Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Cornell Woolrich, 'The Black Curtain' (1941)

Alfred Hitchcock’s fondness for Cornell Woolrich’s work, most famously evidenced by Rear Window, is well known, and Woolrich’s The Black Curtain (1941) takes for its subject one of Hitchcock’s favorite subjects: an innocent man plunged into a frightening situation, wrongly accused of a crime, and struggling to prove his innocence. Like Hitchcock, Woolrich finds this subject appealing because the situation of the innocent man at the heart of such a scenario resembles so closely (albeit in an intensified form) Woolrich’s view of the human condition more generally: any sense of happiness one achieves is temporary and fragile at best because it is always subject to being destroyed by the forces of random chaos that can sweep away all security, certainty, and knowledge in a moment. That moment comes for Woolrich’s protagonist, Frank Townsend, when he recovers from a three-year bout of amnesia. On the surface, the beginning of the story resembles a happy ending, in that he is restored to his old life, including an adoring wife and his job, but when he starts being hunted by a threatening man whom he does not recognize, Townsend must go back into the mysterious past to find out who he was and what he did that is now threatening his life and security. This being Woolrich, the happy ending is eventually secured, at least in a formal fashion, but is unsatisfying to the reader for a couple of reasons. First, the resolution of Townsend’s problems occurs rapidly at the end of the novel in a manner that (I would argue) is deliberately unconvincing in the sense that it does little to allay the reader’s discomfort. In other words, the vast majority of the novel is dominated by Townsend’s incomprehension and fear, and it is the suspense generated by these emotions that dominates the reader’s reaction to the novel, not the happy resolution. Second, even if we take the resolution at face value, the message of The Black Curtain remains that one’s life can be destroyed in the blink of an eye by a cruel and random chance act; imagine living life with that knowledge at the front of your mind every day and you get some sense of the bleakness of Woolrich’s view of the world.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears (2013)

The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears is a 2013 neo-giallo written and directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. It tells the story of a businessman (played by Klaus Tange) who returns home from a business trip to find his wife is missing. As he tries to find her by speaking to other residents of the strangely opulent apartment building in which they live, he hears some of their stories, and gets dragged into an increasingly hallucinatory series of events in which the border between reality and (erotic) fantasy becomes more and more blurred. Like the classic giallo, Strange sticks to the most basic structure of the mystery (there is a crime and then an investigation) and it is also typical of the giallo in that the mystery is as much a question of perception as it is an ontological fact. In other words, we can’t be absolutely sure that a crime has even taken place, let alone whom the perpetrator might be. It should be noted, however, that this is not at all a weakness in either this film or in the genre as a whole; indeed, it is this mix of the gestural respect paid to ratiocination along with the overwhelming presence of the surreal the defines the giallo. In this regard, those who criticize Strange for having no discernible narrative structure are missing the point entirely. With that said, the vast majority of Italian gialli do contain some kind of resolution to the mystery—it may be outlandish and unconvincing (in fact, all the better if it is!) but it’s usually there. Strange lacks even a weak resolution and no amount of visual style (with which this film is packed) can quite compensate for this absence.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Cornell Woolrich, 'The Bride Wore Black' (1940)

Cornell Woolrich’s first crime novel, The Bride Wore Black, was published in 1940, after Woolrich had already published several jazz-age novels in the style of his literary model F. Scott Fitzgerald, and after he had established a reputation as a prolific and talented writer of stories for pulp magazines. Like so many other crime fiction writers who came to the genre after writing other types of narratives, Woolrich found in crime fiction the perfect means of expressing his bleak view of the world in a manner that is simultaneously lyrical and chilling. Bride is a revenge narrative, with the twist that the avenger is a young woman whose husband was killed moments after they were married. She then devotes years of her life to tracking down and killing the men she holds responsible for her husband’s death, assuming a different identity each time, and always trading on her ability to read the men’s weaknesses. As such, Bride is not only a powerful exploration of the extremes to which melancholic revenge can push one, but also an utterly unsentimental and insightful analysis of contemporary American masculinity. In this regard, the fact that the plot hinges on an incredible coincidence and is filled with various other examples of the unlikely does nothing to diminish its power. Not only is Bride still effective as an anatomization of male vanity and stupidity, but the role of random chance in Woolrich’s fictional universe is the perfect objective correlative for the animating principle of that universe: meaningless chaos.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Marek Krajewski, 'Death in Breslau' (1999)

Marek Krajewski makes good use of his professional training in linguistics and classics in Death in Breslau, the first in a series of novels featuring police detective Eberhard Mock. In Death, Mock has to find a way to work with Nazi officials as he tries to solve a bizarre double murder involving scorpions, strange inscriptions written in blood, and a revenge plot stretching back over seven centuries. The details of the complicated plot unfold gradually and satisfyingly over the course of the novel and also involve an Oedipal subplot that, remarkably, feels entirely unforced. But what really distinguishes this novel is its atmosphere (Breslau and its inhabitants are some of its most interesting characters) and its protagonist. Mock is well-named in the sense that in many ways he makes a mockery of any notion of professional ethics or honor. Although he is good at his job, he is best of all at protecting his own interests, even if that means sacrificing others. And yet, there remains something deeply appealing about his fatalism, something that is doubtless thrown into sharp relief by the context of a Nazi-dominated Europe sliding slowly into the horror of the World War II era. Given that context, the self-serving decisions and compromises Mock makes seem less heinous by comparison. For whatever reason, Mock’s survival feels like a kind of triumph, even though it’s purchased at a high price.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Michael Dirda, On Conan Doyle (2012)

This might be a controversial thing to say about a book that won a coveted ‘Edgar’ award from the Mystery Writers of America, but On Conan Doyle, by Michael Dirda, the long-time book critic for the Washington Post, is a bit of a mixed bag. Its strengths include its opening section, when Dirda memorably recreates the first time he ever read Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as a child and there is much in this vein in the rest of the book about that most unfashionable of subjects, the love of reading. As a celebration of that love, On Conan Doyle works, and it’s just as valuable in encouraging its reader to look beyond the Holmes stories and novels and take in the rest of Doyle’s broad oeuvre. This is important not only because Dirda writes convincingly of the strengths of Doyle’s short fiction, his historical novels, his memoir, and so on, but also because Doyle himself felt (correctly) that Holmes’ success overshadowed his other achievements as an author. Where Dirda stumbles is when he discusses at (too) great length his participation in the Baker Street Irregulars, an illustrious company of Holmes fans to which he is obviously very honored to belong, as he should be. The problem is that Dirda’s pride at being a member of the club is not infectious and his lengthy descriptions of the group’s social events are self-indulgent and tedious, as is his reproduction of some of the (not very funny) writing he’s done for the Irregulars. Boyish enthusiasm can be charming in a boy, but in a man…not so much. Set that section of the book aside, however, and On Conan Doyle is a very interesting addition to Sherlockiana. 

Guy Boothby, A Prince of Swindlers (1900/2015)

Penguin has just republished Guy Boothby’s 1900 novel A Prince of Swindlers and it’s a must-read for fans of Victorian crime fiction and E.W. Hornung’s Raffles stories in particular. Boothby’s protagonist is Simon Carne, who we first meet living in India but who then moves to London, where he commits a series of daring and outrageous thefts from members of London’s high society. There’s an element of social critique in this conceit, in the sense that Boothby presents the nobility as profoundly gullible and, to all intents and purposes, defenseless against Carne’s charm, his ability to disguise himself, and his meticulous and detailed planning. At the same time, Boothby makes it difficult for his reader to romanticize Carne as a Robin Hood figure, because he is so clearly out for himself. While the plots lack the elegance and ingenuity of Conan Doyle’s best Sherlock Holmes stories, Boothby is clearly indebted to Doyle’s archetypal amateur detective for inspiration, and there is a nice element of self-reflexivity in the fact that one of Carne’s disguises is ‘Klimo,’ an eccentric private detective who investigates one of the crimes that Carne himself has committed! This reprint edition also comes with a very useful introduction from Gary Hoppenstand, who points out, among other things, the continuing appeal of the ‘gentleman thief’ figure in today’s popular culture.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Babadook (2014)

The Babadook is one of the most powerful and moving films that I’ve seen in years. It tells the story of Amelia, a woman whose husband was killed in a car crash as they were on their way to the hospital to give birth to their first child. Seven years later, she’s a single parent to her son Samuel but it’s clear that she has not recovered from the trauma of her partner’s death. Moreover, she feels deeply conflicted about having to devote her life to parenting Samuel, who has a number of behavioral problems. When Samuel starts complaining that the Babadook, a monster from one of his picture books, is living in the house and tormenting him, Amelia naturally dismisses his fears as a child’s delusion, but as the film progresses, she finds it more and more difficult to deny that the Babdook is real and wants to hurt them. At this point, director Jennifer Kent makes a very important decision that makes The Babdook so much more than a good genre film. Rather than filling the film with hi-tech special effects and thus producing a standard ‘creature feature’ horror film, Kent keeps the Babadook defiantly lo-fi, a product more of the increasingly unhinged imagination of Amelia than a ‘real’ monster. Although the film is genuinely frightening, our fear comes not from sudden jump cuts, copious amounts of gore, or vividly outlandish monsters, but from a close-up and unflinching look at the psychological torment that the lead characters have to endure. Consequently, although the exact meaning of the Babadook remains a matter for debate (and this is one of the film’s many strengths), for me at least it came to symbolize Amelia’s grief, a grief that she has denied for years and thus has never come to terms with, and which is threatening to destroy her life and her relationship with her son. The resolution of the film, in this reading, signals Amelia’s ability to finally mourn the loss of her husband and move on. Crucially, however, this does NOT mean killing the monster: the Babadook still lives, but it is confined to the basement of the house (i.e., the subconscious and/or the past) and although it still needs to be acknowledged, it has lost the destructive ascendancy that it had earlier in the film. The Babadook thus develops a number of complex ideas about the nature of emotional attachments, the difficulties of (single) parenting, as well as death, grief, loss, and memory. But none of this would make the film work in and of itself were it not for the two extraordinary performances that bring these themes to life: Essie Davis as Amelia and Noah Wiseman as Samuel are both amazing and their on-screen relationship is the most miraculous thing about this wonderful film. On a personal note, I also want to say that, as the son of a mother who struggled with depression throughout her life, and was often emotionally abusive, The Babadook made an even stronger impression on me than it might on others, not least because (and I know this sounds like a strange thing to say about this film) it is so true to life.