Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Films

It’s in the trees…it’s coming…

Nightofthedemonposter

I thought it was time for another look at real cases that have their echoes in classic films. Last time I wrote about lost Lon Chaney film London After Midnight  and it’s connection to the rather tragic case of Julia Mangan, killed by the obviously disturbed Robert Williams. This time we’re sticking with a horror film but the story has more than a whiff of the supernatural – the link might be quite rather tenuous but I’m going with it. It’s a great film and the cases that echo through the story are fascinating ones.

Night of the Demon  was Jacques Tourneur’s version of the classic M.R. James short story Casting the Runes. Released in 1957 it tells the story of the sceptical psychologist played by Dana Andrews who comes up against the charismatically devilish Niall MacGinnis. It’s a tremendously creepy film that has all of James’ hallmarks – intellectual arrogance coming a cropper against older, darker forces – but for the contemporary audience it was a story that carried a particularly plausible shiver thanks to a couple of strange war time murders. Even though there’s no direct link, there’s a very good chance that screenwriters Charles Bennett and Hal. E. Chester were influenced by what they read about these cases when they were updating James’s earlier story.

In 1943 four small boys were poaching in Hagley Woods near the village of Stourbridge in Worcestershire. They came across a large Wych Elm near Wychbury Hill and it was there they made a shocking discovery. Looking for birds nests they climbed the trunk and peered into the hollow. Below them was a human skull still with traces of hair attached.

Local papers appealed for information about the identity of the deceased – a woman believed to be aged between 35 and 40.

Gloucestershire Echo 24 April 1943

Gloucestershire Echo, 24 April 1943

No one came forward to claim her. But someone didn’t want her to be forgotten. As the first anniversary of the discovery approached, the Sunday Mirror took up the story.

Sunday_Mirror_02041944

Sunday Mirror, April 2 1944

The piece explained that shortly before Christmas the previous year the words “Who put Luebella down the wych elm?” were written in chalk on the wall of a house on Hayden Hill Road, Old Hill. The following week the words appeared again on the wall of an empty premises in Upper Dean Street, Birmingham. A few days later, the mysterious writer was obviously getting frustrated that no one was answering them so the words “Hagley Wood Bella” appeared several times near by. Bella has never been formally identified. One theory said she was part of a war time spy ring. The file remains open.

The following year a gruesome murder in nearby Warwickshire dredged up old suspicions and paranoia. On Valentines’ Day, 74-year-old hedge cutter Charles Walton was slashed to death near the village of Lower Quinton with a pitchfork and a slash hook. Initial reports such as this one from the Gloucestershire Citizen the following day made no mention of any supernatural link but that would soon change.

Gloucester_Citizen_15_February_1945

Gloucester Citizen, February 15, 1945

However the case soon became synonymous with witchcraft, largely thanks to the later accounts of the famous Chief Inspector Robert Fabian, who arrived from Scotland Yard to investigate. In his 1950 memoir, Fabian of the Yard, he would write.

“One of my most memorable murder cases was at the village of Lower Quinton, near the stone Druid circle of the Whispering Knights. There a man had been killed in a reproduction of a Druidical ceremony on St Valentines’ Eve”

Fabian suggested that the case had marked similarities with a murder that had happened nearby a generation ago, a murder where witchcraft actually had been a very real part of the story. It’s rather unlikely that the Walton case had anything to do with the occult even if it did make one hell of a good story. The earlier case on the other hand really did seem to arise from good old fashioned superstitious paranoia.

In December 1875, the the trial of James Haywood at the Warwickshire Assizes was covered by the Warwickshire Journal. All the witnesses described Haywood’s preoccupation with witches, leading to a brutal attack on elderly Ann Tennant, who he had attacked with a pitchfork and killed in the village of Long Compton.

Haywood had apparently said that there were 15 or 16 witches in the village and that they were making it impossible for him to work. He said that he would kill them one by one. When the victim’s daughter took the stand, he got agitated in court.

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_1

Worcestershire Journal, 18 December 1875

According to the superintendent of the county lunatic asylum Haywood was insane.

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_2

Haywood was found not guilty by reason of insanity and would spend the rest of his life in the asylum. However it is worth noting the words of an earlier witness, local farmer James Taylor…

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_3

It’s impossible to know how much influence these cases had on the writers of Night of the Demon but it is very reasonable to assume that they were were in the mix somewhere. Fabian’s memoires were adapted by the BBC in the 50s and  the Lower Quinton case in particular was a notorious one. The film is a quintessentially English horror firmly rooted in a world where belief in witchcraft had never fully died out. In fact, in the 50s it was rather a fashionable subject. The founder of modern witchcraft, Gerald Gardiner, had published his book Witchcraft Today in 1954 and Hammer Films were helping horror films back into the spotlight after the war. These three cases undoubtedly formed part of the national psyche and have not lost their resonance today.

All newspapers available on Findmypast.co.uk

Scared out of his wits

Annex - Chaney Sr., Lon (London After Midnight)_02

Lon Chaney as the master detective Edward C. Burke in the film London After Midnight, which allegedly frightened a man to commit murder. Image thanks to Doctor Macro.

It’s been a while since I’ve told the story of a trial. Hardly surprising since that’s not what I do anymore but I haven’t moved very far away from that line of work really. I still spend far too much time immersed in the details of murders and murderers so I’ll continue to share their stories.

When I was growing up Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange was notorious. We all knew it was banned, and unlike the so-called video nasties that were our favourite loans from the video store, it had been withdrawn by it’s  director after being linked to violence.

But 50 years before Clockwork Orange was linked to violence a sad little case came before the courts in London that had a similar link to Hollywood. It went largely unreported by the London papers, unsurprisingly since the case had that familiar ring that even now made it unlikely to generate many column inches. A woman killed by her partner.  I’ve covered so many down through the years and written about them here. But what this case extraordinary was the defence – that the accused man had been so terrified by a film he’d recently seen, London After Midnight starring Lon Chaney, that he had lost his mind, albeit temporarily.

On October 25th 1928 the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette announced the “Hyde Park Tragedy”.

Hyde Park tragedy Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 25101928

The following day the Dundee Evening Telegraph carried a report from the inquest. An unnamed constable described finding the young Irish woman. She was lying huddled, face down with her left hand on her throat. Her glove was saturated with blood.

Patrick Mangan, her brother, told the inquest that his sister had been seeing Williams for three weeks. He had once had to throw him out of her place for being drunk.

Williams was expected to be discharged from hospital in about 10 days time. A picture was beginning to form. The inquest was adjourned until he could be questioned.

In November the case came before the Marlborough Street Police Court. This was the first time details of the case had been heard in public. The Nottingham Evening Post informed it’s readers that 21-year-old Julia had been employed as a worked as a house-maid in a house on Stanhope Gardens in South Kensington.

The police doctor said that considerable violence must have been used to cause the wound in her neck. A policeman who had gone to charge Williams in hospital told the court that before he could caution him Williams had told him “I did it, she had been teasing me.”

A couple of months later the case came for trial in the Old Bailey. The Central Criminal Court after trial calendars show that Williams was charged on two counts. One of murder, the other of suicide.

CRIM9 Robert Williams listed in the After trial calendars

I can’t tell how widely reported the case was. I haven’t been able to find a single reference in the London papers, although this is probably down to the late (for digital archive sources) date, but there was quite a bit of coverage north of Watford, as my mum used to say.

The Hartlepool Mail on December 20th 1928 carried a report from the Central Criminal Court, Williams was being tested to see if he was fit to stand trial. He was indicted on the charge of murder and pleaded not guilty but a key medical witness was not available to back up his insanity defence. Williams took the stand and told the court that he had known Julia Mangan for around a month. He had wanted to kill himself three days before he had killed Julia, on October 23rd. He had put a cut throat razor in his pocket. He had not intended to hurt Julia, they were friends. He had wanted to marry her, although he had told her a false name when they first met.

There had been no quarrel he said. “I felt as though my head were going to burst and that steam was coming out of both sides. All sorts of things came to my mind. I thought a man had me in a corner and was pulling faces at me. He threatened and shouted at me that he had me where he wanted me.” The man, it appears, was Lon Chaney as he had appeared in London After Midnight, a film Williams had seen several months before.

The defence put forward their case. A local chaplain from Williams’ home town of Caernarvon told the court he knew of five separate incidences of insanity in Williams’ family. A London doctor said that while he had treated Williams for neurasthenia and would have considered him “abnormal” he would not have certified him insane.

Dr James Cowan Woods, described as a lecturer on mental diseases, suggested that Williams had been suffering from an epileptic mental attack, “epileptic automatism”, much to the consternation of the judge. “You have said that many people of high intelligence are going about their work, although they are suffering from epilepsy. Are you suggesting that they might commit murder tomorrow?”

But by the time Williams stood trial in January there was still some confusion about whether he suffered from epilepsy at all. No firm diagnosis was given during the trial according to the available reports. The Western Daily Press  was more focused on the Hollywood angle, as it appeared was the trial judge, Mr Justice Humphries, when he was summing up to the jury.

“I do not know whether you have been to see any film in which Mr Lon Chaney acted. One of them, we are told is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and another London After Midnight. If any of your members of the jury have seen the later, or even the advertisements of what Mr Lon Chaney looks like when he is acting in that film you may agree it is enough to terrify anyone.”

"London After Midnight Poster 1927 MGM" by MGM - ha.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The film in question, directed by legendary director Tod Browning best known for his later films Dracula (1931) and the infamous Freaks (1934). It is known as the director’s first exploration of the vampire theme and is one of the most famous lost films – the last known copy was destroyed in a fire at MGM studios in 1967. Chaney plays a detective intent on discovering who killed Sir Roger Balfour. It was based on a short story written by Browning, The Hypnotist. Chaney, was already famous for his skills of makeup and one of the selling points of the film was that the audience got to see the master at work as the detective dons various elaborate disguises – including the famous one shown in the poster and the still at the top of this piece – with sharpened teeth and special wire fittings like monocles to give him that special hypnotist stare. The film was rather a flop.

However, during Judge Humphries obviously wasn’t a fan of such popular entertainment and was only going by what had been said in court.

Judge's comments reported in Western Daily Press, January 11 1829

Williams was found guilty and sentenced to death. Judge Humphries instructed that further inquiries were made by the Home Office to try to get to the bottom of that epilepsy diagnosis. I never did find out if he was executed or not.

So the case became part of the legend of a legendary film. Personally, having gone through all the newspaper reports while I was researching this I’d have my doubts about Williams’ story. The story at the heart has too many similarities with cases I’ve covered in the past. There’s Williams’ hospital statement, that he killed her because she made fun of him. Had he proposed and been turned down? Had she broken things off? These would be far more likely scenarios in cases where women are killed by their intimate partner. I’ve also covered cases where the medical evidence was in no doubt, where the accused could not be found guilty by reason of insanity. Those cases are so often marked out by the degree of violence. While the evidence is there that the wound to Julia Mangan’s neck was done with violent force there isn’t the overkill that so often goes with a psychotic break – and I’m not even getting into the whole epileptics as killers undercurrent to the evidence…that seems more like common prejudice than anything that would be born out by modern medicine.

References:

  • Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 25 October 1928, page 8 of 8
  • Dundee Evening Telegraph, 26 October 1928, page 6 of 12
  • Derby Daily Telegraph, 13 November 1928, page 7 of 12
  • Hartlepool Mail, 20 December 1928, page 10 of 10
  • Western Daily Press, 11 January 1929,page 11 of 12
  • Central Criminal Court: after-trial calendars of prisoners (TNA Ref: CRIM 9)

All sources found on Findmypast

A Point that Really Shouldn’t Need to be Made

Late yesterday afternoon, at around the time thoughts were turning towards what to have for dinner, my phone rang. It was a wonderfully geeky friend who knows of my own (not so closet) geeky tendencies. Had we talked about Much Ado About Nothing she asked excitedly.

“Um no, not recently.”

I knew that Much Ado About Nothing was one of the most hotly anticipated screenings at this year’s Jameson Dublin Film Festival. In attendance would be the director of this new production, none other but Joss Whedon. I knew about the screening all right. I also knew it was sold out.

But my wonderful friend had a tip. A small number of tickets were being released in the final hours before the screening. Would I like to go with her.

“Hell yes!”

So at 6 o’ clock yesterday four of us, all women, excitedly met outside the Savoy Cinema. We weren’t the only women there. Why would we be? This is the man responsible for Buffy the vampire slayer, for the formidable Zoe Washburne in Firefly, I could go off into a long list of amazing female characters but I’m trying to keep the fangirlness to an absolute minimum. Let’s just agree that Joss Whedon is known for his strong female characters. It’s a fact so mind bogglingly obvious it really doesn’t need saying. You would think. There were a lot of women at last night’s screening, a substantial percentage of the enthusiastic crowd.

After last night’s screening there was a Q&A conducted by John Maguire of the Sunday Business Post. Eventually questions were thrown open to the floor. You can imagine the number of hands went up for those microphones. The first question went to a guy in the first row. What it was is unimportant. The second went to a guy in the row behind him. Then another bloke, and another. Eventually Joss Whedon had to point out that there were women in the room. Wasn’t it time to let one answer a question?

The next question went to another man. Much to the annoyance of the woman sitting next to him who had also had her hand up.

Now I’m not saying that the guys who got the mic didn’t have a right to ask their question. Everyone in that audience was there for the same reason. Tickets sold out so quickly because Mr Whedon has a hell of a lot of fans of both sexes.

But he is known for his strong female characters.

Afterwards in the crowd outside the cinema people were smiley and happy and chatty. Our little group of four got talking to other audience members. All of them women. Nothing surprising in that. It was just the way it worked out. But we all commented on the fact that so few women had got to answer questions.

Of the two women who did get to ask one of them identified herself as a theatre director and producer. She wanted to adapt the famous musical episode of Buffy for the stage she explained. She had written a letter. To the audience’s, and I’m sure her, delight, Whedon crossed to her seat and took the letter from her, tucking it in his jacket pocket.

That took balls, everyone outside was saying. How appropriate.

That failure to give the mic to the women in the audience was the only gripe in an otherwise great evening. I don’t think it was done maliciously, probably not even intentionally, but it was done and it was noticed and it was remarked upon by the guest of honour himself.

The truly depressing thing about the fact that it wasn’t malicious and it was probably wasn’t intentional is that that this kind of stuff happens all the time. It happens with such mind numbing regularity I frequently want to scream. It’s like the time in college when a big journalistic name came to speak to our class. There was a lively discussion that went right up to the end of the day. Afterwards this big journalistic name, who was an old friend of our lecturer, agreed to go for a pint. Invitations were carelessly given but somehow the only people who got them were they lads in the class. Once again it wasn’t intentional, once again I found myself outside with the women noticing the omission.

It’s like fact that you can turn on Irish radio station between breakfast at dinner time and only hear a male host. The fantastic advocacy group Women on Air was set up to combat this. Despite a long list of qualified female contributors out there, Irish journalists (and those elsewhere, this isn’t solely an Irish problem by a long chalk) will go for the same old male reliable. I could go on giving examples forever. I’m sure you could add them yourself.

It’s frustrating as a women to feel even now, in Western Europe in the 21st Century, that you don’t have the same voice as the other half of the population. Even though my generation of women are the first who can look on our freedom as a birthright there is so much still to do. The fact that this freedom, this equality, is so easily forgotten shows just how fragile it is. The worst thing is that sometimes the offenders really should know better. Members of the so called “liberal meeja” really should know better.

When you’re interviewing someone who is known particularly for writing strong female characters then the issue should surely be at the front of your mind.

I’ll leave the final word to Joss Whedon himself. My miraculous ticket fairy also pointed me towards this clip of him accepting an award from the Equality Now movement. Says it all really.

Back on the Women’s Pages

 

The-Newsroom-poster-HBO

I’ve a definite soft spot for journalism movies. Give me a story about a heroic hack (or a not so heroic one for that matter) and I’ll make the popcorn. The same goes for books and TV and has done since I studied journalism in college. So when it was announced that Aaron Sorkin was writing a new series set in a TV newsroom I got rather excited. I’d devoured the West Wings liberal bed time stories and even loved the short lived Studio 60. The Newsroom was bound to be good.

I should probably point out here that I don’t require my journalism movies to be madly realistic. The more gung ho and idealistic the better – I’m looking for entertainment not realism – but it does need to be recognisable. So I progressed from Lois & Clark to Drop the Dead Donkey via the short-lived Harry, starring Michael Elphick as a washed up Fleet Street hack running a news agency up north.  There was political intrigue in House of Cards,  not to mention Paul Abbott’s genius State of Play and more recently The Hour and that’s just the TV.

In films there’s Mel Gibson before we learned about his unfortunate religious views in The Year of Living Dangerously, All the President’s Men, Good Night and Good Luck, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Up Close and Personal, His Girl Friday and To Die For to name but a few. And of course Paddy Chayefsky’s utterly brilliant Network. I never cared whether I was watching male or female hacks the hook that always caught me was the drive, the hunger for the story, the determination to get the truth out there. This was something I was sure Aaron Sorkin would provide in bucket loads and so settled down to add The Newsroom to the list.

But there’s a problem.

Several episodes in and I’m still waiting for a female character I can relate to. Actually I’m still waiting for a female character I didn’t want to slap. It’s never really been an issue before. There was never anything in the films and series that I’ve mentioned above that told me as a woman I wasn’t capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with any of the male journalists and chasing that story just the same. In the same way that I wouldn’t assume I was any less capable than any of my male colleagues. There might be differences between the sexes but they don’t tend to extend to news sense and ambition.

So why do I feel when I’m watching the Newsroom that the person talking to me thinks women should be making the tea and writing the women’s pages? It could have something to do with this interview with Sorkin that came out just before The Newsroom launched. But it’s a lot more to do with the character that every female character seems to be a neurotic incompetent who brings her personal life into work and gets distracted by sparkles unless there’s a nice strong dependable bloke to keep her focused.

I’ve been a journalist for more than a decade. I’ve had a lot of female colleagues. I can’t think of one of them that wouldn’t have taken any of the Newsroom drips to one side to tell her to cop the fuck on. It’s a shame because in pretty much every other respect The Newsroom ticks the boxes. It’s nowhere near as sharp as Network, even though I gather Aaron Sorkin is also a fan, but its right-on outrage at the state of journalism is more heartening bedtime story stuff. It’s what he does.

But that’s what makes the Sorkin women so hard to take. Where are the strong female role models, a Martha Gelhorn for every Ed Murrow? Surely in this perfect journalistic world the exceptional women should be standing up with the exceptional men? I would have thought it was a given.

I’ll probably keep watching The Newsroom, for the rest of the first series at least, but it’s not going to be going on my journalist list. I wouldn’t recommend it to any girls or women wanting to follow a career in journalism. They should be told the sky’s the limit, not to wait until a man comes to sort it out. It’s hard enough out there. We don’t need this crap.

After the Apocalypse

Over the weekend I got the chance to see a film that has haunted me for years. I first saw Death Watch, Bertrand Tavernier’s 1980 dystopian look at reality TV, during the Dublin Film Festival in the mid 90s. It’s stuck with me ever since. The story takes place in a world where death has been pushed to the sidelines as medicine cured most of humanity’s ills. This has not led to the utopia one would imagine. There are food shortages, wars, restrictions on travel. A journalist, played by Harvey Keitel has a camera implanted into his brain to bring a personal view of death to a viewing public numbed by modern life. Right down my street – and I hadn’t even started on the current line of work back then.

Seeing the film again after all these years I was struck by how well it fits with the fatalistic sense of an ending that has pervaded the world we live in. It’s not really surprising that Death Watch has been dusted off for a whole new audience. Apocalypses (especially of the zombie variety) are hot right now. The Hunger Games trilogy has spawned a series of films, even a nail polish line, not to mention a whole school of dystopian fiction for teens. The TV schedules are full of Walking Dead and Falling Skies. There’s even an Irish entry to the canon with Conor Horgan’s One Hundred Mornings. The list goes on. I suppose you could even look at the enduring charms of steam punk as tapping into the same obsession – albeit from a rather glamorous and circuitous route.

It’s hardly surprising though. Times of flux suit the dystopian genre. While writers might not need society to break down before they will happily imagine its destruction, dystopias have niche appeal unless things get pretty shitty. I was a child of the 70s. I’ve always got a draw full of candles because I remember getting stuck without them in the brownouts, the depressingly regular power cuts that used to punctuate winter nights. I remember tramping through pitch black streets to friends with a camp stove and surplus night lights. My mum always kept a supply of tins at the back of a cupboard, long after the labels had fallen off and they had become encrusted in mysterious black goo around the rim. She was a war baby and was always prepared.

It’s this boy scout instinct that pricks up it’s ears it hears a dystopian scenario. The bit of us that likes to know that if the worst came to the worst we’d be ok, we’d have that emergency stash, have the resources, the skills to survive. Dystopias answer that fear. They’re reassuring, comforting, and always character driven. We like to see that when the end comes and the dust has settled family will survive, society will rebuild, and we’ll all get to live in idyllic surroundings and grow our own veg.

While dystopias might allow a writer to strip back relationships, to explore their characters in extremis or to look at the logical, if pessimistic end to a current trend or policy, they can offer the reader something considerably more hopeful. At their heart there is always the best of humanity. A spark that refuses to be extinguished. While marauding gangs might terrorise the broken landscape, it will be resourcefulness, compassion and integrity that win out more often than not, a glimmer of hope in the darkest times.

Back when I was a kid, even though the pea green bleakness of the 70s had given way to the florescent brashness of the 80s, there was still terror at every turn. President Reagan was playing Star Wars, women were camping at Greenham Common and there were the nuked white outlines of a family and their dog spray painted on the pavement outside Wimbledon Town Hall. In 1984 a season of nuclear themed television on the BBC scarred a generation with Z for Zachariah and Threads but even here there was still a spark of hope (even if that hope might be in the viewer’s power to prevent the events from ever happening in reality)

I was at a rather impressionable age when I saw that season. When, two years later they showed Raymond Briggs bleakest of bleak love story When the Wind Blows, I was already sleeplessly waiting for death to come in the night.   I don’t think I was the only one. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always had a soft spot for dystopias, and why I’m sure today’s kids will have a similar fondness decades from now.

Tonight’s viewing will be The Quatermass Conclusion but for now I will leave you with the best “You Bastard You’ve Killed Us All” opening sequence of them all.

 

The Dark Side of Love

Maybe it’s because I spend a large chunk of my working life writing about disastrous relationships but I’ve never been one for sugary romance. In fairness I was of a fairly cynical bent before I ever set foot in a courtroom but the last six years have not helped! The avalanche of cherubs, roses and all shades of pink that erupts so soon after Christmas these days just puts me in mind of the dentist. I listen to Jacques Brel singing Ne Me Quitte Pas and I think of barring orders and don’t get me started on the kind of stalking popularised by blokes of  a vampire persuasion (see Twilight or Buffy  for copious examples).

Perhaps this is why I’ve always liked films that look at the twisted side of love.  Last night I was watching the unusual Hammer thriller Straight on Till Morning.

Straight on Till Morning

Hammer’s Straight on Till Morning

Staring Rita Tushingham and Shane Briant it’s as dysfunctional a love story as you can get.  Brenda, who writes children’s stories in her spare time, leaves her home in Liverpool to go and get knocked up. Unfortunately the first bloke who gives this “ugly duckling” a second glance in swinging London happens to be a serial killer with a Peter Pan complex. He likes her coz she’s not that attractive. She likes him because he’s got a pulse. It’s not going to end well. Made in 1972, it was probably cashing in on previous successes in this very specific genre, but it’s an interesting film nonetheless, though rather stuck in its time. This isn’t Hammer’s usual fare. It really is a love story, although a twisted one and the frequent referencing of  J.M. Barrie’s book gives a literate shorthand to some psychological complexity.

Straight on Till Morning though, pales in comparison with earlier explorations of this kind of theme. Another of my favourites is the 1965 adaptation of John Fowles’ The Collector.

The Collector Poster

 

I read the book when I first moved away from home and it’s story of a lepidopterist stalker left me paranoid for weeks afterwards. The film, starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, is a damn good literary adaptation. I still think its one of the most unsettling accounts of obsession. Freddie Clegg has watched art student Miranda Grey for half her life and becomes convinced that if he could only get her attention she could fall in love with him.  When he comes into a large sum of money he decides to take action.

But to my mind the best of the bunch is the brilliant and unsettling Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell of Powell and Pressburger fame,

Peeping Tom

 

Made in 1960 this was the film that arguable brought Powell’s career to an end.  The story of quiet, monumentally screwed up cameraman Mark, played by Carl Boehm with Anna Massey as his lodger Helen, was too dark for critics and audiences alike. It is a brutal story, though relatively tame by modern standards, but it’s also a brilliant examination of the cinematographer’s gaze and the distance both filmmakers and cinema audiences have from the subject.  Once again, the central relationship at the heart of the film is a dark reflection of romantic love.

But it’s worth remembering that all three of these films are disturbing echoes of a reality that is all too common. I’ve seen way to many trials of men who killed their partner because she threatened to leave.  In reality I always struggle to understand the mind of someone who would want to possess another human being to that extent. In many ways obsession is far scarier than any monster or psychopath. But there seems to be a fine line between desirable romantic passion and the time to change your phone numbers and notify the gardai.  But then at this time of year I’m always the one pointing out that anonymous Valentines cards are really quite a creepy idea. But then, I don’t do sugary romance…

Journalism Movies and Bus Shakeups

Weekends are a time to leave work alone if at all possible.  When you spend all day in court listening to the gruesome details of murder after murder switching off is even more important.  If you dwelt on everything you hear on a daily basis you simply wouldn’t sleep at night. And by “you” in this context I do, of course, mean “I”.  So while today might be off the point tomorrow it will be back to normal service and further coverage of the Ronald McManus trial for the murder of Melissa Mahon.

In the quest of a break myself and the husband headed to the cinema this morning.  I love early showings – a throwback to the days I used to get into press screenings while working for a local radio station in college.  This week we went to see State of Play with Russel Crowe and Helen Mirren.  I’m a big fan of the original BBC series written by Paul Abbot and was initially highly dubious of a Holywood remake.  If you haven’t seen the series I’d still highly recommend it but I’m pleased to say that the movie actually does live up to the hyoe it’s receiving and is a damn fine thriller.

I’ve always been a sucker for films that centre around aheroic hack.  I’ve a reasonably comprehensive collection of these journalism movies from 1961’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire to Good Night and Good Luck via Mel Gibson in Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously and of course All the Presidents Men.  State of Player is a worthy addition to the genre.

The original was one of the best drama series the BBC have produced in the past twenty years with a fantastic cast including John Simm, David Morrisey, Bill Nighy, James McAvoy and Kelly McDonald.  The movie also has a pretty impressive cast with Russell Crowe as journalist Cal McAffrey, Helen Mirren as his editor, Ben Affleck (well cast for once) as the beleagured congressman Stephen Colllins and Robin Wright Penn as Collin’s wife.  But the best thing about the movie is it’s not just a cracking thriller, it’s also the kind of film that makes you proud to be a journalist (and god knows, those films are few and far between!)

The film version of State of Play sticks pretty close to the plot of the original but the context is now totally up to date, dealing with media ownership, the threats to traditional media and the rise of the blog.  More than any of this though is the championing of good old fashioned journalism.  I remember watching the original series when and cheering at the television when Bill Nighy as the editor stood up for the story and rallied his troops.  Helen Mirren is equally inspiring at the relevent bit but it was Rachel McAdams as blogger Della Frye who was the best line “With a story as big as this, people should have newsprint on their fingers while they’re reading it.” (or words to that effect)

It’s nice to see journalists portrayed as something other than scurrilous muckrakers and unprincipled hacks.  That attitude is prevalent enough as it is.  It’s nice to feel proud of the job I do.

The second thing I wanted to write about today is a little bit of a rant.  Dublin Bus today introduced changes to their timetables in the first stage of their fleet reduction as a cost cutting measure.  Looking at the list of routes that have been affected one thing stands out.  The changes are extensive and affect a wide range of buses.  Some routes have been done away with entirely.  This would be fine if the cuts were made across the board but that’s not what’s happened here.  Looking at the list of bus routes it’s noticeable that the majority go to the north and the west of the city, areas where a large percentage of the population live in local authority housing and who do not have access to DART urban rail services of the LUAS trams.

One of the most frequent services that frequently trundles into town with empty buses at off peak times of day has not been touched.  The 46A goes through the more affluent parts of town, Donnybrook and Dundrum.  During the afternoon buses frequently go past empty, at a frequency of every five or ten minutes.  It’s one of the most over supplied bus routes in the city but because of it’s route I’d be surprised if Dublin Bus reduce the service.  It’s nothing new of course.  Here in Dublin the poor always pay when the powers that be decide to save a few bucks – the recent decision to cut the Christmas bonus for those on the dole is a case in point.  But I’m not here to bang any particular political drum.  There are others who do that far better than me.  Dublin Bus may yet produce sweeping cuts through the posher bits of town in their second volley in May but I’m just saying what I noticed this morning and throwing it out there.

Hmm, reading back over this post it occurs to me that anyone who has issues with the liberal meeja is probably going to have their worst fears confirmed.  Well you can’t please all of the people all of the time.  As I said before, tomorrow I’m back in court and this blog will return to it’s normal subject matter.  Happy Sunday!

When Hollywood Loses the Plot – Literally

I’ve been sorely vexed on the last couple of visits to the cinema.  The posters for The Secret of Moonacre are everywhere and they make me decidedly cross.  Now it’s followed me home and the trailers are showing on television as they announce themselves as the latest blockbuster fantasy.  But they are wrong, so, so wrong.  Every time the ad comes on I find myself shouting at the TV or clutching wildly for the remote control and eventually decided that this was something that merited a blog post.

Now before I continue I should probably state a couple of things.  Firstly, this is not crime related (well not legally speaking anyway) so if you’re looking for discussion of the latest murder to pass through the Irish courts the links to the crime stuff are to the right of this piece.

Secondly The Little White Horse was my favourite book as a child.  Yes, I know it was also J.K. Rowling’s favourite book but that’s not coming into this.  This is post is not going to a model of journalistic balance and objectivity.  Again if you want something more along those lines the links are to your right.

So The Little White Horse has always been a special book to me.  I’ve always grown salmon pink geraniums because of a description in the book about a particularly idyllic kitchen; lions were always known as Wrolf after the large mysterious “dog” belonging to Sir Benjamin Merryweather; I used to have a toy cat called Zacariah…I could go on but risk sounding somewhat obsessed.  Let’s suffice to say that that book was one of the first books I ever loved and has a special place because of it.

Not only that but it’s embedded itself so deeply that echoes of it have found their way into my writing.  Maybe not the journalism (that would be a little odd) but when I’m writing fiction those echoes are there, in descriptions of food or clothes mainly I think.  Those echoes have been a source of fascination as I edit the novel.  I’m not talking about derivation here just the literary landscape your brain inhabits after a lifetime of reading.

Anyway, back to the film.  I was delighted when I heard, a couple of years ago, that a film was being made of The Little White Horse.  But wondered at the time how Hollywood was going to deal with a simple little story about not making knee jerk reactions and bothering to find out the truth.  It’s quite an old fashioned book, written in the 1940s, with everyone pairing off at the end leading to a trilogy of weddings.  The fantasy elements are actually quite subtle.  I’d be the first to agree that it could probably do with a bit of delicate pruning for a modern audience but the film company has definitely thrown the baby out with the bath water.

Hollywood in it’s infinite wisdom has decided that this

Little White Horse Book Cover

Little White Horse Book Cover

doesn’t quite cut it.  They’ve gone for this…

Secret of Moonacre Movie Poster

Secret of Moonacre Movie Poster

In the new version there is magic and mystery and major mutilations of the original plot.  No character is safe.  The hero has changed from a constant companion and childhood friend to a slightly dodgy bit of rough who’s had a full family transplant and is now the son of the villain of the piece.  His mother, one half of the next generation of lovers, has become a weird priestess type who is no longer Robin’s mother.  Wrolf is black for god’s sake!  Lions just aren’t black!  The changes are so blatant that even looking at the trailer or the poster shows up dozens of points that have been butchered.  Rather than bothering to make a film of a much loved book the idiots have decided to make a generic sub-Harry Potter fantasy extravaganza that bears little or no relation to the original.

Now I will freely admit that I have not seen The Secret of Moonacre.  I don’t intend to – I don’t like going to films that make me want to throw things at the screen and any that take such an ad hoc approach to a story I know so well are going to fall into that category.  It might work as a stand alone film (or even a franchise apparently) but it’s not what it says on the tin.

I know stories get changed for films.  I’ve had to think rather seriously about that over the past couple of months in relation to my own book and decided that it’s a necessary part of building a narrative.  When I write something I’m writing a book.  It doesn’t necessarily run along the same narrative tracks that a film would need to.  I can take pages to describe something that can be shown in a second on screen but on the other hand I can go places films can’t, not having to worry about budgets and technology, just the limits of my imagination.  The problem with a film like Moonacre though is that they’ve abandoned the original source material.

In a 2008 interview with Empire Magazine, director Gabor Csupo, whose previous credits include the Bridge to Terabitha, that he had decided to ramp up the adventure and magic end of things.  He is quoted as saying “We didn’t want it to be like your typical costume movie…I told each department to just go for it, follow it to your wildest dreams so it looks just a little out of the ordinary.”  Quite why they didn’t just write a completely separate story, change all the character names and go with that is beyond me.

But Little White Horse isn’t the only book that’s ended up this way.  Even books as well known as Peter Pan have suffered from over zealous script writers.  Despite the fact that J.M Barrie himself wrote a script of the story there has never been a film that simply stuck to the story, keeping the darkness of the original, not to mention the fact that it’s actually addressed to the parents rather than the children.  The 2003 version directed by P.J. Hogan felt it necessary to add a snotty aunt to the Darling family entourage with the principal purpose of making Mr Darling a weak, bumbling character at odds with the traditional alter ego of Captain Hook (in theatre tradition the same actor invariably plays both parts).  This spoilt an otherwise faithful translation of the book and the play and added an extra layer of fluff that simply wasn’t necessary.  It’s a story that has never managed to make it onto the big screen without unnecessary changes.  At this stage the film probably closest to the spirit of the book is a biopic of it’s author, Finding Neverland. I’m not even touching last years sorry attempt at Philip Pullman’s The Northern Lights.

I know that writing fiction and writing scripts are two entirely different disciplines but the basic narrative rules still apply.   Hollywood has a habit of assuming their audience are popcorn munching imbeciles and, maybe some of them are, but that doesn’t mean you get to insult the rest.  As Hollywood searches for the next blockbuster it’s always going to get a great deal of it’s stories from books.  There will always be cases of sexing up, contracting and simplifying plots and amalgamating characters but it can either be done skilfully, such as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or the recent film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s book Stardust.  These are films that have taken a book and trimmed it enough to keep the story flowing on screen but not sacrificed the original author’s voice.

I would be delighted if one day a major movie studio came looking for something I had written and I’m not big headed enough to think I would have any control whatsoever over what would happen once the contracts had been signed but I hope nothing I’ve written ever gets mutilated the way The Little White Horse has been.

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