The Guilty is Gustav Möller’s debut feature, a low-budget creation based on his own story. Jakob Cedergren plays Asger Holm, a cop reduced to answering emergency calls because of – at the start of the film – an unspecified mistake. Like Locke (2013, UK-US) it is a one-location film, though it expands to an adjacent room rather than just inside a car. The benefits are a cheaper made film; the challenge is to keep it interesting.
Cedergren’s performance and Möller’s story are likely to keep most gripped throughout the film and Philip Flindt, the sound effects editor, ensures that the narrative space of the phone calls is created with a magnificent aural landscape. However, it is more than an exercise in style for, as the title suggests, the film investigates the nature of guilt. The slow reveal of Holm’s transgression, and what’s actually happening with the caller he’s desperately trying to help, add a psychological dimension. It can’t quite be called Dostoevskian but there’s enough cerebral nourishment to go with the visceral thrills.
In my initial tweeted response to the film I suggested that the direction needed more imagination. Given its low-budget origins, however, this is a little unfair and Möller does a good job. The way Holm isolates himself in another room as he gets deeper into trying to save the distressed woman and his physical reaction to frustration are all satisfyingly cinematic.
Möller has worked on a couple of episodes of Follow the Money (Bedrag, Denamrk, 2016-) (the first season, at least, was good), one of the plethora of ‘Scandi noir’ TV series that have brought brilliant grimness into our homes. The Guilty is another satisfying example from the dark side of Scandinavia.
I watched this recently in preparation for an event on film noir and enjoyed it very much. It’s a significant film in many ways, though its short running time (82 minutes) seems to indicate a ‘B’ picture. The cast and crew and the sheer artistry of the film do, however, point to an ‘A’ picture from RKO. Researching the film, I came across a fascinating website, The Film Noir File: A Dossier of Challenges to the Film Noir Hardboiled Paradigm written and compiled by Dan Hodges. I should have been aware of this site because it explores the arguments against the conventional academic film histories of film noir and also the supposed American uniqueness of the genre/style. I would tend to support both of the main aims of the website.
The Spiral Staircase challenges the ‘paradigm’ of film noir in one sense and ‘fits’ it in another. It is not based on the kind of ‘hard-boiled’ crime fiction of the 1930s/40s, but it is directed by an émigré German director, Robert Siodmak and photographed by another, the Italian Nicholas Musaraca (who had worked in Hollywood since the 1920s). In fact, Siodmak and Musuraca were two of the principal ‘creators’ of film noir as later described by Hollywood film scholars. Musaraca worked under Val Lewton in RKO’s ‘B’ unit in the early 1940s on films such as Cat People (1942) and would later shoot the film noir classic Out of the Past (Build My Gallows High, 1947). Siodmak came to RKO after early noirs such as The Phantom Lady (1944) and The Suspect (1944). He would go on to make another recognised noir classic, The Killers, also in 1946.
So, how does The Spiral Staircase challenge the paradigm? The first films noirs to be studied extensively in retrospect were based on hard-boiled crime stories, often featured a ‘doomed man’ and a femme fatale and were contemporary in setting (though they might update 1930s stories to the 1940s). The Spiral Staircase is based on a novel by Ethel Lina White, a British writer who turned to crime fiction in the 1930s. Three of her novels were adapted for cinema, beginning with The Lady Vanishes in 1938 (UK, Alfred Hitchcock). She died in 1944 and didn’t see either The Spiral Staircase or Unseen (1945). The Spiral Staircase was adapted by a radio drama writer Mel Dinelli.
Ethel Lina White was born in 1876 in Abergavenny so it isn’t surprising that she set her 1933 novel Some Must Watch in the Welsh borders. It was adapted as The Spiral Staircase and transposed to early 20th century New England, but still featuring an isolated country house. Though the adaptation sees a few characters altered, the important point here is that the central character is Helen (Dorothy McGuire), a young woman who has lost her voice after a childhood trauma and is now the ‘ladies companion’ of the bed-ridden Mrs Warren (the formidable figure of Ethel Barrymore). The local town is experiencing the terror of a serial killer and the film opens with the murder of a young woman in a hotel while below an audience (including Helen) watches an early film screening. When Helen returns to the isolated country house (in a rainstorm), Siodmak reveals the shoes and single voyeuristic eye of the murderer hiding in the shadows on the stairs of the great old Victorian gothic mansion. The film’s title refers to the staircase down to the extensive basement/cellar. If you want more background on the book and film (with possible SPOILERS) there is an interesting post on ‘Le curieux Monsieur Cocosse | Journal’.)
We can guess what will happen, but the film is highly engaging with its narrative twists and turns and the superlative camerawork, lighting and set design make it always watchable. Helen is both ‘damsel in distress’ and investigator (and arguably the ‘final girl’ as identified in the horror films of the 1990s). As well as Helen and Mrs Warren, the film also features two other significant female roles played by Rhonda Fleming (who went on to lead roles in the 1950s) and Elsa Lanchester (wife of Charles Laughton and dogged by her early Hollywood success in The Bride of Frankenstein). The narrative draws primarily on the suspense thriller repertoire. The visual style suggests the horror film as much as the film noir and it is supported by a strong soundtrack mix of effects referring to the terrible storm outside, the banging of windows and shutters and the sound of the wind and rain. Horror and film noir arguably have roots in common in German expressionism of the 1920s and the same roots also apply to the particular cycle of female-centred melodramas that became popular in the 1940s. Many of these reveal a certain kind of paranoia about being in the ‘old dark house’. In Gaslight (UK 1940 and US 1944), both films adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s play, a woman in London becomes fearful that her house is subject to strange events. Her relative was murdered in the house some time ago but is her present husband trying to frighten her? Ingrid Bergman is the frightened woman in the Hollywood version with clear film noir links. The Spiral Staircase also links to the Barbara Stanwyck ‘woman in distress’ film Sorry Wrong Number (1948) in which she plays a woman who is bed-ridden, like the Ethel Barrymore character in the Siodmak film and similarly fearful of an attack. These melodramas are also films noirs.
Melodrama implies other familiar conventions. Helen is affected by her trauma so that she can’t speak – and therefore can’t ask for help or convey what she knows quickly. In the scene above she looks at herself in the mirror, a common image from melodrama that might suggest that there are two Helens or that she has something to hide that might not be revealed to the other characters. The mirror also allows the composition of images which are ‘disrupted’ in their presentation of narrative space. Here the deep focus which operates throughout the film shows the dining room below. In this case, the mirror image helps conjure up Helen’s fears that being unable to speak will be dangerous in the febrile atmosphere of her gothic surroundings. This image also gives an indication of the detailed set design and ‘set dressing’ which adds greatly to the power of the images. The art direction duties are credited to Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey. D’Agostino worked on 27 films released in 1946. The Spiral Staircase certainly benefits from the experience and expertise of personnel working within the studio system. Helen’s ‘lack’ of a voice is also a feature of certain melodramas where such ‘lacks’ are often seen as symbolic. In this film, the lack is also imagined by Helen in a sequence representing her internal thoughts and in another where a visual effect obscures her mouth.
I think that Dan Hodges is right to challenge the ‘paradigm’ of American film noir. So many different kinds of films have benefited from the application of themes and style features associated with noir. I think I’d describe The Spiral Staircase as a noir melodrama melded with the suspense thriller/horror film.
I enjoyed Glasgow Film Festival last year so much that I was keen to return. This time I had a packed three days with the usual choices governed by the times and venues. First up was Disorder, due out in a few weeks in the UK from Soda Pictures. Unfortunately, it was a slightly disappointing start, offering a ‘bodyguard’ narrative that doesn’t really go anywhere and perhaps wastes the pairing of its stars, Matthias Schoenaerts and Diane Kruger.
The ‘difference’ in this genre film is that Schoenaerts as Vincent is a soldier home from action in Afghanistan and taking on security work as an extra. This is an interesting plot detail. The French contingent in Afghanistan was relatively small and combat troops were withdrawn in 2012. French armed forces have operated recently in other war zones, including Africa, but perhaps ‘Afghanistan’ makes sense for the international film audience. Vincent has been diagnosed with hearing impairment and potential post traumatic shock. The film emphasises this through subjective sound as well as image and it clearly affects his efficiency as a guard. The film also has a pounding techno soundtrack which certainly disturbed me.
Vincent starts as part of a security team on an event and then gets a job protecting the hosts – Jessie (Kruger), the wife of Whalid a Lebanese arms dealer, and the couple’s small son Ali – who live on a large walled estate known as ‘Maryland’ (the film’s original title) in the South of France. With Whalid on a trip, the narrative appears to offer the audience the possibility of a relationship between Schoenaerts and Kruger and with Alice Winocour as director and co-writer I looked forward to something more interesting than what actually transpired. Without spoiling too much of the plot, the arms dealer seems to be part of an illegal operation in France that is in the process of going wrong and a ‘home invasion’ plotline develops in which Vincent might be on his own trying to secure the house with the threat of both criminals and police as enemies. Jessie then has to decide what she wants to do to get out of this situation. Disorder is one of those films where the principals have no backstories, so it seems strange that Winocour is attempting to make some kind of comment about women’s roles in other cultures when she shows Jessie watching the news (in English). Why is this German woman with one friend in the world married to a Lebanese in France? I still don’t know.
In the film’s defence, I was never bored and the tension and sudden outbursts of (brutal) violence are very well handled. I just needed more out of the personal drama. Festival co-director Allison Gardner introduced the film with references to Schoenaerts’ physical appeal and if that’s your thing his magnificent physique is certainly on display (if a little scuffed, bruised and tattooed). Poor Diane Kruger looks a little undernourished by comparison. As several commentators have pointed out, this is a return for Schoenaerts to the hulking but vulnerable muscle man of Bullhead and Rust and Bone. I like Schoenaerts in all his guises and I usually like French genre films – perhaps that’s why I felt disappointed with Disorder. Some critics have suggested French directors can’t compete with slick Hollywood thrillers. This is ridiculous since the crime thriller/polar is a French staple, but Disorder could learn a few tricks from another Diane Kruger film, Pour elle (Away From Her, France 2009).