Movie Time, Short Stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle

AdventuresoftheBlueCarbuncleThe Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle is about as Christmassy a Christmas mystery story as you are likely to find. It is so popular that the story can be purchased individually should you so wish and a few years ago Audible gave away an Alan Cumming-narrated audiobook to their subscribers as a Christmas gift.

At some point I will probably sit down and do a post about the collection of short stories this comes from, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but it will do no harm to get an early start on that by writing both about this story and also three notable adaptations that may be of interest for those searching for some detective-related viewing today.

The Short Story

The story begins with Holmes explaining the history of a battered old hat to Watson and making deductions about the wearer. It turns out that the hat and a Christmas goose were dropped in the street by a man who got into a fight with some ruffians. Holmes was asked for his assistance in locating the owner but was unable to do so and, rather than waste the bird, the man who brought it to him took it home to consume with his family.

Shortly afterwards that man, Peterson, returns to tell Holmes that they found a blue gem in the bird’s throat and Holmes recognizes it from a description in the newspaper.

While this story features a detective, like many of the Holmes stories it is really more of an adventure. The reader could not realistically deduce much of what has happened based on the facts they are given although the solution to how Holmes will track down the rightful owner is very logically.

The story is tremendous fun however and certainly appeals to the imagination. It doesn’t hurt that it draws on the image of the Victorian Christmas with its plump goose, only adding to the story’s appeal.

There have been several televised versions of this story made over the years but time will restrict me to discussing just three of them.

BrettCarbuncleThe Jeremy Brett Version

Let’s kick things off with the version that most people have probably seen – the Granada television version made with Jeremy Brett in the role of Holmes. This is not just because it is the most widely available of the different versions but it also is a reflection of the popularity of Brett’s performance which many Sherlockians feel comes closest to capturing Doyle’s Holmes.

The production looks beautiful, especially in the recent high definition versions which show the costumes and set to their best advantage, and the script is just about the right length.

In terms of the way the material is presented, the Brett production is fairly accurate to the short story although it makes a few tweaks. The biggest one is that the crime is solved before Christmas Day but it makes little difference to the way the events continue to unfold.

While I wish I could shock you by saying that some other version is the best made of this story, I have to be boring and say that if you only watch one Blue Carbuncle, this is the one to watch!

CushingHolmesThe Peter Cushing Version

The other live-action version made in English starred Peter Cushing in the role of Holmes and Nigel Stock in the role of Dr Watson.

This version takes the opportunity to show us some of the events that are only referred to in the original story such as the events leading up to the theft of the jewel and the attack on the man carrying the goose in the street. It also takes the opportunity to add a little festive cheer with a charming scene in which Watson brings Holmes a present which Holmes, of course, neglected to provide for Watson.

Cushing’s Holmes is somewhat more aloof than Brett’s and has an almost patrician-like aspect to his personality. I like it though and I think he and Stock play the scene where they discuss the hat absolutely perfectly.

Dad’s Army fans may get a kick out of seeing James Beck play a role in this (it took me far too long to recognize him out of uniform) while others may be interested to know that this production is connected to the later Brett one by a shared piece of casting. Both productions feature the veteran actor Frank Middlemass, albeit in different roles.

MollyThe Sherlock Hound Version

The final adaptation I have chosen was completely new to me and comes from an Italian-Japanese animated television series made in the 1980s featuring anthropomorphized dogs in all of the key roles. As a fan of Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds and Around the World With Willy Fog I quite approve of retellings of classic stories with animal protagonists.

The story opens with a mechanized pterodactyl attacking the streets of Victorian London, masking the criminal activities of the infamous Moriarty who, it turns out, was responsible for the theft of the jewel. Because, why not? He runs into a pickpocket while making his escape from the scene of the crime, losing the jewel. Realizing who must have it, he tries to hunt the kid down, catching the attention of Sherlock Hound.

This short animation is quite enjoyable, even if it is not particularly accurate to the source material. Of the various elements of the story it really only retains the idea of the theft of a jewel and of how it might be hidden (although it is not in a goose this time). The action takes place on a regular sunny day rather than in the Christmas period and it gives a lot of time to its two chase sequences, which are quite elaborate involving coal-powered cars and the return of the mechanized pterodactyl aircraft which harass Holmes and Watson as they try to catch up to Moriarty.

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Historical Mysteries, Movie Time

Wobble to Death by Peter Lovesey

I have previously written about the second of the Cribb novels, The Detective Wore Silk Drawers in my very first post on this blog, so I felt I needed to come up with a good reason to jump back in the series order to revisit the first novel.

My excuse came when my parents were visiting as they brought over DVDs of the Sergeant Cribb series. I had fond memories of these adaptations having viewed them when I was first getting excited about crime fiction and I was curious to see whether they lived up to my memory.

The Novel

WobbleWobble to Death is a novel with a really striking concept. Actually, I think a case can be made that the setting for this story is so interesting and unusual the mystery aspect of the novel inevitably plays a sort of second fiddle to the descriptions and period details that fill the book.

The story is set during a pedestrianism contest, also known as a ‘wobble’, in which competitors walk around an indoor track for several days to win a cash prize and title. Lovesey depicts the event as colorful and attracting an interesting mix of competitors and the book is at its best when discussing some of the mechanics of the event and the personalities of the people who choose to participate.

Early in the race (though quite a way into the novel) one of the front-runners dies and soon the Police have cause to believe the deceased was murdered. Rather than stop the proceedings, the race continues to proceed resulting in some comical moments where Sergeant Thackeray has to interrogate witnesses while walking the circuit himself.

Cribb is a slightly unorthodox lead investigator in that he delegates much of his work to his long-suffering assistant Thackeray and has a somewhat lazy approach to his profession. This sort of laid back approach to sleuthing does suit the author’s focus and the two make for an entertaining and likeable pair.

With so much attention being given to the mechanics of the race, including regular summaries of the racers’ positions given at the end of chapters, unsurprisingly the mystery suffers a little and feels quite simple. This is a shame because there are some really memorable characters amongst the suspects and the explanation of what has happened seems a little bland when considered against the story’s backdrop.

The Adaptation

CribbMy strongest memory of watching this production was how well the setting was realized and while I think the grime of the walking track doesn’t quite live up to the filth described in the book, I still think this does a good job of visualizing the novel.

Unfortunately I think the adaptation does suffer a little for being compressed to fit a forty-five minute format. Firstly, the adaptation has Cribb and Thackeray in the building observing the race on the off-chance of something happening which avoids some repetition of the basic facts of the case but feels rather odd. Second, we lose some of the business that happens around the murders between the competitors. Finally, there are just fewer interviews which, combined with the previous point, means that the competitors do not feel anywhere near as fully formed as they do in the novel.

Turning to the casting, Alan Dobie captures some of Cribb’s indolent personality but the character’s most defining characteristic – his piccadilly weepers, a sort of long, bushy side-whisker – are conspicuous in their absence. I do think that having him proactively be present at the scene of the crime it actually undermines the character’s relaxed attitude towards his work though I can understand that the pacing of the novel makes it hard to convert into short-form television.

I do think that some of the supporting cast here are excellent however, particularly Michael Elphick as the promoter, Sol Herriot. When I read the book I visualize the character just as he appears here both in style and manner so that casting worked perfectly for me. Kenneth Cranham is similarly very good in the part of the Doctor, Francis Mostyn-Smith although it took me a while to decipher who it was through the facial hair!

While I still think this is an entertaining piece of television, especially the moody chase sequence towards the end, I do think that the mystery becomes hard to follow as a result of the trims. After Cribb collars the criminal, Thackeray questions how Cribb came by the solution and I think based on what the audience sees we may wonder the same whereas the book felt decidedly fair.

Agatha Christie, Movie Time

The Murder on the Orient Express (Movie)

MOTOEAfter a week of trying to make schedules align I was finally able to go and see the new Murder on the Orient Express movie. I had initially planned on writing this up as a more structured book and movie contrast or to compare different versions but there are plenty of good posts out there already doing that. Like this one from Brad which not only compares each of the filmed versions but also talks about the significance of the book to him.

Instead I am just sharing some thoughts about the movie. I’m not trying to cover or mention everything – just the things that struck me most during the film or which I ended up talking about with my wife as we left. And for those who are considering seeing this and don’t know the ending I am keeping this spoiler-free.

OrientExpressKenneth Branagh’s Moustache Isn’t Distracting

The most surprising thing about the film was how little I noticed the moustache once the film began. I have slightly mixed feelings about the content of the first ten minutes which is a little like a Bond-style pre-credits adventure. It’s there to establish Poirot as the greatest detective in the world and set up the principle themes of the movie. While I felt the film tried too hard to be funny and it was a little too frantic, it does allow the viewer time to adjust to this new Poirot before he sets foot on the train. By the time we see Poirot sniffing breads in Istanbul I wasn’t concentrating on the moustache or his more streamlined physique – I was becoming immersed in the story.

 

Bouc Actually Makes An Impression

When I read the novel I remember the character of Bouc feeling like a significant figure because of his established friendship with Poirot yet I often feel that the character becomes forgotten. Tom Bateman does a great job here though, portraying Bouc as an irresponsible bon vivant. More importantly, through his character we witness the emotional toll the case takes on those involved as we see how grave and serious he has become by its conclusion.

Branagh Has A Great Eye… But Overthinks Some Shots

Why did we need a new version of Murder on the Orient Express? I certainly was wondering this but sequences such as the train pulling through the city of Istanbul or the avalanche give the film a sense of scale that differentiates it from previous filmed versions. The train looks truly fantastic and so glamorous that you almost wouldn’t mind being trapped in it with a killer on the loose if you could enjoy the seemingly endless supply of Godiva chocolates that are on hand.

While much of the film is very well directed, I do think Branagh goes a little overboard at moments trying to inject some visual flair into the movie. At several times he indulges in long tracking shots, an overhead shot of a conversation in a corridor and films scenes through textured glass and it’s a little distracting. And then there’s the scene near the end where the cast are positioned like they are in a very famous painting…

GadJosh Gad Stands Out In An All-Star Cast

Like the previous movie version that starred Albert Finney, Branagh has assembled an all-star cast. In a film that features Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Olivia Coleman, the standout performance came from Josh Gad who surprised us by playing the part absolutely straight. He is much more than Olaf and LeFou!

Johnny Depp Is A Good Ratchett

Last year my wife and I went to a film where Johnny Depp made a ‘surprise’ appearance in the final few scenes of the movie. When he appeared the full audience audibly groaned, disappointed in the reveal and with a hint of Depp-fatigue.

There was a little of that yesterday but for my money (an outrageous $15 for a matinee!), Depp fit the part very well and makes a strong impression in relatively little screen time.

The Ending Isn’t Exactly Bungled But…

When the early reviews came out, several suggested that the solution was impossible to follow if you don’t already know the story. I asked Brad his opinion before seeing it and I essentially agree with him that there are a few clues left on the table but that the solution is there.

I will say though that the film does rush through the conclusion. My wife, who has seen previous film versions but not in a long time, did not struggle to understand what the solution to the murder had been but did wonder what Poirot decided to do about what he learned in the end. She had guessed correctly but we don’t get to hear the conversation take place.

We Would Be Excited To See Another

At the end of the film there is a little moment which is meant as a little nod to the fans and possibly sets up a sequel. If that happens, and it looks likely now that it will, I would be excited to see it.

Hardboiled, Movie Time

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

I had been thinking a little about some of the features I would like to incorporate into this blog alongside the reviews of new and old books when it occurred to me that it might be interesting to take a look at a novel and an adaptation of that work in some format. The idea would be to comment on whether it captures the tone and spirit of the original work, some of the changes that were made and whether I felt it does the original work justice.

The novel and film I have selected to start with is Devil in a Blue Dress which I read for the first time over a decade ago. At that time I had never read a hard-boiled detective novel before and while I enjoyed aspects of the novel, I struggled to engage with the writing style and the novel’s grim outlook on the world.

Had it not been for an Audible special offer I might never have given the book a second thought but when the chance came to snap up an audio recording read by Michael Boatman for under a dollar I snapped it up on an impulse. Boatman brought Mosley’s hard-boiled prose and the character of Easy Rawlins and the characters he interacts with to life for me.

If you have never read the book or seen the movie, here is a potted summary:

It is 1948 and we are in Los Angeles. Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is out of work and in desperate need of some money to help him pay his mortgage when into the bar walks DeWitt Albright, a white man who is offering to pay him to help locate a missing girl, Daphne Monet who he believes may be frequenting an African-American bar. That is, of course, just the start of an adventure that sees Easy getting beaten up, accused of murder and manipulated by just about everyone.

The Novel

DevilinabluedressbookThe first thing to say about Walter Mosley’s novel is that it is an incredibly significant and influential work within the hard-boiled mystery genre. Mosley was not the first successful African-American mystery novelist but he remains one of the most widely read and enjoyed. Easy Rawlins sees Los Angeles from a different perspective than other hard-boiled characters do and encounters different barriers in his investigations.

Simply being historically significant does not mean that the experience of reading it will necessarily be rewarding or enjoyable. After all, the first time I read the novel I was just as aware of its reputation but perhaps focused my attention on the plot without appreciating the skillful way Mosley builds a sense of time and place. What I noticed in my second reading that I had missed the first time through were the discussions of perception of a person’s race, of the lack of integration within society in that time and the way that Easy prizes his sense of agency above security at several points within the novel.

His story is compelling, especially in those sequences that feature the character of Mouse who is something of a wild card within Easy’s life and perhaps the ultimate example of the destructive friend who is really bad news. We learn about their relationship in flashbacks throughout the novel, building our anticipation for the moment when Mouse will inevitably enter the story.

While I found the narrative engaging, I did feel that the female characters in the story were somewhat one-note being defined primarily by their sexual presences. I recognize that this is hardly unusual for a hard-boiled work but it does make those characters seem a little flat and two-dimensional which is a shame when the characters of Easy and Mouse are so well drawn.

I am curious to see where the series leads and plan to listen to the next story at some point soon.

The Adaptation

DevilinaBlueDressmovieCarl Franklin’s movie adaptation stars Denzel Washington in the role of Easy. By the time this film was made he was one of the highest profile actors around, having found critical and commercial success with Glory, Malcolm X and Philadelphia. Looking at the cast list, he was really the only established star in the mix which may help explain why the film was not a box office hit in spite of some strong reviews from critics.

Franklin keeps the initial set-up of the story the same but makes some changes to some character motivations and adds a new subplot to help condense and simplify the narrative. Characters such as Frank become less of a presence in the movie than they do in the book while Terrell’s significance is increased.

There are two changes to the story that I found to be particularly significant however. The first is that Daphne’s relationship with Easy is not consummated as it is in considerable detail in the book. That choice, in my opinion, strengthened her character and made her feelings about a third character clearer.

The second change really arises from the first and is hard to write about without spoiling both the book and the film. What I can say is that while many aspects of the ending remain in place in the film, the character motivations in those final scenes are notably different and give the ending a very different tone. I think that this different ending largely remains in keeping with the themes of the novel but it does put a different spin on a key relationship.

Generally though I was impressed at how well the film bought the world of 1940s Los Angeles to life. Visually the film is not glossy or lush but it is competently directed and does a good job of setting the scene and evoking a sense of time and place.

I was also quite pleased with the way most of the parts were cast with most of the characters being fairly good matches for how I had imagined them when reading. The exceptions were Todd Carter and DeWitt Albright. In the case of Carter I had imagined someone a little younger and childish, though the actor cast matched the character as portrayed in the film. In the case of Albright however I had thought the novel had mentioned being from the Georgia and I imagined him to physically look like a lawyer rather than the enforcer interpretation we see from Tom Sizemore. While those changes may sound cosmetic, in the case of Albright I felt it diminished the character a little, simplifying him.

Where the film gets it absolutely right is in the casting of Don Cheadle as Mouse for which he won a number of awards. While I cannot say that Cheadle is how I had imagined the character physically, his interpretation makes a lot of sense and captures the character’s sense of bravado. When you consider just how much material from his story is cut, in particular the flashback descriptions of how he committed two murders and his discussion with Easy about guilt, it is remarkable just how complete his presentation of that character is. The film noticeably shifts a gear when he arrives in the narrative and he gets several of the most powerful moments in the picture.

As for Denzel Washington, he does a very solid job with the role of Easy, particularly given we are only treated to the character’s internal monologue as a bookend to the movie. Given how important his internal voice is to the character and to helping the reader understand what he is doing and his feelings about the people around him, it is impressive how much of those feelings Washington is able to convey through his physical performance.

Overall, I think the film has stood the test of time fairly well and works well as an adaptation of the novel. I was struck as I watched it though that the material would surely be even more suited to television where the story could be given more room to breathe.