Category: Private Detective film

Murder by Decree (1979)

Murder by Decree (1979)

Sherlock Holmes investigates Jack the Ripper in this overlong but enjoyable Doyle pastiche

Director: Bob Clark

Cast: Christopher Plummer (Sherlock Holmes), James Mason (Dr John Watson), David Hemmings (Inspector Foxborough), Susan Clark (Mark Kelly), Frank Finlay (Inspector Lestrade), Anthony Quayle (Sir Charles Warren), Donald Sutherland (Robert Lees), Geneviève Bujold (Annie Crook), John Gielgud (Lord Salisbury)

In the world of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, it’s a popular sub-genre: Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper. How would Holmes have taken on the murderer who has baffled generations since those brutal Whitechapel killings in 1889? Murder by Decree explores the idea, mixing Conan Doyle with a deep dive into (at the time) the most popular theory in Ripperology, the Royal Killings (Murder by Decree indeed!).

It’s all pulled together into a decent, if over-long, film, shot with sepia-toned stolid earnestness by Bob Clark. With its fog-ridden Whitechapel sets (carefully built but always strangely empty), heavy-duty actors sporting large sideburns, wavy-screen flashbacks and carefully unimaginative framing, there is something very old-fashioned about Murder by Decree. That also extends to its Ripper theory, steeped in a very 70s class-conscious conspiracy. The film pads out its two-hour run time with many a POV shot of the Ripper prowling the streets, which bring to mind Jaws and slasher horror films of the time.

Where Murder by Decree does stand out is in its imaginative characterisation of Holmes and Watson. They are presented as affectionate friends – Mason’s older Watson has a sweet indulgent elder-brother feeling to him, giving Plummer’s sparkly Holmes plenty to tease and bounce off. They split the casework between them – Watson is an equal partner, even if Holmes does the brainwork – and use their strengths to complement each other (notably, Watson frequently distracts people so Holmes can interrogate a witness more closely). They genuinely feel like long-term friends (there is a delightful sequence where Holmes is so distracted by Watson’s attempt to fork a pea, that he squashes it onto the fork – to be met with a forlorn “you’ve squashed my pea” from Watson, who likes the peas intact so they “pop in my mouth”).

They are dropped into the middle of a very much of-its-time Ripper theory. Murder by Decree centres on the theory that the murders were ordered (the film reluctantly suggests tacitly) by the establishment to cover up the secret marriage of Prince Edward, Duke of Clarence to a Whitechapel woman, Annie Crook. This alleged marriage produced a baby, and a royal doctor, sheltered by a Masonic conspiracy, sets about eliminating everyone who knows the truth. Of course, it’s almost certainly bollocks – but with its mix of secret societies, Royals, a lost heir and the rest, it’s an attractive story.

It gains a lot from the performances of the two actors. James Mason flew in the face of then popular perception by presenting a quick-witted, assured Watson, more than capable of looking after himself (he bests a blackmailing pimp in a street fight and is very comfortable with guns – far more than the reticent Holmes). He’s still the classic gentlemen, who loves King and Country, but also shrewd, brave, loyal, able to win people’s trust and look at a situation with clear eyes.

With Christopher Plummer, Murder by Decree has one of the all-time great Sherlock Holmes. Plummer’s Holmes is refreshingly un-sombre, twinkly with a ready wit, who loves teasing Watson (cleaning his pipe with Watson’s hypodermic needles) and delights in his own cleverness. But Plummer takes Holmes to places no other film Holmes goes. The case as a devastating effect on him: he weeps at the fate of Annie Crook (consigned by conspirators to a slow death in an asylum) and furiously attacks her doctor. When the conspiracy is unmasked, he emotionally confronts the Prime Minister and berates himself for his failures. There is a depth and humanity to Plummer’s Holmes unseen in other versions, a living, breathing and surprisingly well-adjusted man, unafraid of emotion.

Sadly, the film takes a little too long to spool its conspiracy out. Rather too much time is given to an extended cameo by Donald Sutherland as a pale-faced psychic who may or may not have stumbled upon the killer. There are a lot of unfocused shots of that killer, all swollen black eyes and panting perversion. It relies a little too much on a Poirot-like speech from Holmes at the end explaining everything we’ve seen. But there are strong moments, best of all Geneviève Bujold’s emotional cameo as the near-catatonic Annie Crook, cradling in her arms a memory of her stolen child.

There are many decent touches. The film is open in its depiction of the filth and squalor of life in Whitechapel – a pub is an absolute dive, and the women pretty much all look haggard and strung out. It has a refreshingly sympathetic eye to the victims, with Holmes denouncing the attitudes of both Government and radicals (looking to make political hay from the killings) who see them as lives without intrinsic worth. Holmes places no blame or judgment on them, or the choices life has forced on them, which in a way puts him (and the film) quite in line with modern scholarship (even if there is the odd slasher-style shot of mangled corpses).

The main issue is the film never quite manages to come to life. It’s a little too uninspired, a bit too careful and solid where it could have been daring and challenging. There are good supporting roles: Finlay is a fine low-key Lestrade (at one point persistently raising his hand to ask his superior permission to speak) while Gielgud sells the imperious Lord Salisbury. There is enough here for you to wish the film just had a bit more of spark to lift it above its B-movie roots. But in Plummer and Mason it has a Holmes and Watson to treasure – and for that alone it’s worth your time.

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

Obsession and grief come dangerously into play in one of the greatest films ever made

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: James Stewart (John “Scottie” Ferguson), Kim Novak (Madeline Elster/Judy Barton), Barbara Bel Geddes (Midge Wood), Tom Helmore (Gavin Elster), Henry John (Coroner), Raymond Bailey (Doctor), Ellen Corby (Hotel manager), Konstantin Shayne (Pop Leibel), Lee Patrick (Car owner)

Spoilers: Vertigo was controversial at the time for revealing its twist, three quarters of the way through the film. I might well do the same in the review – although this is possibly a richer film if you know the twist going in

In 2012 Vertigo dislodged Citizen Kane at the top of Sight and Sound’s decadal “Greatest Film” poll, after 50 uninterrupted years for Welles’ classic. It’s an astonishing turn-around for a film which was a box-office disappointment and first met with reviews that called it “long and slow” and complained that Hitchcock had “indulged in such farfetched nonsense”. (Welles also hated the film – bet he’s even more pissed off at it now.) This is partly because Vertigo is a fiercely, almost defiantly, complex and cold film that defies easy characterisation and flies in the face of the fast-paced watchability of most of Hitchcock’s popular films. But it’s still a haunting and fascinating masterpiece, which has its greatest impact when you reflect on it days after it has finished.

Its plot is both complex and slight. John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) is an ex-police detective, his career ended by crippling acrophobia bought on by powerlessly watching a fellow officer fall to his death. He’s hired by old college friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow Elster’s wife Madeline (Kim Novak). Madeline is in the grip of an idée fix that she is an incarnation of Carlotta Valdes, a woman who committed suicide in 1857. Scottie follows her – and develops an idée fix of his own for the beautiful Madeline. When his acrophobia prevents Scottie from saving Madeline from jumping to her death from a bell tower, he suffers a near-breakdown. Then he catches sight of Judy Barton (Kim Novak again) who has a chilling resemblance to Madeline. And Scottie tries to turn her into just that.

Vertigo is a dizzying film of monomania and obsession, something you are immediately plugged into with its beautiful Saul Bass opening (swirling spirals, reflecting the circular nature of the obsessive) and its hauntingly mesmeric and off-beat romantic theme from Bernard Herrmann (possibly his greatest work – and he also scored Kane!). More than any other Hitchcock film, Vertigo places us firmly into the POV of its lead character, who is in all but three scenes and whose perceptions and observations we not only share but which totally guide our understanding of everything we see in the film (until that twist, when suddenly we shift to knowing more than he does).

Hitchcock’s technique is truly masterful here. There isn’t the flash of something like North by Northwest, but the sort of chilling control that builds tension and unease that also marks out films like The Birds or, to a degree, Psycho (although that’s much more of a black joke, where Vertigo is terrifyingly serious). Hitchcock uses a huge number of POV shots, alternating with shots of Stewart’s reactions (at times these are disturbing in their fixed intensity) building a subtle momentum that reflects the character’s obsession and further filters everything we experience from his perspective.

That would be the perspective of an ever-more obsessed man tipping steadily into stalkerish territory. Few films have so clearly drawn the link between the private eye and the voyeur. As Scottie silently prowls the streets of San Francisco, observing every inch of Madeline’s actions – and Vertigo has long, worldless stretches of what Hitchcock called “pure cinema” – the disturbing pleasure and control that following brings you becomes more and more clear. It’s certainly giving a sense of masculinity back to Scottie, introduced to us hanging helplessly from a ledge and then so hamstrung by his condition he can’t even climb a step ladder without collapsing.

Judged from this perspective, Scottie is one of the most darkly disturbing characters in film. Rescuing Madeline from the Golden Gate (where she has jumped in) he takes her home, undresses her and puts her in his bed – hardly normal behaviour. It’s not long from there before he surrenders to his romantic obsession (feelings Madeline perhaps returns), that eventually leads him again to be a powerless witness as Madeline plunges to her death right in front of him.

Catatonia and mental collapse follow – but really it’s perhaps just a continuation of the same obsession in another form. Because after a stay in a sanatorium, Scottie is back on the streets again, prowling for something – anything – that could make him feel closer to Madeline again. Which is how he spots Judy, the woman who reminds him of the woman he’s lost. Scottie doesn’t so much woo Judy as seemingly browbeat her into a bizarre (joyless and sexless) relationship and undertake a terrifyingly grotesque remodelling exercise, designed to make her into a carbon copy of Madeline.

This sequence is probably partly at the heart of the film’s fascination for critics and film historians – even more so since we’ve learned about Hitchcock’s manipulative, controlling relationship with his blonde female stars. Here we have Scottie instructing his love interest how to dress, walk and cut her hair – all while telling her it’s for her own good and she’ll like it – his voice with the breathless longing of a closeted pervert (that is when Scottie manages any sexual yearning to Judy, who he treats more like a treasured exhibit). This is Hitchcock dramatizing his own hang-ups, presenting them as creepy and dangerous, making Vertigo partly as well a fascinating psychological study of its director. Did Hitchcock know that his controlling relationship with women was wrong? And, in real life, could he not help himself or did he not care?

Vertigo is a perfect exploration of obsession. But it also pulls the rug out from us – and rewards constant reviewing as a result – because the film reveals there was a whole other level going on. Scottie may seem the Hitchcock substitute, but the in-film Hitch figure is actually the amiable Gavin Elster. Because the entire action of the film is carefully stage-managed by Elster to manipulate Scottie (and us!): Judy and Madeline (as Scottie has met her) are in fact the same woman, a doppelgänger for Elster’s wife. The real Madeline – who Scottie never sees or meets – is murdered by Elster at the top of that tower, and Judy/Madeline was helping build a backstory to have this murder written off as suicide, with Scottie’s acrophobia perfect to make him a powerless witness.

Here comes that pleasure for rewatching: because now when Scottie rescues “Madeline” from the river, then spends the next day with her, we thought at first he knew more than she. Now however, we understand he’s always been a patsy who knew less than anyone else. We’ve been manipulated by Elster, the master director, pulling the strings and building horrors for us. That’s Hitchcock.

The film reveals this in one of the few scenes told from Judy/Madeline’s perspective – and means we then watch Scottie actually craft a woman who actually is the woman he’s obsessed with into his memory of that very same woman. (Get your head around that!) And she allows it, because she seems as desperate as he to recapture the passion of those brief days together – but cannot tell him the thing that would help to do that. It all leads, of course, to Scottie’s destructive obsession leaving him once again to being a helpless witness as another victim plummets to their death.

Vertigo is effectively a two-hander, and most of the focus usually lands on Stewart. He is chillingly dead-eyed in this, his crazed hunting after something he doesn’t even understand capturing the controlling horror behind some romance. In many ways though, Kim Novak has the more complex part. She doesn’t speak for almost 45 minutes – she spends it mostly in long shot performing Elster’s play for Scottie (and us) of the mentally disturbed wife. But when Novak does take centre stage, this is a complex multi-layered performance, carefully modulated throughout to communicate (in advance) Judy’s vulnerability and love for Scottie, without ever letting us realise she is anything but the death-fixated “Madeline”. Novak marries two contradictory characters into one with a simple and convincing aplomb. Equally good is Barbara bel Geddes, in almost the only other named role, as Scottie’s one-time fiancée now best friend, all too aware that her feelings are not returned.

Vertigo will never match the likes of Casablanca or North By Northwest – on a list of films truly popular with audiences. It’s been described as the ultimate critic’s film: a cool, chilling, brilliantly filmed, psychological thriller that quietly exposes the mechanics of film, the manipulation of story-telling and the dark psyche of its director. In many ways initial reviews were right: on first impression, the film is cold and slow, with characters it’s hard to relate to. But it has a truly haunting quality few others can match. And it constantly presents us with a clear image, while never allowing us to guess we are seeing only part of the overall picture. It can leave us as dizzy as Scottie is, hanging from that ledge and staring down at doom, the camera zooming inside his head and showing us his terrifying POV. You need to work at it, but this is a film to value.

Death on the Nile (2022)

Death on the Nile (2022)

Another all-star cast saddles up for one of Branagh’s overblown Christie adaptations

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot), Tom Bateman (Bouc), Annette Bening (Euphemia Bouc), Russell Brand (Linus Windlesham), Ali Fazal (Andrew Katchadurian), Dawn French (Mrs Bowers), Gal Gadot (Linnet Ridgeway-Doyle), Armie Hammer (Simon Doyle), Rose Leslie (Louise Bourget), Emma Mackey (Jacqueline de Bellefort), Sophie Okonedo (Salome Otterbourne), Jennifer Saunders (Marie van Schuyler), Letitia Wright (Rosalie Otterbourne)

The tradition of luscious, all-star Agatha Christie adaptations continues. Following his successful 2017 Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh’s Poirot follow-up Death on the Nile finally makes it to the screen. I say finally, because this film has been sitting on a Covid-related shelf for so long that Branagh conceived, wrote, shot, edited, released and won awards for Belfast in the meantime. Death on the Nile is a much less personal film than that one, but is still an interesting (if flawed) re-imagining of Christie’s Belgian detective.

Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) are getting married and honeymooning in Egypt. Problem is, six weeks earlier Simon was engaged to Linnet’s old friend Jacqueline de Belfort (Emma Mackey), who has not taken being jilted well and is stalking the couple throughout their honeymoon. Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is invited to join the bash by old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), one of a host of wedding guests on a private cruise down the Nile on luxury steamer The Karnak. But Jacqueline gatecrashes the cruise and murder strikes. With almost every passenger having a motive, will Poirot manage to unpick a case that becomes a painfully personal one?

Branagh’s Death on the Nile film has many of the same flaws and strengths of his previous Poirot epic. Shot on 70mm, it’s almost excessively beautiful. In fact, the film has such a chocolate box, Sunday-afternoon feel it frequently looks almost too perfect in its blisteringly blue skies and CGI Egyptian backdrop. It’s very clear that we’re expected to wallow as much in the costumes, sightseeing and 30s glamour as the mystery. In that way at least it’s pretty close to the 1978 Ustinov version.

Fortunately, the mystery is one of Christie’s finest and its execution is handled fairly deftly. The plot is pretty faithful, although most of the character traits of the passengers are reshuffled and reassigned to create interesting new set-ups. (For example, a rich kleptomaniac takes on instead the socialist passions of a secret nobleman who instead takes the medical qualifications of a third character. Elsewhere a character is split in two into Okonedo’s jazz singer and Bening’s rich amateur painter). The insertion of the Bouc character from Murder on the Orient Express carries across an relationship that the film richly develops to give the case a greater personal impact for Poirot.

But the film, like the first, is as much a Poirot-centric character study as it is a murder mystery. It’s easy to snigger at an opening sequence which, while handsomely done and including an impressively digitally de-aged Branagh, serves as a “moustache origins” story (Poirot grew it to hide his physical and emotional scars from WW1). But it’s a launching point for an interesting exploration of Poirot’s emotional hinterland and monk-like abstinence from attachment. A particularly rich opportunity, considering the murder’s roots are in exactly the sort of all-consuming love Poirot has denied himself. It also pays off in the film’s final sequence, with clear evidence that events have led to Poirot permanently re-evaluating and changing his character.

As in the previous film, Branagh plays this with a winning mix of comedy and larger-than-life prissiness but also manages to utilise his eyes very effectively to suggest the emotion and pain his Poirot keeps firmly under the surface. The later sections of the film see Branagh play a level of overt pain that we’ve not really seen other Poirots display in the past. Expanding the character still further beyond the focused, retentive, distanced detective of Christie’s original, this is also a Poirot who expresses shame, regret and (bashfully) a schoolboy-style crush.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is a more mixed bag – who would have thought Russell Brand would be not only one of the more restrained, but also one of the most quietly affecting? Tom Bateman is excellent as Bouc, full of joie de vivre and later wounded, pained innocence. Brit audiences can enjoy the joke of French and Saunders playing a pair of closeted ageing lesbians. Letitia Wright is fairly good as a headstrong young woman in love. Other members of the cast engage in a scenery chewing competition, roundly won by Sophie Okonedo as a rollingly accented blues singer with most of the best lines, while Bening and Fazal struggle to bring life to their characters.

For the principal love triangle, the film suffers under the unfortunate issue of Armie Hammer’s fall-from-grace (guess he’s never going to become that star I wrote once he was destined to become). Even without that, Hammer seems oddly constrained by his British accent and fails to bring any life or passion to the role, not helped by a complete lack of chemistry with Gal Gadot who seems hopelessly at sea, trapped in flat line readings and odd bits of business. Emma Mackey by far-and-away comes out best as a young woman dripping with danger and obsession.

It’s a shame Branagh’s film constantly seems to shoot itself in the foot. Must be easy to do, since the boat is awash with guns (everyone seems to have one!) – so much so the final reveal is bungled into a three-way Mexican stand-off that completely robs the book’s brilliant denouement of its impact. The whole film is a little like this at times: as a director Branagh can be a flashy show-off whose ambition isn’t always married with the sort of effortless grace great directors bring to cinema. So, the film is crammed with tricksy, attention-grabbing shots and loud, brash moments of drama that are as likely to raise sniggers as sighs of awe.

It’s a shame as, in many ways, this is actually a little better than Murder on the Orient Express. It’s tighter (even though it’s longer!) and it creates an emotional backstory for Poirot that not only feels much less forced but actually adds something to the original story. Many of the changes in the characters actually help to make something interesting and new. If only Branagh’s films could shake the idea that we need guns, fights and sweeping CGI to invest in a Poirot story. Because, despite some weaker performances, when the film focuses on emotion and story it’s actually a fairly engaging adaptation that, while never the best, is very far from the worst.

Klute (1971)

Klute (1971)

Paranoia runs rampant in this fascinating – and chilling – murder thriller that taps into into conspiracy thrillers

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Cast: Jane Fonda (Bree Daniels), Donald Sutherland (John Klute), Charles Cioffi (Peter Cable), Roy Scheider (Frank Ligourin), Dorothy Tristan (Arlyn Page), Rita Gam (Trina), Nathan George (Trask), Vivian Nathan (Psychiatrist), Morris Strassberg (Mr Goldfarb)

There is one question everyone asks when watching Klute: why the heck is it called Klute? Would calling the film Daniels have been too dull? Would Bree have made it sound like a history of cheese? Klute is dominated by its character study of Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels, split between her desire to be an actress and the comforting sense of control and avoidance of intimacy her work as call-girl brings. Klute uses the conventions of the male detective movie to conduct a sympathetic, compassionate character examination of its female lead. Match that with Pakula discovering his affinity for creeping 70’s paranoia, and you’ve got one of the most interesting and rewarding films of the decade.

John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is a small-town cop called in as a private investigator after a six month New York police investigation fails to find his friend, businessman Tom Gruneman. The only lead they have is a series of obscene letters found in Gruneman’s office written to New York call girl Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). Klute discovers Bree has no memory of Gruneman, but Klute believes she may be in serious danger. Together they investigate the crime further, which becomes more and more focused on a mysterious abusive client and even more complicated by the growing relationship between the quiet, reserved Klute and the strong-willed, independent Bree.

Klute uses the conventions of a gumshoe detective movie, spliced with a hard-hitting 70s fascination with grimy, sensationalist crimes (this was the same year as hard-bitten, shades-of-grey cops in Dirty Harry took on a serial killer and The French Connection explored the drugs trade), in this case the assault and murder of prostitutes. But this isn’t a whodunnit, or even really a detective story. The film is barely 45 minutes old before Pakula basically reveals who the killer is (the suspect list has only two people on it in any case). Most of the investigation takes place off screen. Some answers are kept vague. There is no cathartic moment of success.

Instead, the film feels far more like it’s using its Laura-ish set-up (the big difference here being the taciturn detective’s love interest is alive rather than just a painting) as a backdrop to deep dive in Bree’s personality. Bree is played with a stunning (and Oscar-winning) verisimilitude by Jane Fonda. Fonda immersed herself totally in the character, even living in the apartment set during shooting (Pakula had a working toilet installed) and developing a careful psychological background to Bree that is brilliantly introduced through our frequent cuts to her sessions with a coolly professional psychiatrist.

This is a portrait of a female sex worker on screen, where she’s neither a tragic or pathetic figure, or a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (the standard tropes). Instead, this is a woman struggling with a crippling fear of intimacy and a compulsion to control, who finds a freedom and release in acting out the fantasies of others. Bree speaks to her psychiatrist of being a call girl not as a curse or source of shame, but something she takes a sort of freedom from. It’s clear that really makes her sweat is not adjusting herself to whatever men want (faking an orgasm while checking her watch with one John, or acting out an elaborate, detailed fantasy for a lonely tailor) but the idea of having to be herself, to display something emotional and true.

And prostitution has the advantage over acting as she sets the terms. We are introduced to Bree as just one in a row of sitting actresses auditioning for an advert, each of them dismissively given a score from A to C. She later auditions for Shaw’s Saint Joan with a detailed, heartfelt reading (she’s clearly a good actress) which is stopped mid-speech by a bored director. With Fonda making clear that control is vital to Bree’s sense of well-being, no wonder she struggles with this dismissive world. Or that she finds a greater freedom in high-end prostitution, where we see she sets the terms with a business-like professionalism and is the centre of the focus and attention of her John’s for the whole of their session. This is a feeling she doesn’t get from anyone else.

What really scares her is the thought of a genuine emotional intimacy with Klute. In their first encounters she assumes she can seduce him with the professional ease she does most men, dropping naturally into her role of seductive dream-girl, offering him sex in return for recordings he has of her from his investigation. Later she will prove a point by coming to him in the night and seducing him with a pretence of vulnerability and fear, as if to prove to him (and herself) that she can work out exactly what mood she needs to control any man.

But it’s buried in genuine fear about emotional attachment. To her psychiatrist she talks about not understanding why Klute seems, with no ulterior motive, to be concerned for her safety and well-being despite the things he’s knows about her or that she’s done and said to him.

There is a marvellous scene where the two of them go shopping for fruit (Klute of course knows exactly how to choose the best fruit, he’s that sort of guy). First, she impulsively steals an apple like a naughty, impulsive child. When Klute responds with a bemused half-shock, she stands behind him, a grin spreading across her face, then she lightly rests her head (almost not touching) on his back – then follows him down the street, holding the end of his coat. It speaks worlds of how something in her emotional growth has been slightly stunted somewhere along the line. And the fact this intimacy is followed in the next scene by a drug-fuelled blow-out, speaks volumes of her fear of it.

It’s a brilliant performance by Fonda, throbbing with empathy and emotional complexity. She’s perfectly abetted by Donald Sutherland, who proves himself once again one of the most generous actors in the game. Klute is in many ways the typical rube in the big city, the one honest cop. But he also has a wet-eyed vulnerability, a tenderness and an urge to protect that as motherly as it masculine. He reveals very little emotionally, not from fear but from a shyness.

He’s also an observer. And Pakula’s film partly draws links between detective and voyeurism. Let’s not forget Klute also bugs Bree’s phone and follows her. The camera frequently shoots the action from distance, through windows and looking down on the action: the idea of being constantly observed lingers over the picture, giving it a rich vein of paranoia. The killer listens to disembodied audio recordings of Bree, and these frequently play over the action not only echoing this paranoia, but re-enforcing how her personality is a fractured one between the independent exterior and the less certain interior.

Pakula’s film pulls all this together into something creepy and unsettling but is also a fascinating character study. That is perhaps its best trick. You come into it expecting a film noir or a detective story. What you get is a compelling analysis of the psyche of one woman, who emerges into the picture and takes complete control of it. Perhaps that’s why it’s called Klute – it’s as much a part of the misdirection as everything else. With its psychological complexity and creeping sense of being watched, this would set the tone for many other films that followed in the 70s.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Hound of the baskervilles header
Peter Cushing is the great detective in The Hound of the Baskervilles

Director: Terence Fisher

Cast: Peter Cushing (Sherlock Holmes), André Morell (Doctor Watson), Christopher Lee (Sir Henry Baskerville), Marla Landi (Cecile Stapleton), David Oxley (Sir Hugo Baskerville), Francis de Wolff (Dr Mortimer), Miles Malleson (Bishop Frankland), Ewen Solon (Stapleton), John Le Mesurier (Barrymore), Helen Gross (Mrs Barrymore)

Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous story hardly needs introduction. In 1959 it was told with a Hammer Horror twist. With its demonic dog, fog covered moor and blood-laden backstory surely no Sherlock Holmes story could be better suited to the studio. The film is fairly faithful to the basic outline of the original, although with added tarantulas and (more controversially) a new villain.

But it all works pretty much a treat, largely due to the performances of Cushing and Morell as Holmes and Watson. Cushing’s Holmes is sharp, analytical, has bursts of energy mixed with impatient distraction. Cushing went back to the stories and threw in many small details – from lines from Doyle to physical moments such as securing notes to the mantelpiece with a knife. His Holmes also uses rudeness in a Doylesque way he rarely does in film. Cushing has the intelligence and dynamism of the Detective – he’s one of the more overlooked actors to play the role – and had been determined to be faithful in his interpretation (sadly sequels were not forthcoming, although Cushing played the role several more times on the BBC).

Morell also returned to the novels to present a Dr Watson who was smooth, professional, assured and competent if uninspired. It was a far cry from the blundering buffoon which – thanks to Nigel Bruce – the public expected from Holmes’ faithful Boswell. Morell’s more patrician style made him a fine contrast with Cushing’s bohemian tinged Holmes. The two actors also spark beautifully off each other and create a feeling of a genuine friendship, underpinned by affection and loyalty, frequently showing genuine concern for each other’s safety.

Aside from these two excellent performances in the leads, the film is a solid if not spectacular adaptation, competently filmed. Terence Fisher’s direction sometimes struggles to cover the cheapness of the enterprise and some sets convince more than others. For a film that is quite short, the pace sometimes slackens (the Baskerville legend in particular gets far too much screen time, probably connected to the presence of the buxom servant girl Sir Hugo is planning to bed). Moments such as an attempt to assassinate Sir Henry via tarantula in London (which makes no sense at all) provides decent moments of tension but are basically filler.

The film does manage to address some of the problems of the novel by introducing a greater sense of mystery, in particular by providing motivations for several characters. Saying that, just as in the novel (where the mystery is solved by Holmes travelling to Scotland and reading some records – not good drama), here much of the mystery is resolved by Holmes carrying out an off-stage conversation with convict Seldon. Much as in the book, Holmes travelling to the area incognito doesn’t really add much to the story other than providing a late reveal.

Better invention however comes in the introduce of a femme fatale in Marla Landi’s Cecile Stapleton, here re-imagined as a sexy, wild girl of undefined (and nonsensical) European origin. She sparks off a neat chemistry with Christopher Lee’s Sir Henry – here playing for the only time in his career not the villain but the romantic lead! – and her development late in the film presents a fresh take on the resolution.

It’s certainly a little more fresh than the eventual scuffle with the dog – which to be honest doesn’t look either that intimidating or convincing. The dog itself is rather underwhelming, and more threat is actually conveyed by the moor itself, a mysterious stretch of land coated in fog covering treacherous bogs.

What Fisher and Hammer do really well is atmosphere, and the gothic feel of the piece is pretty much spot on. There is the expected claret red blood – and a suggestion of something really grotesque which befalls a victim on the moor – mixed in with sexy ladies. It’s an exploitation twist on Holmes, but then the novel itself was basically pretty much a B-movie in text. And the fundamental story is largely unchanged, with both the virtues and vices of the book captured.

The finest thing about it is the acting. Several scene-stealing actors chuck in neat cameos. Le Mesurier is perfect as the reserved butler Barrymore. De Wolff is a sharp and arrogant Mortimer. Malleson steals his scenes as an absent-minded Frankland (here re-imagined as an eccentric cleric). Christopher Lee relishes the chance to play against type, making Sir Henry a pillar of upright, honest decency. But the real delight is Cushing and Morell as Holmes and Watson, a brilliant combination.

Chinatown (1974)

Jack Nicholson struggles against the system – and loses – in Chinatown

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Jack Nicholson (JJ Gittes), Faye Dunaway (Evelyn Cross Mulwray), John Huston (Noah Cross), Perry Lopez (Lt Lou Escobar), John Hillerman (Russ Yelburton), Darrell Zwerling (Hollis Mulwray), Diane Ladd (Ida Sessions), Roy Jenson (Claude Mulvihill), Roman Polanski (Man with Knife), Joe Mantell (Lawrence Walsh), Burt Young (Curly), James Hong (Kahn)

“Of course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” So says Noah Cross in the superlative Chinatown, the sort of the film you’ll want to start watching again the second it ends. Cross is of course a respectable businessman and an absolute monster. And his mantra applies just as much to Los Angeles as envisioned by Polanski and writer Robert Towne. It’s a corrupt, dirty place where terrible, appalling things are regularly allowed to happen but everyone pretends the place is fabulous. It’s such a sublime film, while also so bleakly, despairingly dark that you are surprised you fall in love with its excellence.

In 1937 private detective JJ “Jake” Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired – or so he thinks – by the wife of Water Board director Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) to investigate his infidelity. When he does seem to uncover it, he founds not only was his client not Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), but that shortly after his pictures appeared in the press (without his knowledge), Hollis himself winds up dead, having drowned in a dry river bed. What does this all mean? And how does Evelyn’s father (and Hollis’ business partner) Noah Cross (John Huston) play into this all? Gittes investigates further, to uncover shady schemes to manipulate the cities water supply for profit, under-handed business deals and unspeakable family crimes that leave lives shattered.

Polanski’s film has such a timeless wonder about it, perhaps because it was filmed with such careful and beautifully designed classicism that it has never dated. Seen at the time as a film told in the style of the classic film noirs (although it is of course full of blazing LA sunshine), but crammed with a darkness and corruption classic Hollywood shied away from it now seems to take its place as the most masterful of Hollywood mysteries. It’s recreation of 1930s detail is perfect, while its film making is restrained, controlled, unflashy but creates an atmosphere of simmering mystery and tension behind every frame. It’s a masterfully restrained piece of film-making that deals with matters of shocking horror.

And tension there should be as this explores the darkest underbelly of America. With Jerry Goldsmith’s sublime music score under every beat – riffing on classic Hollywood tunes, but with a haunting faded grandeur that suggests a whole melancholic world going to the wall – the film looks like classic, beautiful America but uses that to counter-frame terrible, heartless acts. LA is corrupt from top to bottom. Businessmen are asset stripping the city and its surroundings to line their own pockets. Wealth brings total immunity from all sorts of crimes, regardless of how foul they are. Even family ties are polluted by terrible lusts and greed. And for Gittes, Chinatown is representative of this – a one word reference to his career as a cop, where his ability to do any good at all was forever compromised by corruption.

Jack Nicholson’s performance as Gittes is central to the film’s success. He’s in every scene and the story is told entirely from his point-of-view – so much so that when he is knocked out, Polanski slowly fades out sound and picture. Nicholson is best known for his flamboyance, but here he brilliantly underplays too present a complex picture of an idealist disguised as a cynic. Gittes tries his best to coolly accept the world is what it is, and even that he is just trying to get what he can out of it. But he’s in fact a decent and honourable man with a deep-rooted sense of morality, who struggles in the world because it’s ill-suited for a guy who just wants to do the right thing. He has a sort of outdated charm and nobility about him, an almost courtly gentleness at times, and only lashes out in anger when he feels is either being lied to or his sense of honour impugned. He has a natural sympathy for the little guy and for all he may try to spin the sort of cynical Marlowesque dialogue, you don’t feel his heart is really in it. He is a dreamer who wants to believe.

And he’s totally ill-suited to this world he ends up with. Gittes uncovers every inch of the mystery – but nothing he does has any positive impact. He completely fails to protect anyone, his attempts to ensure happy endings end in disaster, he’s regularly beaten to a pulp (most famously having his nose slit by a cameoing Polanski as a weasily little hoodlum) and he’s at sea when dealing with most of the characters of the film. Even his carefully built emotional armour breaks down, leaving him vulnerable to making even more mistakes. There are perhaps few characters so ineffective – and again it’s a credit to Jack Nicholson’s charisma that he makes this character feel like such a proactive figure.

Gittes senses at all times that there is some dark secret underpinning all these events he encounters. But he’s too innocent to begin to suspect the horrors that Evelyn has put up with at the hands of her abusive father. Faye Dunaway brings a marvellous fragility and vulnerability to a character who transcends the traditional femme fatale. (Dunaway famously hated both Polanski and working on the movie). At first seeming imperious and even suspicious, the film slowly breaks her character down into a wounded and vulnerable woman putting on a front, determined to try and protect herself but doomed to forever be the victim.

And Noah Cross is the dark heart of this. Played with a sensational sense of gentility masking supreme corruption and greed by John Huston, Cross is genteel and polite while being ruthless and grasping. He also reveals himself capable of huge, destructive acts, indifferent to the pain this causes and utterly implacable in his vileness. Huston’s performance – he’s only in three scenes – embodies the terrible dark heart of America, where money and power it seems can let you get away with anything you want, no matter who knows. (And I love the way he persistently mispronounces Gittes name, turning it into a growling Anglo-saxon “Gits”.)

Robert Towne’s superb screenplay is perfectly paced and pieces together an intricate and fascinating plot where every small detail mounts together into a devastating whole. It’s a film that demands careful watching, and that revels in small details and character beats that gain greater impact the more you see the film. Brilliantly, the macguffin here is water – the control of a substance that should be a right for every man, becoming a superb metaphor for the theft from ordinary Americans of justice and their country. 

The film culminates – as you feel it must when watching it – in a nihilistic ending where evil triumphs and good loses out. “Forget it Jake – it’s Chinatown”, goes the famous closing line. It works so superbly, because in Towne’s and Polanski’s vision of America here, there is no chance of the right thing winning out if the powers that be would have otherwise. With Jake’s Chinatown career in the police force becoming emblematic of everything that’s wrong in American justice, sure it makes sense that his return there as a private eye would see the same outcome. Towne pushed for a more upbeat ending, but Polanski knew – correctly – that only the shock of murder could end this tale, especially a murder that would have no repercussions.

Polanski’s direction is faultless, cool, calm, wonderfully observant with a superb sense of the 1930s – the film looks beautiful – and using the sunlight and brightness of LA to stress that just because we can see clearly, doesn’t mean we understand what we are looking at. With one of the greatest scripts ever – and a superb performance by Jack Nicholson in one of his finest roles – this is one of the best mysteries in Hollywood history, a timeless classic.

Mr Holmes (2015)

Ian McKellen is an ageing Sherlock trying to understand his past in Mr Holmes

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Ian McKellen (Sherlock Holmes), Laura Linney (Mrs Munro), Milo Parker (Roger Munro), Hiroyuki Sanada (Taiki Umezaki), Hattie Morahan (Ann Kelmot), Patrick Kennedy (Thomas Kelmot), Roger Allam (Dr Barrie), Phil Davis (Inspector Gilbert), Frances de la Tour (Madame Schirmer)

It’s 1946 and over 35 years since Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) last investigated a case. Living in retirement with his bees in Devon, with his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her inquisitive son Roger (Milo Parker), 93-year-old Holmes’ final “case” is to try and combat the deterioration of his own mental faculties. This focuses on his attempts to remember the details of his final case, investigating the wife (Hattie Morahan) of a client, a case where he knows something went terribly wrong, but cannot recall the exact details.

Condon’s film is a quiet, gentle piece which primarily becomes a character study of the Great Detective, trying to locate the man inside the thinking machine. This is a Holmes unlike any other, haunted by past mistakes and scared of losing the intellectual abilities that have been his principal purpose. Condon’s film also makes clear that much of what we know about Holmes was a cheeky “embellishment” by Watson in his stories – from the pipe and deerstalker to the address of 221B. This is a Holmes who failed all his life to form personal connections, and found this problem magnified by becoming a real-life fictional character, a person who knows no-one but is known by everyone.

This fascinating re-evaluation of Holmes is helped by Ian McKellen’s superb performance (in his second collaboration with Condon after Gods and Monsters). McKellen’s ability to convey the intellectual sharpness of Holmes is matched by his vulnerability and fragility as he feels those same powers begin to fail. This is a Holmes who can still sharply deduce where someone has been from a quick analysis, but needs to write Roger’s name on his cuff to help him remember whom he is talking to. McKellen’s performance slowly reveals the longing for emotional connection and his own regrets at the isolation that has dominated his own life.

The expressiveness of Ian McKellen’s eyes comes into play here, both their capacity for joy – and this is a Holmes who takes an intense pleasure in his own acuity – and the way McKellen is able to allow these eyes to glaze over with forgetfulness and flashes of senility. He also forms a wonderful bond with Milo Parker (very good, genuine and real) as Roger, the two of them forming an odd couple relationship that also gives Holmes a beginning of an understanding of what he has missed from a life without family and friends. 

Alongside this fascinating character study, the actual storyline is fairly tame – but then that’s hardly the point. The modern day plotline takes in physical and mental decline, isolation, fracturing family bonds and post-war Japan (where Holmes travels in search of “Prickly ash” a plant he hopes will help to counteract his mental decline). But it’s really a quiet framework to change this Holmes into a man who sees the world only in terms of logic and puzzles, and must learn to see the humanity and emotions that underlie people’s actions. It’s a Holmes who must learn to appreciate feelings, to express them and to tell “white lies” to save people from pain.

It’s no surprise that the past sequences – where a spry McKellen also plays Holmes in his late 50s – also revolve around this. The investigation cheekily features spiritualism (the pseudo-science that obsessed Conan Doyle in his later days) but the real point is Holmes failing to understand the pain and loss that underlie the desire to believe in the possibility of life after death – that loss is a traumatic event that cannot be hand-waved away with a presentation of facts, but a has a real lasting impact on people. Hattie Morahan captures this wonderfully, in a quietly emotional performance as a grieving mother.

The final resolution of this I found slightly less satisfying – perhaps because I thought of actual “canon” stories that showed Holmes expressing far more emotional intelligence than this film gives him the credit for understanding here (e.g. The Yellow Face). I’m also not sure if this failure would really have left any Holmes punishing himself with 35 years of isolation with bees. But it fits with the film’s concept of a Holmes who finds himself pained by loneliness.

This loneliness is hammered home throughout. Mycroft, Hudson and Watson are long dead. Watson himself is implied to be a man who never understood Holmes, that the “fictionalised” Holmes became more real to him than the flesh-and-blood man. That on Watson’s part the friendship became about the stories, with Holmes always triumphant, rather than reflecting who he was. Holmes finds this disconnection between his inner self and the world’s perception hammered home at every turn – at one point the film shows him watching a Rathbone-esque film (where he is played by Nicholas Rowe, the actor from Young Sherlock Holmes), where the case that haunts him plays out with a traditional ease. Completing this disconnection, Watson remains unseen in the film: a stranger whom Holmes was tied to forever.

All this makes for a thought-provoking film, with a delightful performance from McKellen making a truly unique and original screen Holmes. There are a host of fabulous supporting performances – Laura Linney does fine work as his insecure, lonely housekeeper who feels she is losing her son to the detective – and the film is a gloriously entertaining Sunday afternoon treat, which will make you think again about a man whom the whole world knows, but who may not know himself.

Knives Out (2019)

Daniel Craig investigates in Rian Johnson’s amusing Christie-pastiche Knives Out

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daniel Craig (Benoit Blanc), Chris Evans (Random Drysdale), Ana de Armas (Marta Cabrera), Jamie Lee Curtis (Linda Drysdale), Michael Shannon (Walt Thrombey), Don Johnson (Richard Drysdale), Toni Collette (Joni Thrombrey), Lakeith Stanfield (Lt. Elliot), Katherine Langford (Meg Thrombey), Jaeden Martell (Jacob Thrombey), Christopher Plummer (Harlan Thrombey), Noah Segan (Trooper Wagner), Frank Oz (Alan Stevens)

Rian Johnson’s film CV is full of interesting (and affectionate) twists on assorted genre films. While many will be most familiar with his controversial and iconoclastic Star Wars film The Last Jedi, Knives Outfits more neatly in with his imaginative twist on time-travel Looper and, most tellingly, his film-noir high-school thriller Brick. Knives Out plays into Johnson’s love of old-school, all-star, Agatha Christie style murder-mysteries. Johnson even pops up before screenings of the film to beg viewers – like Alfred Hitchcock in his prime – to not give away the twist endings. So I won’t do it here. Rian Johnson’s way too sweet to disappoint.

The murder that leads to the mystery is Harlan Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer), the film opening a week after his apparent suicide (or was it!?). If everything is so straight forward, then who has anonymously hired “last of the gentlemen sleuths” Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) to investigate the death? There seems to be no shortage of motives either: in his last day, Thrombey threatened to expose his son-in-law Richard’s (Don Johnson) affair, cut-off his daughter-in-law Joni’s (Ton Collette) allowance due to theft, fired his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) as head of his publishing company and cut Richard and his daughter Linda’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) playboy son Random (Chris Evans) out of his will. On top of that, his live-in-nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) may have secrets of her own. Will Blanc be able to unpick this web?

Going too far into detail around Knives Out would be to spoil the general sense of fun that Johnson’s film manages to create. The film is not a spoof or parody in any way, but a very intelligent reworking of genre tropes and Agatha Christie style plot twists (a distant house, a mysterious killing, a host of suspects, a barrage of motivations, a house crammed with bolt holes, blackmail, muddy footprints, medicine and acting all get a look in), all governed by an eccentric detective bubbling with his own unique methods for solving a case. It’s all told with a brilliant affection, a wonderful twinkle and a great deal of invention and intelligence from Johnson. 

It’s also a film with a brilliantly assembled plot – and a neat reminder of what a strong writer Johnson is, as well as an inspired stylist. The film creates a host of superb characters for the audience to enjoy and puzzle over – each of them of course attracting a wonderful company of actors, a perfect mix of the skilled and wildcard choices, all of whom pay off. It’s also a structurally daring film: it reveals what it leads many to think is its full hand very early in the film, before subtly revealing that there are multiple mysteries wrapped up within the main mystery (“a doughnut within a doughnut” as Blanc puts it in his own unique way).

And interestingly the film more and more revolves around Marta, its seeming Captain Hastings-figure (or Watson as the film prefers to quote). Played with a charming guilelessness and honesty by Ana de Armas (in more ways than one, since all lies cause Marta to vomit, a joke that sounds crass but is executed perfectly throughout), Marta is the eyes we follow the film’s plot through, meaning we discover events as she does. Marta’s decency and honesty also work as a wonderful device to flag up the increasing hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness of Thrombey’s family. 

The Thrombey clan are an extraordinary group of self-obsessed, greedy and selfishly entitled so-and-sos, who seem to be lacking all expected principles. From Jamie Lee Curtis’ domineering elder daughter, who believes she is a self-made-woman but quickly resorts to bullying when she wants something, to Michael Shannon’s softly spoken but bitterly two-faced Walt, to Toni Collette’s seemingly liberal lady of the people Joni, who is actually as lazy and entitled as all the rest. It’s a host of delightful performances, not forgetting Don Johnson who is a revelation as Curtis’ conniving husband and Chris Evans (having a whale of a time) as the waspishly intelligent, smirking playboy.

Each of the family is as convinced of their own virtue as they are indifferent to those around them. Is it any wonder Thrombey wants to be shot of all of them? Even with the good-natured Marta, none of the family seem to have a clue of anything about her (much as they protest she is part of the family), each of them seemingly naming at random some South American country she hails from and each member in turn telling her confidingly that they would have loved to have had her at the funeral, but they were outvoted by the rest. It makes for a perfect collection of suspects for our detective.

Benoit Blanc himself is a fascinating collection of mannerisms and little touches. The name brings to mind the idea of Hercule Poirot, and Blanc has touches of the man’s arrogance and humanity. Craig has a whale of a time with the part, lacing it with a Southern charm and an eccentric swagger. It’s a part though that actually is a bit of a homage to Columbo, with Blanc also encouraging people to underestimate him and not take him seriously, only to suddenly reveal his insight (including in a last act revelation that is so pure Christie that super-fan Trooper Wagner can barely contain his glee). Blanc is in any case a brilliantly deployed near decoy protagonist, one who Johnson is encouraging us to underestimate as much as most of the characters do.

Thrombey’s murder – and Thrombey has a slight air of Agatha Christie to him, not least the fact that he has written the same number of best-selling books as Christie – is the key to it, and hinges on the overcomplex mind of the great murder writer himself. Johnson’s script is superbly playful, brilliantly written and a delight for murder mystery fans, full of wit and invention and also a very genuinely constructed and intelligent murder mystery. A terrific, playful and witty little treat.

Death on the Nile (1978)

The all-star cast line-up for murder and mayhem in Death on the Nile

Director: John Guillermin

Cast: Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Jane Birkin (Louise Bourget), Lois Chiles (Linnet Ridgeway Doyle), Bette Davis (Marie van Schuyler), Mia Farrow (Jacqueline de Bellefort), Jon Finch (James Ferguson), Olivia Hussey (Rosalie Otterbourne), George Kennedy (Andrew Pennington), Angela Lansbury (Salome Otterbourne), Simon MacCorkindale (Simon Doyle), David Niven (Colonel Race), Maggie Smith (Miss Bowers), Jack Warden (Dr Bessner), IS Johar (Mr Choudhury), Harry Andrews (Barnstaple)

Is there anything more perfect for a Bank Holiday afternoon than an all-star Agatha Christie adaptation? Take a look at the TV schedules on those days and sure enough one of them will pop up. So on New Year’s Day, I took my place on the sofa for a welcome revisit to dastardly goings-on aboard a luxury cruise ship sailing down the Nile. 

Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale) has jilted his lover Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mia Farrow) in order to marry the fabulously wealthy Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles). It’s a tricky love triangle – so you can imagine the newly-married Doyles are far from pleased to find Jacqueline popping up on their Nile cruise holiday. Things eventually explode into a confrontation between Simon and Jacqueline that leaves him shot in the leg and her sedated. While they are both out of the picture, Linnet is murdered in her bed. With the two obvious suspects out of the picture, who among the (all-star) passenger line-up did the deed? Just as well Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) is on the ship to solve the puzzle.

Following on the heels of the smash hit success of 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, the producers of that film didn’t really shake up the formula too much. Hire a load of star actors, pick one of Agatha Christie’s most picturesque-set novels and then watch the money come pouring in. Albert Finney wasn’t available to come back (rumour had it he wasn’t keen in any case on the huge amount of make-up involved) so instead Peter Ustinov came on board and away we went.

Death on the Nile feels very much like a film following a formula. Perhaps it struggles to live up to the first film because it is a slightly less compelling mystery than the first film (although still a damn good puzzle with a real twist of a solution). Perhaps it was more difficult to recapture the magic? Or perhaps it’s because it lacks the quality of direction that Sidney Lumet brought to the first film. Lumet managed to create something that always felt more than a vehicle for star turns – the more plodding John Guillermin instead feels like the sort of guy brought in to manage the day-to-day realisation of a producer’s vision (essentially the same role he fulfilled on The Towering Inferno). Death on the Nile feels very comfortable on the television perhaps because it is filmed in a very straightforward, unobtrusive style with less visual panache than many of the David Suchet series Poirots (even the earlier ones).

But the film does a good job in hiring Peter Ustinov. Ustinov has the comedic chops – matched with the acting prowess – to walk a fine line between the drama and the slight air of comedy that underpins the film. The sort of performance that tells everyone that this is essentially a Christmas treat and shouldn’t be treated too seriously – but still conveys enough of the character’s humanistic shock and anger at violence and murder. Poirot can very easily become a slightly ridiculous character, and Ustinov is canny enough to realise that (relative) underplaying of the character actually works rather well to make him engaging and entertaining, but not too heavy.

Not that heavy is the film’s problem, as this is a pretty light soufflé. The all-star actors happily go through their paces, although you can pretty much tell most of them are in this for the free holiday and the pay cheque. Most of them have fun with their parts – none more so than Angela Lansbury who goes way way way over the top as a bohemian novelist – but they pretty much go through the motions. Shaffer’s decent screenplay doesn’t do much in any case to sketch these characters out – and you suspect much of the bitchy duelling between Bette Davis’ selfish rich widow and Maggie Smith’s put-upon companion was spun out post casting. 

Saying that, I was rather taken with Olivia Hussey’s performance as a fundamentally decent person in the middle of the madness, while Lois Chiles is good enough that you regret her career didn’t really go anywhere after this film. Simon MacCorkindale and Mia Farrow also do well with tricky parts. But it’s all pretty much paint-by-numbers stuff.

Visually the film looks lovely on the Nile. The costumes and designs are great – even if some of them look pretty much straight out of the 1970s rather than the 1930s – and you can tell that the money has been lavished on it to make a pure, old-fashioned entertainment. Shaffer’s script does a decent job of adapting one of Christie’s most twisty tales – even if it does give us what feels now a pretty racist portrait of the meek and crawling ship manager played by IS Johar.

But this is safe and comfortable entertainment – and it definitely is entertaining – rather than something that feels truly filmic. You could argue that this film more than any other set the tone for what we expect from an Agatha Christie adaptation – and its mixture of light comedy and grisly murder set in a lush 1930s location is pretty much de rigeur for everything else that follows. And you know what, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Gumshoe (1971)

Fulton Mackay and Albert Finney in charming Liverpool set Chandler spoof Gumshoe

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Albert Finney (Eddie Ginley), Billie Whitelaw (Ellen Ginley), Frank Finlay (William Ginley), Janice Rule (Mrs Blankerscoon), Carolyn Seymour (Alison), Fulton Mackay (Straker), George Innes (De Fries), Billy Dean (Tommy), Wendy Richard (Anne Scott), Maureen Lipman (Naomi)

Film noir is a genre beloved by many, and – with its many conventions and, in particular, its hard-boiled Chanderlesque style – it’s also ripe for parody. That’s what Gumshoe does here, transplanting the rough, grimy mysteries of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade to Liverpool in the 1970s. In doing so, it allows Albert Finney to let rip with the sort of hugely enjoyable personality performance that plays to his strengths.

Finney plays Eddie Ginley, a would-be comedian and entertainer in his thirties, obsessed with Chandler and Hammett. Placing an advert in the paper offering his services for private investigations in the spirit of a lark, he finds himself hired to look into a decidedly complex affair concerning a female lecturer, a fat South African, an occult bookshop, an unhappy South African political refugee and quite possibly his brother William (Frank Finlay) and his old flame and now sister-in-law Ellen (Billie Whitelaw).

Gumshoe is a an enjoyable, small-scale, cine-literate drama, with a playful script by Neville Smith that has a wonderful ear both for the style of Hollywood detective drama, and the streets of Liverpool – and knows how to mix them together. Shot simply by Stephen Frears (who rather sweetly claims on the blu-ray documentary to not have had a clue what he was doing), the film rattles along with a few good jokes, some decent set-ups and an actually rather good mystery. It largely falls just the right side of parody – not too smarmy, affectionate enough but never taking itself too seriously. It’s a very well judged pastiche – and it’s also a pretty damn good mystery itself.

The film was somewhat of a passion project for Albert Finney (his production company put up much of the funding).  And you can see why, as Finney is excellent – relaxed, smart and funny. Eddie Ginley is part dreamer, part realist trying not to see the truth around him. He knows this world of detecting is partly a game, partly dangerous, partly a fantasy – but he wants to enjoy while it he can. Finney also clearly enjoys the sort of Marlowesque dialogue, just as he gives real emotional depth to a man who has always been looked down on by his brother, and jilted by his girlfriend for said brother. It’s one of his best performances, he’s outstanding – a charming, playful, warm and also super-smart and cunning performance.

The rest of the film gives playful highlight moments for a number of performers, wrapped up in the enjoyment of the material. Finlay does a decent job as a stuffed-shirt straight man, Billie Whitelaw enjoys a sly parody of any number of femme fatales from 1940s movies, and Janice Rule is intimidating as a very different type of suspicious female. The best supporting performance however comes from Fulton Mackay as a brusque but wry Scottish hitman, tailing Ginley throughout the film to reclaim money he feels is owed to him. 

It’s a shame that a fun, playful and engaging film has in some places dated so badly. Not least in its language aimed at a black heavy Ginley gets into a scrap with. Intimidated and off-guard, Ginley falls back onto banter aimed to put the heavy off balance – but which listened to today is basically a string of vile racial slurs using words like jungle, bananas, trees etc. etc. etc. And the attitudes are repeated time and again in the film, with the character constantly referred to in the most derogatory and racialist terms. Mind you at least Oscar James as the butt of this gets a neat dig at Ginley hardly being “the Great White Hope” after a brief bout of fisitcuffs.

It’s an interesting sign of how dated the film is that the villains are racist apartheid South Africans, Finney was at the time a leading campaigner against Apartheid, but neither he nor the film clearly  put calling a black man a monkey into the same bracket as that bigoted system. No one involved really is a racist, not even the characters – it just wasn’t deemed a problem to say those things in the 1970s. (Even the booklet in Indicator’s excellent blu-ray dwells on this uncomfortable dated material).

But, bench that from your mind, and you’ve got a charming, fun pastiche that pokes a lot of fun at Bogart and Chandler. The make-believe fun of Eddie’s Marlowesque hard-boiled dialogue is constantly punctured by him having to explain what he’s trying to say. The film has a lot of fun with the details of a mystery, but still keeps that smart sense of tongue-in-cheek. It’s packed with some excellent lines and some sharp performances. Finney is superb. It’s a pastiche and an affectionate homage of a whole genre – and, although it is old-fashioned and feels a bit dated, it will I think stand up to re-watching.