JWR Articles: Film/DVD - A Murder of Quality; The Man Who Wasn't There; The Phantom of the Opera (Directors: Gavin Millar, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Rupert Julian) - December 2, 2015

A Murder of Quality; The Man Who Wasn't There; The Phantom of the Opera

4.5 4.5

Two dark mysteries and a silent classic

A Murder of Quality
Gavin Millar
1991, 103 min.

Well-crafted tension

This made-for-television treatment works especially well for director Millar because of the faithful screenplay (penned by the book’s author, John le Carré—not all of his novels have translated to the screen as successfully) and first-rate cast.

Veteran Denholm Elliott delivers a very convincing George Smiley: seemingly everybody’s favourite uncle on the outside, before turning up the dramatic heat several notches as the truth is gradually uncovered and then masterfully revealed. How marvellous it is indeed (thought and word) to have Glenda Jackson portraying Smiley’s can’t-say-no-to sidekick (and savvy tea leaves reader), Alisa Brimley. And who could have guessed what a stellar career was in store for Christian Bale, playing the young, somewhat naïve schoolboy, Timothy Perkins, with just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence and fervent desire.

Billie Whitelaw serves up a fine madness indeed as Mad Janie, artfully being “touched” or knowing more than might be good for her—or the ruthless murderer—as required. So who killed busybody Stemma Rode? Could it have been her husband (David Threlfall succeeds admirably with his baffled tone) or perhaps one of the staff or students at upper-class, all-boys Carne School, headed up by “Come over for sherry on Thursdays”, Terence Fielding (superbly nuanced by Joss Ackland).

It’s a production well worth a look by le Carré devotees and newcomers alike.

The Man Who Wasn’t There
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
2001, 116 min.

Just the barber

It is so very, very satisfying when original script, cast and crew are all on the same page: the result is cinematic magic.

The Coens masterfully weave together and then magnificently unravel the many threads in this delicious film noir—made extra dark due to Roger Deakins’ superb black-and-white cinematography.

As “just the barber,” Billy Bob Thornton brings extra-quiet Ed Crane to memorable life, whether pensively on screen or carefully striping away the storylines’ several layers as narrator. Frances McDormand mostly revels in the role of Ed’s wife, Doris, savouring every sip of booze even as she seems to be cooking much more than the books in her place of employment. James Gandolfini checks in with a perfectly nuanced performance as the philandering, ever-inventive loudmouth, Big Dave Brewster whose wife Ann’s (Katherine Borowitz’s bug eyes will make anyone believe in, yes, aliens!) fortune is the real key to her hubby’s success. In the vein of lavender, Jon Polito serves up the slightly swishy entrepreneur, Creighton Tolliver with just right combination of swagger and moral outrage.

The Coens provide their everyman with the opportunity to move out of his stunted life (perpetual second chair to his brother-in-law, Frank—Michael Badalucco—at work, sexless marriage, no apparent means to make something more of himself) and hit the big time, if only he can cobble together enough cash to invest in the coming thing: dry cleaning!

Then, with more twists—and largely believable too!—than a bag of pretzels, Ed’s world spins steadily out of control. Just as the ace criminal lawyer (Tony Shalhoub is a hoot as Freddy Riedenschneider) pontificates to his clients: “the more you look, the less you know,” which is deftly underscored as the film progresses.

Beethoven piano sonatas also play a major part in reinforcing the atmosphere of unease, surprise and development. Yet if there is a flaw, it is that Jonathan Feldman’s off-screen performances are too good to merit the declaration from the French maestro (Adam Alexi-Malle is properly haughty as piano teacher extraordinaire, Jacques Carcanogues) that Ed’s talented “friend” (Scarlett Johansson even manages her awkward scene with panache) has no soul—adding another nail to the barber’s coffin of hope.

Nonetheless, films like these need to be seen as a reward for so many others that leave characters and plot lines drifting in the wind.

The Phantom of the Opera
Rupert Julian
1925, 79 min.

Art at any cost

This version of the 1925 classic (Delta Entertainment: The History of Cinema) is as good as any at letting old fans and new of early “silent” horror work through the tale of ugly revenge on a truly grand operatic scale.

In 2015, there is nothing scary from the images, yet Lon Chaney’s performance still resonates on two levels: his often balletic hands speak volumes and his—literally—painstaking attention to detail in the truly awful face that gives mute testimony to unspeakable torture in the bowels of the Pairs Opera hundreds of years ago. Julian waits a full 25 minutes before unleashing his anti-hero on the screen. By then the backstory has been established and it’s time for the duelling sopranos (Mary Philbin as the ambitious Christine Daaé and and Virginia Pearson as the entitled diva, Carlotta) to meet their fates while alternating in the role of Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust. Of course, the choice of opera is no coincidence as both Faust and Christine make their deals with the devil in order to transcend into world-class beings.

The mighty Wurlitzer organ does yeoman’s service as the action unfolds. A wide range or registers and stops provides a rainbow of colour in contrast to the largely black-and-white (save for the appearance of Red Death at the pivotal Bal Masque scene) cinematography. The uncredited organist does a masterful job of moving with the ebb and flow (vastly improving the slow pacing of Julian) while slipping in bits of J.S. Bach, anthems, “Here Comes the Bride” and credibly serving up waltzes when members of the ballet troupe strut their stuff in the centre of French culture. It is also quite curious to see two conductors: apparently one for the stage and another for the band—or perhaps that might be due to odd editing. And one must pity the audience for Faust: imagine beginning the five-act work at 9:00 p.m.! Ah, scriptwriting details!

Nevertheless, unlike such stories as Frankenstein, there’s not an iota of sympathy or pity for The Phantom: we never learn how he came to find his way to imprisonment and torture: Was he a murderous madman already or a victim of a false, “J’accuse.” With other “madmen” still wreaking havoc in Paris today, the universality of Gaston Leroux’s novel remains, unfortunately, intact. JWR

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