film criticism

BITTEN: BREAKING BAD

 

1 LAUREL AND HARDY

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In the USA the expression ‘breaking bad’ is a southern slang alternative to ‘raising hell’.  Both phrases communicate a sense of entitlement and compare to the ambition of villainous cowboys who pledge to go ‘straight to hell’, men who will not be denied.  Vince Gilligan is the creator of Breaking Bad.  He was born and raised in Richmond Virginia but has spent too long in Southern California to be considered a Southern ‘good ol’ boy’.   Something of his Virginian background, though, remains.  He has a sense of entitlement, and this is confirmed by the audacious and demanding plot absurdities of Breaking Bad.  If audiences want to share the wild world of Walter White they are also obliged to accept the barely credible events of Breaking Bad.  Without looking the other way most viewers have settled for the deal.  Speak to a devotee of Breaking Bad and they will mention how they find it addictive.  The hit TV show has been described as both a black comedy and a dark drama.  Those elements are present in various episodes but the TV series indulges rather than challenges an audience.  There is nothing wrong with a writer having a desire to please but if his interest is in dark drama, he will need to add comedic elements.  Vince Gilligan and his writers understand their responsibilities.

Movie slapstick comedians have a greater sense of entitlement than most.  The witless idiots created by Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton wreck everything around them but somehow survive and claim their right to disappear down the street and into the next comic short.  Nothing demonstrates this naive self-belief better than the stunt where the gable end of a house falls on top of Keaton.  He survives because he is standing where the open doorway lands.  Harold Lloyd was possessed of so much self-belief and entitlement that he thought nothing of hanging on to the fingers of a clock attached to a skyscraper.  Stunts were not faked.  Keaton was calculating, Chaplin was sly and nimble, and Lloyd was a bespectacled daredevil.

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The Laurel and Hardy movie Way Out West was once a seasonal feature on British TV.  Now it has disappeared from the schedules although British cinemas have recently shown the film Stan & Ollie.  This gentle and sympathetic elegy was inspired by the stage tour the comic duo undertook in the UK.  By then the comics were old and suffering from deteriorating health.  Fame and the pressure to perform meant they were also battling with themselves.  Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are the two heroes of Breaking Bad.  Walter and Jesse are ill at ease amongst the violence of tough guys, the people who pressure them to make drugs or perform.   Like Stan and Ollie, they struggle.   For Stan, Ollie, Walt and Jess exceptional success has a sting in the tale.  While they age they will be measured against what they used to promise.  The film Stan & Ollie appears to be a labour of love.  The nostalgic producers of the movie will and should settle for a niche audience.  Laurel and Hardy had a famous catchphrase, ‘Well here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into’.  Invariably it is uttered by the pompous Ollie to the bewildered Stan.  Ollie is usually the man with the plan, and the confusion of Stan adds chaos although the misplaced ambition of Ollie is also important.  The plans of Ollie are not only never realised they produce results beyond the imagination of two ill matched partners.

‘Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into’ could be used to describe what happens to Walt and Jesse.  The two heroes stumble into the unpredictable.  Vince Gilligan has been  willing to share his ambitions for Breaking Bad.   He is proud of the neat use of the number 737.  Near the beginning of Season Two the objective of Walt is made clear.  At a point when Jesse has doubts about the future of their working relationship Walt tells Jesse that he needs to make $737,000.  This will pay for his medical bills and leave his family secure when he dies from his cancer.  By the end of Season Two the Ollie equivalent or Walt has become accomplished or at least demonstrated his value to his business partners.  His success, though, has repercussions.  The crash of a Boeing 737 and the deaths of 167 passengers is more than another nice mess.  It is, as Gilligan makes clear in an interview, an unintended consequence.  An almost charitable fund of $737,000 is the aim, and a wrecked Boeing 737 is the result.   Hardy and Walt always imagine they are doing the right thing.  It is other people who get them into the nice mess.  In the case of the Boeing air crash it is the air traffic controller who is grieving over the daughter that Walt decided to not rescue from dying.   Walt had his reasons.  The fear of Gilligan of unintended consequences means that the creator behind Breaking Bad has conservative instincts.   The  chaos in Breaking Bad exists as a warning.  In Breaking Bad the daredevils are chastised, and in Laurel and Hardy films it is the stupid.

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Ollie and Laurel are opposites.  Ollie is overweight, and Laurel is slim.  Ollie acts as if he is the expert and the source of knowledge.  Laurel is timid and slow thinking.  The physical difference between Walt and Jesse is defined by their difference in age.   Walt is 50 years old.  Jesse used to be a pupil at the school where Walt teaches chemistry.   Walt is not big and round like Ollie but his body has a middle-aged slump.  The actor Bryan Cranston put on a stone for the part.  Jesse is short and slim.  He has the build of an adolescent.  Walt remembers Jesse as one of his dimmer pupils.   It is Walt who has the knowledge that will enable the production of superior crystal meth.   The expertise of Walt and the stupidity of Jesse lead to comic mishaps and misunderstandings.   When faced with difficulties Walt becomes curious and applies his academic intellect to not just analysis but the acquisition of authority.  Jesse, like Stan Laurel, meanwhile looks baffled and utters the occasional protest.

Most comedy duos consist of a figure of fun, the comic, and a straight man that attempts to explain and contribute sense.  Ollie and Hardy were different.  Neither Hardy nor Laurel is sensible and more important they were both comics.  They were a success in the movies because the camera could cut from one comic facial expression to the other.  Both men made a comic contribution.  This happens in Breaking Bad.  Both Walt and Jesse have their comic moments, often when they are astonished by naivety and ignorance in the other but sometimes when one of them overestimates his capability.  Hardy was good at registering disgust at the incompetence of Laurel.  Bryan Cranston is a capable actor and has the same ability.  He coughs, splutters and raises his eyebrows high enough to wrinkle an already crinkled forehead.   Amongst the main characters of Breaking Bad there is a straight man but this time it is a female.  Skyler White is the wife of Walt.  Like most straight men, Skyler is bewildered by others.  She plays the straight man role in scenes with her weird husband, her daft sister and even when she is surrounded by what constitutes her whole confused family, her husband, son, sister and brother-in-law.

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Neither Ollie nor Hardy has the figure for performance as an entertainer.  Ollie looks like his breath will be inadequate, and Stan is so slight he looks anonymous.  Before panchromatic film was developed the blue eyes of Laurel were that pale they looked white on the cinema screen.   They do not look like men who will create chaos and wreckage.  The appearance of Walt and Jesse also misleads.  Even with a hat that he wears as a stage prop Walt does not look like a man capable of murder.  His manner is too anxious to suggest someone that will outwit criminal gang leaders and hard headed policeman.  Jesse is prone to simper and he looks like someone who could be pushed over by the index finger of one of the chest beating villains.

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Laurel and Hardy were masters of what is known as the tit for tat fight.  This consists of an accident between two people and subsequent retaliation that escalates to apocalyptic destruction.  The surprise and bewilderment at each escalation mustered by Hardy and Laurel cranks up the comedy.  There is tit for tat between Walt and Jesse although much of it is verbal.  The comedic effect is achieved by the difference in the arguments of Walt and Jesse.  They do not communicate as equals and most of the time they will exaggerate the slight or offence.

It takes five seasons or 62 episodes for the partnership between Walt and Jesse to develop to its fullest extent but, unlike the relationship between Stan and Ollie, it changes.  In both instances, though, two men bewilder each other until the very end.  In the films of Laurel and Hardy and the episodes of Breaking Bad we meet two couples that for the benefit of everyone including themselves should never have met.   More people in Breaking Bad would have stayed alive without the partnership of Walt and Jesse, and in the films of Laurel and Hardy there would have been fewer nice messes.

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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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.