This post is for the Beyond the Cover Blogathon hosted by Liz of Now Voyaging and Kristina of Speakasy (two blogs you need to check out right after you read this post).
A good story speaks to many people on multiple levels, so naturally it would seem fair that a good novel would make a good film. While this is not always the case, and some would argue that there are novels which are unfilmable, it has been the consensus that one genre in particular is easily adapted into film. This genre is crime or mystery. From Sherlock Holmes to pulps of the 30’s, these types of stories fit easily into the standard three act structure of film narrative. And who better to be adapted than one of the most popular mystery writers of the 20th century, Agatha Christie. Having penned upwards of 78 books, her work changed the way we look at the mystery novel. Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was groundbreaking in its ability to conceal the perpetrator of the crime even to the most ardent mystery reader. So naturally, many of her works were adapted into films. The novel I will be looking at will be 1939’s And Then There Were None. First published in England originally under a different title, the title was changed to And Then There Were None when reprinted in the U.S., alternatively titled Ten Little Indians in some English language publications and play adaptations.
Many film adaptations have been made, from Rene Clair’s 1945 film of the same name to M. Night Shyamalan’s Devil (2010). And as recently as 2015, a mini-series was produced by the BBC. The adaptation I will be looking at is the 1970 Mario Bava thriller Five Dolls for An August Moon. An adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None by Mario Bava, based purely on the title of the book, would be Bay of Blood (1971). This post, however, is not about that film, and while Bava may have used the same novel as a reference when making Bay of Blood, we must remain focused. Adapted isn’t a word I would generally use to describe Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970), more like loosely based. And to say that Five Dolls is mod is an understatement. It is as if Bava took the Danger Diabolik (1968) visual style, along with that rotating bed, and applied to Blood and Black Lace (1964). Eliminating the color palette of Blood and Black Lace , but giving us Edwige Fenech to make up for it.
Before we turn the pages of this story, let's take a moment to look at the word giallo. Italian for yellow, this word became synonymous with crime or mystery novel published from the late 1920’s and onward in Italy. Many of which were translations of English novels by authors like Cain, Hammett, Conan-Doyle, and of course Agatha Christie.The publisher Mondadori signified this genre by the color yellow, and this color scheme quickly caught on with other publishers as crime novels gained in popularity. When these types of stories were adapted for film in the late 1960’s beginning with Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), the name signifying that genre stuck. And the giallo film cycle was born. At its height,during the first half of the 1970’s numerous films were produced in Italy each year. Characterized by their stylized violence, inventive camera angles, and jazzy musical scores these films made famous by auteurs like Dario Argento, and Sergio Martino. By this time though, it's pioneer, Mario Bava, was already progressing to the next cycle, the body count movie. Films like Bava’s Bay of Blood would influence filmmakers in Canada and the U.S., like John Carpenter, in ushering of the age of the slasher film in the late 1970’s.
Five Dolls, like the Christie novel, is set on an island. A rich man has invited a number of guest to stay with him on the island. While in the novel,U.N. Owen is a mysterious figure to the guests, all of the guests of Mr. George Stark know him. They are all there because of one man, or rather one piece of paper. Professor Gerry Ferrell has come up with a new type of resin and three of the men are there to buy it from him. They’ve combined forces, offering him 3 million dollars, and maybe a wife or two. Whatever he wants. All the food, J&B whiskey, and sun he can handle. All he wants is to rest.
Marie doesn't want rest. Her husband needs her help in seducing the Prof into giving him the formula. Too bad she's more into the houseboy, Charles. I mean he can drive a boat with his feet, without looking ahead, while laying on the deck. Amazing young man. It's too bad someone stuck a knife in him. It is also unfortunate that Mr. Stark sent away the yacht for a few days, so no one will be bothering them. Not even the police. So like any normal group, they wrap up Charlie and hang him in the walk in freezer next to a slab of beef Rocky would use to train.
After the first victim, it becomes apparent that someone is trying to cause trouble for those on the island. The telephone/radio has been broken. Tempers are beginning to rise, and J&B whiskey is flowing readily. The men must still keep their eye on the prize. So Nick decides to bring his check to the Prof hoping to persuade him to do business with him alone. The Prof won't have it, so he returns the check, or does he. Maybe it's caught in someone's clothing.
Before this mystery can be solved, the professor is shot and dragged into the water. Oddly enough, we know who shot him. It was Mary-Ann, I mean Isabelle. Why she did this is unknown. Unlike the novel, the characters for the most part, while some visibly shaken, don't seem to be affected by these murders. Nick wants to know about his check, Stark wants to buy the formula from Trudy, the Prof Farrell's wife. While Jack and Peggy want to play footsie.
It's not long before more bodies turn up. This time it's Marie, wearing that red bra, perhaps the check is in it? She's been stabbed in the chest, exactly as she was in the opening seen, only this time it wasn't a joke. So the meat locker gets another body.
Stark's wife Jill can't take it anymore. So she kills herself. This is only revealed after a fight between Nick and George over the missing check. Peggy is shot while enjoying the morning sun. And I've lost count of who is left. With only a few people left alive they decide to wait it out together. The yacht should be there soon. No one has inquired where Isabelle is at all by the way. Trudy begins to record a message on a reel to reel tape player detailing the men she is left alone with and that one of them is in fact the killer. Just as in the book, a recording holds some importance. Not in detailing the supposed murderous deeds of the individuals. But to indicate that someone has been playing a trick on them. And that person is, no I won't give it away. I will say this, much like the novel, without the "epilogue", the film would not make any sense. There is a sort of twist at the end.
While it may seem that this film is dull due to Bava chosing to use primarily off screen violence, rather than a typical giallo. It fits in with the structure of And Then There Were None. In the novel the murders are mostly happened upon by the group. This gives the reader a further sense of confusion as to who is the killer. There must be someone else on the island committing these murders outside of the group. We are put in the same place as the characters. Unfortunately in the case of Five Dolls, we are just confused. But if confusing plots stopped us from watching films, we would never have the pleasure of such gems as The Big Sleep (1946). And let's be honest, much like reading Playboy for the articles, the real reason we came to Five Dolls is for the visual pleasure.
Apart from a typical 70's overuse, in my opinion, of zoom. Bava creates visual pieces that are beautiful. His famous painted mattes are in full effect here. These visuals, along with the jazzy score by Umiliani make for some great scenes. And while it may seem that Bava is less concerned with the Christie story he's pulling from, there are themes such as isolation, distrust, depression, and greed that are present in both. This film is an example of how literary works do not need direct adaptation in order to convey the same message. While we always say "the book was better" it is important to remember that the film is a vision or interpretation of text. And a good story has the ability to evoke thought through more that one medium.
If you are a fan of Bava's work I would recommend checking this film out. (All photos from this film are screen shots taken from the 2007 Anchor Bay release of the film).
Also, here is the trailer for the film care of Arrow Video. And don't forget to check out my Tumblr page
"They say there's no such thing as the perfect crime.."
So, it’s winter again. And like every winter, there comes that point when we start to wish that it would just end. Even if you love it. Even if you drink hot cocoa by the gallon, and ski 32 hours a week. Even if we’ve only had one snowstorm and it was 50 degrees yesterday. We still want that change to happen. Which brings me to Groundhog Day (Though I started writing this around the last day of February, and posting it in April. I was under the impression he saw his shadow. So I went back to bed). On the occasion of Groundhog Day I always watch the 1993 Harold Ramis film of the same name, because it is simply a phenomenal film and I am a walking cliche. I am not going to write about Groundhog Day, however, there is another holiday themed film by the same director I would like to discuss, The Ice Harvest (2005). And while there are many other films directed by the late Mr. Ramis that may be better, The Ice Harvest and Groundhog Day fit nicely into a February 2nd double feature. Both are philosophical, darkly comedic, and thought provoking. Before I begin, let me be honest, Ice Harvest is no match for Groundhog Day creatively. This doesn’t negate it from being a an interesting film.
Wichita, Kansas, Christmas Eve. Charlie (John Cusack) and Vic (Billy Bob Thornton) have just ripped off their boss. “Are we really doing this?” Charlie says after the deed is done. This is more than just stealing some pens and a few post-it notes, however, they’ve stolen 2,147,000 dollars from a known mob boss. A mob boss, who will send people to kill them when he finds out. But it’s the holidays, so no worries. They’re pretty sure that Bill Guerrard is at home sipping eggnog, and by the time he finds out what’s happened they will be long gone. If not for a ice storm.
Apart from his immediate regret, Charlie is prepared to wait out the storm.“Just act normal for a few hours and we’re home free, ok?” Vic assures Charlie. But what is normal? Whereas Vic is calm and collective, Charlie is fidgety and most likely drunk. Charlie is more of an ideas man. Perhaps he’s thinking too much when he heads to the Sweet Cage, after he takes a nice icy spin and a brief encounter with Officer Tyler. At the Sweet Cage Sidney, the bartender and loving son, makes Charlie a drink with an umbrella upon his request. So much for acting normal. In walks Renata, a sight which forces Charlie to put down his drink for a moment. After some discussion about prospective changes in the law, Charlie promises to help Renata solve a small problem she’s having with a local politician. Again, out of character. Charlie makes a break for it after Roy Gelles shows up looking for him. He heads on over to another strip club. We get the sense that Charlie’s work was not in defending Guerrard against toxic waste dumping lawsuits. There he waves a stage fee for the dancers, which makes them happy, and makes the bartender question his motives. “It’s Christmas, It’s God’s Birthday.” is his defence. The real reason he is at the club is to snag a photo that gives Renata power over the local councilman. Once again Roy Gelles shows up looking for Charlie. Yes, you have to use his whole name, it’s more menacing. This prompts Charlie to contact Vic. Unfortunately his phone broke when he slipped on some ice.
Charlie must have a personal confrontation with Vic about the Roy Gelles issue. An issue Vic doesn’t seem too worried about as he finishes his dinner. Suspicions arise, when Vic gets a call from a woman. It’s ok Charlie, it was just his wife. Then who was he having dinner with?
Charlie can’t find out because he’s asked to help his friend, and ex’s current husband, get home. Pete is in a surly state of drunkenness. He makes Charlie have a drink with him before they go and makes it known to everyone in the bar that Charlie is a “mob lawyer”. The ride home takes the pair back to Pete’s in-laws (also Charlie’s), and then full circle back to the bar they started at. There will be some vomit, some crotch punting and another run-in with Officer Tyler. We are also introduced to Charlie's philosophy on life. After recounting a tale of his father and his twin brother’s deaths he bestows upon Pete his wisdom, ‘It is futile to regret. You do one thing, or the other...same results.”
Charlie drops off Pete's and picks up his ex wife’s Mercedes, headed for the Sweet Cage to give Renata her present. She in turn has a message for Charlie from Vic to meet him at the Velvet Touch. She also can’t help but catch on that Charlie is hiding something, which probably involves money.
At the Velvet Touch Charlie doesn’t find Vic. He does find a finger in a clamp though. Charlie’s night just got more interesting. Thinking it might be Vic’s finger he heads for his house.
Roy Gelles finally gets to have a few words with Charlie, unfortunately those are muffled words, as he is stuffed in trunk. Vic intends to drop him at the bottom of a lake so that he can take some pleasure in his slow death. A little overkill, which Charlie should rightly notice. With muffled tiny seeds of doubt placed by Roy Gelles, Charlie is beginning to doubt if he is going swimming once they reach the lake as well. In a scene that hints of Diabolique, the two men drag the trunk to the pier. They should have taken the warning to keep off. Roy doesn’t give up that easily. After shooting Vic though the trunk, he manages to stand up. Vic shoots him, all while Charlie is watching in total befuddlement. “You’re dead Roy, quit pretending you’re not.” But it’s too late for Vic. With Roy’s death the pier breaks and the two men are thrown into the water. Lucky break for Charlie. So, Charlie has the money and no one to share it with. Perhaps the lovely Renata will be willing to take some off his hands. Oh wait, Charlie doesn’t have the money. Vic didn’t have it on him when they went to the lake. Now Charlie has no money, he’s been up all night, and has killed someone. Not exactly “It’s a Wonderful Life” kinda film. Renata seems to still want to run away with him, at least he has that.
Just one more hurdle to freedom, his boss. Back at the Sweet Cage Renata and Bill are waiting for Charlie. Bill is not happy, he is supposed to be at home watching his kids open presents. Needless to say, he doesn’t make it back for present time. Like most actions in the film, Charlie steps hap hazardly into the killing of multiple people.
So why is this my go to February 2nd double feature. Firstly, both films are different. One is a comedy whereas, the other a thriller. Both start different actors with different acting styles. But it’s there similarities that really makes them a great double feature, other than the fact that Harold Ramis directed both films.
Charlie is trapped, on Christmas Eve no less. Not trapped by a wife that’s cheating on him, or kids that don’t love him anymore. No, he is literally confined to one location by the weather. Like that of the snowstorm that wasn’t supposed to happen in Groundhog Day, Charlie can’t leave until the next day. And much like Groundhog Day what happens during that one day has a profound affect on the character. Repetition can either give your life meaning or slowing take it away. Charlie is finding that the latter is true. He just wants to leave Wichita with his half of the money, but is forced to live out one more daily routine. Something Charlie has a little trouble doing. Then again, it is God’s birthday, so what’s the harm in acting a little abnormal? Within this routine lies Charlie’s real trap, choice. He might not be the best at making choices. About the only good choice he makes is borrowing his ex wife’s Mercedes. Whereas Phil Connors is given endless repetition of choice without any consequence, Charlie is faced with the fact that as dawn approaches his choices are beginning to catch up with him. From the moment he walks into the Sweet Cage, turns down a beer and tells Reneta he can help her out with her problem he is questioned about his motives. This doesn’t seem to phase him. Only with the arrival of Roy does Charlie’s nervous tension returns. Which brings us to one of the themes of both Groundhog Day and Ice Harvest, regret. While Phil regrets some of the actions he takes, he knows that there is no tomorrow,and that none of this will matter when the clock strikes 6 a.m. Charlie, on the other hand, feels the twinge of regret. Yet as he explains to his friend Pete “it is futile to regret, you do one thing, or the other. Same result.” This world view would explain Charlie’s ability to go forward with actions that may in fact kill him. I mean, he’s going to die eventually anyway.
Spattered throughout the film in red sharpie is the phrase “As Wichita Falls, So Falls Wichita Falls.” We see it on the bathroom wall, a payphone,and eventually the back of a camper. It’s revealed that this was written by Charlie. But why does he write this all over town, other than a homage to a Pat Metheny and Lyle Mars album with a very similar title? I think this phrase is central to Charlie’s world view regarding choice and regret. That we are all doomed to the same inevitable fate. And that no matter what you do it won’t make a difference. Vic has no problem making choices. He’s chosen the right partner, a man with no backbone. The only thing he needs to do is get out of town, and make sure that his wife won’t talk. Then get rid of his partner in a nice double cross. But Vic didn’t count on Roy planting the seeds of doubt in Charlie’s mind, which seal his fate.
The Ice Harvest has all the trappings of a neo-noir film. It is grounded in a work of pulp fiction, and though it steers away from the novel in some elements, it remains true to the thematic nature story (I would recommend reading the novel if you have a chance. It is darkly comedic). Characters, set pieces, and plot developments are nestled in a the seedy underworld. Or what some would consider seedy. As Charlie says to Vic “I sue people for a living, you sell them porn, Roy hurts people”. This is only reiterated by Pete’s insistence not to mess with Charlie because he’s “big time mob lawyer”. Even the honest characters have anger issues. Like many noir films, there really isn’t a “good guy” that we are supposed to be rooting for to win. It’s more or less, which character is more empathetic. We want Charlie to win, while in reality he is a thief and murderer. Unlike that of Phil Conners journey, Charlie is not aiming to be a better person. Perhaps even the opposite. The Ice Harvest also contains a key noir element, the femme fatale. Renata works on Charlie at a very slow pace. So slow you may not even realize, as he didn’t, her villainy until it is almost too late. She is playing both Vic and Charlie, waiting for one of them to bump off the other. This plan works pretty well, until Charlie decides to look in her closet. You should have changed bags Renata.
In the end, both protagonists from Groundhog Day and The Ice Harvest reach their goals. Phil finds love and gets out of his never ending cycle, while Charlie finds money and removes himself from the his daily routine. To the victor goes the spoils, pancakes.
Check out my photographic posts about this film on Tumblr here
The Distracted Blogger
I watch movies. I write about them here. I watch more movies. I get nothing else done.
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