Brighton Rock

[Screenshot]Interesting news: there’s a new adaptation of Brighton Rock coming out this year. I basically had no idea, and watched this 40s classic without any particular intent of being relevant. It’s one of a great many lesser-known Greene adaptations, but arguably in the top tier of those (with, say, The Ministry of Fear, This Gun for Hire, and, if we’re feeling particularly charitable, the unfortunate 1958 version of The Quiet American). Atmospherically, this film definitely works: there is the darkness of noir and the bright cheeriness of the seaside town coexisting in the same film harmoniously, and reflecting the Brighton of a bygone day. Even as an adaptation it’s quite good: Greene was involved in the production, so it’s faithful to his vision and mostly to his words — no Mankiewicz butchery here! Where it falls down, in my estimation, is in casting: this work basically succeeds or fails entirely on the ability of Pinky to convincingly emote his character, and rising star Richard Attenborough, despite his later brilliance, would not quite fit the bill here. He was a mite too old even at the time for the youthful gangster, and his costuming and manner didn’t actually help matters. While the sadistic element came through in full force, it seems vital to the character and themes that Pinky be elementally innocent and derive his cruelty from that well, and Attenborough isn’t even trying to be innocent, just vicious.

That having been said, the supporting actors fit their roles comfortably. Where Attenborough fails, Carol Marsh succeeds, with an innocence that makes you want to slap her silly combined with an unguarded craftiness; likewise Hermione Baddeley comes across nicely as a character with a strong sense of justice but not anyone you’d actually enjoy spending time with.

Oddly, many of the Catholic themes seemed to get lost in the shuffle; both of the Catholic characters are terrified of sex in the original work, and this motivates much of their relationship. But sex is notably absent from the film; yes, it may have been the 40s, but surely there was a way to slip those themes in edgewise, as prominent as they were in the original work. It’s not even particularly clear in this adaptation that Pinky’s Catholic. Rose’s Catholicism comes across loud and clear, and of course they include that fantastic, conflicted line about the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God, but all the same, Catholicism seems to loom much less large than it seems like it ought to, in spite of the extent to which it’s hammered in the last five minutes.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

The Wire

[Screenshot]Once upon a time, a former Baltimore Sun reporter named David Simon decided to bring his experience of Baltimore, and in particular of the criminal and police interactions, into every home in America on the small screen. Thus was born one of the primary bar-raisers in police procedurals, Homicide: Life on the Street. Today, Homicide is still quite respectable, but it lacks the punch it did back in the 90s, because several other shows have adopted its realistic style. So it was high time when Simon returned to the Baltimore crime drama in the 21st century with The Wire. Except, this time, it was on HBO, which let him get away with a lot of crap which you can’t do on a broadcast network.

Some of what he was free to do was the usual broadcast/non-broadcast difference in decency laws: he was now free to write a scene consisting of nothing but people saying “fuck” (gimmicky but OK once), pepper the street slang with uses of the word “nigger” (appropriate realism), and include occasional onscreen simulated copulation (acceptable but rarely actually necessary). But where he really had a free hand was in pacing, plotting, and explanation to the viewer. The first episode does little to draw you in: it spends a lot of time on bureaucrats and gangsters shouting at each other in jargon and very little explanation of what’s going on. On a network, that would be an unmitigated disaster. On HBO, it’s just 1/13 of the intended first-season story arc. And by the end, a viewer who’s been paying attention will understand a lot of what’s going on (just in time for the second season and a return to complete ignorance of what a ‘RO/RO’ is or how the docking seniority system works). It
s compelling and gritty, and full of lots of characters. It’s not patronising (but one sometimes wishes it would be, just a little), and it doesn’t pull its punches. It has a (seemingly appropriate) cynicism about politics, bureaucracy, and race relations in the city. Other, better reviewers than myself have enumerated the series’ best points, so I figure I’ll just present my (extremely subjective) rundown of the seasons from best to worst.

Third season: There are about a hundred plots in this one, all of them interesting and none of them underdeveloped. The breakout from the level of the street to the upper echelons of the police force and city government is well-handled, and there’s astonishing long-term plot progression and character development. The series could even have ended with this one and it would be strong.

First season: Where it all started. There’s one plot and it’s hammered hard. The multiple facets of the principal characters of the next several seasons are exposed with subtlety and skill. The street-level realism and interpolice bickering are developed to just the right level to not feel gimmicky, and the end of the arc provides effective partial closure.

Second season: Neck-and-neck with the fourth season; the prison subplot’s more absorbing than the elecvtion issues, but the dock is a marginally less interesting environment, and more removed from the main focus, than the inner-city schools. It’s a nice contrast to see some white people on the criminal end of things, but this season has the disadvantage of having fewer characters who tie into the long-term story.

Fourth season: See above with respect to plotting. On other points, the school plot is a bit darkened by hobby-horse cynicism, but even with such imbalance, this remains an enjoyable and enlightening set of episodes. The political elements drag a bit, thoguh, especially on the points which are far removed from the police-hierarchy issues.

Fifth season: Where David Simon gets really cynical, I’m afraid. He’s a bit too close to the Baltimore Sun to be objective here, and he spends a lot of time developing “good guys” and “bad guys” in the newsroom. He can see shades of gray everywhere but at home, I guess.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Nature Girl, by Carl Hiaasen

I like Carl Hiaasen, generally. He has a window on the zany and lunatic Floridian culture and has just the right touch to make it seem unbelievable but perhaps not like something one should find unbelievable. They’re fun romps. They’re not great literature by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re good, easy reads with delicious hilarity and a wickedly satiric edge.

Alas, Nature Girl is not one of his best. It never quite gels, and I think a lot of the missiles Hiaasen usually volleys against corruption and foolishness go astray. Boyd is too pathetic to be a particularly effective villain; the focus on Honey Santana’s mad crusade against him erodes her sympathy, so she’s not much good as a focus character either. Sammy’s story, other than giving Hiaasen a chance to tie this to his larger Florida cast of characters, is essentially inconsequential. We’re left with very few characters left to either like or loathe — the typical Hiaasen story has oodles of both — except for Piejack, who is too undirectedly loathsome, and Skinner, who’s hardly in the story. It’s interesting to compare Piejack to the antagonists of Lucky You, who were the up ’till now the most transparently ineffectual Hiaasen villains, but they at least had personality traits.

All in all, Nature Girl is, chiefly by the weakness of its plot and characterization, definitely not worth while, except for Hiaasen completionists (which I guess I am). I can only assume Hiaasen ran out of usual enemies and decided telemarketers were annoying enough to be a target for his vitriol. Annoying enough, perhaps, but not interesting enough.

See also: Wikipedia.

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse

[Screenshot]This one is a fairly solid vehicle for both Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. I picked it up mostly for the Bogart appeal, although his performance is ridiculously hammy, as are most of the career-criminals. Robinson is surprisingly nuanced although one can only do so much with a “miscellaneous scientist” role (presumably he’s doing some sort of physiological analysis of psychological stimuli, but the only way to relay that to a 30s audience is by making him obsessively administer physical examinations). Claire Trevor, who gets short shrift to the two stars, actually puts in an excellent performance as their fence.

At the end of the day, this is a pretty odd duck. Robinson and Bogart are at home in a WB crime film, but Clitterhouse has a vein of situational comedy that they don’t quite seem suited to. I can’t help but wonder what might happen in an alternate universe where this film was made a few decades later, and not by WB, who were reaching a bit beyond their usual fare, but by Ealing Studios, who loved stuff like this. The title character could be Alec Guinness, who could probably just reuse his wardrobe from The Man in the White Suit; Rocks Valentine could be Peter Sellers perhaps, and Jo Keller could be, well, still played by Claire Trevor, as far as I’m concerned. Not that this film is bad as it is, mind, but it’s reminiscent of a different kind of crime-caper film.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Razor Eaters

[Screenshot]Razor Eaters seesaws between a couple of ideas. It clearly wants at time to engage concepts of righteous anger much like Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei, but it never really gels, since it can’t figure out itself whether it wants to present its eponymous gang as a vigilante group or a bunch of cut-rate thugs. Graft this incompatibility of themes onto a wholly uncompelling police-investigation story and a videography conceit which seems to have been introduced only to justify shooting on cheap film, and you get a rather muddled mess which occasionally seems like it’s reaching for something better.

See also: IMDB.