Sunday 29 September 2019

Once Upon a Time in the West by Leone, Donati, Bertolucci & Argento

I had never really seen this movie properly. I might have watched a butchered version on television, but I'm sure I never saw a decent print in its entirety.

There were a couple things which motivated me to finally catch up with it...

Christopher Frayling, a critic and writer I admire tremendously has written a huge, beautiful and definitive new book about the film.

And of course Quentin Tarantino's latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in many ways a homage to Leone's picture.

In 1966 Sergio Leone had just had three hits in a row with his ground breaking and earthshaking series of movies with Clint Eastwood (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly).

Understandably, he was keen to leave westerns behind and make a different kind of film. What he had in mind was a gangster epic set in New York. (This would eventually become Once Upon a Time in America in 1984.)

But the American studio Paramount, while keen to work with Leone, preferred that he do one more western, expecting another box office bonanza.

What they got instead was an utterly different kind of movie, one which reinvented the western.

It is long (nearly three hours), slow moving, and almost bereft of dialogue. I would compare it to a great movie of the silent era, except its music is so important.

The score by Ennio Morricone is devastating. Morricone had collaborated with Leone from the beginning, and they had created three classic films with three unforgettable scores, but this time the men had the time and money to fulfil a dream.

Morricone's themes were written before shooting began and the music was played on the set to create a mood for the actors (something Quentin Tarantino still does).

And scenes in the film were created and edited to match Morricone's score, instead of the other way around.

Given all this, it's fascinating that the famous opening sequence features no music at all. In this three killers wait at an abandoned station for a late train, so they can ambush and kill Charles Bronson.

Morricone and Leone tried music here and it didn't work. So Morricone suggested instead that they use natural sounds — like the iconic squeaking windmill. It works fantastically well, and given that it's Morricone's concept, in an odd kind of way it is also his composition.

Once Upon a Time in the West was shot in Spain, Italy and Arizona at exactly the same time Sam Peckinpah was shooting another game-changing western in Mexico, The Wild Bunch.

But whereas The Wild Bunch was an immediate box office success, Leone's movie, released in America in 1968 in a shortened version, was a financial disaster there and in other English speaking territories.

However, it was a big hit in France, Germany and Spain. And in the years since its release it has come to be acknowledged as a classic.

Interestingly, Stanley Kubrick, another maker of long, slow films was a great admirer of Once Upon a Time in the West.

And of course Tarantino loves it: "it really illustrated what a director could do with the medium."

Leone's movie is incredible visually, with inspired set design and costumes by Carlo Simi and luminous photography by Tonino Delli Colli which balances long shots of landscapes with immense close ups of faces.

And what faces they are — the granite countenance of Charles Bronson, who would become a star as a result of this film, the feral beauty of Claudia Cardinale, and the cold blue eyes of Henry Fonda.

Fonda, who for decades had been a symbol of heroic decency in Hollywood films, is here reinvented by Leone as a profoundly evil killer.

If you have three hours or so to spare and a good wide screen television, I'd suggest having a look at a DVD of this film, or perhaps the new Blu-ray. 

It is slow, sometimes silly (Kung Fu style sound effects for punches), has dubious sexual politics...

But it's a masterpiece.

(Image credits: the posters are all from the Movie Poster Shop. They have a great selection and deserve your business.)

Sunday 22 September 2019

A Place Called Hope: the real life background to The Mousetrap

When I read Agatha Christie's The Mouse Trap recently, the most striking aspect for me was the horrific episode of cruelty to children which was at the heart of the plot. 

This is the tightly coiled spring that powers this classic drama about murder and revenge.

So I was riveted by a BBC Radio documentary about the true crime case which inspired Agatha Christie to write her play.

It is such an important element in The Mousetrap — and such an unforgettable tragedy — that I thought I'd write about it briefly here. 

(Don't worry, this won't involve giving away any spoilers about the play itself.)

It's a story of two Welsh brothers, Terry and Dennis O'Neill. They were 9 and 12 years old in 1944 when they were taken out of a loving but terribly impoverished family and put into the care of the authorities, supposedly for their own good.

The boys were rehoused with an English farmer and his wife in a place called Hope. The name was horribly at odds with the fate of the O'Neill brothers, who were ruthlessly starved and beaten.

Just to give some idea of the historical context... You may have heard the expression "rule of thumb."  Well this originated in the ruling that you could beat your child — or your wife — with a stick.

Just so long as it was no thicker than your thumb.

At the farm in Hope, Dennis O'Neill was beaten hundreds of times a night with a (thinner than your thumb) stick.

Finally, one dreadful night in January 1945, the farmer went too far and, in a fit of rage, killed the boy.

The incident was so ghastly that it drove the war off the front pages of the newspapers and led to profound and much needed reforms of the way children are treated in social care, and resulted in the Children Act of 1948.

The case also made an indelible impression on Agatha Christie. The terrible winter when the killing took place is immortalised in her play, along with a variation on the cruel situation itself.

The radio documentary I mentioned above is centred on Terry, the surviving brother. He had never seen The Mousetrap, so the interviewer takes him to London and buys him a ticket.

When asked afterward about his reaction to the play, he says "I thought it was fantastic." 

And when asked if he ever had a desire for revenge, like the one that drives this drama, he says no.

"It would put me in the same category as the person that's got these evil intents."

Hear hear.

(Image credits: 64th Year is from a Ticketmaster Blog which has some nice facts about the show. The seven figures in windows are from Walnut Street Theatre. The mice on the keys of the piano are from Maryville University. The guy in the trench coat is from the Experience Theatre Project. The blue poster of the house in snow is from Pinterest. Diamon anniversary is from Quay Tickets. The red poster with the mousehole and cheese is from Western Carolina University. The shadow on the floor poster — which is rather reminiscent of vintage Denis McLoughlin — is from Stage Coach Players.)

Sunday 15 September 2019

Mrs McGinty's Dead by Agatha Christie

I recently wrote about a superior Poirot novel, and began to get interested in which of  his adventures represent the cream of the crop.

As it happens, the next one I picked up, Mrs McGinty's Dead, the 30th in the series, published in 1952, also qualifies for the top ranking.

The story begins by drawing a more thorough portrait of Poirot, and his inner world, than is usual.The great detective is bored and in need of a challenge. As it happens, one is on its way...

In the shape of a cop who is sure that an innocent man is facing the gallows. The condemned man is James Bentley, and he was the lodger of one Mrs McGinty, an old woman who was brutally murdered.

Mrs McGinty was a char woman — a woman who cleans people's houses — in a small village called Broadhinny. And the notion of a sleepy, idyllic English village is dismissed very early in the book.

Superintendent Spence, the cop, says, "Our villages... aren't friendly... Evacuees found that during the war." I imagine Christie had in mind here the savage true life case which inspired her masterpiece The Mousetrap.

And when Poirot goes to Broadhinny to investigate, he is rather a fish out of water. Especially in the dreadful boarding house where he has to stay. The boarding house is run by Mrs Summerhayes (great name), a fun character who is brought emphatically to life in a couple of sentences.
The Summerhayes household is in a state of perpetual chaos... "The cat's been sick again... Those bloody hens are in the larder."

And when our hero tells Mrs Summerhayes that he is Hercule Poirot, expecting awestruck recognition of the great detective, she merely says "lovely name... Greek, isn't it?" Poor Poirot is punctured.

And when he explains that he's "'Perhaps the most famous detective there is.'" The response is, again, not what he expected:

"Mrs Summerhayes screamed with amusement. 'I see you're a great practical joker, M. Poirot'." 

Christie's gift for comedy is seriously under-appreciated, and this whole sequence is a comic tour de force.

But whatever Mrs Summerhayes may think, Poirot has soon begun to make serious progress on the murder of Mrs McGinty, linking the crime to one of four famous murder cases in the past.

The trouble is, he doesn't know which one...

Incidentally, one of those cases involved "poisoning by a vegetable alkaloid." By now Christie is, or is at least sounding, a lot more expert about her poisons than she was twenty years ago in Peril at End House.

And then Poirot is hit by an apple core and suddenly Ariadne Oliver is on the scene, linking up with the great detective for the first time since Cards on the Table. Mrs Oliver is a writer of detective stories and a fun surrogate for Agatha Christie.

Indeed Ariadne reflects regretfully on how in one of her books she blundered about pharmacology: "I made sulphanol soluble in water." Here one senses a mea culpa from Christie for her own heroin quills and cocaine chocolates.

The presence of Ariadne as a subsidiary investigator really peps things up, and the story is given even more energy when Poirot acquires another helper in the form of a young woman who is enlisted to assist him, much as Jane Grey did in Death in the Clouds.
In this case it is the glamorous Maude Williams, whom Poirot sends undercover as a maid in a posh household. Maude has a great line in sarcastic wit and refers to her bosses as "old frozen fish" and "Her Acidity".

But of course it is Poirot who ultimately cracks the case. And, as always, there is a moment in the story when this silly caricature of a foreigner gets deadly serious. 

"He was no longer a ridiculous little man... he was a hunter very close to his quarry."

This is topnotch Christie, fun, fresh and full of vivid characters and witty dialogue. 

And it is a distinctive and superior Hercules Poirot novel —  indeed it features that very rare occurrence, an attempt on Poirot's own life.

Oh yes, and the solution to the mystery is just beautiful. I never would have guessed it.

(Image credits: The main image with the beautiful, surreal Tom Adams fly is a scan of a copy from my own library. All the others are from Good Reads.)

Sunday 8 September 2019

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Aha! I'm beginning to sort out the standard Poirot novels from the exceptional ones, and Peril at End House is an exceptional one. 

It's not a match for the wonderful Five Little Pigs (I'm beginning to think nothing ever will be) but it's right up there with Taken at the Flood as prime Poirot. 

Published in 1932, Peril at End House is the eighth in the series and it begins with Hercule Poirot and his sidekick, the "faithful dog" Major Hastings, on holiday together.

They are staying at a hotel on the Cornish coast, which even then was attempting to pass itself off as the English Riviera, leading to some sarcastic comments on page one.

Almost immediately Poirot encounters a captivating young woman, Nick Buckley (groovy name) who, though she doesn't realise it yet, is the subject of a series of murder attempts. 

But the would-be killer has "made a grave mistake... when he shot at his victim within a dozen yards of Hercule Poirot!"

Nick lives in a big mansion adjacent to the hotel. Yes, you've guessed it, it's called End House and Nick is the subject of the peril in the title. 

Her situation puts Poirot in a challenging dilemma, requiring him to "detect a crime before it has been committed — that is indeed of a rare difficulty."

And we are desperate for Poirot to succeed, because Nick Buckley is a great character, immediately vivid in the reader's mind, with her "small impudent dark head" and her fabulous, sardonic dialogue.

Like when she is talking about her boring lawyer cousin and says, "Charles thinks my mode of life is reprehensible and he disapproves of my cocktails, my complexion, my friends and my conversation. But he still feels my fatal fascination."   
Or in describing the hairdo of her frumpy cousin Maggie, which has "just become fashionable by accident."

And when Poirot comes to call on her, intending to reveal that she is the target of a murder plot, Nick tells him, "I'm devoured with curiosity."

Nick Buckley is a jackpot character and brings out the best in Christie. Also perhaps in Poirot, who seems to feel something of that fatal fascination himself.

Though he does describe Nick as an "allumeuse." It means a kind of posh (if you'll excuse the expression) prick tease.

It's a word Christie would use again in Murder in Mesopotamia. Interestingly there is also a ghastly and mysterious face at the window in Peril at End House, as there is Murder in Mesopotamia.

But Nick Buckley is brimming with vitality and fun, and so is the book. ("Dr Watson, I presume?" says Nick when she meets Hastings.)

Nick's friend Frederica, also vividly drawn, doesn't hesitate to bad-mouth Nick, calling her "the most heaven-sent little liar that ever existed." And then adding that "loyalty's such a tiresome virtue."

The dialogue in this novel is outstanding and Christie is clearly firing on all cylinders. 

Even Poirot gets in some zingers. Referring to Hastings' recent sojourn in Brazil, he says, "He has just returned from those great clear open spaces, etc." 

This is the tone of the book — sardonic, full of exuberance and energy. The novel is a breath of fresh air, like that blowing in off the sea in great abundance on the Cornish Riviera. 

And it fizzes with life, ironically for a story so focused on death.

The story's energy dips a bit when Nick is consigned to a nursing home for her own safety ("In the narrow iron bed she looked like a tired child") — although the attempts on her life continue.

And she remains a supremely terrific character, one of the best in the series so far.

Poirot is also very much on form, with his arrogance firmly intact ("I who am an original").
And soon enough he is on the track of the killer and Hastings observes, "His eyes were shining with the queer cat-like green light that I knew so well." 

(This is one of the few occasions where cats serve in a positive fashion in a Christie narrative; they're more normally signifiers of something negative.)

Peril at End House isn't flawless. There's a murder attempt by slipping cocaine into someone's food. And I simply don't think that could be lethal. 

Christie would become quite an expert on poisons, but at this stage there are the weird anomalies like the mysterious "goose quill" used to snort heroin in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).

And there's a nasty little hiccup in Peril at End House when a Jewish character, who has up to now has been presented in a refreshingly positive light, is denigrated by Poirot. 

As Charles Osborne puts it in his excellent book on Christie, "You are saddened to hear this from Poirot, who must himself frequently have been the butt of other people's xenophobia."

Yet Peril at End House remains a top drawer Poirot novel. Is it better than Taken at the Flood? Well, the characters and dialogue here are clearly superior.

However, the solution to the mystery in Peril at End House — while it is entirely unguessable — doesn't quite have the flabbergasting astonishment factor of the ending of Taken at the Flood.

But it's a close thing.

And I'm looking forward to finding the other finest Poirot adventures, and telling you about them.

(Image credits: The nice Tom Adams cover with the plot-relevant Mauser pistol is scanned from my own copy. The other covers are from Good Reads. I love the yellow Bulgarian one with the rifle sights superimposed on Nick.)

Sunday 1 September 2019

The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie

The Mousetrap is a victim of its own success. It's such a staggeringly popular play — the longest running in history — that it is easy to take it for granted.

In fact, it is such an enduring part of our cultural furniture that it's in danger of becoming completely invisible.

I first saw it, many years ago, in the same way I might have visited the Tower of London. Reluctantly dragged along to this tourist must-see, 

I actually found it very entertaining and I didn't come close to guessing who the killer was.

(And you can relax, I have no intention of giving that away here.)

But it is only recently that I've come to truly appreciate the really quality of this stage classic, when I read the play for the first time. 
I was immediately struck by the perfect moody, snowbound setting. We are in Monkswell Manor, a rather dingy guesthouse which has been cut off by a blizzard, where the isolated collection of diverse characters are about to become targets for a killer. 

The guest house is run by Mollie and Giles Ralston and the play begins, wittily, with Mollie picking up her husband's coat, scarf and hat while the radio describes the manhunt for a murderer wearing exactly these items.

There are also playful and self-referential scene directions, with one character described as  "a slightly taller edition of Hercule Poirot."

And great dialogue: "Terrible weather isn't it, takes one back to Dickens and Scrooge and that irritating Tiny Tim."

That's from the waspish and rather camp Christopher, who also remarks "I adore nursery rhymes, don't you? Always so tragic and macabre."

And, when a cop called Trotter turns up on skis, he quips "I do admire the police. So stern and hardboiled."

Agatha Christie is adroit at establishing character through dialogue. "All trains should have been met," snaps Mrs Boyle, "a large imposing woman in a very bad temper" who has had to make her own way from the station.

And there is a further, terrific revelation of character when Mrs Boyle says, "One tries to do a public duty and all one gets is abuse." 

This remark refers to the fact that she was a magistrate responsible for sending three young children to a terrible fate.

Which brings us to the most striking thing about The Mousetrap. The murders that take place here aren't arbitrary, for plot convenience.

They are potently motivated by this horrific episode of child abuse in the backstory, giving the whole play a dark power which drives it forward, and which no amount of comic relief can entirely disguise.

Disturbingly, this incident was based on a true story which I'll write about in another post.

But for now, suffice to say that The Mousetrap is one of Agatha Christie's 24-carat masterpieces, and it deserves its enduring and enormous success.

Time I went to see it again...

(Image credits: The main image of three mice pointing inwards is from Ann Arbor District Library. "Directed by Angela Wright" is from Kickstarter. The Ambassadors Theatre programme is from Arthur LLoyd. The fingerprint mouse is from Birminghmam 365. The mouse and the house is from Columbia County Current.  37th Year is from V&A. The Pardoe Theatre is from the excellent designer Nick Mendoza. The black white and red one is from Curtain Players. New Zealand Players is from Reed Gallery. The Chinese poster is from Pinterest.)