But his hosts do accept that his loutish behaviour is accompanied by persistence, bravery and single-mindedness as well some good investigative skills. Most of all, they admire his vitality – not a bad representation of American-French cultural relations, perhaps?
The 2014 French film The Connection (La French) offers quite a different take on the original ‘true story’ – and on representations of Marseilles – review to follow.
Here’s a global film in the form of a Brooklyn-set crime story. The script is by Dennis Lehane, who has expanded his own short story, and one of the four leads is James Gandolfini. The other three comprise a Brit, a Swede and a Belgian and the film is directed by another Belgian, Michaël R. Roskam. We are back in the territory of the Europeans taking on the American crime film. The fact that the story is American distinguishes The Drop from Guillaume Canet’s Blood Ties but it still might be useful to think about the two films together as they both seem to channel the 1970s New York crime films of Sidney Lumet et al. Matthias Schoenaerts also appears in both films and here is reunited with the director (plus Nicolas Karakatsanis the cinematographer and music composer Raf Keunen) of Bullhead (Belgium 2011) which I really should put on the ‘to watch’ list.
Most audiences will go to see this film thinking it will be an American crime story dominated by Gandolfini and Lehane’s script. I suspect that many will end up feeling that the film belongs to Tom Hardy in another stunning performance. Hardy disappears into roles so much and so effectively that he’s hardly recognisable from one film to another. Here he is Bob Saginowski, the seemingly long-suffering bartender of a Brooklyn joint known as ‘Cousin Marv’s Bar’. It’s Bob’s voiceover at the beginning of the film that tells us that this is one of the bars used by organised crime gangs as a collection point for laundered money. Marv is played by James Gandolfini and in reality he doesn’t own the bar which is now one of the fronts for a gang of Chechen criminals. Marv is on the way out and it’s a fitting role for James Gandolfini whose last film appearance it turned out to be. When the bar is robbed and the Chechens demand their money back, Marv and Bob have to find it. The triangle between Marv, Bob and the Chechens is a familiar trope of the crime film and Lehane’s story here simply supplies the framework for the more interesting triangle (rectangle?) involving Bob and the pitbull puppy that he finds badly injured in a garbage bin. The bin belongs to the waitress Nadia (Noomi Rapace) who helps Bob care for the dog. It takes a while before we realise that the dog was probably put there by the disturbing Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts) who seems to be unusually interested in how the couple’s relationship develops. Lehane’s original story was ‘Animal Rescue’.
In one sense the film is like a genre exercise in constructing a film narrative. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to note that Lehane reveals the link between the separate elements via a line delivered by the local police detective who notices that Bob attends mass every week but never takes communion. “They never see you coming” he suggests to Bob at one point. And indeed Bob appears to be perhaps mildly autistic – giving the impression that he is a slow, dependable worker, speaking carefully, working methodically and always holding himself in check. Does he really find social interaction to be arduous – or is his self-restraint a cover?
In terms of how this all works out and what it means as a film narrative I have to largely agree with the Sight and Sound review by Matthew Taylor. Like Taylor, I think that all the constituent parts of the film work well. The performances are all good – though Noomi Rapace is under-used – and individual scenes and sequences are efficiently and economically presented. My feeling is that the script is the weakness in not giving us a compelling crime story to match the melodrama of emotional relationships. I’ve seen reviews that dismiss the film completely as too inert. I wouldn’t go that far but another reviewer who suggested that the film’s ending was more like the beginning of another more interesting story does make an interesting point. So, perhaps it’s back to those 70s movies – a Bob Rafelson film? I would have liked to see much more of Bob and Nadia and how they get on together. Overall though I did enjoy watching the film.
I’m not sure how Keith will get on with the film but I am sure he’ll like the dog – named after Saint Rocco, the patron saint of dogs. The church of Saint Rocco is about to be closed down and sold to a property developer. The appearance of the statue of Saint Rocco is also a reference to the feast day parade in Godfather II when a statue of the saint is carried through the streets of Little Italy.
Wikipedia suggests a budget of $13.5 million – low for Hollywood but high for a European film. There appear to be several companies involved in a co-production which I’ve classified as ‘independent’.