IN PRAISE OF MIKE LEIGH

The next post will be on or before Friday April 27th.  If you want to read my new comic novel about online dating, The Lawless Book of Love, you should go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right

IN PRAISE OF MIKE LEIGH

Haughty male voice. “Bring me a biscuit, Christine, a Garibaldi!”

“Very well, dear.”

“No, no, bring me a Bourbon instead!”

Thus, Ralph Butcher the middle aged, tyrannical RE (Religious Education) school teacher orders his dogsbody of a wife, netball teacher Christine, the two of them living in a faceless purchased council house in Canterbury, Kent, UK somewhere around the late 1970s, when men could still boss women about and apparently get away with it. In this accomplished 1980 Mike Leigh comedy for TV, Grown Ups, Butcher is played very ably by the late Sam Kelly (1943-1970) with his impressively egotistical owl-like face familiar from BBC comedies like Porridge and Ello Ello. Butcher is aloof and more or less contemptuous of his pupils, and likes to sit in bed reading aloud to Christine their illiterate RE essays. That is the only thing that happens in bed, and Christine played by the beautiful Pinter actress Lindsay Duncan (born 1950) here looking terminally dowdy and with a singsong pedantic voice, still wants a love life and tells Ralph at one crucial point she would very much like that elusive trio Love, Sex and Happiness. The religion teacher is suitably stumped and makes no comment as he keeps on earnestly reading his books about the Loch Ness monster and other garish mysteries. Earlier, when his wife asked him did he really believe in the fabled monster, he had ranted at her for her lack of Faith, which of course is an interestingly heretical interpretation given that later he declares theirs to be a Christian household. Even better as a comic touch, and reminiscent of the HG Wells shop-owner tyrants in Kipps and Mr Polly, Ralph punctuates his discourse with odd gurgling noises that arise from his stomach but come relentlessly to the surface in his fish-like mouth.

Next door, two of Ralph’s former pupils, now newly-weds in their early 20s, have just moved in. They recognise him, but he doesn’t remember them, which predictably causes him nil embarrassment. Dick the husband is played by Leigh regular Philip Davis (born 1953) and he is a grunting monosyllabic underdog, working wearily as a washer up of greasy casserole tins in a cheap restaurant. He has a permanent expression of bleary disdain, and despite his ever-ready libido is fighting off the ambition of his cafe employee wife, Mandy (Lesley Manville, another Leigh regular, born 1956) to get pregnant ASAP. They are effective working class counterpoints to the childless middle class Butchers, though Dick like bossy Ralph orders Mandy to make him a cup of tea while he is watching telly sprawled on his back, and when she refuses, he gets in a filthy temper. The young and impoverished couple converse in standard aspirational cliché about gathering things together bit by bit, as they have neither Hoover nor washing machine as yet. Partly this is because they like to go out drinking most nights, while unreformed Dick also reserves the right to go carousing with the boys on his own.  And into this quaint opposition of the quietly desperate Butchers and their unglamorous young neighbours, comes the powerful dramatic foil of Mandy’s older sister, significantly called Gloria/Glor and played with absolute genius by Brenda Blethyn (born 1946) familiar both from Leigh dramas and, sad to say an unbelievably dire UK TV police drama, called Vera.

Gloria is a sad, indeed a truly tragic case. She is 32 and single, a zealous office worker, and she lives at home with Mum who nags her if she goes out, and nags her if she stops in. Her only chance of happiness is to spend as much time as possible with Mandy, so she is always gawping through the window and hailing them heartily with her squeaky insinuating voice, oblivious to their looks of frank despair. She always lands when they are about to eat their dinner, and protests that a bit of toast will be enough for her and promptly helps herself at the grill. This makes Mandy and even Dick feel both guilty and resentful, and in Dick’s case gradually explosive. Gloria craftily ingratiates herself by buying double gins for Mandy in the pub after she had promised to join them for the one drink only, then swiftly depart. Even better she turns up one day with a massive parcel which turns out to be a stand- up Hoover and the two sisters purr ecstatically at the joy of the wondrous gadget. And as foil to a foil, we also have Mandy’s old schoolmate Sharon, played perfectly by Janine Duvitski (born 1952) of Leigh’s 1977 Abigail’s Party fame. Sharon is pessimism personified, and Dick’s relentless teasing implies they might once have had something going between them. Mandy proudly shows her round the house where Sharon declares everything is either too small or needs a good clean. She grumbles about her job on the sweet counter in a big store, and says she wants to be on dresses, but once on dresses says she is bored and wishes she were back on sweets.

Things come to a disturbing head when Gloria turns up with her overnight gear claiming her Mum has kicked her out. Mandy happens to be out drinking with Sharon, and Dick is trying to watch football on Grandstand when the maddening pest arrives. On her return he orders Mandy to throw her out, who does her best, but then Gloria races off and locks herself in upstairs, until pursued by enraged Dick she flees next door to the Butchers! She barricades herself in their toilet and only Mrs Butcher shows anything like mature sympathy when it comes to calming the pathetic hysteric. She orders raging Dick to get out of her house, clouts Mandy across the face when she terrifies Gloria further, and also bellows at bullying Ralph to get out of the way. She manages to get Gloria out of her refuge with a cup of tea, whereupon the pest promptly falls asleep exhausted, and Christine organises Mandy and Sharon to take her home by taxi. All this might have seemed final, and Mandy and Dick might have banned the hopeless sister for ever more, but the film concludes with Gloria bent over her sister’s swollen belly, ecstatic as she feels the baby kicking and realising she is about to become an aunty.

So what to make of Mike Leigh (born 1943) winner of numerous international prizes for his films and TV work, yet still criticised by some for his unsentimental and others might add, cruelly satirical attitude towards his characters? Around 40 years ago the novelist Julian Barnes (born 1946) then TV critic for the New Statesman was complaining that Leigh was uncomfortably patronising towards the working class and putting his audiences into the invidious situation of sneering at what should not be sneered at. Aside from the fact that impeccably intellectual Barnes, would have about as much notion of how to blend into a rough London pub or other mundane milieu as he would of astral travel, where I believe Mike Leigh really deserves to be applauded is with his radical decision not to idealise working people and all other folk in his dramas. He is accused of overdone caricature when he portrays e.g. the appalling slob of a Mancunian Dad (Clifford Kershaw) in Hard Labour (1973) a gruff and loveless nightwatchman with painful feet who treats his charwoman wife (Liz Smith, 1921-2016) like dirt. But sad to say such folk did and do still exist, and I myself have known them, and Leigh really is not parodying anything or anyone to excess. And after all, Leigh is a director and a dramatist, not an idealistic journalist nor sociologist, and if he wishes to, surely he is entitled to bend the coordinates to get the artistic effects he is after. Where he really excels though, is with people painfully on the edge, such as needy hopeless Gloria, or the seriously disturbed driving instructor Scott played brilliantly by Eddie Marsan (born 1968) in the 2008 Happy Go Lucky, or photographer Timothy Spall’s fragile and childless  Scottish wife in Secrets and Lies (1996) or most powerfully of all with Johnny the Mancunian vagabond (the virtuoso David Thewlis, born 1963) jabbering his apocalyptic obsessions, as he wanders round London looking for who knows what, in that remarkable 1993 film Naked. It is worth emphasising that Leigh specialises in making us feel thoroughly uncomfortable and roundly squirming in our chairs, as we recognise those sad and appalling and occasionally, though not often, hilarious folk who are remarkably like ourselves and those we know at our worst. Reflect that no one seriously criticised Harold Pinter (1930-2008) for conveying disturbed and damaging eccentrics in hypertrophied form on the stage, and ditto with the subversive Joe Orton (1933-1967) if only because their bizarre protagonists were by and large classless and rootless and far from realistic flesh and blood individuals. Leigh versatilely does a similar thing, but with extremely credible café skivvies in Grown Ups, and very ordinary London postmen in the 1982 Home Sweet Home, and ditto the unfeeling Manchester nightwatchman, and the convincingly callous Asian taxi driver (a very young Ben Kingsley) in Hard Labour. He presents them quite so unflatteringly and inevitably uncomfortably, just possibly because he sees the notional aesthetic of the audience’s  ‘comfort’, as ultimately bogus and the consequent enemy of dramatic truth.

 

 

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THE QUESTION NO ONE DARES ASK – a short story

The next post will be on or before Friday April 27th. If you would like to read my new comic novel about online dating THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE please go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right

THE QUESTION NO ONE DARES ASK – a short story

When, after our thirty-year marriage, Joanie died of secondary cancer at the tail end of 2009, once the busy funeral was over, and all the many mourners had come and gone, I realised there was something very simple I wanted people to ask of me, but oddly no one, not a single soul, ever did. It was something remarkably basic and obvious, that I would have wished my friends and colleagues to say, nothing remotely sophisticated, something so natural, not to say short and sweet, I couldn’t imagine why no one said it, but indeed nobody ever did, neither at the time nor for months after until something obliged at least one of them to stop in their tracks and almost do so.

I was living alone in a bloody big house that was stuck out in the country, and which inevitably made things worse. My daughter Sarah was away at university, and of course I didn’t expect her to ask me that question, as she was grieving herself in her own particular way, and it was not appropriate for her to put to me, what my friends and workmates, most of whom were at least twice her age, I believed should be putting. My situation reminded me vividly of that of my Dad when my mother had died back in 1990. He also lived in a bloody big house, and she also had died of cancer, though in her case and unlike Joanie she had sat like some obstinate broody hen on the appalling symptoms, kept it all a close secret, and had not consulted the doctor for an incredible, and of course very hazardous, eighteen months. It is a tired cliché but my Dad really was lost without my mother, because his social life had come exclusively through her, as she was the last word in gregariousness and hospitality, whereas he was very shy and naturally reclusive. Once she died everyone apart from me, my brothers and one of his sister in laws, stopped coming to the big old mansion in that grimy village down west, and manifestly he did nothing to encourage any visitors. He didn’t drive but could have taken a bus or even a train easily enough to see old acquaintances, but instead he stayed at home and pushed the time in as best he could. He read the paper, he read his library books, he watched TV, he endured the occasional visits of one or two old villagers, but if they too were widowed or otherwise abandoned he felt no ameliorative kinship. He told me that one unfortunate old man whose wife was severely demented and agonisingly didn’t know him from Adam, bored him to death, and he made a point of offering him neither tea nor coffee in case he opted to extend his visit. The result was that my father was thoroughly bored with his long and empty days, that he frequently went to bed at 7.30, the time a six- year-old child might have, and that every night he firmly bolted the door fast against the uncomprehending and increasingly unappetising world.

It was only a few days after my mother’s death that I visited him with one-year-old Sarah and it occurred to me at once to ask him the simple question that twenty years later I would want people to ask of me. So I put to him my obvious query and he looked at me a little startled and then his eyes filled up and his voice broke for the first time in many years and very huskily he answered:

“Of course, I do! Of course, I do. What else could I do?”

He was dead some two years later aged seventy-six of a rapid stomach cancer which indeed might have been seen to be looming on the horizon. It was all too explicable given his incredible and unhealthy widower’s diet. The first thing he had done after his wife’s death was to empty her copiously equipped kitchen of all but one breakfast bowl, one tea plate which would also accommodate his dinner, one set of cutlery, and a single small saucepan. His sister in law Josie who drove through every Friday night, brought him half a dozen meat pies she had baked herself, and he ate half a one of these that he had heated in the oven every lunchtime and every evening, employing the cooker rings only to warm up some baked beans or tinned peas. And that was it. Twice a day for all of two years he had pie and beans or pie and peas, and nothing else aside from his breakfast cereal.

As for my workmates, or better say professional colleagues, though in a different social and intellectual strata from my factory worker father, they were just as extreme in their omissions. This was my third year of working in a European Literature university department, though I was not employed by the university but by a private charity, and my job was to teach the students how to structure and write their essays, theses, reports and doctorates. If you included the secretaries and administrators, there were about thirty colleagues in all, and when I went back after Joanie’s death, I expected most of them sooner or later to say something, however perfunctory, about the fact I had lost my wife. Note carefully that I am not talking about them putting the urgent question that I really wanted them to put, but just to acknowledge the fact that after thirty years, no small time lapse, I no longer possessed a wife. I should likewise emphasise there was no way in which they could have been in ignorance about it, as the department secretary I shared had sent a memo round about their colleague’s bereavement. And yet as the days and then the weeks went by, only two out of thirty went so far as to acknowledge my loss. One man, bustling energetic Danny Ross, was a lecturer I had first met elsewhere, who also had a wife and the one daughter, and he sent me a delicate and calligraphic sympathy card with a single violet on the front, and I immediately filled up as I read it very slowly. The other was the big surprise, for handsome, sharp-featured Margo De Lisle was the most flagrantly anti-social of the teaching staff, a German lecturer who was an expert on Theodor Fontane, who customarily walked around with her head down and didn’t bother with the usual niceties of casual greetings. Instead today she knocked barely audibly on my door, shuffled in, looked me shyly in the eye, and said she was really sorry to hear of Joanie’s death. I smiled and thanked her and made us both a coffee and told her that only she and Danny, who ironically taught the affectless existentialists Camus and Sartre, had offered their condolences, and no one else had spoken a word.

She looked moderately shocked. “That is certainly altogether strange.”

Of her own initiative, she mentioned the omission to a gentle and amiable man called Roy Stenhouse who taught Lorca and Fernando Pessoa. Roy had always stopped to chat to me whenever we passed in the corridor, and he now went so far as to send me an email saying that he hadn’t mentioned my bereavement in case it upset me, and he also presumed that was the case with the other colleagues who it seemed had also tactfully said nothing. Reflecting that his office was twenty yards away and he could have come and told me his explanation in person, I pondered a while then emailed back to say that I had guessed that might be the reason for all the silence. The trouble was that I wasn’t a mind reader, and like everyone else bereaved you don’t know whether the silence is because people wish to protect you, or to protect themselves, or a feasible mixture of both, or because never having met your wife they don’t, perhaps forgivably, care quite enough, or because they never read the memo, or because they have toothache. I didn’t put in the email that if I had been living in rural Ireland everyone would have come up and shaken my hand, and said with real sincerity, I am sorry for your loss, or if I had lived anywhere at all in Greece they would have solemnly approached, kissed me on both cheeks, shaken my hands and not been surprised if I had shown some open grief. Nor did I add that all these twenty odd lecturers and readers and profs were celebrated specialists in foreign literature, whose trademark, whose very essence, from Dostoievsky to Colette and Grazia Deledda and back again, was deep feeling, deep passion, love, loss, life, death and yes Death again, and that was where I and Roy Stenhouse and the other twenty odd academic mutes came into the baffling picture again.

Then a breakthrough, a timely intervention, a deus ex machina, an example of that ineffable albeit transcendent duo Time and Chance being quietly at work, as they always are, even if we are not aware of it. One night in March I was fishing through my old video cassettes (ironically Roy Stenhouse was the only other person I knew who still played his video cassettes) when I chanced upon Stanno Tutti Bene, starring handsome Marcello Mastroianni as Matteo in one of the last films he ever made, only two years before his death. The title means Everybody Is Fine which is a gross thematic misrepresentation, as old Matteo who lives in Sicily discovers, when of necessity he goes to visit his five grown kids on the mainland, seeing that they never come to visit him, and are always full of lame excuses. It turns out they never visit as they have been lying about their posh jobs and happy marriages, for one has lost his professorship, another is no longer a classical musician, yet another with an absentee husband has hidden the fact that she works as a lingerie model and sometimes has to leave her infant unattended and gaping uncomprehendingly at blaring daytime television. The point is that on his way to the mainland by train, and before he makes these infinitely bleak discoveries, Matteo is so excited about seeing his wonderfully successful kids, he is bursting to tell his fellow passengers about them. However, he has a problem that was exactly my own problem, for amiable as old Matteo looks, with his thick lenses and puffin-like gaze, no one thinks to ask him anything at all, so that with a lateral Zenlike inspiration that took my breath away guileful Matteo simply orders them to ask him what he wanted to be asked.

Ask me what Tosca does in Milan! Go on! Ask me!  Ask me how much Canio, Alvaro and Guglielmo make in their jobs in Turin and Florence, twice as much as I ever did I can assure you! And Norma’s husband, what does he do for an easy living, ask me that, and how much does he pocket in his cushy post? Go on! Ask me!

His fellow travellers are naturally touched by the earnest and excited old man, and his unfettered pride in his legendary children, and they duly put to him the questions he has ordered them to put. At once I decided I would take a leaf out of wily Matteo’s book, and do that tomorrow myself, with the one and only question I had wanted to be asked ever since Joanie had died. And while I was at it, I would go to the very top of the tree, and put my demand to the Head of Department, an affable if markedly staid Zola specialist called Professor Rex Entwhistle. He was the boss of the European Literature department, but not my boss of course, as I worked for a charity and was thus to a certain extent an independent and autonomous appendage, a detached and thereby arguably inviolable professional, because in plain and unambiguous terms Rex Entwhistle was not my line manager and therefore I was not answerable to him…

He however would be answerable to me. I caught him the next day bustling his way through the deserted corridor, and he looked at me a little uneasily now that I was a widower, and would have gone on with no more than a nod had I not indicated I wished to parley. With his fluffy stuck up hair and blameless knitted sweater, Rex exuded a very boyish aura, as if he was at fifty only a larger version of what he had been at ten. He was one of the sunniest and most compliant men I had ever met, and it amazed me that he was a devoted fan of Emile Zola who as everyone knows, must be one of the rawest, shocking and most challenging authors in all of world literature. Perhaps it was all to do with embracing your opposites, for I couldn’t really imagine Rex Entwhistle making himself a martyr over some English equivalent of Dreyfus, then fleeing to France to escape the long arm of the outraged English law.

I didn’t waste any time, but got down to business. I said briskly, “Rex, I need to ask you a favour.”

He beamed uncertainly. “No problem. Whatever I can do for you.”

“I want you to ask me a question, Rex!”

He blinked and started. “Eh? You wan-”

“Yes, I want you to ask me a specific question!”

He beamed once more, though only at half voltage. “Surely you mean that you want to ask me a question.  What you just said, doesn’t really make sense.”

I snorted in a markedly superior tone. “Yes it does, believe you me! You see, it’s a very specific question I would very much like all my of friends and my colleagues to ask. But sad to say, and it’s driving me mad, none of them ever do.”

He stared at me then moderately frightened, as if I might just be about to colourfully and embarrassingly go to pieces. Which might have been why he promptly decided to dodge things with a spurious levity.

“You must mean a kind of riddle or joke? Hah. That’s it, isn’t it? This is your particular way of telling a gag!”

I snorted yet again. “There’s a gag involved OK, but not the type you mean. No, you see it’s to do with my wife Joanie dying, as she did, of cancer after being a full ten years in remission, just three months ago. We really thought she was fully in the clear, we were very happy together for all of thirty years, and ever since she died I’ve wanted all my friends and colleagues to ask me just one very simple question. Well actually no, that’s a lie, Rex, it elaborates into maybe two or three related but very simple questions. But as I say, no bugger ever asks these truly naïve and childlike questions, and so, as far as I can see, the only way I can get them to ask them, is by ordering them to do so!”

Rex went pale. Then in a vain and rather ugly struggle, he became irritated. “You cannot order people to ask you specific things! That’s altogether crazy, surely.”

I stared at him persuasively. “Not if it drives you crazy, when they don’t ask you!  And in any case, being ordered to ask something, isn’t always a sign of craziness on the part of someone making the request. Consider something obvious and undeniable. You like me are an affectionate Dad, aren’t you, Rex? When your kids were little, surely they would often dress up as a king or queen or a wizard or a witch, and say to you, Dad, ask me what it is I’m supposed to be!”

Rex was palpably twitching at that. “But dammit, man, you’re not a little kid!”

I snorted for the third time. “I bloody well am in this case! Grief is a great leveller. It works in transcendent, meaning atemporal terms, which is why so many folk are running scared of it. So for present purposes, Rex, and as far as you’re concerned, I am like a child, albeit aged fifty-nine. So here we go, Prof Entwhistle. Get ready…”

He snapped at me in what looked like terror, “No! No, I bloody won’t!”

I frowned and swiftly blocked his path, and shouted, “Ask me exactly what it’s like for me now that my lovely wife has died. Go on! Fucking ask me, Rex!

“No! Will I hell as like!”

Ask me, you useless bastard! Ask me exactly what it’s like on the inside now that she’s gone for ever, after all of thirty bloody years. Ask me what it feels like from within, day to day, and day after fucking day. “I then paused surprisingly businesslike as he stared at me in his frozen owl-like trance.”Just think about it for a moment, Rex. You spend your days meditating on the troubling and incendiary emotions that the genius Emile Zola evokes in his millions of readers. So why can’t you take two minutes to meditate on mine?”

He gulped. “No! Like hell! You’re behaving as if you’re bloody mad! No, I won’t. It is not in my remit.”

“Eh, Rex? Your remit? Your remit, Rex! But your hero Emile Zola would have had no trouble in asking me! If he’d been here today in this university corridor in 2010, I promise you he’d have been the first to ask the question, and without even needing to be asked.”

Rex cleared his throat with evident great relief and pointed out the significant contextual problem.

“But I’m not Emile Zola! Am I? I mean-”

At that I was seized by what seemed a timely and truly therapeutic laughing fit, and I could even imagine Joanie laughing her lovely head off with me. I looked wonderingly, in real bafflement, at Rex in his chunky cable knit sweater, and with his out of date phone poking out his back pocket, and his country curate style face, like that of a genial adolescent who is still the blameless favourite of his prudish old aunts and his bluff old uncles. Then I smiled and swiftly unblocked his path, and watched him hurry off as if he had some tiger in pursuit. At last, I shouted:

“You’re so right there, old pal. I mean you’re so right, Professor Entwhistle. I promise you that Zola would never have asked you anything at all, whether prompted by you, or by the movements of the stars.”

 

THE NEW AND IMPROVED BRIGHTON ROCK

The next post will be on or before Friday 20th April. If you would like to read my latest comic novel about online dating THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE, please go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right. Please note I now have a new Facebook Author page at https://www.facebook.com/JohnMurrayAuthor/

 

THE NEW AND IMPROVED BRIGHTON ROCK

Sam Riley (born 1980) is such a gifted actor his portrayal of the youthful psychopathic gangster Pinky in the 2010 remake of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock (1938) makes you so angry you want to get in there and give him a good hiding. Riley has variously played the doomed Joy Division rock star Ian Curtis and Sal Paradise the flamboyant hero of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road so he is evidently a versatile actor. Here he combines a vicious surliness with a frighteningly cold and affectless expression, the only sign of any human tenderness being the fact he has a framed photograph of presumably his Dad in wartime uniform of whom we learn nothing during the film. Brutal and amoral as he is, he is also a staunch believer in his Roman Catholic faith and at one stage says to his pathetic partner Rose that it is the only thing that makes any sense, especially the reality of Hell with its eternal fire.

The film updates the 30s novel to the early 1960s just as the original 1947 film with Richard Attenborough as Pinky set the action in the 1940s. Pinky is a part of a Brighton criminal gang specialising in protection rackets, which is run by the elderly Spicer played by the tried and trusted Philip Davis (born 1953) notable elsewhere for his bleakly comic performances in Mike Leigh movies. Spicer drinks heavily and is evidently exhausted and losing his nerve, so teenage Pinky has no problem in frightening him into apparent submission. These two plus their cohorts Cubitt (Craig Parkinson born 1976 who regularly plays bluff, no nonsense London detectives) and Dallow portrayed by Nonso Anozie (born 1978) who is of part-Nigerian descent, find themselves in opposition to the mighty Colleoni, extortionist and gambling magnate par excellence. Andy Serkis (born 1964) who has previously played the anarchic singer Ian Dury makes a magnificent Colleoni so vulgarly rich he has a permanent suite in Brighton’s poshest hotel and a host of suited minders stationed permanently downstairs to vet any potential visitors. Pinky comes to see him alone and unprotected where he states his fearless opposition to the great man and the fact he is ready to betray Spicer, to lure him to the pier where Colleoni’s men can do what they like with him. Things have become very unstable since Pinky went too far in beating up rival gangster Fred Hale (Sean Harris, born 1966, who interestingly has also played Ian Curtis) and ended up braining him with a rock underneath the pier. He was supposed to give him a hiding no more and Spicer is enraged now that all of them face capital charges. My DVD copy says the action is set in 1964 which was indeed the year that the last execution by hanging was performed in the UK (it was finally abolished a year later) but that date also fits with the pitched battles between Mods (qv tidy haircuts and riding scooters) and Rockers (greasy tonsures and straddling motorbikes) which are also an integral part of the film, and present an effective counterpoint of youthful criminal deviance to the organised variety.

Spicer has additional reason to be very alarmed as there was a pier photographer took a snap of him intimidating Fred Hale as Hale tried to save himself by claiming he was with his girlfriend, a rather gormless café waitress called Rose. Rose, on her lunch break, didn’t know Fred from Adam but the photographer unwittingly took a group shot of Hale looking terrified, Spicer looking angry and Rose looking baffled just a few minutes before Hale was battered to death by Pinky. The photographer gives Rose a piece of paper which will redeem a gratis print of the photo if she turns up at his newspaper offices, from which point on she becomes inevitable key to the development of all else.

Rose is played by rising superstar Andrea Riseborough (born 1981) who justly made her name in the 2014 Birdman starring Edward Norman and Michael Keaton. She wears unflattering glasses, is hesitant, inarticulate, and the last word in confused insecurity. Back home she has a bad-tempered Dad who bellows at her all the time and in the café where she works she believes that the other girls shun her. Pinky wastes no time in tracking her down in the cafe and brazenly ingratiating himself, pointing out they have so much in common, both being Roman Catholics, both largely friendless, hence very wisely trusting no one. He arranges a date that same night, then steals the paper slip for the incriminating photo from her coat pocket. Nonetheless his paradigm instability means in small things he cannot control himself, and when the service is slow in Rose’s café he batters the table deafeningly to get some attention. This earns the ire of the café manager Ida played brilliantly by Helen Mirren (born 1945) who I’m not customarily a fan of if only because she stars in so many lightweight films, but she surely shows her mettle here. She evidences a dryness, wryness and mordant worldly-wise persona that must have needed decades as an actress to perfect. She is throughout the film wonderfully paired with her old mate the equally shrewd and unfoolable Corkery the betting shop owner flawlessly portrayed by that virtuoso, the late John Hurt (1940-2017). Meanwhile regardless of the damning photograph, there must have been witnesses of Rose in conversation with Hale and Spicer, so Pinky immediately goes out of his way to terrify his new date into submission. He tells her about other young girls in Brighton who have blabbed about things they have seen relating to gang members, and who have had acid thrown in their faces as a result. He then brings out a phial of sulphuric he keeps for emergencies and proceeds to burn the wood of the bench they are sitting on. Rose is suitably aghast and when Pink asks her to swear a vow of allegiance to him and of silence to the world, she does so at once, and overall she is convincingly portrayed as someone who demonstrates a mindless devotional slavery as a function of her exceptionally low self-esteem.

After his conversation with Colleoni, Pinky lures nervous Spicer to the pier supposedly in order to make peace with the town’s criminal overlord. Spicer wants out of the stressful gangster life so has plans to purchase a little pub up in Nottingham and wants Pinky to buy him out, and even grovelingly tells the young psychopath he will always be welcome in his pub for its perfect pint. To the accompaniment of Mods and Rockers scrapping on the same beach, Spicer is cornered by half a dozen thugs and his heartrending screams are just audible against the racket of the battling youth. The Colleoni boys however double-cross Pinky and pursue him too and there is a telling scene where Pinky shows his vulnerability as after his escape he sits down and cries his terror and his outrage. When he gets back to the ugly subterranean flat where he and the rest live, to his astonishment he is told that Spicer has returned too, for indeed the betrayed gang boss had managed to get away. Pinky confronts him in his bedroom where badly battered Spicer is hurriedly packing and he taunts him with a stick of Brighton rock inserted threateningly into his mouth. We aren’t shown exactly what follows. but shortly after Spicer is seen washed up on the seashore with the Brighton rock rammed deep into his throat as effective choking device.

Pinky’s next inspiration is to marry Rose, as the law, as it then stood, was that a wife could not testify against her husband in court. For that he needs to get permission from her appalling Dad who like Pinky lives in some dog rough subterranean annexe, effective contrast to the palatial mansions which populate Brighton sea front and in front of which the disenfranchised teenage gangs gleefully battle it out. More significantly the rooms where Pinky, Dallow and Cubitt hang out are bleak and desolate to the point of no return, so that when for instance Pinky takes Rose home from the registrar office wedding and has her brutally on the bed, the surroundings are so wonderfully horrible we suddenly decide that Pinky’s obsession with the Catholic hell is vividly exemplified by the place in which he lives, a barren rabbit warren with its mental hospital beds and leaden cupboards so unbelievably ugly it is truly infernal.  Before he can enjoy Rose though, Pinky has to literally buy her off her loveless Dad who smilelessly barters for £175 so that his daughter gets properly looked after. Soon after, horrified Ida, pretending to Dallow to be Rose’s mother, tracks her down at home, and urges her to give up on the double murderer (of opponent Hale and ally Spicer) and warns her that he only married Rose to avoid her testimony in court. Rose promptly pulls one of Pinky’s knives on her, but wise Ida feels only pity rather than anger at her hopeless simplicity and suicidal infatuation. She and Corkery even go and visit Colleoni to plead for Rose’s safety, as the next logical step is that Pinky will murder his new wife given her tendency to blab what had happened despite her husband’s threats.

Before Pinky takes her on what he hopes to be her final journey, Rose begs him to make a romantic record on Brighton pier in one of those 1960s self-recording booths. In a harrowing scene and with his frighteningly blank, immobile face, Pinky inside the kiosk starts by saying that she wants him to say he loves her, but that he hates everything about her, including her clothes her face and her conversation. Rose stood outside the soundproof booth is beaming seraphically at the man she loves, who is evidently saying wonderfully sentimental things about her. With a gun in his pocket, he then puts her on his scooter and drives them up to remote high cliffs where he urges to her shoot herself in the ear (it won’t hurt at all I promise!) and with Pinky guaranteed to do the same right after. Riseborough’s acting here as she faces death to appease the man she loves beyond words, is a masterly evocation of fear, grief and cruel pathos. Cue Dallow and Ida immediately in pursuit in a battered little car that at first won’t start as an impressive exercise in deus ex machina dramatics. Dallow, thank God, manages to beat Pinky off and the two of them engage in a mortal combat. I won’t spoil things by telling you the precise grisly ending but suffice to say Pinky meets an appropriate Nemesis whereas poor Rose, pregnant by her dead husband, ends up in a Catholic refuge run by nuns for unmarried mothers. Still infatuated and loyal to the end, she borrows a record player and plays Pinky’s booth recording and thanks to a glitch peculiar to cheap old vinyl remains convinced to the end that Pinky had loved her beyond words.

The only complaint I have about this excellent film is the unsatisfactory and seemingly contrived religious motif, and I would level the same objection at both the 1947 movie and Graham Greene’s original novel. Pinky’s allegiance to his RC faith is as it were glued on to his persona rather than rising from it naturally, and the same could be said of Pinky/Attenborough’s 1940s allegiance and ditto re the protagonists in many of Greene’s novels and their film adaptations (e.g. The End of the Affair and its 1999 movie) where guilt and arctic loneliness seem to be the thematic pivot, but as it were slapped on adventitiously, almost formally, by seemingly ecclesiastical decree. At one point Sam Riley gets on his knees to beg for delivery from his pursuers, and later Rose goes into church to pray for their happiness on the day of the wedding, but it all seems oddly glued on after the event rather than stemming naturally from the otherwise convincing characters.

Very recently I have been complaining about inept remakes of film classics whereas I would argue the opposite here. This 2010 adaptation seems to me to be streets ahead of the 1947 classic which is often lauded by critics as an exemplary work of genius. I would say that apart from Attenborough’s impressive acting as bloodless Pinky, everyone else in the original comes across as standard 1940s wooden, perpetually talking and barking their lines rather than feeling them. This remake was the directorial debut of Rowan Joffe (born 1973) who decided to make more of Greene’s ‘Roman’ dimension, which alas in my view was no strategic improvement. Other than that, the film deserves a full 5 stars and it might be of interest to know it was shot in Eastbourne rather than Brighton, a Sussex seaside town I have not yet visited.

THE ONE AND ONLY THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR

The next post will be on or before Saturday 14th April. If you want to read my latest comic novel about online dating THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE please go to the January and February 2018 archives, see well below and to the right

THE ONE AND ONLY THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR

The strident title above refers to the fact there was a 1999 remake of the 1968 Norman Jewison original, which I once watched 10 dreary minutes of on an aeroplane before giving up in melancholy disgust. The location for this classic and infinitely innovative heist movie had been switched to NY from Boston, and the no more than competent Pierce Brosnan had replaced the masterly Steve McQueen (1930-1980), and it was, to put it kindly, lacklustre garbage. Seemingly a second remake is underway at the moment with Michael B Jordan cast as Thomas Crown which I confidently expect to be even worse than the Brosnan.

The 1968 original of The Thomas Crown Affair holds a strong place in my sentimental history. I saw it in the now defunct Hippodrome Cinema, Workington, West Cumbria, UK, the year it came out, and I was sat with my teenage girlfriend in the double seats at the back, the third from the far left as a rule, engaged in incredibly passionate, athletic and lengthy embraces so that we perhaps saw about 5% of the film. There are many ways of describing Canadian Jewison’s radically imaginative movie and perhaps the heist aspect is the least of it. It is also a passionate and understated love story between Boston financier and mastermind crook Tommy Crown/McQueen, and elegant and intelligent insurance investigator Vicky Anderson as played by Faye Dunaway (born 1941). Most impressively, it is an exercise in sophisticated artistic style, as it has a riveting music score composed by Michel Legrand (born 1932) who is not only a composer but a jazz pianist who has collaborated with giants of the stature of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. As the heist speeds up at the start, so does the raw, erotic and explosive jazz score, played by drummer Shelly Manne, the alto sax player Bud Shank and the virtuoso bassist Ray Brown. When by contrast the mood turns tenderly romantic between Crown and Vicky then a lush, victorious and ascendant Legrand string score takes over and sweeps us away, sentimental and gullible cineastes that we are, with its undimming grandeur.

Thomas Crown is a phenomenally wealthy and divorced financier aged 36 whose skyscraper offices just happen to offer a first-class view of the huge Boston bank below. Crown has a cool way with the US consortia he does deals with and when they thank him for their latest acquisition he walks out of the door snorting ‘you overpaid’. Yet he is not invulnerable by any means, and his cinematic foil is his accountant adviser Sandy played by Biff Maguire (born 1926) who you may recall as Captain McLain from the 1973 Al Pacino police corruption movie Serpico. As they play golf together, Sandy makes a sure-fire bet on a putting shot and Crown quickly loses a packet, but to Sandy’s chagrin does not care. Crown is bored with his wealth which is why he decides to rob the bank opposite but he chooses to do it in a way that no one else would. His mastermind ingenuity stems from his decision to hire 4 accomplices none of whom know each other, nor do they know nor ever meet Crown himself, and also the quaint fact that he communicates with each separately by public phone boxes. This is cleverly orchestrated with Jewison’s zestful split screen technique which he admits he ingeniously lifted from 2 movies he had seen at Expo 67, one of which was In The Labyrinth.  Thus, while Robber A is taking instructions inside one phone box, Robber B will soon be liaising with Crown in another kiosk on a separate split screen, and to add to the excitement we have Bud Shanks’ abrasive sax playing to hot up the tension. Given the movie was made half a century ago, this technique could well have dated and with our current extravagant digital possibilities seem infinitely corny, but far from it. It is worth stating at this point that there really is no other movie anything like Jewison’s Thomas Crown in terms of its radical blending of music, cinematography and gritty action, and its only manifest weakness is the occasional depiction of Dunaway as a wayward yet submissive female insurance expert when arguing with the macho cop Eddie Malone in charge of solving the heist. Malone (Paul Burke, 1926-2009) who like every man in this film apart from dapper McQueen, wears a stiff pork pie hat, is also stiff in his detection technique, and needs brainy Dunaway to give him insightful leads. Nonetheless, he is always ticking her off for unpolicemanlike unorthodoxy, and she always submits to his manly chiding and is forever ingratiatingly linking arms with him as they walk through Boston, all of which comes across as the unlovely autopilot attitudes of the prefeminist 1960s. Malone’s pique however is partly justified, as if she recovers it, she gets 10% of the $2,600,000 dollars taken from the bank whereas he only gets his cop’s salary whatever he does. Add to that that in order to shop Crown she decides to skilfully seduce him, and Malone concludes that some folk have all the fun and the dough and that he has more or less none.

Dunaway’s first lead is when she contemplates how the robber might have got rid of all that colossal weight of banknotes which was in small bills of 10,5 and 1 dollars for which alas the bank did not record the serial numbers. Unethical Swiss banks come to mind and sure enough when she and Malone do some research they see that Crown had made half a dozen trips to Geneva, sensibly taking a bit at a time of the massive loot. Unprincipled Dunaway also places a newspaper ad offering $25K to anyone who can successfully shop any guilty party who has been spending an inordinate amount of money lately. This brings in the bumbling getaway man, played by the comically nervous and compliant Jack Weston (1924-1996) who had driven off the sacks of loot that the robbers had put in the back of his station wagon jalopy. He gets on very badly with his smileless wife who swiftly shops him for the 25K, whereupon Vicky’s insurance colleague anonymously informs them over the phone that their young son has just been abducted. Vicky has him safely sat beside her in a car outside a supermarket where there is a charity box receptacle into which Weston puts the last of his dwindling ill-gotten gains, after which the child is driven back to his Mum but Weston is nabbed and taken down to the police station to be grilled by Malone.

The most compelling part of the film is the love affair between Thomas Crown and Vicky Anderson which is done with a good deal of measured and scrupulous direction, helped along by the mesmerising score and more of the ingenious split screen photography. Vicky investigates Crown’s upmarket sporting interests and attends a hazardous polo match where unbelievably McQueen refused a stuntman and played the lethal game himself. She then deliberately bumps into him at a fine art auction and he invites her for dinner immediately.  From the start she lets him know that she is confident he is the thief and he smilingly accepts this as a suitable challenge for two intelligent minds, a kind of cat and mouse duel which Vicky assumes she must inevitably win. The problem is that during her skilful investigations she helplessly falls in love with Tommy Crown via a number of set pieces, where you as viewer are requested to give up your critical faculties and enjoy the picturesque and unlikely excess on screen. He has a sand buggy he drives along the Massachussetts coast at high speed (again reckless McQueen refused a stuntman) with headscarved Vicky clinging lovingly to his side. He also lights a wood fire on the beach and cooks her fresh lobster, and best of all challenges her to a game of chess where with minimal effort she puts him in check and eventually checkmate. It is here that McQueen shows the unexpected versatility of his facial expressions for he is one of those actors like Jack Nicholson where you could stare at his face all day even if it was immobile and speechless. Customarily he plays Mr Cool (see also the 1965 Cincinnati Kid which was also directed by Jewison) but as he gets stymied in the chess game he pulls all manner of inane lip sucking bafflement, which oddly enough is not ultimately inane, given that it proceeds from the effortlessly charismatic McQueen. Then follows the famous sex scene between them which has only ever been rivalled in its whirling and tender euphoria by that between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 masterpiece Don’t Look Now. And talking of the great Sutherland just as he and Jane Fonda cement their growing love affair in the 1971 Klute by going shopping for fruit and veg on an atmospheric evening street market, ditto McQueen and Dunaway learn how tender their feelings are becoming by going and purchasing pumpkins and tomatoes from a Boston market where touchingly the plug-ugly stall keepers all look faintly like something out of Hieronymus Bosch.

Vicky ultimately seems to have Thomas Crown thoroughly cornered when she threatens him with US Inland Revenue investigation, but by way of riposte he tells her that as she is obviously in love with him, she is doomed if she forestalls his latest plan. He has decided to crazily repeat the same bank heist, this time with different accomplices, but with the same pick up place, a churchyard with a litter bin where the nervous getaway man had done his original drop. Vicky is duty bound to break her heart by divulging all this to Eddie Malone, and after the second robbery the pair of them stake out the churchyard and wait for the drop. The money is duly thrown into the same litter bin, the new getaway man is cornered and arrested, and just as Crown did the original pick up in his Rolls Royce, so a Rolls Royce turns up a second time to empty the contents of the bin. While this is going on and with Malone angrily doubting the appearance of the Rolls, and Vicky hoping against hope for Crown’s escape, the bell in the churchyard strikes with deafening and pregnant resonance, a powerful and shall we say imaginative world cinema touch, just as it had the first time round….

There is a Rolls arrives OK but there is no Thomas Crown, just a shrunken little chauffeur with a telegram for Miss Anderson. Tommy writes to tell this tearful and infinitely relieved woman who loves him, that she can either join him in his hideaway with the money, or can keep the Rolls, but he meanwhile has escaped by jet to who knows where…

SPRING AWAKENINGS

SPRING AWAKENINGS

The next post will be on or before Saturday 14th April. If you want to read my latest comic novel about online dating, THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE, go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right

NB. Everything below is drawn and edited from a recent issue of the (UK) Literary Review, my very favourite literary magazine

LOW WAGE BRITAIN

At Amazon he had to call the warehouse a ‘fulfilment centre’. At Uber when the bleeping blue light indicated a booking, he had 15 seconds to make up his mind whether to take it or not. At Carewatch, where he had 20 minutes to wake, clean, shower, dress, feed and counsel each ‘customer’ before moving on to the next, he learned the meaning of hopelessness, in a job that is impossible to do in the time allotted: travel time is not remunerated and you are obliged to provide your own fuel and vehicle.

HE HATED BRUSSELS

The controversial author of Sylvie and inspiration to the Surrealists, Gerard de Nerval (1808-1855) had, as a striking pet, a lobster he used to walk through Paris on a silken lead. Regarding the Senne, the trickle of a river running through Brussels, and recalling the allophonous Seine, de Nerval asked himself: ‘What kind of a capital is a city where you can’t even drown yourself?’

THE GREAT MAN’S PONDEROUS TOME

Publisher Gallimard were baffled when 3 weeks after its 1943 publication, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 700 page Being and Nothingness became a freak bestseller. It turned out it was because the book weighed exactly 1 kilo, and people were simply using it as a weight, as the usual copper weights had disappeared to be sold on the black market or melted down to make ammunition.

THE MAD PARENT

Viscount Tredegar was an occultist and friend of Aleister Crowley. He was for a time in charge of the department which supplied the strategic birds for the WW2 Secret Pigeon Service, but was eventually court-martialled for gossiping about Columba’s work. His defence cited his unhappy childhood and the fact that his mentally ill mother had built herself a large bird’s nest in the living room and sat in it wearing a beak.

DEBUSSY GAVE THEM THE BOOT

[Debussy] refused to be bamboozled by reputation…in bracingly acerbic critical essays, in which he made no bones about describing Berlioz as a ‘prodigious fraud’, Beethoven’s piano sonatas as ‘very badly written’ and Wagner’s Ring Cycle as ‘a box of tricks’.

RENOIR THE MISOGYNIST AND ANTI-SEMITE

[Pierre-Auguste] Renoir took a dim view of women’s intellectual abilities and described feminist authors such as George Sand and Juliette Adam as ‘calves with fine hooves’. At the height of the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s Renoir threw in his lot with the conservative Right and slandered French Jews as rootless cowards.

SEX AND A SPIRIT OF ADVENTURE

(from the diary of Bloomsbury writer Francis Birrell, concerning economist John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946)

‘I copulated with Maynard for 2 reasons: a) Out of a spirit of adventure; b) Because it pleased me to think I would copulate with a person I wasn’t in love with & so score off Gerald[Shove]. The whole affair was frivolous. Maynard knew I was not in love with him & as regards me, his was a ‘cock & ball’ affair to use a phrase of his own, as opposed to ‘a hand & heart’. I have not in the least regretted the experiment.’

THE PROPER CARE OF LITTLE KIDS

The next post will be on or before Sunday 15th April. If you want to read my new comic novel about online dating, The Lawless Book of Love, please go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right

THE PROPER CARE OF LITTLE KIDS

Things are looking up. Twice in 2 consecutive days no less, I have had a small Greek child looking at me with what I can only describe as rapt adoration, as if in fact I am the most wonderful thing they have ever seen. Needless to say this does restorative things for the ego, as previously it has only ever happened with my cats and is no doubt inseparable from the fact I feed them twice a day and only rarely shout at them, as for example when they get under my feet and regularly send me hurtling painfully to the ground. It also puts me in mind of something illuminating I read years back in The Guardian UK newspaper, where a young father while ruefully admitting how much work it was looking after little kids, said that they were the only people ever to cheer as he walked through the door. The most flattering construction I can put on these toddlers’ reverence is that in their unerring simplicity they discern some sort of immaterial aura peculiar to an ageing writer who might just be in touch with a sensitivity stemming from his own remote childhood… the far more likely alternative being they somehow divine that now that I am past 2/3 of a 100, meaning aged 67, I am fascinatingly entering a second infancy, and have so to speak joined their particular if non-exclusive club.

My first fan was a little boy of about 2 and no more, who was there on the boat I had taken from mainland Lavrio. He was in the excellent care of his older sister, a handsome and smiling fair-haired girl of about 9, who had either been deputised by the parents, a relaxed and likeable couple in their late 20s sat chatting with their friends, or more likely the girl had happily chosen the task. She was clearly enjoying looking after her surprisingly stylish young sibling who had a markedly modish hairdo for a 2-year-old, shaved carefully at the back and tapering impressively up towards the front, so that he looked like a miniature version of a retro pop star. This little groover stopped in his tracks when he saw me sat on my own on the long leather seat and beamed adoringly at me as he clutched the hand of his sister. She looked on amused as he continued to gaze his unfeigned reverence and I winked and grinned at him and asked him how he was in Greek. At no point did she let go of his hand, and occasionally if her brother dawdled and wanted to dart off, she lifted him up and moved him on, whereupon he made a minimal more or less token protest. The point worth stressing is that little boy for the whole of the 3 hour journey was never out of anyone’s protective sight, and whenever he was in transit his hand nearly always firmly held, as for example when his mother took over once or twice and led him to the cafeteria or the toilets.

The next day I was sat among the canopied outside tables of a café in Kythnos, reading a magazine and drinking some very nice white wine. I was the only person there, but there was a young Greek family sat under the adjacent café’s canopy, comprising a bearded dad, a fashionably dressed mum, both aged about thirty, 2 pretty little daughters of perhaps 5 and 3, and an older woman who was doubtless one of their grandmas. They weren’t Kythniots but visitors, and the thing worth noting is that the older child rarely left the side of the adults drinking coffee and chatting, whilst the younger one was restless, just possibly on account of getting less attention than her sister who was also not impossibly the parental and grandmotherly favourite. As a result, the little girl would keep darting between the 2 cafes by way of the main road to the harbour, down which traffic including big lorries would sporadically zoom. She kept darting into the café where I sat, as she was clearly struck by the sight of me seated picturesquely on my own, so much so that she came right up to me and stared with an absolute innocent candour in my face.

She was a very beautiful little girl with fine and rather serious brown eyes and a sizeable amount of dried snot on her upper lip. She gazed at me entranced, murmured something unrecognisable then offered me a sweet from a little plastic container she was clutching. I refused politely but asked her how she was in Greek and told her I liked her shoes which were smart little pink trainers. She remained there fearlessly scrutinising me a long while and then as impulsively darted off and back to her family. She did this perhaps a dozen times over half an hour until I had left the café, and her progress towards me via the busy road was more or less unmonitored and unobserved, aside from 3 occasions when her Dad stood up to lecture her rather peevishly about the dangers of cars and her seated grandmother ditto though just the once. This struck me as spectacularly inappropriate as being only 3 years old it might well have been urgent to warn her about motor cars, but far more important was that at least one of the adults should either insist she stay put with them or should businesslike get off their backside and follow her about as she darted.  Meanwhile as I glanced at them in the adjacent café, I noted that not once in all her dozen visits were they watching their little daughter chatting to me with her tiny face a few inches from the male stranger, and obvious foreigner. On that basis for all they knew she could easily have got as far as the ferry and be half way to Serifos or Santorini or the Moon…or far worse been in an accident en route.

The diagnosis of their inadequacy was all too obvious and it made their sporadic lecturing to the little girl all the more ludicrous. They were too lazy to do what anyone with any sense has to do with toddlers, which is to never let them out of their sight and never let them walk unattended on any kind of road, and certainly one a thoroughfare for lorries. That of course entails a fair amount of taxing stamina, of getting off your idle arse and giving up on a sedate unhurried coffee and chatting luxuriously to your spouse and Mum. The same dilemma was evident enough in the UK a quarter century ago when I was in charge of daughter Ione aged 3 and when all but once I never let her out of my sight, whether in the house, in a café, on a bus, or in the middle of town. Given a chance, unattended infants will pick up and eat stones or coloured glass, sample bleach, run and trip, climb and fall off a table, dart crazily among traffic. The one and only time I turned my back on Ione the toddler and pegged out some washing for all of 3 minutes, she and her little pal Katrina had raced the length of the drive and were half way to the lethal A5086, the trunk road through North Cumbria favoured by those driving in haste from e.g. Newcastle to South Scotland. I raced after them far faster than the speed of light and with bursting lungs and panting crazily I grabbed them when they were just 10 yards from potential oblivion. Countless wishful thinking parents including the Greek ones in the port café work on the basis catastrophe won’t ever happen if they fail to exercise a permanent vigilance, and thank God it rarely does. But sad to say rarely isn’t the same as never, and that little angel with the dried snot on her top lip deserved every jot and iota of selfless, in fact no, of truly immaculate parental care.

THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE

The next post will be on or before Thursday April 5th. If you want to read my new comic novel THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE please go to the January and February 2018 archive, see well below and to the right

 THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE

I have been a paid-up fan of the US directors Joel and Ethan Coen (born 1954 and 1957) for about 15 years now, but it has only just occurred to me how a good deal of their finest comedy is actually achieved. In many of their best films we have the entertaining spectacle of torrential babble, of breathless eloquence, much of it inane and/or childishly deceitful. Thus in the 2008 Burn After Reading the fitness centre employee played by Frances McDormand (born 1957, and wife of Joel Coen) talks a wonderfully feverish streak to the phlegmatic plastic surgeon about the state of her floppy backside and the lines under her eyes, and in the same movie one of the finest comic actors on the planet, George Clooney, a genial philanderer deceiving both his wife and his glacial mistress Tilda Swinton, is also dating McDormand behind Tilda’s back, and he wins her over principally with his febrile banter. Ditto when Clooney is the loquacious escaped convict insisting on one specific hair pomade in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) or think also of the slippery divorce lawyer in the 2003 Intolerable Cruelty where George manages to rapidly reassure acquisitive Catherine Zeta-Jones (born 1969) of his ability to exact divorce settlements, whilst rubbing his toothpaste-covered finger all over his state of the art cosmetic dental work.

In the 2001 film noir The Man Who Wasn’t There which won Joel Coen the Best Director Award that year at Cannes, the central character, the gaunt and puzzled barber Ed Crane, is the opposite of all that, for he is monosyllabic and borderline mute, whereas he is surrounded on all sides by folk who never shut up. Speechless Ed is played with amazing virtuosity by Billy Bob Thornton (born 1955) who by contrast in Intolerable Cruelty acted the brash and gauche Texan fiancé of Zeta-Jones and is notable for other hectic extrovert parts as in the movie he wrote and directed himself, Daddy and Them (also 2001) where he co-stars with Laura Dern and Brenda Blethyn. But this present moody film noir account of a vulnerable man perpetually lost for words, is set in 1949 in a small Californian town called Santa Rosa, and is shot in mesmerising black and white by the cinematographic genius, the Englishman Roger Deakins. Much of the action is focused in the barber shop where silent Ed’s permanently burning cigarette is virtually a leading character in itself. Ed has crinkled, waved and gelled hair convincingly of the period, and his employer and fellow barber is his brother in law Frank (Michael Badalucco, born 1954, star of the TV legal series The Practice) who tirelessly rattles off his manic anecdotes to his generally stunned customers. One day a wily individual called Creighton Tolliver who is proud of his expensive toupe, sits in Ed’s chair and before long is telling him of his money-making scheme involving that mindboggling new process called Dry Cleaning. Tolliver is played with predictable expertise by Coen Bros regular the late Jon Polito (1950-2016) a glib and fast-talking conman, so convincing that Ed visits him in his hotel room and says he can find the $10,000 to invest in dry cleaning if Tolliver will allow him. Tolliver blusters his delighted assent, but then sat on his hotel bed makes a dangerous move, by showing a sexual interest in Ed, whereupon the barber delivers one of his rare speeches, which throughout the film are often repeated for emphasis.

“You are way out of line there, mister. Yep, you are way out of line.”

Ed Crane, true to the noir genre, is in addition voice-over narrator of this crime story, where he is rather more discursive about life and its pitfalls, the business of love and its inconsistencies and unpredictabilities. Yet it is only right at the end of the film, we see the grim context in which Ed is telling his tale, and the Coen Bros were surely tactically wise to keep that as the secret and ultimate revelation.

Ed is keen to make his fortune by investing in dry cleaning, but of course he doesn’t have $10,000. However his wife Doris (McDormand) is bookkeeper for a profitable clothes store managed by one Big Dave Brewster, and the business comes courtesy of Dave’s wife, Ann, a strange and very plain woman with wildly staring eyes. Doris who has a drink problem, is having an affair with Dave who is instantly recognisable as Tony Soprano, meaning the celebrated actor James Gandolfini (1961-2013) who died sadly young at only 51 of a heart attack. Big Dave talks an entertaining streak as evidenced by a dinner party the Cranes throw, where Doris hoots hilariously at his patter, while her husband sits painfully speechless. Later Ed craftily types an anonymous note to Dave, saying he knows about the affair, and in exchange for his silence demands $10,000 dollars  to be dropped at an agreed pick-up place. Panic- stricken Dave gets Doris to embezzle the money, and duly hands it over, but then unbeknownst to Ed, he bumps into Tolliver who not only tries to con another 10K but also makes a pass at him. Dave duly throttles and disposes of the shyster in a river, but we do not learn this until later in the film. Shortly after the handover, Dave summons Ed a second time to the clothes store at dead of night, where eventually he reveals he found on Tolliver’s person a laughable business ‘contract’, and a receipt with Ed’s name on it. He then proceeds to strangle Ed who only saves himself at the last minute by stabbing him fatally in the neck with a cigar trimmer and then immediately flees the scene.

An anxious and disorienting period elapses before two comically bluff detectives with trilby hats turn up at the barber shop. Ed assumes they have come to arrest him, but no they have looked at the store accounts and have decided it must have been Big Dave’s employee Doris murdered him after he discovered the embezzlement, and she is now in jail on a capital charge…

“It’s a tough deal, pal”, the tecs croak by way of tender counselling. “Yeah a tough deal.” And they even offer him a calming cigarette but of course he has one already on the go.

Doris hasn’t told the detectives about her shameful affair with Dave, nor about the compromising blackmail letter, and when he visits her in jail, to spare her, Ed says nothing either. He takes with him the best attorney money can buy, the incredibly garrulous and bombastic Freddy Riedenschneider from Sacramento played to perfection by Tony Shalhoub (born 1953) best known as lead of the cult detective show Monk. Freddy insists on staying at the best hotel in town, and is a gourmand with a massive appetite who shovels down food whilst rattling like an express train through the details of the case. In the jail Freddy orders both husband and wife to keep their mouths shut, and let him do the talking (‘I’m an attorney and you’re a barber! You know nothing!’) At first, even this star attorney can’t see any fruitful line of defence, until he discovers, thanks to his hired private eye, that Big Dave was lying about his war record, for far from being a one-man hero against the Japs, he spent his time in an army office and had also been fined for assault a couple of times after the war. Meanwhile Ed suddenly makes the momentous statement that he, not Doris, had killed Big Dave, because Dave was his wife’s lover, a revelation which babbling Freddy blindly interprets as a strategy to save his wife, not the truth. It is all matterless however, for all of these tactical possibilities come to nothing, as Doris hangs herself on the morning of her trial, whereupon her brother Frank, Ed’s boss, takes to drink, having already mortgaged his barbershop to the hilt to pay for Freddy Riedenscheider.

As moving counterpoint to all of this, when visiting an old family friend Walter Abundas (Coen Bros veteran Richard Jenkins, born 1947) Ed encounters his shy teenage daughter Rachel aka Birdy playing classical music at the piano. Birdy is portrayed by Scarlett Johannsen who was only 17 when this film was made, and she plays the gauche and motherless girl with an impressive disingenuousness. Ed knows nothing about Beethoven and Mozart, of course, but says to her clearly smitten:

“Well that really was something, Yep, that surely was quite something.”

In one of the most affecting scenes in the film, one evening he chances across Birdy in the street, where she is doing the normal thing of flirting with a good-looking young boy next to his 40s jalopy. Thornton expertly conveys Ed’s surprise and middle aged disappointment, as he is painfully polite to both Birdy and the boy, and rapidly turns heel with an embarrassed excuse. At this point Ed the narrator recalls that his childless marriage to Doris who was an alcoholic as well as unfaithful, followed on from her terse suggestion that after only 2 weeks dating, Ed really ought not to delay but to marry her right away. She had then thoughtfully appended the sensitive compliment that she really liked Ed Crane because he rarely talked…

Bizarrely enough, there is an unexpected science fiction motif appears twice in this film and though it doesn’t spoil anything, I still haven’t worked out its intended significance. Prior to Doris’s suicide, Big Dave’s strange looking widow Ann turns up in the middle of the night to tell Ed that once on a camping holiday in Oregon they had encountered a flying saucer and that Dave had gone on the space ship to talk to the aliens. Hence his murder had obviously been done by the paranoid US government, not by his poor wife Doris! Thoroughly ruffled by that, Ed turns to Birdy for comfort and is so smitten that he volunteers to pay for her to have piano lessons with a French expert in Sacramento. He drives her up there for a preliminary interview, where the great man laughs at Ed, and says Birdy is a nice little girl sure enough, but with those plinky plonk fingers of hers she will make a good typist and no more. Miserably driving them home, Ed angrily damns the foreign expert but young Birdy has rather more common sense and says she never planned to be a serious musician anyway, but instead she hopes to become a veterinarian.

“A veterinarian?” echoes Ed, clearly out of his depth by now.

Then a classic Coen Bros mad touch. Birdy tells him of her gratitude for his generous concern, and despite his protests, by way of reward, tries to perform oral sex upon her kindly chaperone. Ed inevitably crashes the car against a tree, so that Birdy escapes with a broken clavicle, while he is hospitalised unconscious and severely bruised. When he awakes, he is confronted by the same pair of trilbied detectives who arrest him for the murder not of Big Dave but of Creighton Tolliver, whose body they have just unearthed in a river, together with his dry cleaning contract with Ed.

Ed is arraigned in court again with Freddy as attorney, where he is physically attacked by Frank who has vainly ransomed his business for his cowardly brother in law. Riedenscheider immediately decides to give up on the case now there is no one to fund him, and the hopeless county attorney gets Ed to plead guilty and to throw himself upon the court’s mercy. The jury dissents, needless to add, the ancient judge shows no mercy, and sentences Ed Crane to the electric chair, when in reality the infinitely confused barber is guilty only of blackmail and self-defence, neither a capital crime. It is at this point we realise why Ed is the film’s narrator, as he is recounting his experiences from Death Row, and has been paid to do so by a lurid magazine who want to know exactly what it is like to be facing the end. Just before the execution, just like chirpy Big Dave and his crazy wife Ann, Ed looks and sees a dazzling spaceship up in the sky, and reflects that he has no regrets and hopes to see Doris again on the other side of Death…

As coda, Billy Bob Thornton has been in at least 2 films involving that grisly item, the electric chair. In this one he is the unjust victim, but in the watchable and no more Monster Ball (2001) he is a prison officer alongside his son, another warder played by the late Heath Ledger (1979-2008) the two of them jointly in charge of the execution of a black man. Without warning Ledger vomits and cops out of performing the electrocution, so that Thornton beats him up and berates him, and Ledger  responds by shooting himself fatally in front of his horrified Dad. It sounds strong stuff, but is sadly not a patch on The Man Who Wasn’t There which is surely an enduring and highly original masterpiece.