Posts Tagged ‘raymond chandler’

“The Maltese Falcon” vs “The Big Sleep”

There are some right ignorant arseholes who think The Big Sleep is a better film than The Maltese Falcon.

OK, that first sentence was a consequence of an online conversation I had recently: a friend of mine (she knows who she is) dared me to open my blog post with that. Now that I have comfortably won the dare, let’s start again.

Take two.

It is inevitable that…

No, wait, I have forgotten something:

*** SPOILER WARNING ***

If you have neither read nor seen The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, then it is probably best you read no further.

I had to post that, otherwise my inbox will be full of angry communications. But now that’s done, let us start again.

Take three.

It is inevitable that The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep will be compared to each other. Both films were made in the 40s, within a few years of each other, and both were based on what are now regarded (quite rightly) as classic crime novels, but what were then works of fairly recent vintage. And both feature at the centre a tough and cynical private eye who tries to keep himself free of corruption in a world where corruption is ever-present. And, famously, in both films, this private eye was played by Humphrey Bogart. So comparisons are, perhaps, inevitable. And it seems to me – I may be wrong, of course, basing my conclusion as I am on merely anecdotal evidence – that the current consensus of opinion favours The Big Sleep over The Maltese Falcon; that some go so far as to see The Maltese Falcon as a sort of preparation for the masterpiece that was to come later. I vehemently disagree.

I think what worries me most about The Big Sleep is that Marlowe seems to be having far too much fun. Raymond Chandler’s novel is dark and sleazy, and in it, Marlowe is disgusted by the wickedness and corruption that he sees all around him. Of course, a film adaptation is under no obligation to be true to the book it is based on, either to the letter or to the spirit; and it could further be argued that it wasn’t possible for director Howard Hawks to portray such sleaze in a Hollywood film of the mid 1940s. However, Hawks was a sufficiently good director to have implied that sleaze, had he so wanted. But he clearly didn’t want to. Instead of the sleaze, we have glamour – quite impossible glamour. Of course we expect the leading lady to be glamorous (and it’s hard to imagine anyone more glamorous than Lauren Bacall); and it is important, for the story to work, that her younger sister, Carmen, must also be good-looking. But, mixed up as she is in a rotten world of all sorts of shady goings-on – gangsterism, prostitution, pornography, blackmail, drug-dealing, you-name-it – it is important that she should also project a sense of corruption, of sleaze, of humanity blighted and decayed to such an extent that her beauty is but a grotesque parody of the purity it promises. And the very beautiful Martha Vickers, frankly, doesn’t convey any of that. What’s more, I don’t think she was meant to.

In the novel, Mrs Regan (Mrs Routledge in the film) is also involved in the corruption: here, to make her a suitable romantic interest for Marlowe, she is cleared of any such entanglement. Fair enough, I suppose – if you insist on incorporating a romantic story into all this, that’s what you need to do. But it’s that decision to incorporate a romantic story into all this that I find questionable.

And on top of all that, just about every woman Marlowe encounters (who is not on the side of the villains) is impossibly drop-dead gorgeous; and, even more impossibly, they throw themselves at Marlowe. Even the bookshop-keeper (played by Dorothy Malone) is gorgeous, and she closes her bookshop early within minutes of meeting Marlowe to do with him whatever it is that cameras in those days had discreetly to cut away from. Even a taxi-driver who is on screen for less than a minute (Joy Barlow, uncredited) is impossibly glamorous, and, within minutes of meeting Marlowe, she gives him her number and tells him to get in touch. Now, this sort of thing would be fine in a light-hearted comedy, and someone like Cary Grant, say, could have carried off such scenes with panache; but it seems to me to sit rather uncomfortably with the cynical tough-guy persona of Bogart’s Marlowe. One cannot be a cynical hardened tough guy and a charming skirt-chasing Lothario all at the same time.

Worst of all, there is little sense of evil. Or even of corruption. The chief villain here is Eddie Mars, and he is so under-characterised that, despite having seen this film countless times over several decades, I can barely remember what he looks like. The evil, in other words, barely has a presence in this film. Bogart does from time to time register disgust with what is around him, but everything seems so pretty, so beautiful, so glamorous; and Marlowe is having such fun in this glamorous world – what with such beautiful women throwing themselves at him, why shouldn’t he? –  that one can’t help wondering: what precisely is he disgusted by?

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Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep

There is one sequence – and a very impressive sequence at that – where the darkness comes very much to the fore: this is the sequence involving Elisha Cook Jr. The scene in the deserted office at night-time really is rather frightening. But this scene merely serves to highlight what is missing in the rest of the film: what is very conspicuously missing is a sense of evil as a palpable presence. There is too much romance, too much glamour; and Marlowe seems to be having too good a time. And even after going through all those glamorous ladies, he still gets the girl he really loves. Which is nice.

Of course, Hawks was under no compulsion to be true to the novel. He clearly wanted the glamour, and the fun, and so he put them there. And there’s no denying that it is indeed very glamorous, and great fun, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed. But the nature of the material seems to me to demand a far greater darkness, a far greater sense of corruption; it demanded that the evil be perceived as a real presence. And, apart from a single brief sequence, that simply doesn’t happen.

In The Maltese Falcon, the evil is more clearly present, even though it can manifest itself in forms that are charming (Sidney Greenstreet as Caspar Gutman), endearing (Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo), or beautiful (Mary Astor as Bridget O’Shaughnessy, or whatever her real name is). And Spade himself is not entirely immune from it all: he had, after all, been having an affair with his partner’s wife.

In the film, Spade plays along with the villains, and it is uncertain to what extent he is tempted by the evil. He is certainly tempted by Bridget O’Shaughnessy, even though he knows her to be evil. But although his role is morally dubious for most of the film, there are times when his disgust does burst out. When Gutman asks him if he knows what the jewelled falcon is worth, he bursts out that he knows how much it means to “you people” in terms of human lives; and yes, he is disgusted. And when the wife of his former partner – with whom he has been having an affair – reveals that she is quite indifferent to her husband’s death, Spade, despite not having cared for her husband, is nonetheless disgusted. The moral integrity he displays in the final scene does not quite come out of the blue.

And it is this final scene between Sam Spade and Bridget O’Shaughnessy that raises The Maltese Falcon, I think, to another level. Till that point, it was already in the top drawer (as far as thrillers are concerned, only Double Indemnity and The Third Man are, to my mind, in the same league): that final scene takes it a few notches higher. Here, it’s not about the falcon any more: perhaps it never was about the falcon. It’s now about something far more fundamental. Spade had been tempted – not by the money (Spade is no mercenary), but by Bridget O’Shaughnessy. By whatever her real name is. He had been tempted even though he had known she was pure evil. Unlike Marlowe, Spade is not totally immune to the temptation of evil, and he knows it. And in this scene, he confronts it. He tries to distance himself emotionally, listing in as detached a manner as possible all the reasons he has for handing her in to the police, and all the reasons he has for not doing so. But at the end of what he had intended to be a dispassionate speech, his passion flames out in one unforgettable line:

“I won’t do it because all of me wants to.”

The line is Hammett’s (as is virtually all of the sparkling dialogue in this film) but once we have heard Bogart deliver it, it is impossible to imagine it delivered any other way. Spade does what is right, but it is an immense struggle. Bridget O’Shaughnessy tries to play him, and, being the expert seductress that she is, she knows where his most vulnerable spot is: if he really loved her, she says, he won’t need any more reasons. But even this he resists.

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Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, and Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon

This final scene has an emotional depth, an intensity, that may come as a surprise given the fireworks in the rest of the film, but which, one realises on subsequent viewings, had been simmering under the surface all along. And there is absolutely nothing at all like this in The Big Sleep. There, it is all just a bit of fun. There, the leading lady is exculpated from all nastiness and corruption so she could be worthy of the hero. Here, the leading lady is handed in to the police, and the hero, such as he is, is left free from corruption, but empty and desolate. He didn’t protect her and win her, though all of him wanted to.

The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”

Any other actor would have played that for laughs, and any other director would have encouraged him to do so. But Humphrey Bogart and John Huston knew better.

***

Reading back on what I have written, I have probably been a bit unfair to The Big Sleep. It certainly is hugely enjoyable, and is great fun, and there are those who say that is all that the “Golden Age of Hollywood” produced, and that we should look for no more. Perhaps. But as far as I can see, The Maltese Falcon gives us considerably more than that.

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Losing the plot

There are certain words we use frequently, quite sure that we know what they mean, but then tie ourselves up in knots when asked to define them. “Tune” for instance. We all know what a “tune” is. Which of us has not hummed along to one? And yet, when we come to define it, we flounder. The best I can think of is something along the lines of:

“A sequence of pitches, with each element of that sequence lasting for a specified duration, and with a different level of stress applied to each.”

Not very elegantly phrased, I agree, but I think that should cover just about everything we may recognise as a tune. Problem is that it applies to a whole lot of things also that we wouldn’t recognise as a tune. If I were to, say, play a random sequence of notes on a piano, that too, according to my definition, must be counted a tune, but I doubt anyone would recognise it as such. No doubt musicologists have very refined and sophisticated definitions of what constitutes “melody”, but, speaking as a layman, although I am sure I know what the word means, I cannot even begin to articulate what it is.

I have the same difficulty when it comes to fiction: what is “plot”? Once again, I think I know what the word means. Tom Jones has a plot, and Tristram Shandy doesn’t; The Age of Innocence has a plot, but To the Lighthouse doesn’t. But once again, I don’t know how to define it. The best I can think of is “a sequence of incidents, each related to the others”. But of course, that would cover Tristram Shandy and To the Lighthouse as well as it does Tom Jones or The Age of Innocence. I’d hazard a guess that it might even cover Finnegans Wake. Indeed, I am not at all sure it’s possible to write fiction without incidents of some form or other. But as with “tune” or “melody”, this definition does not cover what we mean when we speak of “plot”. We do use the term merely to describe a sequence of related incidents. But what we actually mean by it, I really don’t think I can articulate.

All this makes it difficult to write about such matters. Possibly it’s my scientific background that makes me feel very uneasy when terms are discussed and debated that have not been defined. When we talk about fiction, we speak all the time of “plot”. But what do we mean?

This lack of definition of “plot” is the first thing – though by no means the only thing – that worried me about this recent article by Tim Lott. For those unwilling to click on links, let me summarise as best I can what I think it says. Mr Lott first refers to a recent report by the Arts Council that tells us sales of literary fiction have declined sharply in Britain; he then rejects the idea that literary authors ought to be subsidised, and proposes instead that they write “better books”. By which he means that they should focus more on plot. For to neglect plot is, he thinks, poor craftsmanship.

(I may have misinterpreted Mr Lott, or I may be caricaturing what he is saying. If so, both misinterpretation and caricature are unintentional. But I have at least provided a link to the article, so curious readers may easily satisfy themselves on this point.)

Quite apart from the lack of definition of “plot”, there is also another term that Mr Lott uses quite freely, and which, I believe, the Arts Council report to which he refers also uses quite freely; but which, too, is undefined: “literary fiction”. While I think I know what “plot” is, even without a working definition, I honestly have no idea what “literary fiction” means. Presumably it is some category of fiction – a genre; but genres are defined by content: horror, thriller, romance, western, science fiction, fantasy, erotica – all of these and more are defined by the nature of the content. But is there any element of the content of a work of fiction that defines it as “literary”?

The only reasonable definition of “literary fiction” I can think of is “fiction that has, or aspires to have, literary qualities”. This is not, I agree, a very good definition, as it raises, but leaves unanswered, the question of what we mean by “literary quality”, but I don’t think I can be taken to task for not providing a good watertight definition of a term when the term itself is not mine, and not one I would ever think of using. But if “literary fiction” is indeed fiction that has, or aspires to having, literary qualities (however we define them), then “literary fiction” seems to me to be about as meaningful as “artistic art”, or “musical music”.

And then, “better books”. By which Mr Lott means “books with more plot”. And his implication that the stronger the element of plot, the greater the craftsmanship. I was going to write a refutation of these assertions, but now I come to it, I really don’t think it’s worthwhile: it’s hardly difficult to find a great many very prominent counter-examples in literary history.

Now, we are not talking here about the opinions of some bloke from down the pub: Tim Lott is an eminent author, and teaches postgraduate students in possibly the most prestigious creative writing course in Britain. And I find it profoundly depressing to see someone in so eminent a position saying such things.

It is not to denigrate plot (and let us not get too worried here about the definition) to say that fiction lacking plot can be of an extremely high quality, and require a very high degree of craftsmanship. For instance, The Count of Monte Cristo, say, has, I think, an extremely good plot. Actually, it has very many good plots, all intertwined together with a breathtaking skill and panache; and it maintains our interest over a thousand and more pages almost entirely by maintaining narrative tension – by keeping the reader in suspense over the questions of what happens next, or what has happened in the past that is yet to be revealed. It is a magnificent achievement. On the other hand, Ulysses, though not lacking in incident (as I said earlier, I don’t think it is possible to conceive of fiction that lacks incident), is lacking in what we normally think of as plot. Going by Mr Lott’s equating of plot with craftsmanship, it should follow that Ulysses, compared to The Count of Monte Cristo, say, is lacking in craftsmanship – a sentiment so self-evidently absurd that Mr Lott himself would, I am sure, be happy to distance himself from it.

Even when plot exists, I am not too sure that it is necessarily of primary importance. Middlemarch, say, is not short of plot: there are two main, intertwining plotlines, with many subsidiary plots hanging off them. One of these plotlines involves hidden crimes in the past, blackmail, manslaughter (possibly even murder!), public scandal … in short, incidents often sensational in nature. But does anyone actually read Middlemarch for the plot? Is “What happens next?” the main concern that keeps the reader turning the pages?

In novels such as, say, Conrad’s Nostromo, we actually do have a good plot. If all the events were arranged in chronological order, then we would have a thrilling tale of hidden silver, torture, revolution, etc. But Conrad takes this plot, turns it inside out, fragments it, displays only some of the fragments to us (out of chronological order) – indeed, does everything he can think of to take the reader’s attention away from the plot. Faulkner does something similar: Absalom, Absalom!, if written in a conventional manner, would be a vast family saga encompassing the American Civil War, and would no doubt have been the basis of a Hollywood epic to rival Gone With the Wind. But, as with Conrad, Faulkner fragments the plot and gives us some of those fragments (often narrated by unreliable sources) out of sequence; he also writes it in a prose so idiosyncratically convoluted that it’s only the most determined of readers who can last for more than a few pages. So apparently uninterested were Conrad and Faulkner in the plot that even when they had good ones, they effectively smashed it to bits.

And there’s Chandler, whom I find a particularly interesting case. He was definitely writing “genre fiction” – the detective story; and the genre he wrote in is one that generally demands good plotting. Yet, it seems to me that Chandler relegates the plot to the background – not by not having enough of it, but by having too much of it. There are so many plot elements, and they are so very intricate, that, after a while, the reader – well, this reader at least – finds it impossible to keep track of it all. And the strange thing is that it doesn’t matter. Even when I can follow no more than a very rough outline of the plot, I find it all enthralling. Once again, the plot is there, but relegated away from the principal focus of interest.

None of this is to denigrate the plot. However one defines it, it is a tremendous skill to plot well. But to assert that plotting makes for “better books”; or that plotting is indicative of superior craftsmanship; strikes me as so self-evidently absurd, that I wonder whether Mr Lott himself would care to stand by the conclusions they lead us to.

Murders on the Orient Express

Firstly, a promise. I promise that nowhere in the following piece will I reveal, or even hint at, the solution to the mystery that is at the heart of Murder on the Orient Express. Should there be anyone unaware of what happens in this story, I can guarantee that the revelation is quite startling, and I certainly wouldn’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment.

Having said that, I will admit to not being much of an Agatha Christie fan. In my pre-teenage years, the very lurid illustrations that used then to appear on the covers of various paperback issues led me to believe she was a horror writer, but when I did finally come round to reading a few of them in my early teens, far from horror, I found an entirely unexpected cosiness. At the time – I was about thirteen or so – I quite enjoyed the few I read, but not enough, obviously, to want to read more. From what I remember, everything seems subordinate to the plot, and the plot in itself is something I have never found particularly interesting. However, these novels have most definitely passed the test of time quite triumphantly, so no doubt it is I who am missing something. And, after reading Sophie Hannah’s spirited appreciation, I am more than happy to accept that the problem is with me as a reader rather than with the novels themselves. After all, I’ve only read a few, and that many, many years ago, when I was not a very experienced reader: I may well have missed the point.

I can’t help feeling it a shame, though, that in order to praise Christie, Sophie Hannah denigrates Chandler; but I suppose it’s natural to take against someone who has been rude about your favourite writer; and, it must be admitted, Chandler has been quite unconscionably rude about Agatha Christie. In Chandler’s novels, unlike Christie’s, the plotting is very clearly not the point: it doesn’t really matter, for instance, who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep. And neither is Chandler interested in the elements of mystery and of puzzles: the appeal of his novels lies elsewhere. Indeed, that is one of the reasons I like Chandler so much: he developed the detective story in directions where plotting becomes increasingly less relevant, and the focus is allowed to fall more fully upon other and – to my mind – more interesting matters. I remain, I must admit, very much on Chandler’s side of this divide.

But this is of course unfair given how limited my exposure has been to Agatha Christie’s novels. If these books can hold generations of readers in thrall for nearly a century now, she must have been doing something right. And I have, after all, enjoyed a great many adaptations of Christie’s novels, both on television and on the big screen, where actors can fill the characters out with their own personalities. So, before I pass further judgement, I felt it only right to try reading some Agatha Christie for myself; and, in view of the recent cinema release, Murder on the Orient Express seemed a good place to start my re-evaluation.

And it’s not just the recent release. This is one of that small handful of Agatha Christie books I read all those years ago, and I remember enjoying it at the  time. I remember particularly how struck I was by that ending. And then, a few days before Christmas 1974, we had a seasonal family outing to the ABC cinema (as it was then) on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow to see the newly released film version directed by Sidney Lumet, and with Albert Finney as Poirot heading a star-studded cast. It was a tremendously enjoyable night out, and remains vivid in the memory forty years and more afterwards. And what’s more, that film is a particular favourite of my wife’s, and watching the DVD version has become something of a Christmas tradition for us.

And here’s a puzzle, worthy of Agatha Christie herself: if the plot were the whole point of it, why can we (and many others) enjoy watching this film repeatedly, when we already know the story? What enjoyment can we possibly find in a whodunit when we know from the start who dun it? One obvious answer is the sense of cosiness. This is an element virtually all adaptations accentuate, and with good reason. I used to look down on cosiness: a thriller, I felt, deals with evil acts, and should be dark and troubling, sinister and edgy. However, it is wrong to judge anything by one’s pre-conceived rules: a thriller should be what the author set it out to be, and if it sets out to be cosy, then so be it: Agatha Christie was hardly under any compulsion to abide by my rules, after all. And in any case, with advancing years, I find that I am less insistent on the edgy, and, indeed, tire of various formulaic thrillers formulaically focussing on physical violence to achieve that all-purpose formulaic edginess. And at the same time, I find myself more tolerant of cosiness. After all, as the world hurtles madly to heaven knows where, a sense of comfort, I increasingly feel, is not something to be sneered at.

Or it’s possible that I have just got older.

But are the novels really cosy? Are her characters merely cardboard cut-outs, enlivened in adaptations only by the actors’ personalities? And is her prose, as I have so often maintained, merely plodding and bland? Sophie Hannah certainly doesn’t seem to think so:

Each of her novels demonstrates a profound understanding of people – how they think, feel and behave – all delivered in her crisp, elegant, addictively readable style. While immersed in a Christie mystery, you might not notice the wisdom sprinkled throughout the pages because you’re having too much fun, growling with frustration because you’d love to be able to guess the solution but can’t.

To begin with, the story of Murder on  the Orient Express is superb. I don’t just mean the solution to the mystery – I mean the whole idea of the thing. (I have to be careful here to keep the promise I made at the start of this piece.) It has such resonance, that it has become a sort of modern myth. And it raises questions on all sorts of vitally important themes – themes that have been addressed in some of the most profound works of world literature. But Agatha Christie does not so much as touch upon any of them. In my younger days, when I was more prescriptive and censorious than I am now, I would have counted this as a serious flaw, but now I am inclined to think that she does not touch on these themes because she did not want to: she was writing an entertainment, after all, and not a serious Dostoyevskian novel. Indeed, so naturally do these serious issues arise from the plot, it required no small degree of skill and craftsmanship to lock these issues out.

In this respect, the 1974 film version, directed by Sidney Lumet, is faithful to the book. I heard on the radio once that the distinguished film composer Bernard Herrmann (most famous for his scores for many of Hitchcock’s finest films, including Psycho) objected to the delightful waltz composed by Richard Rodney Bennett for this film: this is the Train of Death, Herrmann insisted, and a delightful waltz is out of place. But I think Bennett understood what this film is about: it’s not about Death, and neither is it about psychological trauma, or about divine justice, or any of these things. It is a cosy, comfort film, just as Christie’s novel is a cosy, comfort novel.

Visually, it is superb. Sidney Lumet seemed to make a speciality of setting films within small, enclosed spaces: Twelve Angry Men is an obvious example. Lumet also made some very successful cinematic adaptations of plays set in enclosed locations – Long Day’s Journey Into Night, say, or The Seagull – and the visual variety he finds even in such restricted settings is often quite extraordinary. Lumet weaves his magic here also, conveying superbly a sense of cramped luxury. The setting here is no mere decoration: it helps create the drama.

The cast is superb, but it is when we come to Albert Finney, in the central role of Poirot, that we run into difficulties. I know there are those who simply cannot stand Finney’s singularly mannered performance, and I can understand why. But I can understand also why he chose to play it in this manner. He was surrounded by some of the finest of screen actors, some of the strongest of screen presences – Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller, etc. – and he had to stand out from this distinguished gathering; and he decided to stand out by putting on a highly – one may almost say “grotesquely” – eccentric performance. I must say I rather enjoy it; and the final sequence, where he has the long speech explaining who dun it, and how, seems to me pulled off with a fine theatrical panache. But yes, I can understand why some would hate it also. Nothing so mannered and idiosyncratic can be universally liked. (I still find it difficult to come to terms, for instance, with Jeremy Brett’s highly mannered performance as Holmes, even though the consensus of opinion seems to regard this performance as well nigh definitive.)

Fine entertainment, yes, but light entertainment: Lumet does not allow the serious themes implicit in the storyline to come to the surface, any more than Christie did.

Now, of course, we have the much heralded remake directed by Kennet Branagh. Some objected to remaking the film, but I don’t really see the objection: it is a very powerful story, after all, and why shouldn’t a contemporary director and a contemporary cast get a chance to reinterpret it?  I must admit, though, that I am rather old-fashioned in these matters, and there are some aspects of modern mainstream cinema that … how shall I put it? – that are not to my taste. For instance, when two characters are talking, I just want the camera in the same room as them, and pointing at them. Putting the camera outside so we can see them through the window, and then executing all kinds of intricate camera movements, does not enhance the drama. Worse, it distracts from what the characters are saying. I don’t really see why we should insist that everything must look like a video game.

And neither do I see why anyone should think that conversations lasting more than a minute or so at the most are dull and uncinematic. Some of the very finest and most iconic of films are full of long scenes of conversation. Much of Agatha Christie’s novel consists of conversations, as each of the suspects is interviewed in turn: fitting together all the various pieces of evidence is where the interest lies. But in this film, various of these interviews are intercut with each other, presumably in the belief that if any single conversation goes on for more than a few seconds the audience will lose interest. Sure, this kind of intercutting injects pace into the narrative, but does the narrative always need to be pacy? In effectively banishing from the narrative passages of repose or even of stillness, film-makers seem to me to be restricting their range, resulting all too often in an almost uni-paced, shapeless mass.

Yes, I know this is the modern way of film-making, and that things change, can’t keep still, new generation, and so on, and so forth. And when everyone seems happy with this, I have to accept that it is I who am out on a limb. But there it is, for what it’s worth: I find myself unsympathetic to modern styles. Living in the past, I am, and happy to be there.

There were a few other aspects in this latest film that, to my mind, didn’t work, including an obligatory action sequence, and another obligatory chase sequence, both of which seemed out of place in what is, after all, a cosy whodunit. It is also important for the audience in these whodunits to be always aware of the list of suspects, but the Hungarian couple were kept absent for so long that I had almost forgotten about them till they suddenly emerge some half way through. Sidney Lumet had been more successful, I think, in keeping all the characters constantly in the frame. Also, unlike the Lumet film, the cramped setting was not used here to any great effect: perhaps it was a mistake in taking some of the scenes outside the train.

However, having said all that, the film was entertaining enough on its own terms. The all-star cast is fine, and the story remains as startling as ever. And Kenneth Branagh, with facial hair so spectacular that I felt a mere amateur in this respect, made a strong impression as Poirot without having to go to the extremes of Albert Finney. (Although I must admit that I do still enjoy Finney’s theatrical gusto.) The scene where all is revealed was particularly well done, and the script here was quite happy to bring to the fore some of the more serious aspects of the story that both the novel and the earlier film had stayed away from: Branagh’s Poirot here speaks of “fractured souls”, and of the need for healing.

Between these two productions came two television adaptations – one in 2001 with Alfred Molina as Poirot (I have not seen this), and, in 2010, an adaptation of the novel as part of the long-running series, filmed and broadcast in Britain by ITV, starring David Suchet as Poirot. This particular episode (so imdb.com tells me), was scripted (quite superbly, I thought) by Stuart Harcourt, and directed (equally superbly) by Philip Martin. Here, we see Agatha Christie’s story turn into a modern myth: the story is here re-interpreted, and scriptwriter and director make of it something entirely new. Far from hiding away the serious aspects – ethical, psychological, even theological – they are given centre stage, and the effect is about as dark and as disturbing a drama as I think I have seen. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Christie, and while this may perhaps upset some fans of the original, the departure is entirely justified. Christie’s story, splendid though it is, is used here to but as a basis for something that is not even hinted at in  the novel. To say this is not to denigrate Christie’s work: indeed, it speaks for the strength of the original story that, despite the intense seriousness of the themes broached in this version, the plotline is strong enough to carry so heavy a burden.

And no, cosy it ain’t. Noticeably, the rather charming and whimsical theme tune used in the other episodes of this series is here absent. We are plunged, before the title sequence, straight into the midst of things: Poirot is wrapping up his previous case, and, in time-honoured fashion, is explaining (in this instance, to assembled military officers) the solution he has successfully arrived at. But in less than time-honoured fashion, he is here in a fit of passion. The details of the crime he had investigated are not given, but it appears from what he says that what had been thought to have been murder was, in fact, an accidental death; but Poirot’s wrathful indignation is directed at one of the officers present, who, through his lying, had impeded the investigation. And even as Poirot is denouncing him, a shot rings out, and Poirot’s face is splattered with blood. Only a few drops of blood – this is not gothic horror, after all – but enough to let us know that we are not here in the world of cosy whodunits. The officer Poirot was denouncing has shot himself.

As Poirot leaves afterwards, having completed the case successfully (in the sense that he has solved the mystery), one of the soldiers accompanying him breaks protocol to let him know that the man who had shot himself had not been a bad man: he had merely made an error of judgement. Poirot sticks to his guns: he had lied, and was morally culpable. But what precisely is going on in Poirot’s mind we cannot be sure.

In Istanbul, Poirot witnesses another horrible scene: he sees an adulterous woman stoned to death. Even this he seems to condone: it is horrible, yes, but the application of law is necessarily horrible, and the stoning is no more horrible than hangings in Britain. However horrible, the law must be applied, for, without the law, where are we? What are we? There is, of course, another question here, implied though not openly articulated: even when we do apply the law, what are we?

We are in very deep waters here, and those expecting the traditional cosy whodunit may well be tempted at this point to switch off. They would be well advised to do so, for this production does not let up: it is a dark and serious investigation into some of the most profound of themes – the nature of justice; the application of laws, both human and divine; how justice differs from mere retribution; the corrosive nature of evil, and how it spreads; our human need for justice, without which we cannot begin to heal; and our failure to heal even when justice is done, as each act of justice is a fresh crime in itself. Throughout, Poirot’s is a dark, brooding presence, exhibiting none of the quirkiness or whimsicality that had characterised him in previous episodes: he is here a tortured man, clinging dogmatically to what moral certainties he still possesses, because to lose these certainties would be to cast himself into moral chaos.

David Suchet’s performance is simply extraordinary. No theatrical grandstanding here: there is a time and a place for that kind of thing, but not here, where we find ourselves so deep in such turbulent moral waters. The other roles are not quite so demanding, perhaps, although I do find it quite astonishing just how great an intensity of emotion Eileen Atkins can communicate in just a few softly spoken lines. No sense here of dialogue being boring, or uncinematic; no scope here for intercutting with other dialogues to prevent the audience’s attention wandering.

This, like the two films, re-creates the murder in a flashback sequence towards the end. In the Sidney Lumet film, this sequence is very impressively staged, and is tense and sombre; in the more recent film, it is more frenzied; but neither can really compare with the murder scene in this television version, which really chills one’s blood. No hint here of formulaic edginess: the horror is moral at least as much as it is physical.

The whole thing, in short, is a triumph. It is as brilliant as it is audacious: never have I seen an episode of a well-established television drama that so relentlessly subverts audience expectations. And what we see here is the creation of mythology: although the plot keeps quite close to Christie’s novel, this is neither an “adaptation”, nor a “dramatization”: it takes the novel but as a starting point to create something entirely new. Yes, the profound and troubling themes it broaches are all latent in the original novel, but it takes something special not merely to bring them out, but also to explore them in such a way that the original material is left far, far behind.

For that original material is, in spirit if not in letter, very different indeed. When people speak of an adaptation being faithful, they usually mean “faithful” in terms of the plot: in that sense, this adaptation is indeed quite faithful. But it’s very unfaithful where it really matters. For when I read the novel over after watching the television version, I found myself in a completely different world. Had Agatha Christie envisaged that the story could take on such dark and serious hues? Possibly. But if she did, she used all her skill to keep these hues out. For the book is a romp. That is not to criticise it: a romp, light entertainment, cosy whodunit …these are not things to be looked down on. Well-crafted entertainment is admirable in itself. And Christie has, I’d contend, given us even more than well-crafted entertainment: she has given us one of the finest of all plots – a plot capable of bearing the burden of some of the most difficult and troubling of moral issues.

But does Christie, as Sophie Hannah contends, “demonstrate a profound understanding of people – how they think, feel and behave”? I must admit that, on the basis of this novel alone, I’ll have to answer “no”. The characterisation only goes so far as to differentiate the characters from each other, and to render the murderer’s motives (or the suspected murderers’ motives) credible. There are times when she is not above crude stereotypes:

A big, swarthy Italian was picking his teeth with gusto. Opposite him a spare, neat Englishman had the expressionless, disapproving face of a well-trained servant. Next  to the Englishman was a big American in a loud suit  – possibly a commercial traveller.

“You have to put it over big,” he was saying in a loud, nasal voice.

And is the prose style really “crisp and elegant”? It is not clunky, admittedly, but I can’t say I found much trace of elegance either. Perhaps the best way to describe it is “functional”. Everything is geared towards the plot, and plot alone. And, of course, when the plot is so good, that is nothing to apologise for.

But I shouldn’t pass judgement based on just one of her many novels – although, admittedly, it’s one of her most famous novels. And neither should I – as I used to – look down my nose at the “cosy”. Some friends of mine, who have read more of Christie than I have, tell me that many of her early works were considerably darker, and advise me to read And Then There Were None. (That is not, by the way, the original title: that original title is now considered, for entirely understandable reasons, unacceptable in polite society, although it should be said that the book itself is not racist.) Perhaps I’ll read that too some day, for the plot of that, too, has taken on something of a mythical quality. And these books are very easy to read, after all: I do not regard that as a recommendation in literary terms, but it does mean that one can race through them fairly quickly.

I said at the start of this post that I shall not reveal, nor even hint at, the solution to the mystery. I trust that I have kept that promise. It was a promise that was important to keep: for, whatever the resonances of her stories, whatever the serious and profound themes that lie implicit in them, as far as Agatha Christie was concerned, the plot’s the thing. And yes, she did think up some rather fine ones.

Film versions of Chandler’s novels

The novels of Raymond Chandler have, not surprisingly, been frequently adapted for the big screen. In some ways, these stylish thrillers seem made for cinema: but in some other ways, they prove surprisingly resistant to screen adaptations. For one thing a film of reasonable length cannot handle is the extreme complexity of Chandler’s plotting: almost inevitably, the plot of the novel is thinned out. Of course, the plot is hardly of primary importance in a Chandler novel: famously, Chandler himself didn’t know who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep, and it doesn’t really matter. I doubt anyone can keep track of all the elements of the plot in a Chandler novel: I certainly can’t, and it has never interfered with my enjoyment. But the extreme complexity of plot does create a certain narrative texture, for want of a better word: it conveys an impression of a world that Marlowe has to face that is so intricate and complex that its mysteries can never be entirely untangled. None of the seven Philip Marlowe novels (excluding perhaps the last, Playback, which is nowhere near the standard of the previous ones) ends with everything neatly tied up: at the end of each, Marlowe is aware of an evil world out there that cannot be redeemed, or purified. The best he can do is to cling on to his own integrity. 

The best adaptations are those that convey this sense of dogged integrity despite the odds. The essence of Chandler novels is, it seems to me, that of a world-weary cynicism. But this cynicism relates not to one’s personal values, but, rather, to the values of the world: the former can be controlled, albeit with difficulty; the latter, however, are beyond any form of control at all. Marlowe’s cynicism is the cynicism of a Romantic who can clearly see reality for what it is, but who, for all that, insists on clinging on to Romantic values. He knows full well that the cost of clinging on to Romantic values in a realistic world is immense, but it is a cost he is prepared to pay. He is possibly the nearest modern literature has to Don Quixote. 

Very few adaptations of Chandler’s novels convey this sense of world-weary integrity in the face of the world’s corruptions. The actor who managed it best was probably Robert Mitchum, in a rather flatly directed remake of Farewell My Lovely in the 1960s, and, much later, when he was far too old for the role anyway, in a very badly directed remake of The Big Sleep. While the quality of Mitchum’s performance is in no doubt, Chandler’s stylish writing does ideally require a commensurate sense of style in direction. 

There’s certainly no shortage of style in Howard Hawks’ earlier version of The Big Sleep, but the result, though undoubtedly entertaining, does not quite seem Chandleresque to me. Of course, the sleaze of the milieu that Chandler explores (Geiger’s bookshop, for instance, is a front for a pornography racket) could not be depicted directly in a film of the early 40s; but it could have been indicated indirectly. Howard Hawks was a skilful enough director to have done that had he wanted to, but he presumably did not want to: instead, he glamorised the story. In the novel, Marlowe is motivated primarily by his hatred of Eddie Mars, and for all that Eddie Mars stands for; in the film, Eddie Mars barely registers as a presence at all, and Marlowe’s main motivation appears to be his love for the Lauren Bacall character (Mrs Routledge, as she is called in the film). In Chandler’s novel, this character is yet another aspect of the corruption that finds its way into everyone’s lives; in the film, in order to make her a suitable love interest, she is cleansed of any hint of such corruption. The consequence of this cleansing act is that the film, for all its merits, is a very sanitised version of Chandler’s world. And once you sanitise Chandler’s world, the result can hardly be described as Chandleresque.  Instead of the sleaze of the novel, Hawks gives us glamour: even the ladies who have walk-on parts (the bookseller across the road, the attendants at Eddie Mars’ gambling joint, even the female taxi-driver) are extremely glamorous. It’s a far cry from the nasty, corrupt world that Chandler presents.

(Of course, this film does benefit from the charismatic presence of Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, but, in keeping with the general tone of the film, Bogart’s Marlowe seems to be enjoying himself far too much. There are no more than occasional hints of the sense of disgust that was so salient a feature of Marlowe in the novel.)

Edward Dmytryk’s version of Farewell My Lovely (renamed Murder My Sweet because the studio executives thought that a film called Farewell My Lovely and starring song-and-dance man Dick Powell could be mistaken for a musical) fares somewhat better in its depiction of a nasty and corrupt world, and of Marlowe’s sense of disgust. True, Marlowe is once again saddled with a love interest, but it doesn’t unduly affect the tone of the film, which seems closer to the world of Chandler’s novels than did The Big Sleep. In addition, Claire Trevor proves a superb femme fatale, and Dick Powell is surprisingly effective as Marlowe. All in all, this is possibly the finest screen adaptation of a Chandler novel.

 The other adaptations – the ones I’ve seen, at least – are hardly in this class. There’s an interesting adaptation of The Lady in the Lake in which the camera takes the place of Marlowe, and everything we see is seen through, as it were, Marlowe’s eyes (the only time we see Marlowe – played by Robert Montgomery – is when he looks into the mirror). The experiment is interesting, though not, perhaps, entirely convincing. Then, there was a 60s adaptation of The Little Sister that was titled simply Marlowe. One imagines that with a better script and a director less flat-footed, this may have been quite good, as James Garner seems fits the part just about perfectly. Sadly, the whole thing is a bore. And then there is Robert Altman’s adaptation of The Long Goodbye, with Elliot Gould. Perhaps Altman knew what he was doing in this one, but I certainly didn’t. He changes the plot, so that which had been subtle in Chandler’s novel becomes here merely crude and ham-fisted; and, worse, he manages to purge from the story any sense of tension or of suspense. 

So all in all, Chandler’s novels have not been as successful on the screen as perhaps they might have been. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks’ version) is enjoyable as long as one doesn’t expect anything resembling Chandler’s novel; Edward Dmytryk’s version of Farewell My Lovely is excellent; and the remake is worth watching because of Robert Mitchum. And that’s about it, I’m afraid.