Bright Lights Film Journal

A Funny Valentine to Crime: Where Jim Fits a Bill or Two

And Claude Rains.

It isn't just Hollywood: photography loves the human face — or at least its photogenic flaws. And with the right actors, the right lighting, the right soundtrack, maybe even the right script and plot, the face-as-wounded-narcissus lives on: testimony in these analysis-resistant times to the death-of-the-death of Freud.

Not that Bill Murray in Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch,US/France,2005) restores any lost faith in Viennese School psychiatry. Nor was that the aim of an anti-Hollywoodish production that cost a mere $10 million — a middle-range budget for the writer/director's most middle-range effort to date. I haven't seen the follow-up, The Limits of Power, also featuring Murray; but, thanks to a quick internet search, I know that at least one Jarmusch admirer finds it the very Zen of Noir. (This is weirdly relevant to someone presently devoting his Sunday evenings to BBCTV adaptations of Michael Dibden's Aurelio Zen novels. Played by Rufus Sewell, detective Zen — "it's a Venetian name" — is better at finding his way into impossible dilemmas than out, which may relate to the fact that, at forty-three, he still lives with his mother, albeit in a fairly chic Roman suburb. Meanwhile, after noting that there's nothing endemically Nordic about noir, in a show with superb production values I'm enjoying the work of a superb actor in almost as superb Italian suits.)

But to continue. The problem with Broken Flowers is this: in order to critique the ashen deserts of your culture and break free of Mr At-All-Costs-Filthy-Rich, it seems even independent filmmakers must raise what it minimally takes to run for president. On the other hand, even if Murray and his equally famous onscreen trail of exes waived their fees (and for all I know they did), this was brilliant casting right through the list; and the pleasantest surprise for me was Tilda Swinton's unrecognisable trailer-park brunette — another effortlessly scary performance, miraculously having no truck with Narnian ice-queens.

Too much a cameo to count as a development of barge worker's wife, Ella Gault, in Young Adam (David Mackenzie, UK/France, 2003), nevertheless it's acting, my dear, and good enough to have been noticed by Hungary's Bela Tarr. Like Jarmusch, Tarr has strong writerly and painterly ambitions; but his more developed noir sensibilities dwell at such length on faces and places that — despite delivering astonishingly generous heaps of cinematic gold — he's amazed no one by failing to top every wise producer's wish list. Swinton, lest we forget, contributes hugely to Tarr's beautifully lugubrious Simenon adaptation, The Man from London (Fr/Ger/Hun, 2007). Better than any installation video, this had me wondering, among other things, whether Art is the best means we will ever have of commenting on Fate, or whether, indeed, Fate itself turns out to be none other than an endlessly adjustable — if sometimes fatally attractive — art form.

As for what acting and the money nexus mean when mortared and pestled together, Murray's professional face has acquired all the depth and expressive power of old grey dental amalgam. In fact, if I were grey amalgam's agent, I'd sue. And if I were defending Murray, I'd shuffle through some off-duty stills to show that Bill also does bus-queue anonymity and anything else you care to name, so long as it is not Phil the weatherman's imperishable sense of futility. Privately at least, there is life after Groundhog Day.

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The wealthy, early-retired Don Johnston of Broken Flowers is clearly not one of life's victims. Via Murray/Jarmusch, however, he seems hardly alive at all. In contrast to happily married Family Man Winston, the grey amalgam hasn't been smoothed by regular encounters with that hellishly hard substance known as "other people." Not that some less-than-smooth experiences have failed to leave their traces on that visage. Shall I compare thee to something left over from a premature cremation? Yes, I shall, because it brings us immediately to Johnston's deepest unspoken fear: no, not lack of a "legacy," at least not as in Meet the Fockers. (De Niro: "What's truly important for a man, Greg?" Ben Stiller: "Love?" De Niro: "His legacy, Greg." I read this as a satire on Bush/Blair politics, therefore I don't believe Focker is alluding to sons and daughters or nephews and nieces — and as for grandchildren, forget it.)

Strolling through Broken Flowers we're still in the hills around Jokesburg; but with the help of Murray's arrestingly magnificent mug we're talking Death of the Individual, no less. And we're soon wondering if there really is, as the arrival of a mysterious pink letter implies, someone out there — a previously unsuspected heir to keep blowing on that dim spark of the life force currently known as Don Johnston. But if we feel a bit sorry for a single guy and his too clinical serenity, those of us who have managed to stay in a long-term relationship might, perhaps, ponder our own position. After all, having deep ties with someone else born to die is no way to make these first and last issues any easier to contemplate.

I think at this point of Doris Dorrie's take on mortality in Cherry Blossoms (Germany, 2008). The film starts by having the "healthy" middle-aged wife suddenly die ahead of the "seriously ill" husband. What this then promotes is a realisation — developed during the husband's trip to Japan where he crash lands on a less-than-thrilled bachelor son — that both life and death are more unpredictable than we tend to imagine. I suppose Broken Flowers and Cherry Blossoms might have become linked in my thoughts by simple word association. But despite all their hints at bleak inevitability, both films share a positive focus on living and dying as equally mysterious processes. And, even if it does start with word play, I found it hard to prevent images in my mind shuttling between a crematorium in Dorrie's Japan, where the bereaved husband's skull finally lies on display in its own decorous pile of dust, to the lunar lifelessness of Murray/Johnston's supposedly living face.

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As in Night on Earth, the universalistic mosaic with which Jarmusch made his debut, the ideas of Broken Flowers are scattered somewhere near the crematoria of our souls, with no great need to call on violence-exuding ghettoes to stir angst. However, the latter film is often dismissed as one more white man's middle-class mid-life crisis, albeit dressed down as a road movie. Most heinously, it seems, the only thing moving on that road is a factory-standard Bill Murray vehicle. I do see the point; but to hold to it through thick and thin we have pretty much to ignore Winston, Don's "insane" compadre — insane because he's such a fan of crime fiction. As everyone knows, after driving otherwise law-abiding citizens to commit the most bloodthirsty atrocities, this horribly ubiquitous cultural artefact exists only to goad previously sane and sedate rich guys into utterly demented, not-for-profit activity. The fact that Winston and his family are black — and apparently happy — might also give a whiff of tokenism. And, yes, alright, Winston's obsession is played almost entirely for laughs; but there's a very serious determination in the unstated mix of motives that holds Winston — and then Don — in its vicelike grip. Most of all, crime fiction provides Winston with a life of the imagination; and since an inner life tends to make us both daft and dangerous, some find it best not to have one at all, thank you.

As a kid in 1950s Britain, I naturally began my attempts at a Winstonian career with Sherlock Holmes, by whose sacred flame the Don Johnstons of this world have never been dazzled. Indeed, it took time before artists like Raymond Chandler began darkly freighting my own mental life with the full potential of the genre. Yet, as writing this has reminded me, of the many advances in noir on page and screen during the last century, it was a nowadays-unfashionable Belgian, not Poirot but Georges Simenon, who first introduced me to the consolations of crime. I say "consolations" with a more than usual sense of poignancy, having known someone — admittedly not very closely or for very long — who, given just weeks to live, literally read himself to death using only the best detective novels he could find.

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Having reached this point, I can't conclude without giving a steam-driven puff to a much earlier Simenon adaptation, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, aka The Paris Express (Harold French, UK/USA,1952). To understand what Claude Rains brings to the role of Kees Popinga, the mild-mannered chief clerk whose retirement pension is threatened by the thieving extravagances of his company boss, please forget the suave little colonial police officer of Casablanca. Instead, try thinking of James Whale's Invisible Man, in which Rains, already a bit of a late starter,has just one chance to prove that screen acting isn't all about face or physique. Unlike the character whose face is not seen until the last frames of one of Hollywood's best horror flicks, Kees Popinga is highly visible in all his scenes. But, bearing in mind how many pension schemes are in peril today, again as in 1933 it's the human voice that has to carry all those tones of wounded dignity as they morph — invisibly, one might say — into the harsh vibrations of criminal paranoia.

Adding yet more style to the early '50s film is its quite exquisite colour photography; and here it's odd to note that, whereas in The Man from London, Bela Tarr makes exceptionally expressive use of "old-fashioned" black-and-white, at a point when colour photography was typified by very uneven results, for The Man Who Watched Trains Harold French makes something of a leap of faith with the "new" Technicolor. Yet, as was becoming clear to everyone behind a cine camera, this really was the long sought-after breakthrough to a more reliable system. Unsurprisingly then, the role of cinematographers — in this case the great Otto Heller — gets a big friendly bump up the ladder at around this time. Finally, though, one can cite this darkly glowing gem of crime fiction in any list of artistically successful international ventures — then, as now, a result too little dreamed let alone achieved.