film criticism

JACK THE RIPPER ‘THE DEMENTED GENIUS’ – HIS DEEDS AND TIMES

MURDER BY DECREE

CANADA/UK 1979

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In the late 1960s Nic Cohn published an account of popular music. The title of the book, A WopBopAlopBamBoom, was a reference to a great rock and roll hit by Little Richard. Cohn nominated Last Train To San Fernando by Johnny Duncan as the best record made in Britain in the 1950s. The argument for the surprising claim was simple. Everything else was rubbish. Something similar can be said for Murder By Decree. If the film is the best of the Jack The Ripper movies, the competition is not great. The Lodger and Lulu have merit and may even be masterpieces but although serial killers are important to their plots they do not deserve a place on lists of Jack The Ripper movies.   Johnny Duncan could sing and strum, and Murder By Decree beats its competitors.

From Hell, which was made twelve years later, had more poetical ambition but that ambition was not realised.   Murder By Decree is different. It aspires to nothing more than entertainment, something to be consumed like a satisfying but plain British dinner. The movie relies on competency and craftsmanship rather than inspiration and it sidesteps innovation.  Indeed, the notion of having Sherlock Holmes investigate the Jack the Ripper murders had been tried before in the 1965 movie A Study In Terror. That movie patronised its working class characters and made the fatal mistake of allowing the talentless British Georgia Brown to perform two songs.  With no sense of what was either amusing or thrilling the movie refused to come to life.

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Murder Be Decree has sly light humour and intrigue. This unambitious movie feels like a victory for the technocrats over the poets.   Perhaps in a film that features Sherlock Holmes this is it how should be, a celluloid echo of the science of Holmes and the no-nonsense values of his creator Arthur Conan Doyle.  Murder By Decree is not perfect. Some of the interior scenes are routine, and the final confrontation where Holmes explains the aristocratic conspiracy could have been done in a quarter of the time.   There are almost twenty minutes between the climax of the film and the final titles. Yet it is not difficult to forgive the transgression.

The plot is based on the theory in the non-fiction book Jack The Ripper The Final Solution. According to the author Stephen Knight, there was an aristocratic conspiracy.  Knight alleged that the Duke of Clarence fathered a child and that the mother Annie Crook was hidden in a mental institution. The deceit was known by five prostitutes who were murdered to protect the secret.   The Duke of Clarence was an unimpressive individual but the theory has holes. For example, the child was conceived when Annie Crook lived in Britain and the witless Duke was wasting his days in mainland Europe.

Providing we ignore the facts, the theory makes an entertaining tale, which is why it has been used more than once by moviemakers. From Hell in 2001 and Jack The Ripper, a TV drama from 1988, both recommended the Knight account as the solution. Murder By Decree adds Sherlock Holmes, so it should feel even more opportunistic.   But the script is interested in its characters and there are subtle references that share knowledge of the actual history of the crimes and their investigation. The makers of Murder By Decree have taken time to think about what they are doing.  Nothing in the movie feels cheap or cynical, and in a Jack The Ripper movie that is rare.

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John Hopkins wrote the screenplay. He came to fame in the 60s because of his tight scripts for Z Cars.  Hopkins does not overwrite.  Back then playwright Dennis Potter was heralded for his vision but Hopkins had the superior craft and technical skill. Boosted by his success on Z Cars, Hopkins was allowed by the BBC to write a four play series called Talking To A Stranger. Each of the plays tells what happened in the same weekend but from the point of view of a different character. Talking To A Stranger is regarded as a television masterpiece. In 1979, when he worked on Murder By Decree, Hopkins had acquired plenty of experience. His work was uneven but he was also prolific and versatile.   Hopkins was not the equal of Harold Pinter but he always had his moments. There are a couple in Murder By Decree. Watson is struggling to lift the last pea off his dinner plate. Holmes, always the lateral thinker, borrows the fork of Watson to squash the pea. The doctor is offended. He had wanted to eat the pea while it was still whole. Apart from being humorous and a welcome break from essential exposition the short scene defines the relationship between the two very different men.   Later, Watson visits a London pub to find a witness amongst the East End. He talks to a prostitute who thinks she has attractions that her peers lack. She is proud of her full set of teeth but during the conversation the prostitute realises that one of her tooth has loosened.   A simple idea explains a precarious livelihood and the defiance and lopsided delusion that the poor need to persist. For once the prostitutes in Murder By Decree are not patronised and reduced to being chirpy cockneys. There is conflict between the women, and in a subsequent scene Hopkins is able to describe quickly what it must be like for a poor woman to be dependent on a hopeless male.   What possessed a seasoned professional like Hopkins to extend the final scene is a mystery.

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If the script is sturdy, the accomplished cast take it to another level.  Christopher Plummer leaves no room for doubt as Sherlock Holmes, and James Mason adds real dignity to the modest contribution of Doctor Watson. The script is well written but it is hokum. The actors could be excused for being frivolous but they treat their performances as serious work. They grace the film with their presence.  There are also dignified cameo performances from Frank Finlay and David Hemmings.  Geneviève Bujold appears as Annie Crook for one scene only.  She is discovered by Holmes in the asylum. The emotional scene between the shocked and upset Holmes and the ruined Crook could have unbalanced a modest film but the two actors ensure we are affected by a tragedy that is not real but typical.

Bob Clark directed the film and Reginald H Morris was the cameraman. Neither managed milestones in their careers but something went right when they combined for Murder By Decree. Perhaps the craftsmanship of Hopkins and the presence of gifted actors inspired Clark and Morris to remember their own technical skills.  The shots of Parliament behind the Thames evoke the paintings of Whistler.   For once the fog is not white. It does not have the authentic and sickly yellow tint but it is gloomy.  In early scenes we see the face of the assassin but like the vague witnesses of the Ripper we know we cannot identify him.  Indoors, the photography is less impressive but there the focus is on the actors, and Morris still leaves his mark with a memorable wide-angle shot that is filmed through a mirror. Holmes talks to three visitors who stand at the back of the room. The open carriage journeys through Victorian London not only give the movie visual distinction but reveal Holmes and Watson as gentlemen at ease with the city around them.

 

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The plot may be based on nonsense but it does no harm to the British people if the Royal Family is portrayed as a shower of violent hypocrites, the pinnacle of the social exploitation that marred Victorian society. And if the Royal Family had nothing to do with the Ripper murders, there is enough in the history of our monarchs to justify a movie suggesting this particular family would not be averse to slaughter.   The script of Hopkins is as harsh with the radical politicians. The left wing Inspector Foxborough is a man who welcomes the Ripper murders because in his opinion it will precipitate social change. Holmes condemns Foxborough as a heartless man too willing to sacrifice innocent working people. This gives the film political balance, and it is consistent with how a man like Sherlock Holmes would think. Radical politics would have been beyond the great detective but, like Conan Doyle, Sherlock was capable of civilised compassion. The condemnation of Foxborough, though, does feel glib, especially as the judgement by Holmes is repeated in the overextended fourteen minute scene at the end of the movie. People adopted radical politics in 1888 for a good reason. They were horrified by the plight of the poor. At least we are given the satisfaction of seeing three powerful men humbled by the final revelations of Holmes. The consolation is that the powerful will always be paranoid about the threat of masses and that gives them real discomfort.   Fourteen minutes, though, is still too long for it to be explained.

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.

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

EL AURA (THE AURA)

ARGENTINA, 2005

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Argentinian moviemaker Fabián Bielinsky may have always had a sense of doom. He died when he was 47 years old. Bielinsky carried extra weight and he possessed a serious sense of purpose. Both burdens may have contributed to his premature and fatal heart attack. Before he died he wrote and directed only two films. These were Nueva Reinas and El Aura. Both are ambitious thrillers and great but they are also very different. Neuva Reinas is a tale of conmen and double cross. The movie is an energetic crowd pleaser packed with a plot full of twists. El Aura lasts for two and a quarter hours yet has a script that could have been condensed into eighty minutes by a Hollywood B Movie producer. But if El Aura is a slow moving film, all the extra minutes are something to be cherished.   The cautious pace helps an audience to see the world in the same way as the timid hero, a man defined by wary curiosity and his need for creativity and the transcendental. We watch what happens in El Aura with puzzled and suspicious eyes. Not everything that happens in the film is obvious to either the hero or the audience. Halfway through the film the complicated hero watches a robbery from the other side of the street.  He knows a robbery is happening because he hears gunfire and sees men running around but the details and understanding he craves are denied him.

In the end credits we see the names of the other characters but the main protagonist is identified as ‘Taxidermist’. Before the end of the film it is clear that we are in Ernest Hemingway territory albeit with an essential Argentinian dose of Jorge Luis Borges.   The existentialism of Hemingway insisted that we were defined by what we did rather than what we thought. Luis Borges imagined people confused not only by a mysterious world but also by their own spirits. The achievement of Bielinsky is that these two contradictory elements coexist in El Aura.

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It is clear from the opening scenes of the film that in his work this taxidermist is paying homage to other creatures.   He accompanies a friend on a hunting trip but only because his wife has had enough of a taxidermist whose work and creativity make him remote. The desire to create and the need to experience the transcendental mean that the taxidermist is an anxious and frustrated man. He fears failure and unpleasant surprises but, when he does meet criminals, the taxidermist is obliged to first pay attention and then become involved. His epilepsy may weaken the taxidermist but the aura he experiences before an attack has also whetted his appetite for something other than normal experience.   Unlike his friend on the hunting trip or Francis Macomber in the classic short story by Hemingway the taxidermist will not satisfy these desires by hunting and killing animals.   Instead, he is drawn to the planning and detail of a crime.

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Without the trip to the hunting lodge these desires of the taxidermist would have remained harmless fantasy.   How he becomes involved in the robbery requires a couple of advantageous coincidences but none should offend a viewer. They are elegant coincidences rather than crude contrivances.  At times the plotting of El Aura and the patient approach evoke the novels of Patricia Highsmith.   El Aura is the type of story that would have tempted Highsmith if she had not been quite so well bred and perhaps been a man. Highsmith redefined what was possible in the narrative of a thriller. She also understood anti-heroes as well as anyone and how the heroic is a consequence of something other than heroism.

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At the beginning of the film we see the wife of the taxidermist trapped on the other side of the closed door to his workplace, a barrier created by the taxidermist.  The wife shouts ‘if only you told me …’. It could be that she needs to be told she is needed or that she wants to hear him proclaim his love for her.   To do his work, though, the taxidermist needs isolation. What he really wants is to be left alone to discover exceptional inspiration but, like most people, his life is burdened with routine demands and intrusions.   Sympathy for creative entitlement can tilt any thriller towards pretension and become tedious self-pity in a writer or filmmaker. In various ways El Aura avoids taking itself too seriously and being obvious. Technical skill and careful positioning of a camera with frequent single frame compositions help us share the world that a modest unfulfilled man experiences. The impressive music on the soundtrack, which consists of minimal melody and extended chords, also suggests hidden psychological depth. The plot is detailed but remains a discrete infrastructure.   Characters appear and disappear. Each has their secrets, and everyone finds everyone else puzzling. The characters are allowed to unwittingly influence events and sabotage plans. The great and magnetic Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin broods and is nervous throughout.  In El Aura he somehow looks smaller. His walk, slumped shoulders, haunted eyes and tentative breathing transform Darin into a different and burdened personality.

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El Aura is constructed with considerable skill but more important than craftsmanship in avoiding pretension is the decision by Bielinsky to locate curiosity and creativity in not just the taxidermist but also a small child and a very large dog. In a makeshift brothel we watch the child create drawings with crayons.  She may misunderstand the world that exists around her but, like the taxidermist, she is compelled to create, record and imagine.  The very large dog may lack the ability to handle coloured crayons but the animal does possess curiosity.   The dog forages for food and is a searcher.  He is also curious about his human neighbours and their behaviour.  This very large dog likes to watch, smell and ponder. The film finishes with a close up of the curious eye of the dog.   Bielinsky insists that curiosity and reflection is not restricted to the sophisticated and the intellectual. Our curiosity and need for wonder is rooted in our animal rather than our cerebral natures.   Both the very large dog and a man who suffers epileptic attacks experience a world that is mysterious and confusing and both will be tempted and made uneasy by curiosity.

The end credits of El Aura imply that something called Bariloche Hosteria was involved. Hosteria is the Spanish word for inn. The tourist town of Bariloche is located in the Argentinian region called the Lake District. There are forests, empty roads and mountains in El Aura. The landscape, though, is not used to aid pictorial compositions. The lyricism and visual poetry in El Aura is related more to what is happening inside the head of the taxidermist. Blue tint on minimum colour makes the spectacular appear bleak and inconsequential, as it would be for a man who has ambitions beyond an impersonal landscape.

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Like the first, the second robbery is not filmed as a suspense sequence. Again the taxidermist is an observer although on this occasion he is closer to what is happening. His mistake in the planning is revealed before the robbery takes place. A less serious filmmaker than Fabián Bielinsky would have delayed the revelation until a key moment in the action.   Rather than nail biting drama the robbery is revealed to be nothing more than destructive chaos created by men who have overestimated themselves.   The criminals are not as omnipotent as they imagined, and unpredictable events have intruded into the fanciful dreams of the taxidermist.  The sequence compares to the messy shooting filmed by Jean Luc Godard in the climax of Vivre Sa Vie.  In the real world failure and death are tragic and devoid of romance.

In El Aura the deaths that happen could be avoided. The robbers of the casino consist of not very bright criminals and a frustrated taxidermist, the sad disenfranchised. Whatever his grievances Donald Trump cannot claim to be excluded from authority and decisions. He made an important judgement or decision this week.   If Trump and his ridiculous statements about Iran are an embarrassment to those of us in the West, in the Middle-East they are preparing themselves for more unwelcome chaos created by limited and misguided men.   Unlike the sympathetic taxidermist in El Aura there is a lack of modesty in Trump.   Men or women who enjoy exceptional success, wealth or fame are often deluded.   Excessive ambition often requires naivety, and distorted rewards can compound naivety into something dark and irrational.  If the practice of self-deceit were a contest with measurable results, Donald Trump would be setting records.   In his campaign to be President he resembled a buffoon. Now those hysterical rallies appear to be much more sinister.

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.