Film criticism for movie fans who want to think again about their cine thrills and chills.



Sunset Boulevard, 1950, USA, Director Billy Wilder

You want a drink?  Have a drink.  You’re young.  Enjoy it while you can.  Let my secretary get you a cold beer.  Janet, get the guy a drink and tell Betty I need a yes or no today on that Western script.  No, Janet, I don’t want a beer, doctor’s orders.  Son, my stomach gives me hell.  Of course I don’t mind you writing a book about what happened between Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis, long as you don’t want me to make a film of the sorry saga.  That would soon have them heading for the exits.   You know, people say what happened between Joe and Norma must have damaged the studio and that was why we moved so quickly into television but it didn’t and it wasn’t.  Despite what she thought, Norma Desmond had already been forgotten by our great cinema going public.  And, by the time our publicity man had finished, well, Joe Gillis had not even worked here which was kind of half true because the guy never had a screen credit.  One of his ideas might have been borrowed by someone somewhere sometime but no more than that.  Here’s your drink.  Taste okay?  Good, you can have a real drink.  No, okay, stick to the beer.   Thanks for the beer, Janet.

No, I wasn’t shocked by what happened between Joe and Norma.  There was a difference between their ages.  So what?  Think this through, my friend.  This town has more young beautiful women than I’ve seen anywhere.   And I don’t mean like Paris.  These women here in Los Angeles are built.  How many young beauties have I seen draped over the arm of some old well-dressed guy who believes his wardrobe and weekly haircut and manicure make him irresistible?  I’ve lost count.  I lose count in a day.  Not that I keep track any more.  Money, power and sex, it happens.   Maybe it shouldn’t but it does.  Look at that thing with Liz Short, the Black Dahlia girl.  It was all over the papers a couple of years back.  I saw Liz at parties, saw old men crawling over this beautiful woman and her just grinning as if they were doing her a favour.  Liz Short finished up dead and almost cut in half.  We all got a memo.  Stay away from the funeral. 

Joe Gillis was like the women I see every day.  He was looking for a way into the movie business.  More than a few mentioned him dying in the swimming pool, as if only they were the ones that understood irony.  I don’t see many dead bodies floating on the surface of swimming pools but I see plenty of people like Joe Gillis around the pools and believe me they look great in bikinis.  Norma had been a big star and she had money but she was lonely.  I can see why the woman thought she was entitled.  Beer taste okay?  Good, you don’t have to sip it.  I have a fridge full of them out there.  You know, us talking like this has me thinking.  Not once have I ever wondered if Janet has sneaked a beer.  Why’s that you think?  Maybe, I’m not sure what a beer drinker looks like.

Betty Schaefer was there on Sunset Boulevard the night Norma killed Joe.  Betty still works for me as a reader and she’s still dreaming about being a writer.  I tell her she is a kind of writer because the scripts won’t be the same after she’s read them.  I just don’t let Betty anywhere near a typewriter.  Betty was distraught after what happened to Joe.  I can sort of understand how she feels.  Sort of because I’ve never kissed a dame that later has been plugged in the back.  There’s a couple I’ve felt like plugging but that’s another story.   Betty rated Joe but whether she would have done if he’d had no hair like me, I don’t know.   I liked the man.  All he ever wanted was to be a writer, not even rich or famous, and, well, I’m a softie for that kind of ambition.  Don’t grin at me.  I’m not ashamed of having a tender heart.  It helps me relax at night.  Not enough but it helps.

Betty and Joe worked together on a script.  No, it was never filmed.  The thing had its moments but I couldn’t work it out.  And if old Sheldrake is missing the point, then I can assure you our great cinema audience won’t find it either.  I was at the preview of the Welles’ picture.  That’s the one, The Magnificent Ambersons.  I’ll never forget that night.  It wasn’t even my picture, and I wanted to fall down into the ground.  As I say to Betty every day, don’t even think about masterpieces.  The truth is that Betty liked Joe Gillis.  After her thing with Joe she took a break from her husband-to-be Artie Green which I kind of understand because I never took to Artie.  Understand me, I see a lot of ambition.  Even sweet Betty Schaefer two rooms down the corridor has ambition.  But when that ambition is mixed with innocent eager enthusiasm, then it doesn’t work for me.   I want writers and movie makers to see the world as it is.  Artie Green was enthusiastic about everybody.  You get me?  That’s what I liked about Joe.  He had the ambition but not that back slapping enthusiasm which just makes my stomach ache more than it does already.

Look, try and understand this.  I have this friend, an ex-policeman here in Los Angeles.  He decided he wanted to be a writer and, guess what, the man hits pay dirt.  This was back when we were sparing with the four letter words.  Well, these books by this cop were not.  Critics said the public responded to the realism of life on the streets.  Me, I think, the American public just wanted to read a book with a lot of four letter words.  What am I trying to say?  I’ve forgotten.  Oh yes, this policeman said something to me one night.  We were eating some Mexican thing in this out of town place.  The cop thought it was wonderful.  Me, it just made my stomach ache.  This cop said that in his job he didn’t see the worst people but just people at their worst.  George, I said, that was his name, George, you should work in Hollywood.

Look, think this through.  Joe Gillis was offered a good deal.  Norma was paying him $500 a week, he was living in a swanky place and he was doing what he wanted to do.  He was writing a script.  Okay he had to bang a dame that wouldn’t see fifty again but, you know, those old silent movie stars had to climb the same pole that starlets do today.  Norma would have known a few bedroom tricks, I’m certain.  One of these days I’ll tell you all about Mabel Norman and how she had fun.  My God, what a woman.  I know, that’s another book.

I know, I know.  Betty has told me more than once about Joe having a sense of honour, how honourable Joe didn’t worry about not having his name on the script that they worked on together.  Sure I know that Joe told Betty she could have the script as a present.  And Joe was even loyal to Artie.  Sweet little Betty made the first move, not Joe.  And when Joe walked out on Norma, or tried to, he made sure first that Betty went back to Artie, our favourite back slapper.  You’re looking at me as if I’m talking bull.  I know what you’re going to say.  How could a guy who knew how to do right sell himself to a woman twice his age?

You really want to understand?  Stay in that chair and watch me work for a week.  What did that cop who wrote all the four letter words say?  In his job he saw the worst in people.  And so do I, believe me.  People will do anything to be in the movies.  Those beautiful women I mentioned.  Not only do they offer treats they shouldn’t, the men they’re giving the treats to don’t have a problem with promising me the same women.   And I’m not just talking about the well paid ladies for the weekend.  Men have offered me their wives if I could get them a part.  No, you’re wrong,  it’s not just the wannabes.  I’ve had big time directors in here pleading for favours and promising what I’d rather not remember, big names that would shock you.  Oh, but Sheldrake, I have to have so and so photograph the picture, or edit it, or add the music.  One guy said he’d commit suicide if I didn’t get the guy on his last picture that had done the noise of the horses galloping.  You want to hear the noise a horse makes?  See, I can do it with a glass on a desk.

Look, when you work in a business that preaches what you do is more important than life or death, then you are going to see people, as the cop said, at their worst.  And we now have these French critics analysing our movies from here in Hollywood as if they offer moral guidance.  Give me a break.  It doesn’t add up.  Do you think it adds up?  Sometimes, what kind of answer is that?  Sometimes, well, maybe you’re right.  Sometimes is how it added up for poor Joe Gillis and Norma Desmond.  Don’t say anything but I’m not sure it’s adding up for Betty Schaefer and Artie Green.  What did Oscar Wilde say?  We can resist everything but temptation.  Joe Gillis was an all right guy until he had the opportunity to be not all right.  You know, I said before it was made that The Picture of Dorian Gray would be a turkey.  Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, now that was a good movie and popular, too.  That book wasn’t by Oscar Wilde?  I didn’t know that.   I always thought.  I do get those old English guys confused.

Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest book Go Break Bad is now available here. 



UK, 2017


The phrase mixed reception is a cliché that suits the polite English. The Limehouse Golem, though, really has had a mixed reception. English film critics have been friendly and positive. Across the Atlantic the Americans have dismissed the movie as nothing more than routine TV fare. As the more objective Americans have realised, the film is not great. Peter Ackroyd writes novels, non-fiction and produces articles and criticism for newspapers and magazines. Ackroyd has influence, and his British friends have been obliged to overpraise a film that was based on his novel Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem. The book feels like something written by an intellectual slumming in genre fiction.   Bad things can happen when literary pretensions are added to basic thrillers. The dreadful Night Train by Martin Amis is a good example of a talented and serious writer underestimating the demands of popular fiction.  Something similar happens in The Limehouse Golem. The film begins with Dan Leno telling us that this particular story will begin at its end. This is more than a tedious affectation. It is incorrect because the film begins half way through its narrative. Not only do we have the slumming of Ackroyd but Jane Goldman, who confuses violence with horror, has also added her thick-eared sensibility to the script. Anachronisms are avoided, and the actors make an effort but the dialogue never feels like real conversation.   No one ever says ‘did you know that’ but there are too many moments of explanation and opinion.

The mystery element in the movie is basic, and that is being kind.   God help us if Theresa May sees the film. Despite rising crime rates in the UK, increased violence and the mysterious disappearance of policemen from British streets the Prime Minister remains convinced that the police force can withstand even more cuts in its budget. By 2020 the budget will have been reduced by £700m.  Without wishing to be fair to Theresa May, it has to be said that the police in The Limehouse Golem do dawdle.


After seeing a scrawled phrase on a wall next to a Jack the Ripper style victim Inspector Kildare visits the reading room of the British Museum to check out the helpful reference left on the wall by the killer. Kildare finds a book on the original golem that happens to have across a couple of its pages a description of the recent murders. We can ignore that an awful lot has somehow been written in the margins of the pages. The book has been signed out of the Library by four people. All Inspector Kildare needs to do is check the handwriting of the four book borrowers and bingo he will have his killer. In a normal world the case would have been sorted by lunchtime and Kildare could have gone for a beer to celebrate. Instead the investigation is dragged out over several days and across various CGI assisted locations. Kildare and his assistant Constable George Flood even manage to somehow debate this nonsense as if it contains a complicated mystery.  Note that the names inspired by the supposedly fertile imagination of Peter Ackroyd are awful. Kildare is bad enough but a playwright who is also one of the four suspects is writing something called Misery Junction.   The idea is that the playwright lacks talent and misunderstands what qualifies as entertainment.   This is not subtle, and neither is the rest of the film.

Women are the victims in The Limehouse Golem or are supposed to be. There are two women in the movie who qualify as sadistic monsters, and none of the rest would you introduce to Mother. The heroes that do exist are both male, and the denouement buries the feminist concerns in less time than it takes Inspector Kildare to ask for a sample of handwriting.


Nothing is suggested in The Limehouse Golem.  The themes that do exist are suppression of women, the relationship of existence to performance and our vicarious relationship to violence.  We do need drama and we spend too much time imagining our lives as the spectacle that they are clearly not. If all our work and effort is mainly performance then it has serious implications for what we think is ambition.   The Limehouse Golem has several references to Jack The Ripper and it suggests that his mayhem was soon transformed by our imaginations and desires into a continuing spectacle that has had little concern for the suffering of his five female victims.  All of this is interesting and valid but we only become aware of these ideas because someone is always on hand to tell us what to think.


Peter Ackroyd lives in London and he likes the place. His non-fiction includes biographies of Dickens and other famous natives.   Most of the time Ackroyd is attracted to supposed genius but in Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem there is much about working class life in a music hall.  Ackroyd creates a sympathetic role for music hall star and comic Dan Leno. In the movie the music hall scenes are well staged but none equal what Hitchcock achieved on a small budget in The Thirty Nine Steps eighty years ago.   If the jokes by the performers in The Limehouse Golem are authentic, they are evidence that human beings have made more progress than we realised. If the jokes were created by Ackroyd and Goldman then they should be ashamed of themselves.   The fusion between the Jack The Ripper legend and the artistic ambition of music hall performers ensures that The Limehouse Golem is different.   But All About Eve combined with the savage slayings of a serial killer feels like a daft rather than an inspired idea, especially as the rivalry between the two women performers in The Limehouse Golem is thin cheese when compared to what happens in All About Eve.


Elizabeth Cree and Aveline Ortega are the two female performers and rivals.   Aveline is a meaningless reference to Inspector Abbeline, the policeman who investigated the Jack The Ripper murders.  It is the kind of pun that can only be invented by the self-indulgent and self-regarding.  Actress Olivia Cooke plays the waif who wanders into the music hall and dreams of becoming a comic. The actress is fine and she has important moments including one in front of a mirror that has a real effect and helps us remember what Cree sought in the attention of an audience.   Cooke, though, does have to endure an awful lot of unbelievable silliness.  Bill Nighy plays Inspector Kildare. His remote style keeps him at a distance from the melodrama, and on two occasions he redeems previously bad dialogue. It feels like ad-libs from an actor who has more wit than the scriptwriters. Daniel Mays and Eddie Marsan are reliable English actors and provide good cameos. The decision, though, to choose Douglas Booth to play Dan Leno is bizarre. Presumably someone in one of the many production companies who financed the film insisted upon a handsome male in the cast.   Booth is a tall man who has the bearing of someone who has had a private education. This may sound unfair but Booth looks like a toff.  He also has impressive cheekbones.  Dan Leno was a short plain man ravaged by alcohol.   His looks helped him play female caricatures.  Booth in drag looks absurd. A film is not obliged to attempt reality but neither can we be expected to ignore cynical disregard for what defines a key character, especially as Ackroyd is good at identifying important aspects of Leno. The comic had a charitable nature and aspired to be a serious actor.


Alfred Hitchcock was criticised for including a lying flashback in his unexciting 1950 movie Stage Fright.   Because each of the suspects has to write down what Kildare found in the book in the Library, there are four flashbacks that refer to murders. Each of these untrue flashbacks is defined by violent gore. For those who want a definition of gratuitous violence it does not get much better or more stupid than this.   Anyone who remains engaged after such repetition deserves credit for staying the course. One of the book borrowers is Karl Marx, so he becomes one of the suspects.   Not sure why but there is something very unsettling in seeing a key architect of left wing thinking decapitate a London prostitute.  No doubt it will make many smile but there is no need for ideological objections for it to feel like adolescent humour.

The episode with George Gissing is better but that becomes less interesting when the violence begins. Kildare, though, appears to have time to waste and he listens with patience.  Although Bill Nighy is watchable as Inspector Kildare he is too old for the role. But with all those cuts in the numbers of British police that Theresa May has demanded Kildare may have a future as an unpaid pensioner volunteer.   Efficiency targets will mean he will need to move at a faster pace than he does in The Limehouse Golem but from what we hear there are some desperate Chief Constables out there.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.