Sunday 26 May 2013

Philip MacDonald: Gethryn on Film

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about The List of Adrian Messenger. This was the last of Philip MacDonald's 12 novels featuring his intelligence officer turned amateur detective Anthony Gethryn (great name).

Now thanks to my favourite DVD shop, Fopp (when in London, shop at Fopp) I have a copy of John Huston's film of The List of Adrian Messenger which I watched as soon as I got it home.

I'm a big admirer of Huston and I'd actually once seen this movie, or some of it, on television, over 20 years ago. I had vague memories of foxhunting and latex masks — which, as it turns out, are not too inaccurate.

The first thing to be said about the film is that it seriously understates Philip MacDonald's contribution. His authorship of the novel isn't even mentioned. Instead he gets on-screen credit in small letters for providing the 'story' of the film.

Now, in the  language of screenwriting attribution a story credit usually means the writer either wrote a brief treatment on which the film was based, or did the first draft of the script which was subsequently massively altered.

Meanwhile in large letters the screenplay is credited to Anthony Veiller. Veiller was a veteran screenwriter who had often collaborated with John Huston, notably on Night of the Iguana, The Killers and Beat the Devil.

As a result of his work on the Messenger script, Anthony Veiller was nominated by the Mystery Writers of American for their Edgar Alan Poe award in 1964.

Veiller (and presumably Huston, who was himself a first rate screenwriter) certainly did an excellent job of adapting MacDonald's novel. The book has been ingeniously compressed and conflated and some very effective new material has been invented, notably at the end.

However, Philip MacDonald's contribution has been unfairly glossed over by the minuscule story credit. The plot of his book has been faithfully followed (up until the end) with many of the incidents carefully retained, the characters and their relationships are present and correct — even the love story, featuring the delectable Dana Wynters as Lady Jocelyn, has been transferred intact, and is handled charmingly and amusingly — perhaps even more so than it was in MacDonald's original.

And much of MacDonald's (excellent) dialogue has been lifted straight from the novel for the movie.

In any case, it's great to see Gethryn (well played by George C. Scott) come to life on screen complete with his regular police stooges — sorry, collaborators — Lucas and Pike. 

The acting throughout the movie is mostly of an agreeably high standard, with perhaps the  exception of Tony Huston, the director's young son who has been cast out of his depth and seems uncomfortable in the role of an English heir to a large fortune — which provides the movie's McGuffin.

This is an engrossing, intelligent, well made film, shot in black and white with Ted Scaife contributing to the photography and a music score by the great Jerry Goldsmith.

As I mentioned, the ending of the movie differs considerably from the book. I didn't mind this, partly because the conclusion of the novel wasn't entirely satisfactory, involving as it did a sudden shift in location (from England to America) and the introduction of a new group of characters to assist the good guys.

In the film the climax is kept in England, and indeed is set in the estates of the family who are central to the plot, which makes a lot of sense. And by allowing the psychopathic killer to actually enter into the home of the aristocratic family it makes for a more satisfactory game of cat and mouse.

However, there is a minor but annoying flaw here. When the killer turns up to join the foxhunting aristos, Gethryn knows exactly who he is. So why doesn't he just arrest him? Well, because he doesn't have any evidence. The entire case against the killer (played by Kirk Douglas) is circumstantial.

But someone needed to point this out in dialogue.

But there is a much bigger problem with the film. In the novel the killer makes use of disguise to change his identity. In the movie they decided to really go to town on this, with the result that Kirk Douglas staggers around under layers of latex, wearing some of the most egregious and phony make up I've ever seen in my life.

Unbelievably, the film makers seemed to have thought these prosthetic disguises were so impressive that they'd make them a major part of the movie's marketing. And so there are risible cameos by big stars (Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster) in tiny roles, also buried under these ludicrous, lumpy-faced joke-shop masks. I wish they hadn't bothered.

What makes this exercise even more pointless is the fact that some of the supposed cameos weren't even played by the stars in question, but rather a disguised actor called Jan Merlin.

But none of this prevents The List of Adrian Messenger being a superior thriller and a worthy adaptation of the novel.

There were five films of Gethryn novels, but I suspect this is by far the best of them. 

The DVD doesn't feature any extras, but it is a nice crisp transfer and is available for a bargain price.

(Image credits: the nice poster at the top is from Torrent Butler, a site with a fantastic collection of John Huston film posters which is well worth a visit. Indeed, Huston seems to have attracted a lot of excellent internet activity. The photo of George C. Scott as Gethryn and the other bloke — John Merrivale as Adrian Messenger himself — with his back to us and the shot of Kirk Douglas removing his disguise are from an impressive blog called Every John Huston Movie. Check it out. The photo of Huston with his son Tony on location is from A Certain Cinema. The still of Gethryn at the chalkboard is from Talkin' Oldies. The British knife-in-the-back DVD cover is from the distributor Metrodome. No one actually gets knifed in the movie though — our careful psychopath's whole schtick is to make the killings look accidental.The brightly coloured alternative DVD cover is from Film List. The foxhunt still with Gethryn in the foreground and, if you look carefully, John Huston in a cameo on horseback in the background, is from Mounds and Circles. Dana Wynter as Lady Jocelyn holding a cat — no pussy jokes, please — is from 148 Bonnie Meadow Road, a laudable blog about cats in the movies. The French movie poster is from Film Affinity, as is the second French poster. The image of Huston smoking one of the cigars that killed him is from Good Fellas Movie Blog. The image of Huston smoking one of the cigarettes that killed him is from MUBI. The final smoking picture is of Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown and is from Wikipedia, where it is mislabeled.)

Sunday 19 May 2013

Dick Francis: Rat Race

It comes as something of a relief to have read a Dick Francis novel which I can't immediately recommend as a flawless small masterpiece.

Rat Race is very good indeed. As with Smokescreen he refreshes the horse racing mileiu by making his hero peripheral to it — in this case he is the pilot of a small plane that carries trainers, owners and jockeys to the race tracks. And the flying world is beautifully evoked.

But Rat Race comes with a couple of semi-fatal flaws. 

Both of these flaws relate to a character called Chanter (great name). Chanter is a hippie art teacher who is in the book as a spoiler for Nancy, who is the object of Chanter's affections as well as the hero's. 

Now, Chanter is an interesting and  amusing character

He wears utterly outlandish costumes (one described as a "dark green chenille table cloth" with a hole in it for his head), which stretch the bounds of crediblity. 

But, despite that, he's surprisingly three dimensional. A big boost to this feeling of reality is the fact that Nancy doesn't entire abjure his attentions and even, on some level, fancies him a little. Plus the fact that Chanter "really can draw".

No, the problem with Chanter is the way he talks.  

I first noticed this issue in Smoke Screen with a young American character. Now, normally Dick Francis's dialogue is spot on. 

Besides being vivid, amusing and informative it is also authentic. Hs horse-racing people, film makers and (in this novel) aviation folk all speak in an utterly convincing way.

I assume this is because Francis had a chance to observe such people, and listen to them, at close quarters. Not so with Americans and hippies, sadly.

The American in Smokescreen kept saying things like "sure" and "" in exactly the way that real Americans don't. (The way to nail American dialogue is to have them say things like "gotten" where an Enlgishman would say "got". The great Nigel Kneale knew this.)

And here Chanter says things like "You're a drag, man. I mean, cubic". Now, it's not impossible that such things were uttered at times by real live hippies. But they much more often came out of the mouths of dreadful cardboard stereotypes. 

Strictly from Cliché City, man. Or should I say Trope Town?

Anyhow, this is the only Achilles heel I've detected so far in the writing of Dick Francis, who remains a genius and my hero. 

There is one more problem with Rat Race, though.

This also relates to Chanter. What happens is that our hero and the alluring Nancy are getting closer and closer to, ahem, consumating their relationship... when this is suddenly kibboshed by the sort of arbitrary and far fetched misunderstanding which is a staple of bad romantic fiction. 

So she runs off (we think) with Chanter for a while, before everything is sorted out and normal service is resumed.
I would by no means advise you to steer clear of Rat Race just because of these minor imperfections. 

The book also features the most sustained and nail-biting setpiece of suspense writing I've encountered in the novels of Dick Francis (and possibly anywhere). I'll only tell you that it involves an airplane.

There are also the breathtaking sudden moments of unexpected violence. Francis really is a master of the form. And here he breaks new ground with his beautifully realised evocation of pilots and flying.

Despite the Chanter factor, I found Rat Race so gripping that I almost missed my station while reading it on the train.

(Yet again we have the admirable Jan-Willem Hubbers to thank for the stylish cover that begins this blog, with the photo by Colin Thomas. the Dick Francis Library cover is from Waterstones. The dynamic image photo image of the jockeys racing is from Fantastic Fiction. The green bomb cover is from Biblio Dot Com. The very nice first edition cover is again from Ash Rare Books. The painted cover is by Greg Montgomery and is from the artist's own website.) 

Sunday 12 May 2013

Philip MacDonald: More Colonel Gethryn

Anthony Ruthven Gethryn (the middle name is pronounced 'riven') was the detective protagonist created by the gifted British novelist and screenwriter Philip MacDonald. MacDonald is now largely, and undeservedly, forgotten.

And the Gethryn novels, possibly with the exception of his earliest outing, The Rasp (1924), are still worth reading.

The Choice is the fifth novel in the series and was published in 1931. Interestingly, it begins as a classic 'locked room' type murder mystery, but then soon modulates into a chase thriller before returning to the locked room mystery at its conclusion. 

MacDonald was an intelligent and imaginative writer and the way he blends and bends genre conventions is altogether admirable.

The Choice (aka The Polferry Mystery and The Polferry Riddle) also foreshadows the final, and perhaps finest, Gethryn adventure The List of Adrian Messenger in the way it presents a race to stop a killer completing a sequence of assasinations, and to work out the reason for his murderous spree.

It also prefigures a couple of the murder methods in that later novel — the small boat drowning and the spooked horse. For a little while I even thought that the motivation behind the killing of the victims on the list would be the same in both books.

But MacDonald is much too good a writer to duplicate himself like that and, thankfully, The Choice eventually explores very different territory to The List of Adrian Messenger.

One thing about the Gethryn novels; even though he is a sleuthing genius, the police are never treated like dolts. There is an attitude of mutual respect — and affection — between Gethryn and the Scotland Yard officers.  This was even true of the first novel The Rasp. 

(I was perhaps a little hard on The Rasp in my earlier post. It did feature some excellent, vivid characterisation. Like the effeminate, corrupt private detective Mr Pebble, who only features on about one page but makes an indelible impression.)

And on a police procedure note, I was intrigued to see that even in 1931 the police issued the familiar caution: "Anything you tell us..." "I know, I know, may be taken down and used as evidence against me." 

Elsewhere in the novel, MacDonald is up to his old trick of rendering the dialogue of the lower orders phonetically, for the amusement of the reader. However, to his credit, he actually does a reversal of this procedure here when a taxi driver is asked to describe his fare. He says the man was a 'toff' and goes on to mimic the toff's voice as it commanded him: "Drave me lake L to Jook Squaw". Translation: "Drive me like hell to Duke Square."

MacDonald actually has quite a good ear for this idiomatic stuff, and now I've read an example of him using it to mock the upper class as well as the working class, it sits a lot more comfortably with me. 

And there's some fine little touches of descriptive prose: a floorboard is torn up "with a little crashing scream."

Incidentally the Mayflower Dell copy which I read, featuring the yellow lamp, is very misleading showing as it does the bloodstained cut throat razor. The whole point of the story is that the razor is mysteriously missing. But this isn't just artistic licence, it's fundamentally inaccurate in other ways. I won't say any more, except to add that the Black Dagger Crime edition, with its red cover, is much more on-target.

I'm keen to read some more Anthony Gethryn adventures. And if you're wondering what the image of the automobile is about, it's a French Voisin of the same vintage as the one Gethryn drives. (Also a favourite motor of the architect Le Corbusier.)

(Image credits. The generic but striking green, white and black Crime Club cover is from Fantastic Fiction. The beautiful hardcover dustwrappers, both UK and USA, are from the wonderful Facsimile Dust Jackets. The Vintage paperback with its jigsaw design (I'm beginning to realise this was a very stylish series) is from eBay. The red razor blade cover — much more relevant than some others — is from The Bunburyist, a blog which features a perceptive post about this novel by Elizabeth Foxwell. The Mayflower Dell yellow lamp cover is again from eBay and is exactly the copy I bought and read. The radiator of the Voisin is from Beloblog, where I learned about the Le Corbusier connection.)

Sunday 5 May 2013

Dick Francis: Smokescreen

I'd like to thank Mark, a reader of this blog, for recommending that Smokescreen should be my next Dick Francis novel.

I read it and it's dynamite. I am more and more impressed with Francis. His stuff is so good — thank god there's so much of it to read. 

There is an interesting development and expansion in these novels. Although they all  feature the world of horse racing, Francis varies this formula by not necessarily making his protagonist part of that world.

So we have Edward Lincoln, nicknamed Link, hero of Smokescreen. He is, of all things, a movie star.

Now, this is a potentially disastrous choice of milieu and character, but the formidable Dick Francis pulls it off. He writes as knowledgeably about film making as he does about horses and jockeys.

Indeed, professional filmmakers admire the authenticity of his writing on the subject.

Another possible disaster area is the unusual location of the story. South Africa. 

I assumed Smokescreen would just be a breezy thriller set in an 'exotic' location and that the political and racial nightmare of the country would be ignored. But, again, our author is far too clever for that. He cannily addresses the whole issue by letting one of his South African characters launch into an obtuse defence of her country — thereby subtly offering a critique of it.

But to hell with politics, this is a thriller and an outstanding one. The nerve wracking sequences of violence and suspense come out of nowhere and nail the reader utterly. I couldn't stop devouring the book. It was kind of an agonising pleasure.

The characters are also beautifully depicted, and given considerable depth and authenticity. 

For example, Link has a brain damaged young daughter. In any other genre novel she would be allotted a huge chunk of the plot, and probably receive a miracle cure at the end. But here she is just briefly mentioned, to give a bittersweet three-dimensional quality to our hero's life. To make us care about him.

These sort of details lend the book an indelible vividness and a sense of reality.

Best of all, Smokescreen features a blithe psychopath (to use Charles Willeford's phrase) of the kind who used to feature so memorably in the novels of John D. MacDonald

A really chilling bad guy, to set against the likable and sympathetic hero.

And, as I've come to expect from Francis, there's notable moments of wit, perceptive writing, sharp observation and excellent dialogue.

Here we have the cinematographer admiring an attractive young woman: "Conrad took in her colour temperature with an appreciative eye."

Elsewhere a poised, snobbish woman learns that her friend is terminally ill: "her grief showing through the social gloss like a thistle among orchids."

Or: "A couple of vultures... perched on a nearby tree like brooding anarchists awaiting the revolution."

More Dick Francis, please.

Incidentally, the cover photo looks like some kind of stirrup...

It's a handcuff. 

(Note to blog reader Dawn Over London: I hope you enjoyed Nerve by Dick Francis. Smokescreen is well worth a look, too, as you will have gathered.)

(Image credits: As is traditional, I used one of the boldly graphic Colin Thomas covers as the main image, and it's borrowed from Jan-Willem Hubbers' fine website. The stylish and apt  "blue moon" cover is from eBay. The somewhat dull first-edition clapper board cover is from Ash Rare Books.The excellent photo of Dick Francis with a horse is from his Wikipedia entry. The yellow Pan cover is from Biblio.Com's Dick Francis page. The nice (though somewhat misleading — this book isn't much about horses, or about shooting at targets at all — did anyone even read it?)  'Dick Francis Library' cover is from Waterstones.)