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Posts Tagged ‘mystery-murder book’

RobertAudley

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Steven Mackintosh as Robert Audley plays a kind of Valmont to Neve McIntosh as a kind of Madame de Merteuil-Lady Audley (remember John Malkovitch and Glenn Close in Les Liaisons Dangereuses)

Dear friends and readers,

Not a pellucid or particularly pleasant header but it does capture what I’d like to make a brief note of. For the last few weeks on Trollope19thCStudies we’ve been reading Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s riveting Lady Audley’s Secret and two nights ago I watched the superlative film adaptation with the same title, theatrically directed by Bestan Morris Evans, with an intelligent subtle script by Douglas Hounam, featuring Steven Mackintosh and Neve McIntosh and a host of excellent actors; a couple of months ago we read Sheridan LeFanu’s Victorian gothic, The Wyvern Mystery, and I watched a film of the same type, enrichening, adapted by Alex Pillai (ditector) and David Pirie (writer) with same title, one which changed the original in order to comment on it, make it more consistent, hide some tabooed material, this time featuring Iain Glenn, Naomi Watts, Derek Jacobi and a host of ….

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Naomi Watts as Alice rescuing her son with the help of a crippled servant — the obligatory fired field/house nearby (the hero really is killed half-way through Wyvern Mystery, film and book)

and inbetween The Making of a Lady, a gothicization of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Making of the Marchioness (no stills sorry; I watched as a preview on-line; we will be reading it next month on this listserv together). Films all high in atmosphere, all scarred characters behaving amorally and getting away with it. None of these gothic films or books are numinous though (Wyvern Mystery recalls mad woman in attic as mad woman in asylum, chained, from Jane Eyre overtly), none makes much use of the supernatural except as psychological projection; they are the gothic turned semi-realistic and sheerly psychological. Much is therefore lost.

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Escape Artist: David Tennant as the now widowed grieving Will Burton with his semi-orphaned targeted son, Jamie (Gus Barry)

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Something Frankenstein-like or vampiric about the monster killer, Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell) — the wife is even in the tub before she becomes a corpse

And tonight I just watched the first of the two-episode, The Escape Artist, featuring David Tennant, and it dwelt on gruesome details of the bloodied corpses a sadistic monster killer inflicted on the person we are to suppose while yet alive. We wach Tennant as a defense attorney get this murderer off on a technicality, indifferent to whether he did the crime; when Tennant does not shake the murderer’s hand, said murderer goes after Tennant’s wife. makes a bloody murder of her corpse and then silently, hulkingly threatens his son. Tennant as Burton learns saying this is my job, seeking promotion, competition, is not a criteria for deciding whether to do something. A few motifs reminded me of Breaking Bad— he listens to a phone tape of his dead wife’s voice as Jesse Pinkman listened to a phone tape of his dead girlfriend’s voice.

It seems to me these gothics and the contemporary mystery-crime thrillers fit into Julian Symons’s thesis about crime or mystery or detective fiction, in his history of the genre, Bloody Murder, viz., the detective novel which first emerged in the mid-19th century (with Edgar Allen Poe one of its earliest practitioners), and which upholds the establishment, with Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins as among its earliest practitioners; has morphed into the crime novel, radical, rebellious, meant to undermine and expose some aspect of the establishment, whose earliest instance is William Godwin’s Caleb Williams; Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret would be another. The effect of detective fiction is finally to reassure, the effect of the crime novel unsettling, and when done seriously & well (e.g., Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect), unnerving, disquieting.

Some books slide from one type into another: P. D. James’s non-fiction, The Maul and the Pear-tree. I first noticed how genuinely anxiety-producing this new form of the genre had become when I read Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Men. That what was to happen in The Escape Artist for all its high-quality filmic techniques, acting, coloration, was predicted by Caroline before it happened, suggests the run-of-the-mill titillation this one was offering. I’ve not watched the new House of Cards as yet, but know the 1990s one was a cynical political thriller in the same style, with serious political commentary (by Andrew Davies of course).

Symons calls all these sensation fiction — gothic fits into this rubric too. What draws me to this kind of shorn gothic and/or sensational book are the subtle asides about people’s psychological make-up, the truthful hard & pessimistic perceptions about life, the objections to basic assumptions and norms we find in daily life, and the allegorizing comments the narrator makes about the characters and natural world giving the book depths the dialogue doesn’t manage. Also the descriptions of the place and intensity of inward conflict and neurotic emotionalisms. I suppose they are our form of Jacobean theater. What they lack is a political perspective; they consistently deny ther is any kind of social motive in people’s conduct — or show people refusing to act in accordance with a social conscience.

At the same time, there is in the last quarter century apparently little interest (or it’s not funded for dissemination) in discovering how a given historical novel — or political one, has woven into it accurate depictions of say liberal or progressive or hopeful movements, and the people who led them. I’ve just discovered that in the 7th through 12th novel of Winston Graham’s Poldark series, one of the threaded stories, about Bowood house which Clowance Poldark is invited to come stay at, and eventually marries into, governed by the Marquis of Lansdowne, was a place in the very late 18th into very early 19th century where genuine reforms not enacted until much later in the 19th century were worked out, plotted for, written and talked about, and at least brought into Parliament for consideration until the 1790s deeply repressive era drove it underground. Another powerful great book of this better type is Thomas Flanagan’s The Year of the French set in Ireland in 1798, the time of the uprising when France invaded (Wolfe Tone anyone?)

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Engraving of Bowood House from later 19th century (central block demolished, only the short tower & wing on the left remain)

I’m slowly following a MOOC course put online by the University of Sheffield this summer, The Literature of the Country House, which traces uses of, the real lives led in, evolutions in civility, entertainment, as well as achievements in architecture and literature, amid admitted to fierce struggles by tenants and servants alike against exploitation and enclosure, and the privileged lives of super-wealthy powerfully connected aristocrats — these realities (treated to some extent in the older Poldark novels) are no longer the stuff of movies or novels. Downton Abbey justifies the 1% and its favored servants. A reality of the country house as a power-place and repressive instrument is ignored — with a few honorable exceptions (Saul Dibbs’ and Amanda Foreman’s The Duchess featuring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, the recent and Amma Asante and Misay Sagan’s Belle featuring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Tom Wilkinson), when the historically progressive material is there, it’s distorted out of recognition or cut from the film adaptation.

I note also that there is much much less adaptation of great 18th and 19th century fiction on good TV, much less serious probing into, depiction of social political and metaphysical issues. You must pick up what you can, glean from the exaggerations what frightens and troubles viewers and readers.

Ellen

P.S. See later this week’s Brideshead Revisited: contra mundum.

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First named character seen as Downton Abbey began: Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) heading north for the job of valet to Lord Grantham (DA, 1:1)

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Penultimate named characters seen as Downton Abbey, the 4th season ends: Mr and Mrs Anna (Joanne Froggart) Bates by the sea (“By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea/You and I, you and I, oh how happy we’ll be ….”)

Dear friends and readers,

In this fallow time between last year’s fourth season and the coming fifth season, I’ve been re-watching Seasons 1-3, and reading the first two sets of screenplays, with their long candid notes by Julian Fellowes, as well as the scenario (companion) books by him, his daughter, with contributions by other involved people, and have realized that John Bates is the alter ego, the subversive male self (id anyone?) for Julian Fellowes across the series. Robert, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is the upright self (super-ego, ego). While Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) was being dramatized as in conflict with because his methods and presence were replacing Grantham, since the star refused a fourth season and was abruptly killed off, the new duo did not emerge, and instead in the fourth season the paralleling of Bates with Grantham matched with their over-arching matched stories in the first season.

I’ve discovered that from the second season on when Mrs Vera Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy) is found dead, Fellowes provided plenty of evidence to suggest that it was not accidental nor a suicide, but a murder by Bates, driven by hatred and a need to rid himself of this woman who had taken everything from him (money, liberty, respect as he had gone to prison for her crime) and was still determined to revenge herself on the Grantham family who had taken him in and Anna Smith (the woman Bates now loved passionately).

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From last shots of Season 2, Episode 6: Vera Bates lies dead on the floor

There are four shots and they show evidence of a fierce struggle, things flung on the floor, she still has her boots on.

It’s only in hindsight one goes back to look for the evidence: in retrospect we see the same pattern: what appears to be an accidental or self-induced death, a “happy” and convenient occurrence for both Anna and John Bates, was helped along considerably by Bates. Why is this important? Before we pronounced Downton Abbey woman-centered (in say comparison to Breaking Bad, which it is), even proto-feminist, a gentle and (except for WW1 of course) a non-violent world, we should recognize it also conforms to a pattern I’ve seen in many male texts of the 20th century, males who murder their wives and get away with it, males who pride and ego are thwarted and threatened by a wife’s betrayal and promiscuity (remember the first thing Bates learned when he returned to London with Vera was that she had “betrayed” him) — from George Smiley to say the male characters in Poldark. I mention the Poldark series for a real troubling aspect of them despite their boasted woman-centered and feminist themes, is the males murder their promiscuous wives or the men who cuckold them and get away with it — in the second novel the man who is exiled for the murder is also very much lower class. And as in Poldark and LeCarre’s fiction, in Downton Abbey we have real sympathy for raped women (Anna most notably), including in some mini-series, maritally raped women (coerced marriage is a form of rape, repeated rape) and abused women (that includes Ethel whose baby is taken from her).

It also casts a questioning light on the upright Tory conventional conservatism of Fellowes. In the first two companion books (The World of, Chronicles of), more than once he tells of a newspaper story that stayed with him and he modeled the Bates’s story upon – the trial of Harold Greenwood.

Greenwood, a solicitor from Kidwelly in Wales, was accused of murdering his wife, Mabel, with arsenic, so he could marry a much younger woman. Mabel … had diedin June 1919 … of heart failure, and it was only after a persistent local whispering campaign … that the police … exhumed her body … The found traces of arsenic … and returned a verdict of guilty … it was alleged that he had poisoned her during Sunday lunch, by means of a bottle of Burgundy … Sir Edward Marshall Hunt, [his] lawyer … undermined the forensic evidence, discredited the testimony of a parlour maid … showed that Greenwood and Mabel’s grown-up daughter had also drunk from the same bottle .. the jury, rather reluctantly, returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’ (237-38)

The evidence: reading over the notes to the second season’s scripts I find Fellowes discussing the third and fourth season — not yet filmed, the fourth not yet contracted for. He discusses central themes and brings up his idea that he jumps time as he pleases and would not dwell on a funeral — here it can be William’s death in the 2nd, but it is clearly Season 4 and Mary mourning Matthew’s death he has in mind. Ture, the first five episodes of the first season seem to stand alone as a quiet delight. Viewed without Episode 6 they show that there was no idea that for sure the mini-series would go on for more than one season. The idea was to suggest here this good (ahem) world disintegrating in several ways, but the show’s popularity changed all that and in Episode 6 you see several turn rounds allowing for next season. At the same time it was easy to make Episodes 6 and 7: WW1 was obviously going to be season 2; and the time after for Season 3. So even though they did not plan on a second season for sure, he had ideas for continuation, and from the very first he made stories and characters with some ideas of how things might work out over the years.

He plants clues even profusely, starting in Episode 6 of the second season. We saw the scene at the close of Episode 6 — signs of fierce altercation and on Bates when he came back to Downton early the next afternoon a wound near his eye. Black-and-blue Perhaps she attacked his eye with a knife or fork or whatever came to hand.

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Grantham asking and Bates saying there was no suicide note so they’ll never know

Then the 7th episode. First there is no suicide note. Lord Grantham tells Bates that Lady Cora has been asking if there is any information about Mrs Bates’s death. Women do identify with other women. Bates says he doesn’t think so; “they’d like to know why she did it, but I don’t suppose we ever shall.” (This reminds me of how NASA tried to stall ojn the challenger; they at first asserted they and we would never know what causes the accident.) Lord Grantham; “You’d think she’d leave a note.” Bates: “Perhaps it was a spur-of-the-moment decision.” Grantham says it can’t have been since she’s have had to get hold of the stuff. Bates looks uncomfortable and so his sympathetic employer drops the subject.

Then not filmed but in the screenplay Anna comes upon Bates trying to clean a waistcoat with chalk. He looks very worried, and does not pay attention to her. She signals her presence by suggesting fruit or milk. He is preoccupied and appears not to hear; she asks if he is all right and he says, now that she asks, and is about to speak, but they are interrupted by Mrs Hughes as needed by their employers.

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Anna made to understand by Bates that he had motive and opportunity

The way to deflect attention from how information incriminates yourself is to bring it forward. In the next scene about the suicide (I had almost said murder, so let’s say death) of Mrs Bates, Mr Bates tells Anna his lawyer told him there is a letter from Vera to a friend saying she knows Mr Bates is coming to London after she has told the judge that she and Bates colluded in the adultery evidence so the first decree is thrown out of court and she is now for the first time “afraid for my life.” Bates says, Well he intended to have it out with her; living she had taken all his money and thwarted the divorce. As widower he had everything to again. Anna: “So what are you saying?” that “you had a motive … ” He: “Of course I had a motive. And I had the opportunity.” Now Mrs Hughes interrupts again; Bates is wanted and she says to him he looks as if he has the cares of the world on his shoulder. Not the whole world but quite enough of it he replies.

Episodes 8 and the Christmas episode — which latter weaves as much about the Bates, and a parallel story of Hepworth and Miss Shaw trying to get a handle on Lady Rosamond’s money. In Episode 8 it is carefully dropped in that Bates himself bought the arsenic himself; again he tells Anna this as a sort of afterthought, an unfortunate circumstance which adds to the circumstantial evidence. He brings this up in the one moment we really see a couple naked in bed together thus far — very happy is Anna and she responds by asking him “not to talk about it just now” (p. 477).

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They go back under the covers — she does not want to hear this now

Fellowes’s notes to the Christmas episode of the second season in the screenplays are meant to be revealing too: Fellowes writes that he wanted to leave the death “slighty ambiguous,” implying by this that Bates is not guilty yet looks so (p. 508): “I have always quite deliberately left a very slight doubt as to whether or not Batess account is the whole truth,” but this introduces evidence which helps convict the man in the next notes.

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Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) realizing what she’s saying

These concern the improbable way Mrs Hughes, Miss O’Brien and even Lord Grantham tell on the stand the hostile and angry and threatening remarks Bates made. Fellowes knows that people lie on the stand, especially where no one can check up, and in his notes tells us an attorney friend objected to the scenes and characters’ behavior as too idealistic (they would have lied) (pp. 533-536). Fellowes says he did this because he’s seen so much lying that he loves an exhibition of the truth. Rather this is the only way he can highlight more suggestive realities about Bates’s anger that matters for the guilty verdict.

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Bates looking at Anna

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Anna taking it in

When towards the end of the Christmas episode when Anna visits Bates in prison, she thinks he may be hanged, we are told by Fellowes that Bates is “much less unhappy than she” (this is in the stage directions). Bates tells Anna to forgive the others for not lying, says in response to her saying she regrets nothing, he regrets nothing too: “no man can regret loving as I have loved you.” This time Fellowes’s note tells us that “Saint Bates” is not the way to take this: “There is darkness underneath. This is the strength of Brendan Coyle’s wonderful performance.” Brendan Coyle’s resume as an actor includes many ambiguous seethingly angry working class males (Lark Rise to Candleford, North and South, Mary Barton), and we see this seething from the opening episodes on: when Lord Crowborough comes up to the attic to search for incriminating letters between himself and Thomas, Bates is there by his room, and sardonically opens his door, mortifying Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Three times he comes close to throttling someone: Thomas after he watched Thomas needle William, his wife Vera after she tells him she will snitch about Lady Mary to the papers unless he gives up the precious position, and most effectively of all in season 3 the fellow prisoner plotting with a warden against him is terrified into wanting to get rid of Bates.

One can only ferret out this information by watching and re-watching, using the screenplays, reading the notes and comparing what is found in in the scenario book for the sources for the character of Bates and Fellowes’s intense involvement and absorption in this character. Anna, Fellowes repeatedly says, is the one fully “good” woman of the series — we may see this as acknowledging how much a Tory, pro-establishment non-subversive, and kindly character she is, but we should notice that in season 4 when she explains why they must keep from Mr Bates the knowledge that it was Mr Green who raped her, she says “I know him and know what he is capable of.”

At the same time if in the second and third seasons we were given enough ambiguous evidence to suggest a covered up murder, it’s only in the fourth when we see a parallel of an supposed accident to Mr Green (he fell under a bus at Piccadilly Circus), which Bates was on the spot to facilitate, that this first death is solved. Again there are the clues, e.g., the day ticket to London hidden in his coat pocket which he is anxious to destroy; his facility with forgery, his guessing where the sleaze card-sharp would have kept an incriminating letter (in his jacket pocket next to his own shirt).

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Season 4: Bates filching the letter from the blackmailer-gambler while Bates pretends to be merely helping him on with his coat

Fellowes is cagey and I am persuaded a self-conscious writer who is aware of the political implications of what he writes. You can see this in his voice-over commentary for both Downton Abbey and Gosford Park. Unfortunately there are no long notes to his screenplay of Gosford Park — which he probably had to persuade Altman to publish in the first place. But in that film-story there is also a valet, Robert Parks (Clive Owen) who murders (or seeks to murder the male equivalent of Lord Grantham in function, a ruthless conscienceless mean liar, Sir Wm McCordle (Michael Gambon) who has been seducing and impregnating his female staff members for years.

Among these victims, is the present housekeeper, Mrs Wilson (Helen Mirren) whose child Parks was; Parks’s placement in an orphanage McCordle lied about. So too did McCordle impregnate (like some gothic villain), Mrs Wilson’s sister, the present cook, Mrs Crofts (Eileen Atkins) whose baby died because Mrs Crofts tried to keep it and didn’t have access to medicine, warmth, food, care enough while she worked. In Downton Abbey the impoverished Ethel and her illegitimate baby are dependent on Mrs Hughes’s care packages. Parks easily gets away with it as most of the characters loathe McCordle (and the inspector, brilliantly played by Stephen Frye does not want to fish in these dark waters), but no one is sardonically quietly seething as Parks. Fellowes wrote that script too and we there rejoice Parks got away with it — with a good deal of help from his mother, Helen Mirren, the housekeeper, Mrs Wilson — the perfect servant anticipating everyone’s every move. Of course in this story Park is the biological son of McCordel by Mrs Wilson whom McCordle lied to about where he placed the boy.

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Gosford Park: Mrs Wilson apparently visiting Mr Parks to see that he’s got everything
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Parks telling her she misses very little

As films begin to gain more prestige as art forms and we get these written materials we can understand what is in front of us more — see it in the first place as movies move so swiftly we miss a lot.

I’ve been asked this useful question by a friend:

about Bates expressing Fellow’s id — there is something especially unsettling about the servile valet, bowing and scraping to the masters, while inside boiling with a literally murderous rage–which is directed at people of his own class. I find him an interesting counterpart to–and now I am forgetting names–the chauffeur who married Lady Sybil, who seems such a lap dog in contrast. What are we to take from this–that the servants like Bates who are seemingly upstanding and pious really do want to murder their masters in their beds, while the alleged Marxists are simply waiting for a seat at the table? This doesn’t bode well for Anna.

I can’t say no. Maybe Fellowes is dramatizing upper class aristocratic nightmares from the English civil war on — I begin there for in the 17th century we begin to get diaries and private papers showing how servants turned on the masters in civil wars and revolutions. But from the notes and scenario books I feel Fellowes more identifies — and far more humanely than he does with Lord Grantham who is made too much a Sir Charles Grandison figure, a dupe, who cannot take care of the estate and his wife’s money in investments.

I’ve been reading Rush and Dancyger’s Alternative Scriptwriting this morning, where they show how film strongly tends to personalize and find the actuating motive of whatever happens in a particular character, even in documentaries; and how the “other” can become the point of view of a film quietly. That’s what I think happens here sexually and politically. In films there is a strong tendency to see what occurs as a result of personal histories not larger social and economic and political forces. One of the interests of Downton Abbey for me (Gosford Park even more because of Altman’s genuinely liberal presence) is how Fellowes, however you may not like his politics, wants to get theese larger forces into the scenes as actuating them and does manage it. Through Bates and also Tom Branson (Allen Leech) he brings out an opposing outlook on Downton Abbey — one example, when Thomas first shows Bates in Lord Grantham’s room with all his elegant clothes and expensive snuff boxes, Bates remarks on what a load of treasure is before them, how they get to handle, but own none of it. Thomas agrees (though he prefers to filch wine). Then Bates goes up to his room and we see how bare it is, and yet now he is so gratified to have this quiet private space to himself if only for sleeping time. At the same time the other main parallel story of this episode is about how Grantham inherited and held on tothis property by marrying Cora for her money and immediately sluicing her money off to support it.

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Branson and Lady Ethel (Laura Carmichael) expressing to one another at close of Season 4 they have lost their way, he is still not one of the elite, and she a hidden unwed mother who has not given up her baby

Branson by contrast is supposed the idealist socialist — he loses his way because emotionally befuddled. That Bates is not. Bates knows who is the victim, and who we should compassionate. He and Anna (also after she finds out that Ethel is pregnant) alone compassionate Ethel and he alone continues to treat Ethel with respect and his own gravitas, e.g., he remarks to Mrs Hughes, she’sbadly shaken, to Mr Carson she’s lost everything (p. 401, episode 8). In Episode 8 Bates shows up Hepworth for the weak shit he is. That’s what he’s there for. His story is central to many of the hours, especially prominent in the first and fourth season.

I suggest we empathize with Bates, or at least grant him much sympathy. He is not only strong and compassionate towards others, he is himself disabled. In the first three episodes of the series, everyone in the house but Lord Grantham, Anna, and William want to see him fired. He is heroic in his quiet attempts to do all that others do. We see him humiliated and deliberately sabotaged by Miss O’Brien, Thomas, given no human understanding by Lady Cora. The cold Lady Mary cannot understand why someone would hire a man “who can’t do his job.” Anna reminds her that Mr Bates was Lord Grantham’s batman in the Boer War and fought hard. Lady Mary concedes this is so, but will not give the man any slack. His attempt to straighten his leg with a torture instrument in the third episode is painful to watch and we feel painful to experience. He is one of the outsiders, and through him Fellowes does widen his purview to get us to identify with the 99% — all the more in that he is not presented as a Saint, an Uncle Tom. James Baldwin could not attack Downton Abbey as a protest novel (where sentimentalism replaces real anger in a victim).

Beyond this we concede his wife was a horror, and Anna in danger of repeated rapes from Mr Green (until he was fired at Lady Mary’s knowing request) because she felt she could not tell the police. I agree that the story is one which revives lawless duelling as a way of solving problems, and the thinking behind Bates’s killing of Mr Green is in line with honor-killing. The mini-series has an underlay of troubling violence.

Fellowes (again in the notes to the screenplays) offers as a moral lesson he sees as central to the whole of his mini-series, here as connected to Anna and Bates. When Lady Mary gives Anna time off to marry (and we later learn) arranges a room for them to honeymoon in for the first night, Fellowes comments: this show is about “whether or not people are being allowed to exist within their own universe, and here, nothing is disrupting that (p 465). The conservative thinks active socialist gov’ts do not allow “people” to exist within their own universe (people here being the rich, with the rest of us controlled by bureaucracies): I’d put it that active socialist gov’ts who genuinely have humane ideals and decent people and values actuating the way goods and services are seen and delivered facilitate this kind of living within one’s own universe without the disruption of poverty, exclusion, stigmatizing, war.

Ellen

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Lady Smallwood (original story Lady Blackwell, player Lindsay Duncan — one of my favorite actresses), politician

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Nameless person calling herself Mary Morstan (original story, Watson’s wife, player Amanda Abbington), double

Dear friends and readers,

This was the best of this season’s films: the players returned to the guarded within anguish stride of the first season, only with a multiplication of women — in the original story blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton knows the sexual past of only one woman, Lady Blackwell, whom he will shame as well as the honor of the man, and the family she is planning to marry into; here she has metamorphosed into a sort of subMargaret Thatcher, woman politician with reeking perfume (Thatcher liked to be sexy with men). In this 2013 story where Milverton has metamorphosed into the amoral ruthless social media magnate who is supposed to make us think of Rupert Murdock but is dressed like Dr Strangelove (all but the gloves, thus evoking Kissinger) and could as easily be Roger Ailes of Fox TV, considering the immediate influence he thinks he has, this villain also is pursuing a second woman: our sweet Mary Morstan turns out to be one of these nameless heroines (so familiar to readers of women’s romance (Rebecca anyone?), only her past appears to be one of violent assassination and such shameful ugly behavior she fears John Watson will be alienated forever if he is already not blindsighted by discovering all she has told him or implied has been lies.

Far more usual of the previous seasons are the twists and turns of extra plot-design with matter from other Sherlock Holmes stories woven in: so we first meet Sherlock apparently under the influence of drugs (opium become heroin? cocaine?) in a filthy temporary open air ruin-space of addicts where Watson has gone to find the son of a grieving black woman who comes to him as a doctor who cares for addicts.

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Black and white version of Sherlock (Cumberbatch) as we first see him (from Tumblr)

Now that Sherlock is blessed (to be pious about this) with a family, he and Mycroft and Watson and Mary too do some turns in the parental home at Christmas.

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The brothers (Matiss as Mycroft) – “Aw shucks, mum!”

Modern motifs combined with older ones include the Sherlock in hospital and Sherlock as out-patient, hovering murderous helicopters over our heads (we are under the bombs), stun guns; lots of overlay of computer print-outs as someone’s inner thoughts. In her study of Holmes stories Emelyne Godfrey showed that weapons, weird, pizzazz ones, or merely cruelly wounding were central to many of the Holmes’s tales; Godfrey also showed that the core meaning of respected masculinity in the tales was not spontaneous wild violence as a means of expressing say disapproval: as when Louise Brealey as the indignant Molly is reduced to half-hysterically slapping Cumberbatch with all her might for “throwing away his gifts”; but rather carefully channeled effective violence aimed at the mindlessness (sorry to say this but it’s true) of the lower class vulgar and/or somehow inferior male. The recent spate of Sherlocks (in the cinema too) move against the grain of Doyle’s work where smart calculated “restraint is a index of modesty, reserve, manliness, professionalism.” But so anxious are these new shows to make women the equal of men, even the silliest behavior if men are thought to do it is enough to give us a woman doing it so she will be deemed admirable.

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Molly worrying over Sherlock in a way that recalls Kitty (Amanda Blake) endlessly fretting over Matt (James Arness) in the 1995 Gunsmoke (‘Oh Matt! be careful.’ ‘I will, hon.’)

A recap.

I shall have to admit that Jim Rovira, one of the commenters of my last blog can make a good case for the thinness and feebleness of the original material in this case. “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” is deservedly usually ignored in studies of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock canon; it is just so cliched, down to the titillation and class snobbery of Sherlock disguising himself as a lower class man courting Milverton’s housemaid (unnamed in the original) to find out where Milverton is hiding the documents he uses to blackmail people and both he and Watson breaking the law (gasp!) in order to steal into Milverton’s lair (called Appleton Towers in both film and original story). Where in those Holmes stories that go deeper, family honor becomes a stalking horse for far more interesting social and psychological conflicts, not so here.

Perhaps they were attracted to the story for the same reason my husband Jim used to say the Sherlock canon has become cult stuff: it is so hollow you can pour anything you want into it. I think that’s unfair as I argued with Jim Rovira: there are some superb stories and lots of people (Emelyne Godfrey among them) have agreed with me the stories dramatize serious and important conflicts and themes then and since (through many film adaptations too). This one did allow for feminization (if I may be permitted the term) of the Sherlock material. Matiss and Moffatt took an opportunity to have yet another supposedly “tough” female about: the unnamed housemaid becomes a secretary/personal assistant who despite her Arab looks (the actress is Yasmine Akram) and name redolent of what Said called “orientalism” (Jasmine) sports a melodious Irish drawl and evening dress even in broad daylight.

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If we count Mrs Hudson — Una Stubbs doing her best to be memorable –

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and Mother Holmes (Cumberbatch’s mother also now employed), trying not to attact attention, the domestication (if I may coin another term) of the series I noted in Parts 1 and 2 is now seen in women women everywhere. One joke is to call Sherlock “Sherl” — feminizing the name to a diminutive of Shirley. The joke is made by Jasmine with the effect of bringing Sherlock “down” to her level; that is a woman — implicit is the idea that whatever are feminine qualities, they are not worthy.

I’ve no doubt Matiss and Moffatt did seize the doubling opportunity they hit upon to transform the apparently conventional female Mary Morstan character into a female action-hero who could also sustain a love interest: she emotes wonderfully well her love for “John,” and how she cannot stand to sit in the chair (per usual with the Sherlock material) and tell her tale as victim since her tale will make her beloved Watson reject her. And anyway we are against victims, are we not? there are no such things in the world any more, are there? they must be complicit, passive aggressive becoming a term of praise almost in this new anti-sympathy reactionary ethic preached up in popular media. She is very pregnant by the end and so happy to be so (photographed so as to emphasize this), but by the end of the tale there is real feeling between them:

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John and Mary’s faces as they talk to one another in their final scene

even if John shows his love for her by throwing away her story without reading it: instead of a packet of letters he hurls a thumbdrive into the fire.

Why did I like it – or think it an improvement on the previous two parts. Not for the multiplication of women as only intermittently did Lindsay Duncan or Amanda Abbingdon have moments of genuine feeling. Nor their or anyone’s violence. Nor for the any post-modern working out of typical Conan Doyle themes as in the previous season where camp art and a strong sceptical disillusionment and depressive mentality made for intelligent entertainment. Rather because despite the overlay of superfluous sudden outbursts of violence, modern gadgetry and neon underlinings, the program managed to recreate a companionable rhythm of story-telling, to re-establish the central effective team friendship of Sherlock and Watson

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ending in a rescue of vulnerable people from a genuinely horrible man in a way relevant to our era.

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The omnipresent spy gathering all our documents, the murderous cold-hearted ambitious capitalist politician with his militarist thugs in tow is a creature we can’t have too many attacks on. What could be worse than a man spying on us all? eager to tell unless we pay him huge sums of money.

That is, I thought the program did what good relatively faithful or commentary (heritage) film adaptations usually do, even if it was an appropriation or modern analogy type. It did take a long time getting there.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

Some nine days ago I put Anthony Trollope’s satiric newspaper article, “The Uncontrolled Ruffianism of London” on my website and described its immediate context on my blog as preface to a review of Emelyne Godfrey’s Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence … . It’s one of the many many intriguing documents Godfrey discusses in this, her companion volume to her earlier equally original Femininity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature and Society (see Caroline Reitz’s review in Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, 59-60 [2011]).

Both books, taken together, depict the era in which modern crime fiction (mysteries, police procedurals) developed as one of the responses to the growth of large cities where crowds of people unknown to one another live in close proximity; others are new permutations in norms for middle-class masculinity (as these are men who had to walk or today at least drive and take public transportation in said cities) and defensive tactics for women who feel themselves at risk or want to participate aggressively too. The root is the very paranoia that Trollope unerringly describes and partly mocks in his timely article.

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“I struck him again and again” (from Femininity, Crime & Self-Defence)

In a nugget, Godfrey is looking at crime from the point of view of the city-goer, using popular writing and images and activities (clubs, educational groups), works of popular playwrights and texts by two literary geniuss: Anthony Trollope and Arthur Conan Doyle. Richard Sennett is an important source for her fundamental bases: Sennett (whom she quotes at key points) says modern cities are structured so as to have public spaces where the threat of social contact between upper, middle and lower classes is minimalized — they are planned to keep middling citizens from the “underclass” (the under- and unemployed, the poverty-striken, those driven into criminal and violent activites), but these breaches are easy to cross (p. 3). There are just so many pedestrians, commuters all higgedly-piggedly hurrying along. A fear of exposure emerges, a horror of injury.

Godfrey studies a popular movement then (and there is an equivalent one now), partly paranoic, of self-defense seen in the way male violence is depicted in the era. There is the question of what is a socially acceptable masculine behavior: self control and self-restraint were and still are part of the upper class gentleman ethos; the problem arises that men therefore may see themselves as potential victims as well as perpetrators of crime. When she looks at the interiority of male heroes you find a restrained flamboyancy; sartorial restraint is a index of modesty, reserve, manliness, professionalism. Godfrey has studied a slew of books on the history of respectable fear and where this comes from, on media panic, on figures she calls “men of blood” (violent men who yet stay within legal bounds, e.g., Trollope’s Lord Chiltern in his Palliser books. She looks at male anxieties and some of the weirder deadly instruments that were developed — like the truncheon Phineas Finn ill-advisedly carries with him (“the life-preserver”) in Phineas Redux.

Middle class respectable men were also supposed to protect women from men imagined on the attack. Novels in the era dramatize the maltreatment of women, e.g., Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall; Trollope repeatedly uses trope of animal cruelty to depict a ruthless male; the most typical opening of a Conan Doyle Holmes story is a gentlewoman comes to Holmes for protection.

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Everyone remembers John Thaw’s magnificent performance in the film adaptation of Sign of Four, but the story opens with the elegantly dressed Jenny Seagrove, all anxiety, come to Mr Holmes for help.

The later 19th century is a period of wide-spread investigations into methods of self-defense. She divides her book. Part 1 covers hitherto neglected plays popular among middle class audiences. Part 2 is a study of Trollope’s exploration of masculinity in the large political novels which take place in cities and show the importance of a measured response to aggression. Part 3 reveals the Sherlock Holmes narratives as a collection of lessons expressive of Doyle’s views on reasonable force in response to violent crime; they too promote the cause of measured self-defense for gentlemen. One new element emerged for me: I had not realized how frequently the Holmes stories focus on uses of weapons, many of them cruelly wounding.

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Henry Ball’s belt-buckle pistol of 1858, Royal Armories, Leeds

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Anti-garotte collar and advertisement

Part I (Chapters 1 & 2) tell of the xenophobia (“foreign crimes” hit British shores) and class fears that led to the build-up of myths around a phenomenon that did occur but not with the frequency claimed: the garrotting people. Godfrey begins her book with singularly cruel execution in Cuba in 1852: a man was strangled to death in a wooden chair while an iron collar passed around his neck screwed ever tighter; his windpipe is crushed (p 19). Garrotta was the name for this kind of capital punishment and in a twist became used by robbers; you threatened to strangle your victim to death. There were such incidents on London streets where people began increasingly relying on police protection: a 1st incident is recorded 12 Feb 1851.

Godfrey looks at the panic from a literary angle, and debates in texts about nature of middle class heroism. She discusses the 1857 play by C.J. Collins’s Anti-Garrotte, a farce which reveals how reports build an awareness of such crimes; in a later unlicensed play, The Garrotters by William Whiffles, a man feels dread reading about all these strangulation robberies (p 21). The 1853 Penal Servitude Act that allowed more convicts to be given tickets of leave helped justify paranoia; these were conditional pardons for good behavior, with the person released in the UK instead of Australia — such convicts became associated with garrotters. Descriptions appeared in magazines: a 3 people act; Henry Wilkinson Holland interviewed thieves; here were articles on house-breaking equipment which anticipate Holmes uses to break into residences (panel cutter, crobars, skeleton key, lanterns). Later American readers had Wm D Howells’ play The Garrotters (1890s). Anti-immigration and racial fears (terms like “thuggees”) feelings were stirred so for religiously-dressed motivated Indians who carried a scarf (a rumal) were called “noose-operators.” Mid-Victorian novel, Confessions of a Thug (189), our evil Arab, Ameer Ali robs and kills for gain, but he also takes life for sport and exploits and murders anyone showing him kindness. Murder by strangulation is part of the imagined point; in an interview a female thuggee takes pride in having killed 21 people. Fear that exhibit in British Museum teaches these criminal types how to perform such evil crimes

Misogyny plays into this too: a recent book by Neil Story concludes most garrotters were female (ex-prostitutes). A modern film, The world is Not Enough presents Pierre Brosnan as a James Bond tortured by a garrotting woman. (11 years earlier Nicholas Meye’s The Deceivers presented Brosnan as Wm Savage, a British thuggee hunter learning art of manipulating the rumal.) It should be said there were no statistics on female victims.

Tellingly Richard Sennett is quoted suggesting that the fear of exposure leads to a militarized conception of everyday experience as attack and defense. In Phineas Redux Trollope suggests there was a run on life-preservers The Times described a weapon called an anti-garrotte glove; this was a gauntlet fortified with claws, hooks, blades. Some of these show people felt immediate killing or maiming someone else in self-defense as personal protection just fine (p 46). Another recent book, by Rob Sindall (Street Violence in the 19th Century) argues the panic was self-induced and over-wrought. Tom Browns’ Schooldays presented the middle class male ideal and shows concerns over middle class young man’s ability to defend himself. Clerks felt in danger, and acted on norms of self help, independence, masculine self-control — victims becomes feminized (as in the rape in Kleist’s famous novel). Delirium tremens seen as shaming the victim. She notes that Emily Bronte’s novel has many weapons; Gaskell showed that the Rev Bronte kept arms.

[This is utterly germane to our world in the US today where it seems to be open season on young black men since Zimmerman got away with murder: or maybe it's that those of us who were unaware of how black men are regarded as dispensable, attacked with impunity on the grounds the person was made anxious (really) are no longer ignorant. Trollope's article remains sceptical, ironic: he does not say there are no ruffians in the streets, but the man who lives in terror of this as an epidemic, acquires a weapon, is perhaps more in danger from the weapon being taken from him (how modern this argument is, just substitute the word gun for truncheon).]

In Chapter 3 is ostensibly on the Ticket of Leave man, Godfrey studies Victorian
obsessions over middle-class (white) masculine fitness as an index to “the health of nation” and how such ideas stoked fascination with street violence. Images formed in melodrama were deployed to create a garrotter-villain on stage: he’d have a black face, wrinkles, would be degenerate. All in contrast to new middle class ideals of civilized behavior; the magazine All the Year Round insisted there was a link between crime and disease. In this context ticket-of-leave men are seen as belonging to an abject group, who also are involved in a “tide of sewage, disease, and cholera” outbreaks.

Trollope’s is not the only sane voice: Henry Mayhew interviews convicts to show their difficulties in finding work, how they suffer false re-arrests (Stop and frisk anyone?); and Mayhew gives an account of a garrotting supposedly from the point of view of the criminal; the problem here is his story implies garrotters and convicts are the same people (p 31.). Two 19th century plays, the well-known Tom Taylor’s Ticket of Leave Man reveals society’s prejudice to develop sympathy for the rehabilitation of Robert Brierly, duped into a forgery scheme; this play was broadcast in 1937, and revived in Victoria theater, 1966 — the archetypal heart of the story is a good character thrown into bad situation.

Another play, Ticket of Leave has good and bad ticket-of-leave men. One Bottles, disguised as butler plans to garrot and rob his master, Mr Aspen Quiver. A wrongly accused convict saves Mr Quiver; again the play does not address false misconceptions. One famous attack in 1862 on Hugh Pilkington (MP for Blackburn) helped lead to a call for the old system to be put back in place. A Director of Prisons, Joshua Jebb, tried to express his support for ticket-of-leaved men. but draconian security measures against violence were passed in an act of 1863 that stipulated flogging.

Part 1 ends with a chapter about the weapons people carried, how several publications, most notably Punch made fun of these and (like Trollope) suggested the person in more danger than the garrotter by carrying such a weapon. There are plays where farcically we see characters over-estimate the danger and react hysterically to information received in the papers. There really were spiked collars, with self-injury the most likely result. Godfrey suggests articles in magazines register a perceived reader’s reluctance to depend on a perceived incompetent police force. Urban heroes those who supported and aided the police; you were supposed to remain calm; you fight back with similar weapons. Gradually what emerged was a civilizing offensive, an adoption of violence adverse perspective; over-arming seen as form of hysteria, but onus on individual to protect himself.

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“Life-preservers” (so-called), like the one Phineas carries and imagines himself threatening Bonteen with at their club door (see Ruffianism)

Part II: Anthony Trollope : aggression rewarded and punished, 1867-87

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A dramatized scene from Phineas Finn

Chapter One is called threats from above and below, fighting for franchise and concentrates on Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux. Some notes: Phineas’s response to violence affects social standing and political career; the question of what is a gentleman important in the novels; Trollope puts forward Phineas as an ideal of gentlemanliness: social grace, innate goodness. Political action in Phineas Finn is complicated by the question of what is appropriate aggression and what shows one’s fitness to vote (Trollope not a democrat). While we see politically motivated violence, Trollpoe distrusts political violence because he suggests it uses political ideal as a cloak. This is placing the cart before the horse (p 65), but the Times agreed: the legitimate citizen was not a man of the crowd (p 66). While Trollope is looks at the problem of bellicosity in all its aspects (a duke can be as violent as a collier, e.g, Chiltern and Kennedy) and suggests women do not forgive blows (p. 67); it is the pedestrian’s encounter with crime that is the focus of the Palliser series as a whole.

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Chiltern heading for the duel

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Phineas waiting

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The duel

Trollope in his earlier phases seems pro-duel (p. 68): Godfrey goes over the history of attitudes towards duelling swiftly: it was always at odds with rule of law, but the first successful murder prosecution of a duellist was in 1838 (p 71): the voiced Victorian objection was a man left his family destitute. Trollope‘s depiction does, however, throughout betray a nostalgia for outmoded code of honor. His Chiltern resists the new cultural changes, and we are asked to see that when he can channel his violence into hunting, it is a splendid gift for providing healthy and even egalitarian (so Trollope argues though he knew how expensive it was) sports for men. Phineas reluctance is carefully not motivated by cowardice; Trollope means to show us that a man’s bravery need not depend on weapons; Phineas shows bravery and coolness in the face of death; he shoots up into the air, no murderer. The duel in Trollope is also a male secret, a male rite of passage (p 75); but we see how Phineas leaves himself open to Quintus Slide, to blackmail and finally an accusation of murder as a man of blood.

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Brooding Kennedy

Chapter 5: Lord Chiltern and Mr Kennedy are two violent poles. Chiltern is the unrestrained man of blood, he should exercise more self-control, there’s a lack of manliness in not being self-controlled; but violence in Chiltern stems from lack of purpose and frustration (p 78); fox hunting allows him to use and master his finer senses – there are fears here too of the over-sexed male; Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wilfell Hall is anti-hunting. Godfrey points out that Children’s fiery temper does not harm him and men need physical confidence to survive.

Phineas too saves Kennedy, and the scene in Phineas Finn is based on a real life incident in 1862 sparking garrotting panic (pp.83-86). Trollope here seems for citizens arrest, and Phineas’s protection of Kennedy exemplary (by inference though Kennedy seen as impotent male who does not sexually satisfy his wife either). The norm here seems to be that the ideal (male) citizen does not actively seek confrontation, but exercises judgement (the right to bear arms is not the point). In Phineas Redux, he learns that you do not openly threaten, that weapons themselves are endanger people — he becomes too wrathful in his own disillusion and disappointment. His encounters with with Bonteen parallel encounters in earlier book; hunting scenes are parallel; this time Phineas hurts his horse, but this time frustration, his exclusion and feelings of inadequacy erupt. As ever Trollope is intrigued by what precipitates violent turn in human nature (p 108): what really unites all these stories is the male characters are driven into violence by a combination of what is expected of them as men (success) and what is thrown at them (scorn). Godfrey finds a parallel in the treatment of the cloak in Trollope’s Phineas Redux and one of Conan Doyle’s stories; more important is that Conan Doyle restricts his dramatization of males in psychological pain to the men Sherlock Holmes investigates and indites so that the latter series implicitly criminalizes what Trollope presents as part of his heroes’ behavior. (See my Heterosexual heroism in Trollope.)

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Stuart Wilson endows Ferdinand Lopez with a pained humiliated expression on his face before breaking out into threatened violence against his wife

There is in Phineas Redux and The Prime Minister a fascination with the murderous life–preserver (as we shall see fascination in Sherlock Holmes with exotic weapons) and other more usual weapons (whips). Interestingly, Godfrey likens Phineas wounded by lack of status, rank, respect with Dickens’s Bradley Headstone’s hatred of Eugene Wrayburn (in Our Mutual Friend) — but not Ferdinand Lopez’s; of course both books are virulent with antisemitism in the portraits of the whip-threatening Lopez and Emilius who does cravenly murder Bonteen from behind. So finally, as opposed to his newspaper article (“Ruffianism”), Trollope takes a stern, not comic approach, to the wielding of deadly weapons.

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The Adventure of Abbey Grange — beautifully brings all motifs together, woman needing protection, sadistic cruelty, flamboyant defenses

Part III: Physical Flamboyance in Holmes Canon (1887-1914): on Holmes and martial arts continued in comments section 3.

The conclusion and assessment of a change of norms in the era in comments section 4.

Ellen

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Winston Graham — from his middle years

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Robin Ellis, recently — very important in shaping and keeping memory of Poldark alive (Making Poldark appeared in a 3rd expanded edition this year)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m delighted (and honored) to be able to report that James Dring has made a significant contribution to Winston Graham studies: on his website you can find a long, thorough listing of all Graham’s fiction accompanied by remarks culled from reviews at the time of the particular book’s publication, comments by Graham on the book (in green letters), and accurate contextualization of both sets of remarks by Dring (in brown). The file includes the films, screenplays, books on these, and letters by Graham and a letter from Graham to Dring. And finally a listing of all Graham’s minor publications (essays and introductions) and the few essays that have been published on him (mostly on his mystery-crime books). One could use this information as the beginning basis of a literary biography or longer study of all Graham’s writing.

An annotated bibliography

The films make visible the kinds of reactions readers have to the novels, the way they have been read:

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Still from the fine 19560s semi-art film, The Walking Stick

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Richard Armitage and Demelza Carne Poldark falling in love over their shared reading (Poldark 1977-78, Part 9)

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1996 Stranger from the Sea: an attempt to de-politicize the Poldark novels, turn them into ethnic (wild Cornwall) domestic romance (defeated by the brevity of the film and vociferous protests of fan club for 1970s mini-series & its stars)

Mr Dring has also provided two files of the dust jackets of the books: dust jackets; more dust jackets

Here are a few telling ones I’ve gathered (from the Net):

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First 1945 edition of Ross Poldark

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Art work on back of all Bodley Head Poldark novels (1960s)

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Cover for the 5th Poldark novel reflecting the 1970s film adaptation

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Recent British set (21st century)

Dust jackets are an important form of packaging information about a book: they suggest who the book is aimed at; the imagery, if true to the book, something of its genre and nature; how much respect a particular press lends to the book. These provide the basis for a study of Graham’s readership, the initial reception of his novels and later evaluations by publishers, readers, and himself (he rewrote or at least revised his early books).

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1st edition of Little Walls

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Edition of Forgotten Story, story set in Cornwall, 1898 (perhaps 1960s? or around the time of the 1984 film adaptation, featuring Angharad Rees)

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Recent edition of novel set in India, Corfu, Wales, something of a historical novel (sexy cover fixated on woman from the back in slip influenced by memories of Hitchcock’s Marnie)

Mr Dring contacted me to suggest I link his website to mine as providing on-line information about Graham, the Poldark and his other books. I’ve now done so, linking all three files into my central section and bibliography page

Ellen

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Society is no comfort/To one not sociable — Shakespeare, Imogen, Cymbeline, IV:2, 12-13

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The Walking Stick: Deborah (Samantha Eggar) badly lamed leaning on Leigh (David Hemmings) (1970, Eric Till, Winston Graham, George Bluestone)

Dear friends and readers,

Disabled characters have increased in numbers in popular fiction & film in the last quarter century. Has there been a genuine increase in sympathetic empathy and understanding, any real help offered such people or acceptance as a result. It would seem not. I link these two phenomena to the growth of fandoms in cyberspace and elsewhere and how they effect the development of programs and series of fictions. Why there are there. I exemplify briefly with the way disabled characters from Sondheim’s Passion to Winston Graham’s mystery and Poldark novels are treated, and more at length in Downton Abbey, from Fellowes’s himself to the indifferent to hostile commentary on him & Anna, the head housemaid who loves him.

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A spin-off from both the APA/ACA and ASECS conferences: in both there were roundtable panels on “disability studies: I feared not enough would be said in the more casual talks these roundtables offer to take up enough time and the audience would be called upon to talk, and then feared I’d reveal myself too much or get too involved. I have seen academic people present themselves as interested in isabilities and found that they were not, except as an abstract topic; worse, if I probed I discovered the people were just as strong for enforcing “normalcy” (on behalf of “success”), just as prejudiced (not taking a whole personality into account, not being willing to critique their definitions of success), fearful and/or nervous in their reactions. I worried I’d feel angry or know intense dismay.

So I didn’t go, and now regret this because what I did do was take down names of journals, books and periodicals with disability studies for today. First off I learned that in the last quarter century there’s been a huge increase in the number of disabled characters in popular fiction. It might be the disabled characters were always there in mystery-crime fiction, though not acknowledged, as villains or victims, but not being acknowledged, presented as freaks, or evil, or reprehensible in some way. But this is a big change to presenting people with disabilities in a sympathetic or seeming sympathetic way. Nowadays disability is also popular in historical fiction and romance. So that I noticed so many disabled characters in Winston Graham does not show originality on his part, but rather a following of a zeitgeist.

I won’t cite the names of the articles or journals separately unless someone asks for these (in the comments) which is most unlikely, just describe generally. Most were studies of texts or art in the close reading humanities way today (looking sociologically, how they function in society). Basically there were two schools of thought: one argues that the new wave of appearances of disabled characters is not increasing any real understanding or sympathy for people with disabilities because 1) at the end the disabled person is forcibly or seemingly willingly co-opted into the “normal” world, made to seem “normal” and the point is to defuse the person as a threat, on the way the emphasis in portrayal is the disability itself with full utterly varied richness of people ignored; it’s voyeurism; and 2) we see very little progress in the outer world for funding, real acceptance, or even understanding in wider circles of people. The other argues that the spread of such depictions does help; little by little the stories make people no longer ignore the disabled, no longer erase them altogether, and does gradually work up sympathy and we may hope for change.

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When Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) wants to visit the crippled Mrs Smith (Helen Schlesinger), her father rages at her with open disgust for her “queer” tastes (from the 1995 BBC Persuasion, Roger Michell, Nick Dear)

Then there are essays on particular works or authors or sub-genres: how disabled people are presented in romance; how presented in mystery-crime stories (where they’ve long been an unacknowledged central type, either as villain or victim); in later Victorian gothic. The way they are discussed in non-fiction case histories, which sometimes turn out to be obtuse fictions which promulgate single-minded freakish stereotyped views, e.g., Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night which invites voyeurism. Once in a while a particular writer or work is found which increases understanding and sympathy. The value of these is if you want to do such studies they show you how to do and what’s said, and give you insights.

Two good books are worth noting: Women with Disabilities, ed. Michelle Fine (and others). Fine’s the one who’s done intelligent candid studies of how women who have been raped are treated, women’s studies. The kind of character includes is Fosca in Tarchetti’s book (now called Passion from Sondheim): I’ve noticed again and again women who are presented as disabled are eroticized, made beautiful but for the disability which then adds to their alluringness (and the kick of having sex with them in the imagination apparently). Another is more historical and crosses gender, class, ethnicity: Rosemarie Garland Thomson: Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring disability in American literature. The truth is many people still believe in disabilities only if they are physical.

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Fosca from Passion, made plain not crippled (yet this came from a website mocking the addictive love affair)

From what I’ve read thus far I think the those who say this increase in visibility has not led to a gain in empathy or understanding are right. Even when the novel does not enforce normalcy, readerships insist on misreading the fiction to emphasize a happy ending at the close — happy being equivalent to assimilation and erasure. From what I’ve seen in real life — the cutting off of funding, the cutting out of Aspergers from the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Physicians Manuel), and the increase in coercive techniques & drugs among psychologists again those who say more visibility has not helped are right. No one really has a mechanism for helping such people gain self-sustaining employment for or proposes helping older adults socially for real at all.

Misreading in terms of the readers’ own identity needs, to throw off a threat of anything unknown or new leads me to the other related topic I heard discussed at the conference and want to consider again. Next time (if there is one for me at either conference), and if I have a chance to go on panels about fandoms, fanzines, I will. The book here is Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins.

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Fandoms are one aspect of different ways of life in the Net that are reactions the increasing anonymity and loss of community in US life, the impoverishment of individuals and high unemployment rate so that people come onto the Net to find community, meaning when there is nothing where they live. These groups replace religious communities too, can be a religious community, and they are real. It’s another instance where the idea that what happens on the Net is not real is false. In the 1950s Richard Hoggart wrote a book called The Uses of Literacy where he argued that TV was being used to create “imagined communities” which through propaganda and loyalty to shows inculcated in people Tory reactionary values; again people at a loss, people left out, communities devastated by global capitalism; the book was re-issued during the 1980s Thatcher years.

But it’s not true that these are imagined and unreal communities. These groups of people active and aggressive; authors ignore them at their peril. They meet outside the Net when they can and influence where they can. They will punish, ostracize, exclude the person who takes a different view and attack that. I have found it very painful to deal with such people; actually I can’t, don’t know how to. They can be group bloggers. They can be seen whirling to some extent around mini-series programs, Games of Thrones say or Downton Abbey.

How do you recognize a fandom. It’ll be a message board where anonymity is enforced, and thus no one held accountable. No personal relationships can develop easily. In the case of films or TV, the re-doing of bits of films in YouTube videos to change the original meanings of scenes to fit what the fans want and posting of these. They can be embarrassing. Fierce conversations which a given aggressive individual will not give up. I’d say worse than some of what happens on Austen-l only it’s moderated so the two or three people moderating immediately shut up whoever has said what they don’t agree with (they were particularly fierce over sex), “community” activities centered on the actors and stars of the films and a whole range of sociological or psychological phenomena having to do with inventing a fictional identity. They do meet outside the Net when they can. A pre-screening of the new Sherlock in a New York movie-house brought fans from around the country to meet in the movie-house, see their movie, eat and talk together afterward.

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A deeply sexual shot: Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees about to go to bed together as Ross and Demelza Poldark (1975 Part 7)

Examples include Harry Potter, Batman, Dr Who, Star Wars, long-running TV programs. My experience has been with the Winston Graham Society webpage, really a message board dedicated to discussing two of the famous stars from the first mini-series: Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees (although she’s dead now). I had read in Graham’s autobiography this group succeeded in damning a 1996 film and making it impossible to go on; a paper I heard at ACA showed that the group influenced the second season of the films. I was told by one woman my discussion of disability, violence and sex in Graham’s fiction “deeply upset” her so how dare I? No one should write about this series what could upset her, no details allowed. I had notice how many disabled (often autistic) characters Graham has in his Poldark and mystery novels; how he studies alienation (Marni) and individual loss sympathetically and wanted to discuss this. The shattering of one of the heroines from continual marital rape; the reality the hero rapes one of the chief heroines and the son they have, neglected and over-indulged (anything but taken care of) after her death grows up disturbed and lonely enough to reach out for an orangutan as a companion. Forget it.

Facebook pages dedicated to famous stars or authors identified as conservative and classic, or with some ethnicity or doctrine. The audience for Austen’s books is leavened because it includes different types of people, academics and heritage industry and there’s a lot of money to be made on sequels and conferences and tourism so the fandom cannot invent this world of its own and control the material. Austen has prestige, her texts are not considered trivial and worthless in the way of say Star Trek and other texts around which fandoms whirl. These groups dislike any criticism of their author; they will justify or excuse or explain away the smallest unfavorable remark. Their identities have become involved, their egos, their self-image. They build whole worlds around their texts & shows.

Tellingly, for people interested to see if popular fiction that has a wide enthusiastic audience can function to increase the sympathetic imagination, the fiercest hostile responses come from any assertion that the fetishized material explores sexuality or gender in unconventional ways, has an ambiguous or sad ending, shows the hero to be less than admirable (violent for example, politically radical).

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Season1pat3ThrowingHarness1blog

I’ll end on the treatment of disability in Downton Abbey, the first season. Since I think I do not misread, I cannot tell what the misreading would be precisely, probably in the direction of scorn or dismissal or somehow turning the disability into what’s normal if “unwanted,” as Sir Anthony Strallon was treated in the third season, or silence, as the man with the heinously disfigured face was in the second — both given over to the program-scapegoat, Edith.

In the first part of Downton Abbey, the lamed Mr Bates is almost fired because few will accept his disability: most take it as a blemish on community, insist he will not be able to do his job, a few ridicule him, a couple (that’s enough) tell false tales; Lord Grantham almost fires him but his decency and better self seeing the cruelty and injustice of the act, keeps him on at the close of the hour.

In the third part, Mr Bates still driven by fear he’ll be fired, tormented by cruel jeering or physical gestures (as when Miss Obrien trips and humiliates him) buys an instrument of torture to make himself walk more straight. As the hour wears on we see Bates in pain, leaning over in agony, having a sour expression, indeed not be able to do his job. (In the context of the hour’s juxtaposition, the parallel is the ejection of Pamuk’s corpse from Lady Mary’s room after he half-rapes her; both are trash which ruin the body and probably spirit of the character.) Finally Mrs Hughes, the housekeeper insists on seeing what is wrong with Mr Bates, and he shows her his leg, now covered with blood and sores from the contraption on it.

As ever Fellowes is on the side of the mainstream: we next see the pair by the side of a river on the property. Mr Bates has agreed to throw the thing away. The lesson Mrs Hughes instructs Mr Bates to remember is: “I promise I will never again try to cure myself, I will spend my life happily as the butt of others’ jokes and I will never mind them.” Mrs Hughes: “We all carry scars Mr Bates, inside or out, you’re no different than the rest of us, remember that.” Mr Bates: “I will try to that I do promise.” And then he hurls it off, and she cries “good riddance.’

The part about not trying to cure oneself is good — autism month should be called autism acceptance month. The group of articles I have include two arguing the higher ends of autism include people who are in many ways more gifted than the average and would not have to consider themselves disabled if others didn’t ostracize and punish them. And Mr Bates is doing his job fine. But the second part half-blaming Mr Bates and saying it was he who considered himself different is the narrow cold-shouldering mind of the establishment speaking, demanding in effect (were he autistic) that he be neurotypical and leads to people purchasing such contraptions or having painful useful dangerous operations. Stiff upper lip. Never admit to anything.

Season1Part5Endingblog
Mr Bates and Anna (Joanna Froggart) end of Part 5: he getting into cart

As far as I could tell from reading the fan’s responses to the hour, they were sympathetic to the obtuse and mean Lady Mary; in his notes to the script Fellowes exclaimed against letters to him decrying a supposed buggery — the people couldn’t endure that Lady Mary should lose her virginity (hymen) so they jumped to the conclusion buggery had occurred and this was why the man had a heart-attack (!). (How revealing of silent suppositions this is.) And on-line people quickly tired of Mr Bates — by the second season as homely and a “sob-story” (“passive-aggressive” was a favorite phrase)and felt excruciated when (they felt) asked to identify with Anna, for they would not have fallen in love with Mr Bates as she slowly does for his intelligence, integrity, good nature, refusal to kowtow or forsake his dignity, good heart (of which we see instances).

A friend wrote:

Mrs. Hughes’s comment that ‘we all carry scars’ nags me, however. Who is the “we?” On the first glance, I’d take it to be a universal statement–the series shows that everyone, upstairs or downstairs, has their problems, but I’m not convinced it is a universal “we.” (I’m sure Fellowes meant it to be.) Is the “we” the servants? However, whether or not Mrs. Hughes “we” is universal, this leads me to think that disability plays out differently between servants and masters — Matthew’s Hemingwayesque war wound, leaving him “crippled” and impotent, is a parallel to Mr. Bates’ disability — both
are physical and both call into the question each man’s ability to do his primary “job” — in Matthew’s case of course, to “make the heir,” but one has a miraculous cure and the other not …

Yes. Who is the we? In the case of the servants, they have no buffer or support to help them if they are rejected, so they must conform and if they cannot, must not complain.

I was told again and again how my blogs on Downton Abbey took “a different view,” and at times (especially around the character of Edith whose scapegoating I exposed) attacked. Twenty years from now attitudes will have frozen and it will be hard to talk freely to those still remembering (many will no longer but move on). I never did discuss disability in Downton Abbey. I should have. So have made up for that now.

Ellen

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Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce has just tried to kill herself: near the opening of the 1945 MGM Mildred Pierce; director Michael Curtiz, first screenplay by Ranald MacDougall (his script constantly superseded by 7 different writers’ revisions), produced by Jack Warner


From closing shots: Mildred and her ex-husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett), now apparently reconciled leave behind police office and their daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), stands (rightly) accused of murder

Dear friends and readers,

To me there is just no comparison between this muddle of a film and the 2011 mini-series I wrote about the other night: Mildred Piece 2011: starring Kate Winslett, a woman’s life and a bad seed. The recent film is a genuine exploration in adult fashion of a well-meaning woman’s life and conflicts then and now, with a real attempt to explore her ambivalent relationship to her amoral daughter. That exploration is done in what seems an unconscious way by John Cain in his novel who as narrator is not just absent from his novel, but functions like an unaware mirror of unerringly sore scenes from 20th century American life (recalling John O’Hara, James Jones). In the 1945 commercial film, the book’s story and characters are continually undercut, rendered absurd or simply marginalized in favor of visual film noir images brought in by means of wholesale changes in the original story and characters.

These changes, together with the original story may just be why when we watch this film or discuss it we are become part of a sociological event, a key cultural object for its time. I found no less than 6 essays on it in JStor; it’s dealt with by Jeanine Basinger and other film studies, feminist and not, and because of its history Todd Haynes re-made it. The 2011 film garnered 3 good magazine reviews and within a year two serious film scholars have published analyses. So the film interests me and I watched it because others have and I here to to present what this film is made up of.

So, first the original film departs radically from the book, and in plot-design and ambiance resembles two others films based on Cain novels: Double Indemnity in which Barbara Stanwyck as femme fatale heroine enlists Fred MacMurray to kill his wife for the insurance) and The Postman Always Rings Twice where tough-guy hero, John Garfield and femme fatale Lana Turner kill her husband. These other films, like the 1945 Mildred Pierce, present stories that are made lurid in feel and action, with the actors dressed up glamorously. It also resembles the later (franker) film adaptations of James Jones’s Some Came Running (Frank Sinatra and Shirley Maclaine in profound versions of American-loser roles), and John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 (Elizabeth Taylor, an American icon who changes her typology with the decades), and A Rage to Live. Cain’s books are male versions of the female domestic romance turned (of which I had patience to read only Some Came Running) into a mirror of US life in the modern city as it is really felt to be lived.

There is a male masterpiece in this subgenre, a great book I’ve never forgotten since I read it in my teens: Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy: where the core story is that young working class man engages himself to young working class woman, gets her pregnant when he finds at the same time he has attracted young upper class girl and crowd so he murders girl to get her out of the way. Much of the novel is this male trying to escape detection rather like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The difference is in Dostoyevsky we have a story of a man we are to admire who fancies himself a Neitzchean hero; Dreiser’s hero is mean, petty, an utter conformist whose main lesson by the end of the book is that one cannot cross class boundaries. That is not the lesson the reader is presumed to take away, but it is part of the lesson of the films.

Cain’s book Mildred Pierce and this 1945 film both differs significantly in that it attempts to be sympathetic to the woman, and turn a femme fatale into a type found in what was called (derisively) female weepies, a sentimental version of good American woman torn by her conflicts over her love of a philandering unsuccessful husband and desire to be a career woman murdering the female. I can’t know what the original screenplay was like, but apparently the bad-seed daughter in this unexamined scenario of American values still with us, becomes a focal point for a depiction of jealousy: this Veda is jealous of her mother and wants her lover, Monty, to be yet more glamorous, yet more sexy-looking, have more money. What was (in Cain’s book) a depiction of American family life where over-solemn worship of a child is made a twisted center for pieties, an excuse for whatever the adults want to do is here a parallel plot with little psychological motivation except that it provides scenes of two women fighting with one another, where the one sneers (the daughter) and the other looks distressed (the mother).

In this film Crawford departs from her usual hard-bitten roles and often all softness and emotionalisms. Here she is discussing as earnestly as Bennett does as Bert:

what to do about Veda’s career; here’s Ann Blythe as an over-dressed kewpie doll singer in tawdry nightclubs:

I am also interested in women’s films and have watched (for example) and liked Now Voyager, A Letter from an Unknown Woman, and Stella Dallas. In two of these (as in this Mildred Pierce) the woman’s relationship with her daughter is central: in Stella Dallas, the women ends up giving up all to the daughter and in Now Voyager, she retreats into idyllic motherhood for a whole community of girls.

There is a group of people seem to love the 1945 Mildred Pierce (and will declare themselves fans of Joan Crawford). I don’t hate it; it has some merits, especially when compared (it seems) to other women’s films around that era (and before), which usually end on the woman crying, in a fit of utter self-abjection, sometimes in self-sacrifice before her daughter (Stella Dallas), or simply self-loathing because she was deluded by her romantic love for some man. I don’t think it’s a misogynistic movie as a number of 1970s feminist critics (and implicitly Jeanine Basinger in A Woman’s View: How Hollywood spoke to women, 1930-1950) argue, but neither is it feminist, ambivalently or otherwise (as more recent critics want to find out).

It is, in fact, a muddle. No surprise here when you read the history of the film-making and how continually the “studio” (in the person of Jack Warner) demanded sudden changes in plot in the direction of a murder-mystery, subduing of depiction of female sexuality as dreamt of by men and the film noir propensities of Curtiz.


A toned-down shot of Crawford’s legs: as originally shot all we saw was her legs.

The way this heroine’s first success as a restaurant-owner is pictured shows only her legs and torso as her sexed-up boyfriend and eventually second husband (this follows the book) sees them from an angle near an imagined ceiling.

The movie’s real problem concretely is this continual turning away from Cain’s text to make excuses for toned-down sexy shots (Crawford is never naked, ever fully dressed), and effective film noir moments which do just about make sense if you can get yourself to take seriously the turns in the story imposed on the original material. Such moments are at the opening and close (see the two shots which provide my pictorial frame for this blog.) The original book and 2011 film show deep compassion and respect for Mildred; this film blames her for whatever is happening at every turn without explaining what are her motives or precisely what happened and at the end exonerates her on the simple basis she didn’t do the murder-crime, her daughter did. The new plots set Mildred up as a probable calculating murderess until we discover her daughter did it; the business of the film is to tell this story and expose the mother’s true loving character and motives in covering up for her unworthy (shallow?) daughter.

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This is a companion blog to my previous. There I summarized the book and compared the book and 2011 movie; here I’m comparing this movie to other movies and the 2011 film.

As the film opens, we see a man shot dead, he is in a fancy suit and the house we are in is well-appointed, with lots of mirrors about. We then see Mildred walking along a bridge in a mink coat,contemplating jumping in. “Cops” (they are called cops, not police) are not nice in this film: one walks over to her, and smart-alecky asks her if she’s thinking of taking a swim; if so, he would rather not, so would she “move on.” Nasty tones.

What a way to talk to someone supposedly suicidal. I suggest the original viewers didn’t take this suicide attempt seriously. They thought Mildred didn’t mean it. Score one against her.

We watch her then drive in a fancy car to a night club where she meets an old associate, a slimy-womanizer type, Jack Carson as Wally Fay (into this cheap stereotype is Mildred’s friend and her and her husband’s pragmatic business associate degraded).


Jack Carson as Wally; here Crawford is dressed in her innocent jumper (pinafore dress) outfits

She invites him back to her house, goes into another room, and then flees, leaving him in a locked house. Next thing the police are at the door, and he’s set up.

This kind of reverse perspective is found again and again and repeatedly
the framing makes Mildred suspect, photographs her as sexy from a male
point of view, coy, slightly prurient. It cuts a viewer like me off from identification, unless as a woman you can identify as macho male bait and get a kick out of seeing yourself in that light.

If you do, there is a countervailing satiric voice, the dry wit of Eve
Arden as Ida, perhaps the finest and most seeming sane voice in the film. She was nominated for an academy award for her role in this film.


Eve Arden’s outfits are mannish yet appealing throughout; she never dresses down nor is she over-fancy

Here Arden as Ida discusses Mildred’s situation with Monty and Veda; unlike the Ida of Cain’s book and the 2001 film, this Ida never shows any interest in the successful working of the business in which she is a partner. Wise cracks exposing the supposed stupidity of the male and unfortunate hypocrisies of some females are her theme. She is in the story now the primary friend Mildred makes in her first job as waitress. Lucy, Mildred’s next-door neighbor has vanished. Ida again becomes Mildred’s employee, then partner, and here side-kick friend. They don’t have the serious friendship supportive talk of the book or the 2011 movie but rather do satiric set-tos where Eve as Ida can undercut and make barbed fun of whatever is happening.

In Lucy’s stead there is a woman we see in the film continually sort of supporting Mildred — without any explanation at all. Butterfly McQueen as Mildred’s servant-maid simply turns up as there as soon as Mildred begins to make money. How she got there I can’t say — except she was contracted by the studio to play black maids for rich ladies in films. The same high voice, the same condescension towards her one sees in Gone with the Wind is found is this film, only much quieter. It’s McQueen who
Veda forces into wearing one of Mildred’s uniforms as a waitress to show
her mother up, in order humiliate her mother into admitting she’s waitressing. And McQueen is also given moments where she is reasoning with Crawford; her role is usually one where she counsels common sense prudence towards says the daughter (don’t over-love her):


Butterfly Queen as Lottie reasons with Joan Crawford

There is the oddity to 2011 eyes that McQueen is the only black person in the film. There are apparently no other black people in the experience of anyone in the film, no other connection. And there is no overt awareness in the film that McQueen is black. McQueen was uncredited in the film’s original listing of cast too.

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To return to our opening scenario where the police knock at the door of Mildred’s house with the corpse in it and picking Wally up. They are very slick and efficient and they pick Mildred up too from her walk along the bridge, and there in the cop shop she finds her now ex-husband, Bert. They rudely tell her to shut up, will not let her talk to anyone, and then take her into another room and ask for her story. The movie is a flashback story and we now begin where the book and 2011 movie start.


Mildred and Bert

Mildred is making cake, and Bert taking care of the lawn, and we have the ensuing quarrel where she throws him out for having a mistress. As in teh book, book the camera pays attention to what Bert is doing until the quarrel. Toddy Haynes’s movie dwells lovingly on Kate Winslet as Mildred making fantastical toppings for pieces.

Perhaps because the year is 1945 (and not 2011) unlike the later movie and book, this the movie is very uncomfortable about Mildred throwing Bert
out. So Crawford is all kinds of apologetic before Bert and then her daughters. Crawford as Mildred also does not go to bed with Wally as Cain’s heroine does in the book and Kate Winslet as Mildred in the 2011 movie. But who would go to bed with such a slimy-womanizer as Jack Carson plays; you’d have to be desperate. And there are no condoms in this film; in the 2011 film a condom is pointedly used.

Curtiz and crew won’t let Mildred descend into prosaic reality (probably seen as low) anywhere in the film. There are no mortifying interviews for jobs; Crawford as Mildred quickly gets the restaurant job and quickly rises. When she meets Monty and they go off to the beach house and do make love, the sex is definitely supposed to happen, but we get no undressing of either person and the feel is oddly chaste. I had to remind myself that the divorce and such scenes were for the time probably very transgressive. It does not seem so today. Not all older films are obsolete this way.


Mother/daughter, house-dress style


Mother and daughter, fancy dress style

It’s notable that of the many shots of the two in most they never look at one another though they are both all tender concern

Some of the reviews of the ’45 film that I read said the film made the mother the bitch and the daughter pressured; this is inaccurate. Both the 1945 and 2011 Mildreds cater to Veda; both the 1945 and 2011 Vedas grow into nasty, calculating treacherous cold daughters who used the mother’s need for them. If you blame Mildred in either it must come out of the idea that mothers are to blame when children grow up bad, but the book itself specifically rejects that. At the book’s end, Bert says “the hell with her, Mildred, let’s go stinko” (a yuk phrase meaning drunk. At the close of the 2011 movie Bert again says this and Mildred raises her glass, only in her eyes are tears for a loss she can’t explain but feels. Winslet’s performance is again the shaping force to make the moment humanly ambivalent and meaningful. The 1945 film can’t do this because the story begins with a murdered Monty and no one could get away with murder in mainstream detective stories at the time.


Zachary Scott as Monty — he’s rather boyish looking, clearly not a responsible type

Why have Monty murdered? While sex, work, and motherhood are presented in conventionally shaped ways, the 1945 movie reaches for the jugular over both Monty and Wally. They are despicable sleazes, even if Monty’s alluring. The 2011 film (imitating Cain’s book) presents Monty as a resentful drone, so much scum, but simply accepts that many men are that way, lazy (will not work you see) and it’s “in the cards” for him to replace Mildred with Veda as his meal- and house-provider when Mildred “sees through him.” At the close of book and 2011 film Monty is last heard of as waiting for Veda to come to NY to support him.

The 1945 film changes not only the end of the film but the meaning of the story altogether. David Lean said to ignore the ending of films, but this ending begins the film. The reason for the flashback, for Mildred’s explanation is this murder. Bert is immediately exonerated as a force in the movie when the police tell her Bert said he murdered Monty. Mildred says, oh no he’s too gentle and it’s his usual goodness coming out taking the rap.

So the film is ultimately on the side of a woman staying with her all-good if weak husband. It’s a version of Brief Encounter (a woman’s film where a woman falls in love with a man and resists temptation to leave her dull safe husband) and countless films where a woman is taught to stay with the loyal safe man who behaves well or means to, even if he may occasionally have a girlfriend on the side.

Since Monty is dead, and Veda the murderess, at the close of the film, Mildred need no longer worry herself. Veda is the police’s problem. This Veda murdered Monty because she seethes with the same kind of destructive
resentment Monty does. Having been taken away, there is no need for Bert to encourage Mildred to drop her. Instead we see them as a pair leaving the police shop and walking off into the street.

This close (see above) is one of the movie’s best moments. We are into film noir again and again in the film’s shorts (that’s why the mirrors all over Mildred’s house) and the darkness of the streets, a sense of nothing much ahead, of hopelessness, of an anonymous industrial city glimpsed in the bridges and arcades (which we occasionally see in the film but not often enough — mostly it’s domestic sets) conveys the idea of something gone wrong. Certainly what we’ve seen of mostly upper class family life is awful, everyone (as soon as Mildred begins to make oodles of money) there to show off, compete, have luxury objects.

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Basically, the noirish take and elements in the film get in the way of the story and the characters. They make nonsense or hay of or leads us to dismiss the central story and characters on their own grounds. Mildred in Cain’s book and in Todd Haynes’s movie is someone women can (I think) identify with. When she gives Veda a Christmas present and the girl brushes it off as not good enough and Mildred feels terrible, in 2011 it’s not a moment in a flashback whose purpose is to explain not only a murder, one of a trail of scenes where the poor (misguided) mother is trying to protect her daughter.

It’s not that there are not crass stupidities in the 2011 film. The 2011
Veda goes on to be an opera singer and gets a gig at Carnegie Hall. It’s
absurd to make it so easy (reminding me of George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways where getting this great successful career as a novelist seems so easy one wonders why we don’t all do it). Todd Haynes’s costume designers makes Veda absurd. The 1945 Veda succeeds as a night-club singer where it’s implied she also sells sex on the side (if you are inclined to believe that). It’s no wonder the 1945 Joan Crawford-Mildred can bribe this Veda back with a fancy house & huge allowance she, Mildred, can’t afford.


The most common and thus probably the most popular shot of Ann Blyth on the Net: it turns Veda into a yearning girl with luscious lips

Sometimes the 1945 film did make more common sense, but rarely. The little girl, Ray, really dies of pneumonia. We are never told in the book or 2011 film what Ray died of.

I don’t understand the appeal of the 1945 film today (or even then) except in its film noir appearance. What silly male could like this? Maybe he went because his wife or girlfriend insisted he go with her. Why did women go? I can see why feminists attacked it, but unlike most other women’s films of the era, Joan Crawford does not die at the end; she is not weeping from afar as she’s sacrificed all for her daughter. She was the success.


Mildred as grim-faced businesswoman — in a business style suit

She has kept everyone afloat. She is still standing and walks away free (if companioned with Bert once again). To take it aboard as a feminist film which some have done is a desperate ploy and shows the state of film feminism.

I realize there’s a cult for Joan Crawford. I grant sometimes she was
photographed to look beautiful and sad; often her hatchet-jawed look makes
her look hard, grim, on edge. She really didn’t convince when she had an
apron on. But she leaves me cold. She tries for aspirational looks in this film:


With Zachary Scott as Wally looking up at her

I liked Eve Arden best; she was a kind of center point of alienation from everything going on, amused, but alas accepting it:


Here Arden does look slightly appalled

I am someone who has loved almost every film with Kate Winslet in it that I’ve seen. I know the central star presences count, the psychological baggage and typology they project.


Here she is in Enigma, an unusual WW2 spy story

Ellen

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