Archive for the 'National cinemas: UK' Category
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).
Hitchcock made six remarkable thrillers from 1934 through 1938, and I have long believed that the first one was the best. I think very well of Sabotage, and both The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps are strong contenders. But for me, The Man Who Knew Too Much has got damn near everything going for it.
I came to it a little late. It wasn’t the first Hitchcock I wrote about; that was Notorious, in a 1969 piece that nakedly reveals the limitations of a college senior’s knowledge. Nor was it the first Hitchcock I saw; that was Vertigo, when I was about ten. Inauspiciously for me, when Vertigo was revived for national television broadcast in 1972, I was flying to a job interview in Madison, Wisconsin.
I got that job, though, and soon The Man Who Knew Too Much became very important for me. Seeing it at a film society screening, I was bowled over. Then I discovered that it was available for purchase in a cheap 16mm print. I bought a print and began teaching the film as a model of narrative construction. It worked its way into the first edition of Film Art, in 1979 and hung around there for several editions.
That sample analysis has been available as a pdf on our site, but check it out at the Criterion site, where it’s enhanced with nice frame enlargements and a major extract. The essay makes my case for the movie as an extremely well-constructed piece in the classical storytelling tradition.
So I was the ideal consumer for a spruced-up DVD/ Blu-ray release, and as usual Criterion doesn’t disappoint. It’s a handsome version, with some fine supplements. We get two rare interviews with Sir Alfred from CBS’s arts program Camera Three (featuring Pia Lindstrom and William K. Everson) and a perceptive discussion with Guillermo del Toro, who makes a vigorous case for the film. So does Philip Kemp in his commentary, which is strong on production background. Kemp offers valuable information on script versions and on Hitchcock’s niche in the English industry. The accompanying booklet includes a lively appreciation by The Self-Styled Siren, aka Farran Smith Nehme.
Interest in Hitchcock seems to be the one constant in the whirligig of tastes in film culture. He is a mainstay of home video and cable television; apparently the films can be re-released in perpetuity. Professors love to teach his films. The techniques are obvious and vivid, and the films offer a manageable complexity that encourages interpretation. Class, gender, power, the law—whatever your favorite themes, they’re all on the surface, yet enticingly ambivalent. Not to mention how much fun these movies are to watch. I’ve always enjoyed introducing “lesser Hitchcock” like Stage Fright and Dial M for Murder and then watching the audience fall under their spell.
Critics navigate by Hitchcock as a fixed pole star. Reviewers compare every new thriller to the classics of The Master of Suspense. Just look at what people write about Soderbergh’s Side Effects. And for those who promoted the auteur approach to Hollywood cinema, Hitchcock was a beachhead. Who could doubt that this man turned out personal projects within the impersonal machine known as Hollywood? And if he could do it, why not Ford, Hawks, Sternberg, Ray, and all the rest? Hitchcock nudged skeptics down the slippery slope toward auteurism.
Even if Hitchcock isn’t to your taste, you can’t avoid his influence. That became obvious around the 1970s, when directors began borrowing from him more or less overtly: Spielberg’s Vertigo track-and-zoom in Jaws (now itself a convention), De Palma’s homages/pastiches, Polanski’s use of point-of-view in Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, the endless Psycho sequels and the van Sant remake, and the rest. But Hitch was no less influential in his own day; I’d argue that filmmakers of the 1940s had to raise their game if they wanted to meet the challenge of Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, and Notorious. Billy Wilder told a reporter that Double Indemnity was his effort to “out-Hitch Hitch.”
What was so special? Obviously, the throwaway humor—sometimes airy, sometimes slapstick, sometimes sardonic. And obviously a gift for switching situations around, playing them against cliché, setting us up for a jolt. But I think there’s something else afoot. Part of the Master’s repute rests on viruosity of film technique. Hitchcock makes movie movies, even when, like Rope or Dial M, they seem “theatrical.” And this movieness is best seen, I think, by considering a term that always comes up with Lord Alfred: the set piece.
Maintaining a tradition
Hitchcock held onto the flamboyant expressive devices of silent and early sound cinema far longer than any other director. For decades he kept alive techniques that many directors thought were old hat: abrupt cuts to details of gestures and objects; blurry point-of-view images to suggest distraught or befuddled states of mind (as above); very brief insert shots to accentuate violence. Compare Battleship Potemkin with Foreign Correspondent’s assassination scene.
Hitchcock built entire films around classic silent techniques. The Kuleshov effect governs Rear Window; the German “entfesselte” or “unchained” camera dominates Rope and Under Capricorn. Rope and Dial M revive the aesthetics of the German kammerspielfilm, or “chamber play.” The Germanic look was alive and well in the spiderweb shadow-work of Suspicion, while both French Impressionism and German Expressionism inform the dream sequences of Spellbound and Vertigo. He also preserved the “creative use of sound” that was the hallmark of directors like Clair and Milestone. While others had pretty much given up the expressionistic use of music and effects, Hitchcock was always ready to draw on them. The hallucinatory Merry Widow Waltz haunts Shadow of a Doubt, while Hitchcock’s penchant for giving us two pieces of information simultaneously, one in the image and another on the soundtrack, let him design scenes visually and push a lot of dialogue offscreen.
This flexibility of technique modulates from scene to scene. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, note-reading is presented in three ways, in rapid succession. First, Bob finds Louis’ note in the hairbrush.
Soon Bob gets a message from the front desk. What does it say? Hitchcock hides that by, for once, not supplying subjective point of view.
Only when the note is passed to Jill do we get to see it, but with a twist. Nobody but Hitchcock would add an extra shot that cuts to the note in her hand without revealing what it says.
That extra shot is what Eisenstein called a primer; as with dynamite, you need a little charge to trigger the blast.
We often forget that classic silent directors used their pictorial techniques for suspense. Lang’s Mabuse films and Spione furnish plenty of instances, but so do the Soviet montage films. The scene in which the police wait for the worker to return to his wife in The End of St. Petersburg now looks like pure Hitchcock, and of course the Odessa Steps sequence was the Psycho shower of its day. So it isn’t surprising that Hitchcock would turn his silent-film virtuosity toward creating scenes of high tension and threatened violence. Nor is it surprising that his skills would crystallize in “set pieces.”
Everybody talks about Hitchcock’s fondness for set pieces. It’s part of his brand. We have the Statue of Liberty climax in Saboteur, the milk carried up the staircase in Suspicion, the milk-and-razor scene and the final suicide in Spellbound, the spectacular rescue of Alicia at the end of Notorious, and the efforts of Bruno to retrieve the lighter in Strangers on a Train.
But, come to think of it, what makes something a set piece?
Game, set piece, match
Foreign Correspondent (1940).
As commonly understood in the arts, a set piece is a fairly self-contained portion of a larger work. It has a distinct beginning and end, and it’s understandable and impressive if extracted from its original. It’s designed to be a bravura display of concentrated virtuosity. In music, an example would be an operatic aria like the Queen of the Night’s in The Magic Flute: it is so flashy and complete in itself that it can enjoyed on its own, in a concert setting.
Two early uses of the term shed light on its implications. In stage parlance, a “set piece” is an item of the set that can stand alone, like a gate or fake tree. In pyrotechnics, a “set piece” is a carefully patterned arrangement of fireworks; here again, it implies a display that dazzles the audience.
In the silent era, I’d suggest, the clearest exponent of set pieces is Eisenstein, who became known as “the master of the episode.” Many of his big scenes, like the Odessa Steps massacre, are developed at such length that they function as mini-films. But you can consider passages in Chaplin and Keaton as set pieces—the dance of the breadrolls in The Gold Rush perhaps, or the windstorm in Steambout Bill, Jr. The musical would seem to be a natural home of the set piece, with numbers standing out against more mundane scenes. In modern cinema, again under the aegis of Hitchcock: De Palma offers plenty, and perhaps the prize fights in Raging Bull constitute a string of them. Today the home of the set piece is the action picture; the chases and fights are the main attraction, and the genre challenges directors and crew to find new ways to intoxicate us.
The aesthetic of the set piece implies that some scenes function as filler while others get the whipped-up treatment. If that’s right, many great directors don’t favor mounting set pieces. Ozu, Mizoguchi, Dreyer, Hawks, and others present what we might call “through-composed” films. Just as Wagnerian opera and its successors minimized set pieces, these filmmakers create a surface texture that doesn’t create self-contained high points. (I grant you that the immolation of Herlofs Marthe in Dreyer’s Day of Wrath might count.)
Given the detachable quality of set pieces, it’s true that some of Hitchcock’s can seem implausible or gratuitous. How essential is Guy’s lighter to any plausible scheme of Bruno’s? If you want to kill Roger Thornhill, why send him to a crossroads in Midwest corn country? (A knife in the back on the Greyhound is more reliable.) It was this tendency to sacrifice story logic for stunning anthology bits that Raymond Chandler deplored:
The thing that amuses me about Hitchcock is the way he directs a film in his head before he knows what the story is. You find yourself trying to rationalize the shots he wants to make rather than the story. Every time you get set he jabs you off balance by wanting to do a love scene on top of the Jefferson Memorial or something like that.
Chandler has a point. How do you integrate a set piece into a whole movie? (I’ll make some suggestions shortly.) But first, give Hitch his due. For him, I think a set piece was a compact repository of inherently cinematic ideas carried to a limit within a sequence. A set piece is a challenge: How much can you squeeze out of a situation?
Go back to Foreign Correspondent. Setting an assassination in Amsterdam allowed Hitchcock to integrate the idea of a clue based on a waywardly turning windmill. So far, Chandler’s objection seems tenable: The windmill is just a gimmick. But once Hitchcock sets his hero exploring the lair, he can create a set piece that answers a question that no one ever thought to ask before: How do you eavesdrop in a windmill?
Johnny Jones has to evade the killers by crawling up alongside the giant gears, then down, then up again. At each step he barely escapes being spotted. When he seems safe, his topcoat gets snagged in the grinding gears, so he has to slip his arm out of it—just in time to avoid being crushed.
Yet once Jones is freed from the coat, it’s carried around the gearwork and might be spotted by the gang. And the old diplomat upstairs, mind hazed by drugs, is likely to reveal Jones’ presence. Hitchcock squeezes seven minutes of suspense out of all this, with a casual air that suggests: Of course, dear chap, any director worth his salary can see that a windmill harbors all kinds of excruciating menace. All in a day’s work, you know.
A whispered terror on the breeze
If anything is a set piece, the Albert Hall sequence in The Man Who Knew Too Much is. Philip Kemp’s commentary for the Criterion DVD considers it Hitch’s first, although aficionados would probably consider the “knife” sound montage of Blackmail at the very least a rough sketch for what would come. Lucky you: The entire Albert Hall sequence is excerpted on the Criterion site.
A set piece benefits from a simple premise. Here, Jill’s child is being held hostage, which keeps her from informing the police of what little she knows about the plot. We know that during the concert an assassin will try to shoot a diplomat.
You can imagine Chandler asking: Why plug Ropa during a concert, with all those witnesses? Why not when the target is on the sidewalk, shot from a rooftop for easy escape? You can hear that bland replying murmur: Raaaymond, it’s only a moovie…
So we have some conditions for a set piece: a compact piece of action limited in time and space. But there’s also a strong time marker. Ramon the assassin is to wait for a dramatic pause in the score; it’s followed by a shattering choral outburst that will muffle the pistol shot. We’ve been given a rehearsal of the passage in a gramophone record, but since we don’t hear the whole piece then, and we can’t predict exactly when the chorus will hit its peak.
Hitchcock plays on this uncertainty by letting the piece, Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds Cantata, play out in its entirety. It was composed for the film, and its combination of lyrical and dramatic passages blend into a stream of music that coincides with the emotional action onscreen. I suspect that the piece, composed specifically for the film, glances at the most celebrated new choral piece of the era, William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1931). It too has a charged dramatic pause followed by a tremendous choral blast: “Slain!” You can listen to it here, and you can hear some of the musical affinities at 27:11 and after.
So the self-contained quality of the sequence is enhanced by the unfolding soundtrack, as well as its “bookend” structure: Jill arrives at the Albert Hall/ Jill leaves. (Hitchcock was very fond of this coming-and-going bracketing; many scenes of The Birds are built out of this.) But to be a set piece we need virtuosity too, right?
As our Film Art essay indicates, Hitchcock structures the scene using nearly every technique in the silent-cinema playbook. We get dynamically accentuated compositions, crisp point-of-view editing, subjective vision (even blurring as Jill drifts into a panicky reverie), and suspenseful crosscutting back to the gang holding Bob and Betty prisoner. The techniques build to their own crescendo, with more and shorter shots of Jill, the orchestra players, and the curtain concealing Ramon. As the climax approaches, details of the players’ performance pass in a flash. As another layer, though, all these visual techniques are synchronized with the musical structure of the piece. Most obvious is the slow tracking shot back from Jill as the female soloist launches in:
There came a whispered terror on the breeze./ And the dark forest shook.
The text has always teased me, because in my early years of studying the film I couldn’t hear everything there. Now that the “Storm Clouds Cantata” has become a minor concert piece, we have a full version of the text. It’s the description of an especially ominous storm, one that drives birds away and makes trees tremble in fear. The only creature left, vulnerable to the gale, is a child:
Around whose head screaming/ The night-birds wheeled and shot away.
As the orchestral and choral forces mount on the line that has always come through:
All save the child—all save the child.
The line is ambiguous. Its literal sense is that all the creatures have fled the oncoming storm except the child (“all save the child”). But Hitchcock’s cutting and the film’s overall context leave it as an imperative: the child must be rescued. Thus the musical dynamics and the text stress, for us and presumably for Jill, that Betty’s safety depends on what she does.
Soon the cantata’s text finds another analog in the concert hall. The choir sings of the storm clouds finally breaking and “finding release.” That phrase, repeated with rising intensity, yields the dramatic pause and then the final outburst that is to cover Ramon’s pistol shot. But now we have to see this phrase as prophecy and comment: Jill’s scream during the pause is the release of her tightened anxiety. And of course the line slyly signals the release of the suspense built up through the whole sequence.
With Hitchcock, you always get more.
In all, the sequence becomes exactly what a set piece ought to be: compact, with sharp boundaries and a strongly profiled arc of interest, elaborated with a great variety of technical resources and a thrusting emotional impact. But is it too much of an independent sequence? One can imagine Chandler worrying that Hitch doesn’t care much about how to hook it up with everything else. Let’s see.
This scepter’d isle
There’s no doubt that a plot driven by set pieces can seem episodic, just a matter of pretty clothes clipped to a slender line. In action movies it’s a classic problem, which, say, Speed doesn’t fully solve but Die Hard does.
You can mask an episodic plot, though, through some stratagems. First, make your filler material charming. The Man Who Knew Too Much gives us comedy in the dentist office and in the Tabernacle, with Bob and Clive mumbling messages through hymnody. You can also whisk the audience from scene to scene so quickly that the viewer has to concentrate on local connections. This is one purpose of what I’ve called the hook, the transition that smoothly links the end of one scene with the beginning of the next. If you’ve got some plot holes, strengthen your hooks–especially those that hide your gaps.
The Man Who Knew Too Much has some nifty hooks. I especially like the way the fingers pointing to the bullet hole are followed by a shot of Ramon’s head: effect and cause neatly given by a straight cut. Then there’s the contrast of the fire in the fireplace dissolving to the skier pin, a sort of thermal hook. But probably the most memorable one is Betty’s line about Ramon’s brilliantined hair.
This hook is a motif as well, and recurring images or sounds like this can help knit together your movie. In Foreign Correspondent, we get hats and birds in various scenes. Here, as our Film Art essay indicates, teeth, the skier pin, sharpshooting, the cantata’s main theme, and other motifs weave through the overall structure of the film.
You can as well knit your big scenes together through certain narrative patterns, such as a trip or a search, both strategies that Hitchcock employs in many movies. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Bob’s investigation of the gang follows the menu set out in Louis’ note: the sun emblem, Wapping, G. Barbour, and A. Hall. This serves as a sort of map for the middle act of the film. Once Bob has cracked the message, though, the film shifts into a new register. Jill, who has been waiting passively at home, takes over the role of protagonist. And her actions will fulfill another motif: that of interruption and distraction.
The film begins with Betty’s dog disrupting Louis’ ski jump. That’s an innocent accident, as is the moment when Jill nearly spoils Roman’s skeet shooting. But soon afterward Abbott’s chiming watch deliberately breaks Jill’s concentration, making her lose the shooting match. In effect the Albert Hall sequence offers payback: With her scream Jill not only disrupts the performance but spoils Ramon’s aim as Abbott had spoiled hers.
The Albert Hall sequence fits into the film in a less obvious way, one that plays along the thematic dualities that marble the movie. Throughout the film contrasts “Englishness” with “foreignness,” the latter split between allies (Louis, Ropa) and enemies. The Storm Cloud Cantata and what follows represent a sort of triumph of England over her adversaries.
At the St. Moritz resort, the Lawrence family is set off from Louis, their French friend, and two men: Abbott the German and Ramon the Latin. (He’s handily fudged; he has a Spanish name but calls the English “extraordinaire.” And his hair is greasy.) “Sworn enemies, eh?” Jill says half-humorously to Ramon before losing the skeet shoot. After Louis’ death Bob is at a loss in the hotel, unable to speak German or Italian, and distracted while Betty is kidnapped. The English aren’t at home in this world.
Once Bob and Jill have returned to London, they join the family friend Clive, a Wodehousian upper-class twit but gifted with loyalty and tenacity. Bob and Clive have learned from Gibson of the Foreign Office that the gang intends to assassinate the diplomat Ropa. They must tell what they know; the killing could prove as catastrophic as the assassination that triggered the war of 1914-1918. Yet Bob keeps mum. He might be enacting E. M. Forster’s dictum: “If I had to choose between betraying my friend and betraying my country, I hope I would have the guts to betray my country.”
The conflict between family love and civic duty is played out in the rest of the second act, when the men’s investigation takes them to a working-class neighborhood of Wapping. There, we learn that behind respectable English institutions—a dentist, eccentric religion—foreign elements lurk. Bob has solved Louis’ riddle, but at the cost of becoming another hostage. Bob and Betty re-meet, in a characteristically subdued stiff-upper-lip encounter that denies Abbott the tearful scene he expected. The dignity with which Bob conducts himself, asking about Betty’s dressing gown and her school grades while staring defiantly at the gang, leaves the others abashed.
Clive has escaped, though, and has managed to send Jill to the Albert Hall. That musical set piece initiates the film’s climax dramatically but also thematically. For one thing, Benjamin’s cantata reaffirms another bit of Englishness. A national choral tradition runs back to Purcell and Handel, was sharpened in Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and was revived in the early twentieth century by Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony. Hitchcock and screenwriter Charles Bennett could have used Bach or Beethoven, but the choice of this brooding, mildly modernistic piece reminiscent of Walton is a nice bit of propaganda for British musical culture of the interwar years.
More importantly, the concert sequence solves the film’s ideological problem: How to save the world without destroying your family? Jill’s impulsive scream doesn’t divulge what she and Bob know about the gang, but it does serve to derail the gang’s plan and save Ropa. And by leading the police to follow Ramon to the hideout, she in effect chooses to risk Betty and Bob for the capture of the gang. Here, perhaps, the sheer drive of the action muffles the significance of her choice; Chandler complains that Hitchcock tended to take refuge from plot problems in “wild chases.”
What follows, in the middle of some violence that remains shocking today, is a vigorous reassertion of Englishness. The vignettes during the siege display stalwart national virtues. A postman insists on making his rounds during the gunplay. An inspector swipes sweets and pauses for a cup of tea. The police reluctantly take up arms, only after several of their unarmed number are mowed down. Slipping into adjacent buildings, snipers move a piano while its fussy owner rescues his potted plant. And a cop who was slated to go off duty finds a warm mattress to die on. This unassuming valor, so different from Ramon’s petulant swagger and Abbott’s self-congratulatory sadism, will win out. The victory is announced by the pent-up crowd rushing jubilantly forward as the siege ends.
In any other movie the mother would have been huddling with the child and the man would grab a rifle to pick off his enemy on the roof. But making Jill the crack shot reasserts another quintessentially English image: the hunting, shooting, riding mistress of the estate. She gets her second chance to fire, bringing down Ramon when even the police sniper hesitates. It’s also a bit of guilty revenge for Louis, whom Jill danced into the line of fire. Hitchcock, as usual, renders it elliptically: we see Jill grab the gun but not fire it. As she and Bob and Betty are reunited, the movie that began with the line, “Are you all right, sir?” ends with a mother reassuring her weeping daughter, “It’s all right.”
This, we might say, is how you integrate set pieces into your movie—narratively, stylistically, and thematically. Others would disagree with me, but nearly forty years of living with this film hasn’t made me change my mind. The Man Who Knew Too Much is Hitchcock’s first thoroughgoing masterpiece.
Thanks to Abbey Lustgarten, UW-Madison alum, for her excellent production job on the Criterion disc. Thanks also to Peter Becker and Casey Moore for coordinating the posting of our Film Art piece with this blog entry.
For more on Chandler and Hitchcock, see William Luhr, Raymond Chandler and Film (New York: Unger, 1982), 81-93. My quotation comes from Raymond Chandler Speaking, ed. by Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker (Books for Libraries Press, 1971), 132.
Hitchcock probably doesn’t deserve 100% of the credit for the Foreign Correspondent windmill scene; it was designed by the great William Cameron Menzies.
When I wrote the Film Art analysis back in the 1970s, Kristin hadn’t elaborated her ideas about how large-scale parts, or acts, can shape a film. Yet I think that the three parts that the analysis mentions constitute pretty well-articulated acts. The first part has as its turning point Bob’s realization that when Gibson traces Betty’s call, police will converge on Wapping and endanger her. So Bob and Clive set out to save her. That decision comes about twenty-six minutes into the movie. I’d mark the end of the second act with Abbott’s sending Ramon on his mission after playing the cantata recording; that comes at about fifty-three minutes into the film. At this point we know everything we need to know, so the premises can play out. The last act is shorter, as climaxes tend to be. The Albert Hall sequence and the final shootout and rescue take up the final twenty-three minutes, capped by a very brief epilogue of the reunited family. For more on act structure, see Kristin’s entry here, mine here, and my essay on action movies, as well as Kristin’s Storytelling in the New Hollywood and my The Way Hollywood Tells It.
A final note: Frank Vosper, who plays Ramon, was a well-known stage actor and playwright. His most famous play is Love from a Stranger (1936); the film version was released in 1937. Another successful Vosper play was the fantasy comedy Murder on the Second Floor (1929), in which a writer devises a play consisting of all the clichés of sensational mystery fiction. But the Vosper play that piques my curiosity most is his 1927 drama called—I’m not kidding—Spellbound.
See? With Hitchcock you always get more.
The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has to be counted a success ($64 million worldwide so far), and it may have brought new attention to John le Carré’s writing. The fact that some websites and Twitter feeds lured readers to my entry on the film (and thanks to all) suggests that people can enjoy a film even though major aspects of the plot escape them. Everybody loves a mystery, right?
Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I had originally written something longer about le Carré’s narrative strategies generally. Out of common human decency I cut the entry in half and focused on the film. But seeing the interest in what I’d posted, I thought that there might be enough hard-core readers who’d want to go down the rabbit hole again.
So one more post, which reflects a little more on the film, while arguing that le Carré’s development as a novelist offers a fascinating example of a writer trying out various methods of storytelling. Ideally, you should read this after reading my first post. The next three sections don’t spill any secrets, but if you want to avoid spoilers, stop at the section called “Burrowing.”
Going to ground
During the 1970s le Carré seems to me to have reinvented the dense, almost digressive plotting we associate with the nineteenth century British novel. A little narrative theory helps us understand his ongoing exploration of storytelling technique.
We’re used to thinking that a plot presents one or two major characters moving through the world. That movement yields adventures in the broadest sense: encounters with others, experiences that illuminate some aspect of life, conflicts both inner and outer. Our mental prototype of a plot, certainly in mainstream films, features a protagonist (or a couple) accompanied by lesser figures who become allies, helpers, lovers, rivals, and enemies.
Le Carré’s first novels accord with our prototype, with the addition of those old standbys Mystery And Intrigue. Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962) are mostly straightforward detective stories. Although George Smiley is a secret agent, he’s forced to investigate crimes. Accordingly, he goes from place to place, suspect to suspect, and hears out their explanations and alibis. With The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), le Carré moves closer to an adventure plot, as we follow a protagonist in a linear succession of encounters. As is common in the genre, concealed information is sprung on us at various points, forcing us to recast what we thought we knew.
It takes a mind as odd as that of Viktor Shklovsky, the great literary theorist, to point out that we can think of any longish narrative as the intersection among many stories. He believed that as a form the novel developed out of assemblies of shorter tales. He pointed to The 1001 Arabian Nights and The Decameron as examples of this sort of compilation—long works built out of collected stories, enclosed within a bigger storytelling situation.
When the novel became a distinct genre, Shklovsky thought, it continued this tradition. In essence, each novel makes a long story out of several shorter stories. But unlike what happens in the compilation format, the stories become connected to one another. Character A figures not only in her own plot, but in Character B’s. This tends to hide the fact that separate stories are nestled within the overall architecture.
Besides connecting all the sub-stories, the ordinary novel makes some of them very minor. Our simpler prototype relies on suppressing or compressing all the other story lines except the one involving the protagonist. Our protagonist meets lots of people, but some are given no background, others a bit, and still others a fair amount, but nobody’s story can override the hero’s.
Shklovsky asks us to rethink our idea of the standard novel. It becomes not a straight-line path but a tangle of virtual tales that has been radically chopped down and ironed out. All the latent stories might be intriguing enough to sustain a plot in themselves, but for immediate purposes they must be subordinated to the fate of those creatures we call protagonists. In effect, Shklovsky suggests that every narrative can be thought of as an undernourished network narrative.
In a tale of mystery and detection of course, hidden backstories of some of the characters come to light gradually. But severe selectivity still reigns, because the backstories bear on the protagonist’s main goal: solving the mystery. When Smiley cracks a murder case or agent Leamas realizes that he has been deceived by his superiors, we understand other characters’ lives in a new way, but they don’t steal the stage from our hero.
Still, Shklovsky notes, some storytellers have realized that secondary characters can claim the spotlight as well. At the limit, they can furnish new narratives, as in Wicked and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Henry Jenkins’ idea of transmedia storytelling exemplifies this idea: the ally in one tale can become the hero of another, perhaps on another media platform. But of course nineteenth-century novelists aimed to do the same thing within a single tale, building elaborate plots that would give us an ample sense of how the lives of many characters converge through chance or common purpose. Our Mutual Friend, Pot-Bouille, and War and Peace try to accommodate a great many stories within their wide compass.
I think that with the novel Tinker, Tailor le Carré decided to try this option, to give the spy novel—typically the province of the teasing linear plot exemplified in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold—the sense of a panorama surveying many characters’ lives and perspectives and, still more broadly, the institutions that they serve.
But there’s a problem here: How to expand your plot to do justice to many characters’ backstories and sidestories? Again Shklovsky provides useful hints, and le Carré tried many of the options he proposes.
Shklovsky suggests that stories can be integrated in two basic ways. One is through framing. You the writer set a self-contained tale, or several tales, inside a bigger one. This is exemplified by The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales, as in the films that Pasolini made from these classic works. We can see this option at work in a movie like Dead of Night (1945), in which guests at a country house party swap stories of the morbid and bizarre. Actually, le Carré tried this. The Secret Pilgrim (1990), is virtually a collection of short stories framed by an aged spy listening to Smiley lecture at MI5’s training school.
Another option is what Shklovsky calls “threading,” the principle that traces the consecutive adventures of a protagonist. This is the prototype I’ve already mentioned. But Shklovsky suggests that by keeping the protagonist thread you can still expand the framed tales. In Don Quixote, the adventures of the Knight and Sancho Panza hold their own interest, but they surround a string of embedded tales told by the people they meet. And sometimes those embedded tales are pretty long.
It seems to me that le Carré sought ways in which he could expand his embedded tales without losing the main thread. For example, his novel following The Spy…, The Looking Glass War (1965), splits the protagonist function up into three characters, their parallelism stressed by the section titles: “Taylor’s Run,” “Avery’s Run,” and “Leiser’s Run.” There is an overarching rhythm to the action, but we have three distinct protagonists. It’s as if the author is rehearsing, on a smaller scale, the shifting viewpoints that he will exploit in his longer fictions. The tripled protagonist also allows le Carré to present different standpoints on that center of spying operations MI 6, known as the Circus.
The following book, A Small Town in Germany (1968), is a return to a single protagonist and a straight detective plot, but now the mystery focuses on the bureaucracy behind espionage. Alan Turner, an embittered spy in the Leamas mold, is searching not only for a staff member missing from the British embassy in Bonn but also for some damaging files that have vanished. The drab routines of sorting, checking, and managing information become the object of scrutiny, and Her Majesty’s civil servants are prime suspects. Le Carré had found a way to put burrowing at the center of his plot.
After these efforts, in which Smiley barely appears, le Carré might well have felt ready to test his talents on a broader canvas. First came The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971), a satiric psychological novel about a businessman who becomes entranced by a novelist and his wife. The book, which runs over 400 pages, shows le Carré’s eagerness to stretch out. Just as important, I suspect, is its value as a laboratory for narrative experiments. Descriptions swell, and inner states are reported in detail. Instead of a roaming point of view, there are deep plunges into the main character’s mind and senses through stream of consciousness, free indirect discourse, and a curiously omniscient voice, sometimes pitying and sometimes jocular. Compare the driving scenes in the opening lines of two books.
“Why don’t you get out and walk? I would if I were your age. Quicker than sitting with this scum.”
“I’ll be all right,” said Cork, the Albino coding clerk, and looked anxiously at the older man in the driving seat beside him.
(A Small Town in Germany)
Cassidy drove contentedly through the evening sunlight, his face as close to the windshield as the safety belt allowed, his foot alternating diffidently between accelerator and brake as he scanned the narrow lane for unseen hazards. Beside him on the passenger seat, carefully folded into a plastic envelope, lay an Ordnance Survey map of central Somerset. . . . For the attention of Mr. Aldo Cassidy ran the deferential inscription; for Aldo was his first name. He drove, as always, with the greatest concentration, and now and then he hummed to himself with that furtive sincerity common to the tone-deaf.
(The Naïve and Sentimental Lover)
The style seems to me unsure, but clearly the writer is moving beyond terseness toward something more enveloping and commentative.
Returning to the espionage genre, le Carré hit upon another way to fill a big canvas. He resurrected that old formula, the supreme master-mind criminal pitted against our beleagured hero. The master spy isn’t Mabuse or Fu Manchu but the Russian Karla, snug in Kremlin Centre, and George Smiley’s efforts to flush him out are chronicled in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley’s People (1979). The mass-market omnibus edition of these runs to nearly a thousand densely packed pages. How did our author manage plots on this new scale?
Chekhov says that if a story tells us that there is a gun on the wall, then subsequently that gun ought to shoot. . . In a mystery novel, however, the gun that hangs on the wall does not fire. Another gun shoots instead.
Some expansions are pretty evident. The Quest for Karla trilogy introduces many new characters, mostly people who staff the Circus or who are involved with the institution of espionage: from secretaries and “scalphunters,” the lonely and low-down agents assigned to menial bits of spying, to the very top, such as the Minister who oversees MI5 and Lacon the pliant civil servant overseeing the Circus. Some of these characters are in turn given private lives, with friends and lovers. The connections ramify.
In addition, there are the civilians whose lives are touched by the Cold War chessgame. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, that demographic was represented by Liz Gold, Leamas’ lover. But in the Karla trilogy we get a panoply of more or less innocent figures who are pulled into webs of plot and counterplot. And here le Carré does something quite shrewd.
He tends to start the novel with these characters, people at the very edge of the web. Smiley’s People opens with an unassuming Russian émigrée living in Paris. She’s confronted by a Soviet agent telling her she might be permitted to see her long-lost daughter. What does that have to do with Smiley’s cleaning the Circus stables after the mole scandal, or Smiley’s loss of power after the Jerry Westerby misadventure? Positing enigmas at two or three degrees of separation, working inward across the web, le Carré lets the reader gradually sense the lines of force that lead inexorably to the principals.
So le Carré grows his book not merely by expanding his cast. He finds a new balance between thread structure and framed stories. In Smiley’s People, perhaps the most orthodox entry in the trilogy, Smiley investigates the death of an émigré Soviet general, and this entails a fairly standard detective plot. The novelty comes in the fact that the participants Smiley questions are former agents whom he ran, or colleagues retired from the Circus—his people. And what they tell him isn’t rendered in compressed dialogue or summary. Their recollections spread out luxuriantly, claiming considerable interest in their own right, sometimes with only slight points of contact with the main plot, sometimes burying clues that Smiley must dig out.
More intricate is The Honourable Schoolboy, the longest entry in the Karla trilogy. It has two main threads: Jerry Westerby’s efforts to trace money flowing from Moscow to Hong Kong, and Smiley’s struggle to rebuild the Circus. The plot encapsulates the two main types of spy fiction—indeed, the two types that le Carré had already mastered in his earlier books. While Jerry’s plot is suspenseful adventure stuff, Smiley’s plot is inquiry-oriented, like that in Ambler’s classic Mask of Dimitrios (1939). To stretch the canvas on a still bigger frame, le Carré makes Smiley pass investigative assignments to other Circus personnel, like Connie Sachs and Doc di Salis (who get characterized in detail). Indeed, both main lines of action are filled out with rich and lengthy sub-stories. We can study the tradecraft of old Craw, majestic spy-journalist; the puzzling past of Lizzie Worthington, Drake Ko’s mistress; and the enigmas around her lover Ricardo, either dead or flying heedlessly through an Asia in flames.
The Honourable Schoolboy also has a more layered narration than its predecessors. It switches point of view constantly, in the process virtually promoting Peter Guillam to the rank of Smiley’s Watson. Most striking is the plot’s ultimate narrating framework, a sort of institutional memory serving as recording angel. Instead of the all-knowing, somewhat condescending voice of The Naïve and Sentimental Lover, this narration is brisk and brusque. It defends Smiley against those in the intelligence community who, through shortsightedness or malice, misjudged his decisions.
It has been laid at Smiley’s door more than once since the curtain was rung down on the Dolphin case that now was the moment when George should have gone back to Sam Collins and hit him hard and straight just where it hurt. George could have cut a lot of corners that way, say the knowing; he could have saved vital time.
They are talking simplistic nonsense.
This opinionated, godlike narrating agency is never identified. It’s one of the many signs that in the Karla books le Carré is reviving conventions of the triple-decker novel. And so he did; he bid to become our Dickens. (The larger-than-life father-son duo of A Perfect Spy is perhaps his most extravagant exercise in this vein.)
He echoes Wilkie Collins too. For mystery, never far from Dickens’ concern, is central to Collins and le Carré. Sustaining the reader’s interest through mystery seems not as important for our highbrow novelists now; it’s the province of “genre fiction.” But many of the canonical works of fiction and drama turn on secrets that are hinted at, then dramatically exposed (not only Oedipus and Hamlet but works by Henry James, Ibsen, Conrad, O’Neill, Faulkner). On the first page of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov thinks, “Why am I going there now? Am I capable of that? Is that serious?” The question of that that keeps us reading. You can argue that the modernist novel, with its fascination with time-juggling and stream of consciousness, found a sort of equivalent for the secrets, deceptions, and puzzles that drive classic tales. In any event, during the first decade of le Carré’s career, he began to explore the ways in which embedded stories can blossom into mysteries.
In my original entry, I didn’t straighten out the plot of Tinker Tailor, but now, as the film nears the end of its theatrical run, I’ll tell the novel’s tale straight. Skip if you don’t want it all ironed out.
Bill Haydon, working for British intelligence, is in the pay of Moscow Centre and its head, Karla. He has been passing information to the Russians for years, but Control, the head of the Circus, is starting to get suspicious. He believes that one of his five top men is a mole. Karla entices Control into sending an agent, Jim Prideaux, to meet a Czech general supposedly going to defect. This leads to a spectacular failure—Prideaux is shot and captured—and allows Karla to install an ambitious dunce, Percy Alleline, in Control’s position.
Haydon is the best and the brightest, the flower of English manhood. Suave, easygoing, with an Oxbridge artistic flair, he is as debonair as Smiley is brooding and inscrutable. Haydon has strained his friendship with Smiley by conducting a brief affair with Smiley’s wife Ann, but that episode was initiated by Karla to make Smiley reluctant to suspect Bill of bigger crimes. Haydon has already tempted Percy with the promise of a double agent, a cultural attaché in London called Polyakov. Through Polyakov Karla feeds the Circus trivia, mixed with bits of good information, to the gratification of Alleline’s inner circle—Haydon, Roy Bland, and Toby Esterhase—as well as Oliver Lacon and the Minister overseeing the bureaucracy. And the Americans approve.
Upon Control’s forced retirement, his team is abandoned and he dies a short time later. A permanently damaged Jim Prideaux is brought back to a new life as French teacher at a minor boy’s school. Smiley retires, while his wife Ann leaves to take up a string of love affairs.
But when a raffish field agent, Ricki Tarr, reports on good authority that there is a mole at the very top of the Circus, Lacon asks Smiley to investigate sub rosa. Smiley installs himself in a shabby hotel and with the help of a youngish colleague, Peter Guillam, and an old friend, Inspector Mendel, he starts patiently scouring the records. Following in Control’s footsteps, Smiley discovers disparities, missing documents, and incompatible testimony. Eventually he is able to pressure Toby into revealing the location of the safe house where Alleline’s cadre meets Polyakov.
By inducing Tarr to send a message galvanizing the Circus’ top brass, Smiley forces the traitor to hurry to meet Polyakov at their usual place. There Smiley, Guillam, and Mendel record Bill Haydon’s incriminating conversation and play it back to the embarrassment of the inner circle. There remains a long epilogue, in which Bill, in detention, confides in Smiley and seems to have no regrets about sending his closest friend Jim Prideaux into a trap and months of torture. Jim has discovered the treachery of his dearest friend and, sneaking into the compound, kills Haydon. While Smiley, now occupying Control’s seat of power, goes to the countryside for a possible reunion with Ann, Jim returns to his school, the object of the boys’ adoration but also a morose, haunted man.
I’ve tried to synopsize the action as a thread, in Shklovsky’s sense, but I can’t do justice to the novel’s exfoliating plotlines. We’ve seen that a detective story basically presents the sleuth going from person to person, asking questions and getting information. Since Smiley is the protagonist, much of what I’ve traced has to be discovered through testimony or flashbacks. As Shklovsky remarks, any mystery in a plot involves some play with time, either ellipsis (what happens in the gap?) or rearranged order (hiding crucial causes) or a late point of attack (so that we must go back to reconstruct why things are as they are).
But your straight-line Q & A investigation can be pretty plodding. Check for yourself by trying to read one of the “classic” detective stories by S. S. Van Dine. Forced to present official reports and characters’ recollections, le Carré skillfully expands those into robust, extensive stories of their own, filled out with characterization, detail, and atmosphere. The recording-angel narrator moves easily from reporting the interrogations to summarizing past action and then to full-blown scenes rendered from the viewpoint of the witnesses.
As in the later books of the trilogy, le Carré’s point of entry is oblique. Instead of starting with Smiley, principal investigator, it starts with Jim Prideaux’s enigmatic arrival at the boys’ school, and even that is presented at one remove, through the vantage point of Bill Roach, aka Jumbo, a hapless “new boy” at the school. Only after that do we meet Smiley, hailed by the obnoxious gossip Roddy Martindale (a convenient expository device) who chats about the usurpation at the Circus. Soon Smiley is summoned to Lacon’s home, where he and Peter learn Ricki Tarr’s story of spying in Hong Kong and falling in love with Irina, the wife of a KGB spy. It’s she that tells him of the mole in the Circus.
Tarr’s tale is the first embedded story, running four chapters. Once Smiley takes the assignment, relatively little happens in the present. His investigation carries him to his old Russia expert, Connie Sachs, and she recounts another block of information, about how her suspicions of Polyakov led her to be sacked from the Circus. Once Smiley is back at his hotel, he starts his reading, and for five chapters we get a big chunk of the past, including Smiley’s discovery of Bill’s affair with Ann. Smiley’s homework is interrupted by a suspenseful string of scenes involving Peter’s smuggling crucial files out of the Circus.
Another embedded story soon follows: Over dinner Smiley tells Peter of his only meeting with Karla, many years before. Then, pursuing yet another clue, Smiley questions Sam Collins, the man on Circus duty the night Jim was ambushed. As in any good detective story, Bill Haydon seems to have an alibi (he heard the news at his club) and acts resolutely un-guilty, bursting into the Circus to take command and demand the return of his old pal Jim. Sam’s embedded story to Smiley is followed by others, from the man who drove Jim into Czechoslovakia and from Jerry Westerby, who heard rumors that the military were waiting for Prideaux. Getting ever closer to the fateful incident that set the whole shuddering machine into motion, Smiley finally hears Jim’s own version of what happened to him that night and in the months afterward.
After so many extended stories—recounted by witnesses, filtered through hearsay, written up in bureaucratic files, commented upon by the recording angel—the plot launches into forward motion. Smiley and his colleagues set their trap, and there’s a suspenseful set-piece spanning two chapters. Le Carré alternates among Tarr in Paris, Mendel watching affairs at the Circus, and Smiley waiting in the safe house to trap the traitor. There follows an equally crosscut epilogue, with Bill and Smiley’s confrontations alternating with vignettes of other characters—including a young woman, introduced for the first time, who seems to have borne a child by Bill. The book concludes with Smiley, waiting to meet Ann and meditating on what drove Bill.
In adapting a novel for the screen there is a natural temptation to dramatize the information supplied by narrative description in the original text by turning it into dialogue, but this is generally to be resisted. Where possible it should be translated into action, gesture, imagery. Much of it can be dispensed with altogether.
Imagine trying to adapt this monster! Respecting the novel’s construction would demand a cascade of flashbacks, long tales framed by Smiley’s investigation. The seven-installment BBC series, scripted by Arthur Hopwood, took the simpler option of starting with a scene that is presented very late in the novel, in Jim’s embedded story told to Smiley. The series opens with Control summoning Jim and sending him off to Czechoslovakia; Jim is shot and Control is cast out. Clarifying the string of events this way, and giving us a decent action scene early on, has its cost: Smiley doesn’t enter the plot for nearly 23 minutes. Yet this construction does obliquely retain the portmanteau quality of the novel’s concept, in which sustained blocks of action are allowed to stretch and breathe.
Soon, as in the novel, the TV series gives us Ricki Tarr’s story of his affair with Irina, presented as a discrete flashback. Then Smiley’s trawl through the files is supplemented by his visits to Connie and others. Sometimes their recollections are dramatized in flashbacks, other times we simply watch them tell Smiley of them. Fortunately for the viewer, there are also scenes of Smiley bringing Peter up to date, and briefing Lacon on current discoveries. Because the BBC series was broadcast in weekly episodes, this sort of backtracking was necessary. And since Hopcraft had several hours to fill, the plotting could be somewhat spacious. Nonetheless, the book’s oscillating time scheme was somewhat flattened out, and the block construction—main thread interrupted by inset stories—was compressed. The inset tales didn’t expand to their novelistic dimensions.
The Tinker Tailor film, of course, had to be much more squeezed down. I mentioned in the earlier entry that the screenwriters compared their structure to a mosaic, and I followed this out in my discussion of how the narration was elliptical and fragmentary, leaving out redundancies that are usually required in popular film. Many scenes are both spacious and laconic. The rhythm is slow, and we’re given time to see and hear everything; but that “everything” might be only a voice dimly overheard, or a doorbell, or an image that gives one piece of information.
Take an instance I didn’t pick out in the original post. In order to steal a file, Peter Guillam has arranged for Mendel to call him, pretending to be a garage mechanic.
The call provides a pretext for Guillam’s retrieving his bag from the security officer, so he can slip the file inside.
George Formby’s music-hall tune “Mr. Wu’s a Window Cleaner Now” is playing on the garage radio. It’s carried down the phone line to the call-screener at the Circus, who murmurs along with it as the call is recorded.
After the tense meeting with the Circus cadre, Guillam has apparently sneaked the file out. But on the staircase an offscreen voice softly sings “Mr. Wu” before we see the source, not Guillam but Roy Bland. He descends slightly ahead of Guillam.
Guillam follows right behind, pausing and looking off nervously as Bland passes through the foreground.
The empty stretch of the staircase shot allows us to think that it’s Guillam offscreen, humming the tune he heard on the line, so it’s a surprise when Bland appears. We realize that he must have heard the call, or the recording.
Another film would have cut away during Guillam’s maneuver to show Bland and his colleagues listening to Peter’s fake conversation. That would have dialed up the suspense: Will they detect the trick? Instead, showing the lady on the phone lets us know that the call is being recorded. Only retrospectively—and by a single piece of information that slips by—do we realize that Bland has heard the conversation. Guillam is being watched closely. There’s a meta-message here too: By humming the tune, Bland lets Guillam know he’s overheard the call. Bland’s casual feint fits with the intimidation of Guillam that began when he was called into Percy’s meeting.
In all, the moment’s oblique, ricocheting transmission of story information could easily be missed. (In the book, it’s Bill who waylays Guillam and asks if he’s seeing Smiley. “Guillam’s world, which was showing signs till then of steadying to a sensible pace, plunged violently.”) The film’s script and direction have followed David Lodge’s suggestion of translating Peter’s sudden panic into images and sounds, but more laconic ones than we usually find.
More broadly, the film’s stinginess about supplying information extends to its protagonist. As I suggested in the first post, Smiley doesn’t just solve mysteries—he is one. What does he want? Oldman’s dry, impassive performance bottles the shrewdness, sternness, and pain that Guinness let leak out in the series. It still seems to me that the film’s Smiley is playing a waiting game; even the “Aha!” moment near the climax, when he seems to have hit upon something, proves to be obscure.
After the montage parades the suspects and shows the shifting train tracks outside Smiley’s dingy hotel, the narration doesn’t present the classic giveaway clue or blinding insight. Immediately we see Smiley, by force of will, bullying his superiors and Toby into giving him the information he needs to trap the mole . . . whose identity isn’t pinned down until the ambush. Smiley’s emotion bursts forth only once more, in his confrontation in Haydon’s cell. After a slight confirmatory smile (Prideaux, Smiley surmises, “knew deep down it was you all along”), Smiley asks if Karla ever considered letting Bill take over Control’s post.
Bill, angry: “I’m not his bloody office boy!”
Smiley, almost roaring, but with expression unchanged: “What are you then, Bill?”
Bill, after a pause, in a subdued, strangled voice: “I’m someone who has made his mark.”
Smiley exhales, the burst of energy gone, and turns slightly aside.
Smiley’s outburst here is his most vehement utterance in the movie. By the epilogue, Smiley, still unsmiling, has assumed his place as Control’s successor.
You have to let go of the idea of explaining it all to the audience. You have to make it so complex that the audience understands that they can’t understand all of it. . . . We had to make it trustworthy and credible but also so complex that you couldn’t penetrate it. . . but not so incomprehensible that it put people off.
Dino Jonsäter, editor, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
More than most plot types, I think, a mystery story lures us into analysis. Think of the endless fan probes into Memento, Primer, Donnie Darko, and the like. The secrets in the action, and the roundabout tactics of recounting it, invite us to think about narrative technique more abstractly than we usually do. We’re encouraged to study how we’ve been misled. Analysis is a bit like detective work, but also like academic research. The analyst has a lot in common with Smiley and his patient burrowing into the files. He is, in the books, an amateur philologist and a scholar of German poetry.
For many, the mysteries of Tinker Tailor have aroused an urge to analyze. Jim Emerson has compiled a handy roundup of exceptional probes into the film. Some of my readers have filed perceptive reports as well. Filmmaker and teacher Stew Fyfe offers this:
I agree that what they’ve done with the film is subtract most of the redundancy, with bits of information offered up only once. If you missed it, you missed it. I was surprised when Smiley actually told Ricki Tarr that he missed the chip in the door; that seemed like the movie was taking it uncharacteristically easy on the audience for a moment. It was kind of thrilling to see a film that trusts its audience to keep up with it the way this one does. I wonder if they might have initially stripped more info out and then put some back in during the editing process. . . .
The other thing that has struck me is how very legible the film is when you see it a second time. Most everything does indeed seem to be there, in frame, but the audience isn’t cued to be looking for certain things. Ann does have some slight reaction to Bill Haydon when he sits down at the party, if I remember correctly (something cues Smiley to turn and look at him). And it’s clear why Bland offers to accompany Guillam to lunch.
Or performances take on a different meaning based on the information we have by the end of the film. It’s clear by the end that some sort of relationship was going on between Haydon and Prideaux, which makes Haydon’s conversation on the phone the night Prideaux was captured play differently the second time around. (The Haydon-Prideaux relationship was actually one thing that didn’t work for me the first time watching the film. The nature of their relationship hadn’t registered, so Prideaux’s act of shooting Haydon didn’t have the same emotional heft. The scene played much more strongly the second time I saw the film.)
I guess Smiley’s eureka moment is a little bit of a leap, but otherwise, it’s all there.
And here’s Ben Slater, a long-time le Carré admirer.
I read the screenplay, officially online as part of Focus’s awards campaign (http://focusawards2011.com/workspace/ttss-screenplay.pdf) , and it’s fascinating how much of the adaptation was reworked and restructured in production.
The film was intended to open ‘cold’ with Prideaux’s mission. His meeting with Control – now the opening sequence – wasn’t till much later. The abortive mission and the Christmas party were intended to only be returned to once each, and yielded most of their secrets (Karla’s presence/Bill and Ann) on the first go-round.
There are myriad tiny and fairly dramatic changes – in the script Ricki Tarr’s first appearance is much more impactful, the killing of Bill is very different, etc. Some of these are changes Alfredson must have made during filming, others suggest a great deal of time spent re-arranging and re-sculpting the fragments of the plot in editing – trying to make the story flow as elegantly as possible. I imagine this was tough!
Interestingly, the bold decision to make Smiley silent for so long in the opening scenes seems to have been made in post. They simply cut all his first lines of dialogue. And Smiley’s closing line of the film was also shot and cut – “Shall we begin?”
It’s impossible to watch the film without running the novel and the TV series alongside it, and it struggles to compete in terms of narrative and character, but the real triumph is arguably the ambience of broken England it evokes – cigarettes, whiskey, bad burgers, bad skin and failed lives.
So mystery stories tease us into analysis. But they also flaunt some common characteristics of all storytelling. Encountering any tale, we always want to know what comes next, but we’re also curious about what was left out, or lied about, or presented in passing, or hidden in plain sight. The writer is the mole, and we’re the mole-hunters. As novelist Jane Smiley puts it:
The most basic conviction of every novelist from Lady Murasaki on . . . is that things are not as they appear.
My arguments from Victor Shklovsky come from various essays in Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher (Dalkey Archive, 1991); the epigraph is from the essay “Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery Story,” 110-111. The David Lodge epigraph is from his “Novel, Screenplay, Stage Play: Three Ways of Telling a Story,” in Lodge, The Practice of Writing (Penguin, 1997), 215. The Jane Smalley quotation is in her 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (Anchor, 2006), 49. For more thoughts from editor Dino Jonsäter, go to “Cutting Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” on Creative Cow.
I’ve signaled before the marvelous two-part interview with le Carré for the CBC, but why not do it again? Since writing the last piece I also discovered a helpful interview with Tomas Alfredson and Gary Oldman at Film School Rejects. I have other notes on the Hong Kong atmosphere of The Honourable Schoolboy here.
Hollywood screenwriters at work, according to Boy Meets Girl (1938).
It’s not every conference that opens a morning session by asking the men in the audience to take off their underwear.
But I anticipate.
Last weekend I was a guest of the Screenwriting Resource Network’s fourth annual Screenwriting Research Conference in Brussels. I think that a hell of a time was had by all, and I learned quite a bit, including some reasons why people are interested in screenplays.
Schmucks with Underwoods
Catherine Turney script for No Man of Her Own (1950).
In my youth, there seemed to be a solemn pact among my peers that we would never study certain areas: censorship, audiences, adaptation (novels into film, particularly), and screenwriting. An earlier generation had, through patient labor, shown decisively that these subjects were dead boring. We, on the other hand, were fired by notions of the director as auteur, and indifferent to what were called “literary” and “sociological” approaches to film. So we triumphantly turned toward The Text—that is, the finished movie.
Things have changed since then. Yet there are still tempting reasons to consider the study of screenwriting a nonstarter if you’re interested in cinema as an art. If you think of the finished film as the achieved artwork, then study of screenplay drafts risks seeming irrelevant. Whatever the screenwriter(s) intended seems irrelevant to the result. So what if six or more screenwriters labored over Tootsie? The movie stands or falls by what we see onscreen.
This was the view presented in Jean-Claude Carrière’s three talks to our group. He suggested that the screenplay is destined to become landfill, and rightly so. It’s like the caterpillar that becomes a butterfly. Once the film has been made, the script has no intrinsic value.
Someone might say, “Wait! We study a painter’s sketches, a novelist’s drafts, or a composer’s early scores. These materials can contribute to understanding the finished work, and sometimes they have an artistic value of their own.” The problem is that in these arts, the preparatory materials are in the same medium as the result. But a script can’t count as a version of the film because prose can’t adequately specify the audiovisual texture of a movie. It’s commonly thought, plausibly, that giving the same script to two directors would result in significantly different films. So the script is at best a series of suggestions for filming, not a sketchy version of the movie. Why not discard it when the film is done?
The study of screenwriting has probably also lain in the shadows because of the proliferation of screenwriting gurus and how-to manuals. Every American over the age of eighteen seems to be writing a screenplay; the Cable Guy who visited me last week was working on two. So all the seminars and advice books have arguably put thinking about screenplays rather close to the amateur-script racket.
Moreover, screenplay studies seem to be part of a broader, paradoxical development in academic film studies. Today scholars have more access to films than ever before, thanks to video, festivals, archives, and the internet. Yet many researchers prefer to talk about everything but the film. More and more scholars want to study just those subjects that my cohort considered dull or irrelevant: censorship and regulation, audiences (composition, demographics, critical reception, fandom), and preproduction factors (storyboards, scripts). In addition, many academics have turned to bigger thematic ideas like film and architecture, film and the city, film and modernity. These trends of research usually make only glancing reference to actual movies, mostly mining them for quick illustrative examples.
In sum, many academics have abandoned the study of film as an artistic medium that finds its embodiment in important works. To get to know particular films more intimately, you increasingly have to go to the Net, to writers like Jim Emerson, Adrian Martin, and other sensitive analytical critics. Talking about screenwriting can seem to be another way of avoiding coming to grips with the intrinsic power of movies.
You can probably tell that one side of me shares some of the biases I’ve listed. But when I remind myself that what people should study aren’t topics but questions, I cheer up quite a bit. For there are, I think, worthwhile questions to be asked about all these areas, screenwriting included. The Brussels event gave some good instances of resourceful, occasionally exciting research into them.
Based on my short acquaintance, most of the research questions seem trained on one of two broad areas: Screenwriting and The Screenplay.
In the trenches
Kinky & Cosy
Screenwriting can be thought of as a practice, a creative activity with both personal and social aspects. How, we might ask, do screenwriters or directors express themselves in the script? How does a media industry recruit, sustain, and reward screenwriters? What are the conventions and constraints at work in a particular screenwriting community?
Questions like this are somewhat familiar to me. When I wrote my first book, on Carl Dreyer, I had to examine his scripts (notably the unproduced Jesus of Nazareth), and that helped me understand his characteristic methods of researching and planning his films. Later, when I collaborated with Kristin and Janet Staiger on The Classical Hollywood Cinema, I recognized a more institutional side of things. We can see from the films of the 1910s that filmmakers were cutting up the space in fresh ways. But this wasn’t a matter of directors simply winging it on the set. Kristin used published manuals and Janet used original screenplays to show that shot breakdowns were planned to a considerable degree before shooting. This habit made production more efficient and controllable.
At the Brussels get-together, Steven Price offered further evidence of this sort, which displayed some of his research on early scenarios for Mack Sennett movies like Crooked to the End (1915). Interestingly, Steven found that sometimes the later version of a continuity script was more laconic than the initial one. Perhaps the gags, once spelled out in the first draft, could be left up to the actors. This is the sort of thing he identified as a “trace” of production practices.
A parallel of sorts emerged in Maria Belodubrovskaya’s paper on screenwriting under Stalin. The Soviets, admiring Hollywood efficiency, tried to come up with a similar system. But their efforts to produce films in bulk were blocked by a censorship apparatus bent on ideological correctness. No surprise there, I guess. But Masha showed convincingly that the very efforts to mimic Hollywood’s “assembly-line” system also discouraged authors from submitting scripts. The writers thought (like many of their LA counterparts) that such a setup denied them creative freedom. In addition, the prospect of story departments providing a stream of screenplays ran afoul of the tradition that gave the director control of the final draft. And the role of producer, as one who could steer the whole process, didn’t exist! So much for the Soviet Hollywood.
What about other media? Sara Zanatta traced out the process of creating Italian TV series. She reviewed some major formats (miniseries, original series, adaptations of foreign series) and then took us through the process of creating individual episodes. Interestingly, it seems that the Italian system, unlike US television, makes the director the boss of it all. Frédéric Zeimat explained how he gained entry to the local screenwriting community through his university education, including work in Luc Dardennes’ workshop at the Free University of Brussels. Eventually he came up with a script that won prizes. He is about to become a showrunner for a sitcom.
One of the most stimulating panels I heard considered the writing of graphic novels and animation. Richard Neupert explored how recent French animation sustained the tradition of individual authorship while still acceding to some international norms of moviemaking. The cartoonist Nix discussed how he faced new problems in transferring his three-panel comic strip Kinky & Cosy from print to television. TV demanded less written text, especially signs, so that the clips could be exported outside Belgium. More deeply, Nix had to rethink how to pace the action and leave a beat (say, two seconds) after the punchline.
Pascal Lefèvre, one of Europe’s leading experts on comic art, provided a brisk, packed account of the history and practices of scriptwriting for Eurocomics. He described patterns of collaboration, format, and creative choice, placing special emphasis on comics as a spatial art different from cinema. His example was a page from Regis Franc’s ulta-widescreen album Le Café de la plage. Here’s a portion in which two periods of Monroe Stress’s life coexist in a single space. He muses as an adult while his childish self gobbles up food under the guidance of Mom.
Comics space can also change abruptly, as when a window appears in second panel.
Other papers presented less institutionally fixed, more personal versions of screenwriting as a practice. Kelley Conway’s lecture on Agnes Varda exploited unique access to the filmmaker’s notebooks, scrapbooks, and databases. Kelley showed how Varda conceived three of her documentaries by means of strict categorical structures that were then frayed by digressions born out of the material she shot.
Anna Sofia Rossholm provided something similar for Bergman. Out of the vast Bergman archive she quarried sixty “workbooks,” typically one for each film. Whereas Varda’s books were filled with cutouts and images, Bergman was a word man, treating the books as diaries that recorded “this secret I.” Anna Sofia proposed that in his jottings and planning, Bergman not only communed with himself (calling himself an idiot on occasion) but also explored patterns of doubling akin to those we find in the films. The workbooks evidently held a special place for him: he included their pages in films like Hour of the Wolf and Saraband.
David Lean might be thought of as working in between the Hollywood system and the more personal European milieu. Ian Macdonald suggested that one of Lean’s unfilmed projects sheds light on what he calls screenplay poetics. Macdonald seeks, I think, a principled method for studying the creative process. He does this by tracing how a screen idea is transformed in a series of documents generated by the creative team. The process, he points out, is governed by the participants’ various conceptual frameworks. For Nostromo, Lean solicited two screenwriters and oversaw their rather different versions of the novel. Ian showed that Lean seems to have found solutions to adapting the book by fitting it to the three-act structure advocated by Hollywood artisans, a concrete case of a filmmaker accepting a fresh “poetics” or set of creative constraints.
All of these inquiries could lead to more general thoughts about the creative process in cinema. For some filmmakers, it’s a professional task, undertaken with full knowledge that problems and constraints will have to be dealt with. For others, such as Bergman and Varda, it’s obviously deeply personal, even autobiographical. Perhaps most intimate was the film discussed by Hester Joyce. New Zealand filmmaker Gaylene Preston based Home by Christmas (2010; above) partly on audiotape interviews with her father as he recalled his World War II experiences. Her script reconstructed her interviews with actors, then filled in scenes with documentary footage and scenes she imagined. It’s a family memoir on several levels: Preston’s daughter portrays her own grandmother.
The Screenplay: What is it?
Several of these probes into the creative process raise a more theoretical question. How should we best conceive of the screenplay? As a blueprint? A recipe? An outline? These labels all suggest something disposable preliminary to the real thing, the movie. But why can’t we think of the screenplay as a freestanding object? After all, there are films without screenplays, but there are also screenplays—some written by distinguished authors—that were never made into films. And some of these, like Pinter’s Proust screenplay, are read for their own sake.
In cases like this, should we consider the screenplay a literary genre? And if the screenplay for an unproduced film can be considered a discrete object, what stops us from treating a filmed script in exactly the same way? Moreover, why even speak of a single screenplay, when we know that most commercial films at least go through several drafts? Can’t we consider each one an independent literary text? We’re now far from Carrière’s idea that the script finds its consummation in the finished film and as a piece of writing it should wind up in the ashcan.
And not all screenplays are literary texts. The scrapbooks and databases that Varda accumulates are works of visual art, collages or mixed-media assemblages. Are these merely drafts of the film, or do they have an independent existence or value? We seem to be asking the sort of question that Ted Nannicelli poses in his Ph. D. dissertation. Is there an ontology of the screenplay?
Take a concrete example. Ann Igelstrom’s paper, “Narration in the Screenplay Text,” asked how literary techniques are deployed in the screenplay. When a passage in the script for Before Sunset begins, “We see…,” who exactly is this we? Ann argued that traditional narrative concepts involving the source of the narration, the implied author and implied reader, and the rhetoric of telling can illuminate conventions of screenwriting. Here the screenplay seems definitely a literary text.
In his keynote address, “The Screenplay: An Accelerated Critical History,” Steven Price (above) declared a more abstract interest in the ontology of the screenplay but proposed that there was no clear-cut way of defining it. Historically, the screenplay takes many forms. Steven pointed out that even in Hollywood, there were many alternative formats, ranging from detailed breakdowns to the “master-scene” method (the option that didn’t specify shots or camera positions). And conceptually, the screenplay carried traces of its original production purposes, as well as other constellations of meaning. (Mack Sennett scripts seem to him part of a Sadean tradition of dehumanized, repetitive recombination.) So if there is a distinctive mode of being of the screenplay, outside of its role in production, it will turn out to be a messy one.
J. J. Murphy presents a paper on Ronald Tavel. Photo courtesy Richard Neupert.
If we conceive studies of screenplay and screenwriting as revolving around specific research questions, those of us interested in film as art can learn a lot. If our interests are in film history, researchers can show how organizations of production and individual choices by screenwriters/directors can shape the final product. For those of us interested in more theoretical explorations, asking about the nature and “mode of being” of the screenplay can’t help but make us think more about the ontology of cinema itself.
And if we want to know films more intimately, being aware of the creative choices that were made by the filmmakers throws a spotlight on aspects of the film we might otherwise not notice. It’s all very well to say we’ll examine the film “in itself,” but our attention is invariably selective. Knowledge of behind-the-scenes decisions can sharpen our awareness of artistic matters. Anna Sofia’s research on Bergman, like Marja-Riitta Koivumäki’s paper on Tarkovsky’s screenplay for My Name Is Ivan, activates parts of the film for special notice.
Because there were split sessions at the conference, and because I was plagued by jet lag, I couldn’t attend every panel and talk. I regret missing papers I later heard were very fine, and I haven’t written up everything I heard. I haven’t sufficiently talked about screenwriting pedagogy, represented in papers like Lucien Georgescu’s dramatic appeal to rethink whether screenwriting should be taught in film schools, or Debbie Danielpour’s stimulating survey of her methods of teaching genre scripting. So this is just a small sample of what these folks are up to. But you can tell, I think, that they’re posing questions at a level of sophistication that my 1960s cohort couldn’t have envisioned. Despite what the cynics say, there is progress in academic work.
As for men’s underpants: All is explained here.
I’m grateful to conference organizers Ronald Geerts and Hugo Vercauteren for inviting me to speak at the gathering. I must also thank conference organizer and old friend Muriel Andrin, along with Dominique Nasta and their colleagues and students from the Arts du Spectacle Department at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. My friends at the Cinematek, Stef and Bart and Hilde, helped me with my PowerPoint. Thanks as well to the Universitaire Associatie Brussel (Vrije Universiteit Brussel / Rits-Erasmushogeschool Brussel) and Associatie KULeuven (MAD-Faculty / Sint Lukas Brussel). A high point of the event was the visit to La Fleur en Papier Doré. Special thanks to Gabrielle Claes for her heartfelt introduction to my talk, not to mention a delicious bucket of moules.
A founding document in the contemporary study of the screenplay is Claudia Sternberg’s Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text (Stauffenburg, 1997). Other books central to the conference cohort include Steven Maras’s Screenwriting: History, Theory, and Practice, Steven Price’s The Screenplay: Authorship, Theory and Criticism, J. J. Murphy’s Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work, and Jill Nelmes’s anthology Analysing the Screenplay, which includes many essays by members of the group. See also the affiliated Journal of Screenwriting.
For more information on the Screenwriting Research Network, go here. (Thanks to Ian Macdonald for the link.) The next conference will be held in Sydney, and the 2013 one will take place in Madison, Wisconsin.
P.S. 22 Sept 2011: A panel discussion with Jean-Claude Carrière held during the conference is available here. Although the site is in Dutch, the discussion is in English. Thanks to Ronald Geerts for the information.
P.P.S. Thanks to Joonas Linkola for a spelling correction!
Coke does go through you pretty fast. Richard Neupert at a Coca-Cola machine that exploits a Brussels landmark.
In graduate school a professor of mine claimed that one benefit of studying film history was that “you’re never surprised by anything that comes along.”
This isn’t something to tell young people. They want to be surprised, preferably every few hours. So I rejected the professor’s comment, and I still think it’s not a solid rationale for studying film history. But I can’t deny that doing historical research does give you a twinge of déjà vu.
For instance, the film industry’s current efforts to sell Imax and 3-D irresistibly remind me of what happened in the early 1950s, when Hollywood went over to widescreen (Cinerama, CinemaScope, and the like), stereophonic sound, and for a little while 3-D. Then the need was to yank people away from their TV sets and barbecue pits. Now people need to be wooed from videogames and the Net. But the logic is the same: Offer people something they can’t get at home. It’s 1953 once more.
So historians can’t resist the “Here we go again” reflex. But they shouldn’t turn that into a languid “I’ve seen it all before.” Because we can genuinely be surprised. Occasionally, there are really innovative movies that, no matter how much they owe to tradition, constitute milestones. In my view, Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, Hou’s City of Sadness, Wong’s Chungking Express, Tarr’s Satantango, and Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction are among the 1990s examples of strong and original works.
More often, the films we see draw on film history in milder ways than these milestones. But this doesn’t mean that these movies lack significance or impact. We can be agreeably surprised by the ways in which a filmmaker energizes long-standing cinematic traditions by blending them unexpectedly, tweaking them in fresh ways, setting them loose on new material. And the more you know of those traditions and conventions, the more you can appreciate how they’re modified. Admiring genius shouldn’t keep us from savoring ingenuity.
Which brings me to Slumdog Millionaire. I happen to like the film reasonably well. Part of my enjoyment is based on seeing how forms and formulas drawn from across film history have an enduring appeal. Many people whose judgments I respect hate the movie, and they would probably call what follows an ode to clichés. But I mean this set of notes in the same spirit as my comments on The Dark Knight (which I don’t admire). Even if you disagree with my predilections, you may find something intriguing in Slumdog’s ties to tradition. These ties also suggest why the movie is so ingratiating to so many.
Warning: What follows contains plot spoilers, revelatory images, and atrocious puns.
Slumdog and pony show
Adaptation is still king. Almost as soon as movies started telling stories, they were borrowing from other media. Many of this year’s Oscar candidates are based on plays, novels, and graphic novels. Slumdog is a redo of Vikas Swarup’s 2005 novel Q & A. The book provides the basic situation of a poor youth implausibly triumphing on a version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The novel also lays down the film’s overall architecture: in the present, the hero narrates his past, tying each flashback to a round of the game and a relevant question. In the novel, the video replays are described, but of course they’re shown in the film.
There are many disparities between novel and movie, but for now I simply note two. First, Swarup’s book has several minor threads of action, but the film concentrates on Jamal’s love of Latika. (The screenwriter Simon Beaufoy has melded two female characters into one.) Correspondingly, the book introduces a romance plot comparatively late, whereas the film initiates Jamal’s love of Latika in their childhoods. Such choices give the film a simpler through-line. Second, whereas Q & A skips back and forth through Jamal’s life, keying story events to the quiz questions, the film’s flashbacks follow the chronology strictly. This is a good example of how screenwriters are inclined to adjust the plasticity of literary time to the fact that, at least in theatrical screenings, audiences can’t stop and go back to check story order. Clarity of chronology is the default in classical film storytelling.
Then there’s the double plotline. The streamlining of Swarup’s novel points up one convention of Hollywood narrative cinema. The assortment of characters and the twists in the original novel are squeezed down to the two sorts of plotlines we find in most studio films: a line of action involving heterosexual romance and a second line of action, sometimes another romance but just as often involving work. The common work/ family tension of contemporary film plotting is to some extent built into the Hollywood system.
Beaufoy has sharpened the plot by giving Jamal a basic goal: to unite with Latika. The quiz episodes form a means to that end: the boy goes on the show because he knows she watches it. If told in chronological order, the quiz-show stretches would have come late in the film and become a fairly monotonous pendant to the romance plot. One of the many effects of the flashback arrangement is to give the subsidiary goal more prominence, creating a parallel track for the entire film to move along and arousing anomalous suspense. (We know the outcome, but how do we get there?)
Q & A. Swarup’s novel begins: “I have been arrested. For winning a quiz show.”
We have to ask: What could make such a thing happen? Soon the police and the show’s producers are wondering something more specific. How could Ram, an ignorant waiter, have gotten the answers right without cheating?
Noël Carroll proposes that narratives engage us by positing questions, either explicitly or implicitly. Stories in popular media, he suggests, induce the reader to ask rather clear-cut ones, and these will get reframed, deferred, toyed with, and in the short or long run answered.
Slumdog accepts this convention, presenting a cascade of questions to link its scenes and enhance our engagement. Will Jamel and Salim get Bachchan’s autograph? Will they survive the anti-Muslim riot? Will they escape the fate of the other captive beggar children? And so on.
More originally, the film cleverly melds the question-based appeal of narrative with the protocols of the game show, so that we are confronted with a multiple-choicer at the very start. (As in narrative itself, the truth comes at the end.) The principal question will be answered in the denouement, in a comparably impersonal register.
Flashbacks are also a long-standing storytelling device, as I was saying here last week. A canonical situation is the police interrogation that frames the past events, as in Mildred Pierce, The Usual Suspects, and Bertolucci’s The Grim Reaper. This narrating frame is comfortable and easy to assimilate, and it guides us in following the time shifts.
But 1960s cinema gave flashbacks a new force. From Hiroshima mon amour (1958) onward, brief and enigmatic flashbacks, interrupting the ongoing present-tense action, became common ways to engage the audience. Such is the case with the glimpse of Latika at the station that pops up during the questioning of Jamal, rendered as almost an eyeline match.
At this point we don’t know who she is, but the image creates curiosity that the story will eventually satisfy. Flashbacks can also remind us of things we’ve seen before, as when Jamal recalls, obsessively, the night he and Salim left Latika behind to Maman’s band. Boyle and company call on these time-honored devices in the assurance that wewill pick up on them immediately, as audiences have for decades.
Flashforwards are trickier, and rarer. The 1960s also saw some experimentation with images from future events interrupting the story’s present action. Unless you posit a character who can see the future, as in Don’t Look Now, flashforwards are usually felt as externally imposed, the traces of a filmmaker teasing us with images that we can’t really assimilate at this point. (See They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) Such flashforwards pop up during the initial police torture of Jamal.
Encountering the bathtub shot so early in the film, we might take it as a flashback, but actually it anticipates a striking image at the climax, after Jamal has been released and returned to the show. I’d argue that the shot functions thematically, as a vivid announcement of the motif of dirty money that runs through the movie and is associated with not only the gangster world but also the corrupt game show.
Empathy. One of the most powerful ways to get the audience emotionally involved is to show your protagonist treated unfairly. This happens in spades at the start of Slumdog. A serious-faced boy is subjected to awful torture, then he’s intimidated by unfeeling men in authority. He’s mocked as a chaiwallah by the unctuous host of the show, and laughed at by the audience. Once Jamal’s backstory starts, we see him as a kid (again running up against the law) and suffering a variety of miseries.
To keep Jamal from seeming a passive victim, he is given pluck and purpose. As a boy he resists the teacher, boldly jumps into human manure, shoves through a crowd to get an autograph, and eventually becomes a brazen freelance guide to the Taj Mahal. This is the sort of tenacious, resourceful kid who could get on TV and find Salim in teeming Mumbai. The slumdog is dogged.
Our sympathies spread and divide. Latika is also introduced being treated unfairly. An orphan after the riot, she squats in the rain until Jamal makes her the “Third Musketeer.” By contrast, Salim is introduced as a hard case—making money off access to a toilet, selling Jamal’s Bachchan autograph, resisting bringing Latika into their shelter, and eventually becoming Maman’s “dog” and Latika’s rapist. The double plotline gives us a hero bent on finding and rescuing his beloved; the under-plot gives us a shadier figure who finds redemption by risking his life a final time to help his friends. Jamal emerges ebullient from a sea of shit, but Salim dies drowned in the money he identified with power.
Our three main characters share a childhood, and what happens to them then prefigures what they will do as grownups. This is a long-standing device of classical cinema, stretching back to the silent era. Public Enemy and Angels with Dirty Faces give us the good brother and the bad brother. Wuthering Heights, Kings Row, and It’s a Wonderful Life present romances budding in childhood. These are plenty of less famous examples. Here, for instance, is a synopsis of Sentimental Tommy (1921), a film that may no longer exist.
The people of Thrums ostracize Grizel, a child of 12, and her mother, known as The Painted Lady, until newcomer Tommy Sandys, a highly imaginative boy, comes to the girl’s rescue and they become inseparable friends. Six years later Tommy returns from London, where he has achieved success as an author, and finds that Grizel still loves him. In a sentimental gesture he proposes, but she, realizing that he does not love her, rejects him. In London, Tommy is lionized by Lady Pippinworth, and he follows her to Switzerland. Having lost her mother and believing that Tommy needs her, Grizel comes to him but is overcome by grief to see his love for Lady Pippinworth. Remorseful, Tommy returns home, and after his careful nursing Grizel regains her sanity.
The device isn’t unknown in Indian cinema either; Parinda (1989) motivates the character relationships through actions set in childhood. Somehow, we are drawn to seeing one’s lifetime commitments etched early and fulfilled in adulthood.
This story pattern carries within it one of the great thematic oppositions of the cinema, the tension between destiny and accident. In Slumdog, The Three Musketeers may be introduced casually, but it will somehow provide a template for later events. Lovers are destined to meet, even if by chance, and when chance separates them, they are destined to reunite . . . if only by chance. A plot showing children together assures us that somehow they will re-meet, and their childhood traits and desires will inform what they do as adults. It is written.
This theme reaffirms the psychological consistency prized by classic film dramaturgy as well. Characters are introduced doing something, as we say, “characteristic,” and this first impression becomes all the more ingrained by the sense that things had to be this way. What you choose—say, to pursue the love of your childhood—manifests your character. But then, your character was already defined with special purity in that childhood.
Just another movie conceit? The existence of Classmates.com seems to suggest otherwise.
Chance needs an alibi, however. Hollywood films are filled with coincidences, and the rules of the game suggest that they need some minimal motivation. Not so much at the beginning, perhaps, because in a sense every plot is launched by a coincidence. But surely, our plausibilists ask, how could it happen that an uneducated slumdog would have just the right experiences to win the quiz? A lucky guy!
As Swarup realized, the flashback structure helps the audience by putting past experience and present quiz question in proximity for easy pickup. Yet as Beaufoy indicates in one of the most informative screenwriting interviews I know, the device also softens the impression of an outlandishly lucky contestant. At the start we already know that Jamal has won, so the question for us is not “How did he cheat?” but rather “What life experience does the question tap?” Each of the links is buried in a welter of other details, any one of which could tie into the correct answer. Moreover, sometimes the question asked precedes the relevant flashback, and sometimes it follows the flashback, further camouflaging the neat meshing of past and present.
It’s a diabolical contrivance. If you question Jamal’s luck, you ally with the overbearing authorities who suspect cheating. (You just think the film cheated.) Who wants to side with them? By the end the inevitability granted by the flashback obliges us to accept the inspector’s conclusion: “It is bizarrely plausible.”
The film has an even more devious out. Jamal can reason on his own, arriving at the Cambridge Circus answer. More important, his street smarts have made him such a good judge of character that he realizes that the MC is misleading him about the right answer to the penultimate question. So his winning isn’t entirely coincidence. Life experience has let him suss out the interpersonal dynamics behind the apparently objective game. As for the final answer—a lucky guess? Fate?—it’s a good example of how things can be written (in this case by Alexandre Dumas).
The whole edifice is built on a cinematic technique about a hundred years old: parallel editing. Up to the climax, we alternate between three time frames. The police interrogation takes place in the present, the game show in the recent past (shifting from the video replay to the scenes themselves), and Jamal’s life in the more distant past. Any one of these time streams may be punctuated, as we’ve seen, by brief flashbacks. So the problem is how to manage the transitions between scenes in any one time frame and the transitions among time frames.
Needless to say, our old friend the hook—in dialogue, in imagery—is pressed into service often. A sound bridge may link two periods, with the quiz question echoing over a scene in the past. “How did you manage to get on the show?” Cut to Jamal serving tea in the call center. In a particularly smooth segue, the boys are thrown off the train as kids and roll to the ground as teenagers. There are negative hooks too. At the end of a quarrel with Salim, Jamal walks off saying, “I will never forgive you.” The next scene opens with the two of them sitting on the edge of an uncompleted high-rise building, having come to an uneasy truce.
In the climax, the three time frames all come into sync, creating a single ongoing present. Jamal will return to the show. The double-barreled questions are reformulated. Now we have genuine suspense: Will he win the top prize? Will Latika find him? To pose these engagingly, directors Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan create an old-fashioned chase to the rescue.
Each major character gets a line of action, all unwinding simultaneously: Salim prepares to sacrifice himself to the gangster Khan, she flees through traffic, and Jamal enters the contest’s final round. A fourth line of action is added, that of the public intensely following Jamal’s quest for a million. He has become the emblem of the slumdog who makes good.
The rescue doesn’t come off; Latika misses Jamal’s phone plea for a lifeline, and he is on his own. Fortunately, he trusts in luck because “Maybe it’s written, no?” The lovers reunite instead at the train station, where Jamal had pledged to wait for Latika every day at 5:00. Fitting, then, that in the epilogue a crowd shows up, standing in for all of Mumbai, singing and dancing to “Jai Ho” (“Victory”). All the remaining lines of action—Jamal, Latika, and the multitudes—assemble and then disperse in a classic ending: lovers turning from the camera and walking into their future, leaving us behind.
Then there’s the film’s slick technique. The whole thing is presented in a rapid-fire array, with nearly sixty scenes and about 2700 shots bombarding us in less than two hours. Critics both friendly and hostile have commented on the film’s headlong pacing and flamboyant pictorial design. If some of Slumdog’s storytelling strategies reach back to the earliest cinema, its look and feel seems tied to the 1990s and 2000s. We get harsh cuts, distended wide-angle compositions, hurtling camerawork, canted angles, dazzling montage sequences, faces split by the screen edge, zones of colored light, slow motion, fast motion, stepped motion, reverse motion (though seldom no motion). The pounding style, tinged with a certain cheekiness, is already there in most of Danny Boyle’s previous work. Like Baz Luhrmann, he seems to think that we need to see even the simplest action from every conceivable angle.
Yet the stylistic flamboyance isn’t unique to him. He is recombining items on the menu of contemporary cinema, as seen in films as various as Déjà Vu and City of God. (That menu in turn isn’t absolutely new either, but I’ve launched that case in The Way Hollywood Tells It.) More surprisingly, we find strong congruences between this movie’s style and trends in Indian cinema as well.
Over the last twenty years Indian cinema has cultivated its own fairly flashy action cinema, usually in crime films. Boyle has spoken of being influenced by two Ram Gopal Varma films, Satya (1998) and Company (2002). Company‘s thrusting wide angles, overhead shots, and pugilistic jump cuts would be right at home in Slumdog.
It seems, then, that Slumdog’s glazed, frenetic surface testifies to the globalization of one option for modern popular cinema. The film’s style seems to me a personalized variant of what has for better or worse become an international style.
I’d like to mention many other ways in which the movie engages viewers, such as running (an index of popular cinema; does anybody run in Antonioni?). But I’ve said enough to suggest that the film is anchored in film history in ways that are likely to promote its appeal to a broad audience. The idea of looking for appeals that cross cultures rather than divide them isn’t popular with film academics right now, but a new generation of scholars is daring to say that there are universals of representation and response. It is these that allow movies to arouse similar emotions across times and places.
Patrick Hogan has made such a case in his fine new book Understanding Indian Movies: Culture, Cognition, and Cinematic Imagination. There he shows that much of what seems exotic in Indian cinema constitutes a local specification of factors that have a broad reach—certain plot schemes, themes, and visual and auditory techniques. Hogan, an expert in Indian history and culture, is ideally placed to balance universal appeals with matters of local knowledge that require explication for outsiders.
For my part, I’d just mention that a great deal of what seems striking in Slumdog has already been broached in Indian cinema. Take the matter of police brutality. The torture scene at the start might seem a piece of exhibitionism, with an outsider (Boyle? Beaufoy?) twisting local culture to western ideas of uncivilized behavior. But look again at the gangster films I’ve mentioned: they contain brutal scenes of police torture, like this from Company.
Like Hong Kong cinema and American cinema, Indian filmmaking seems to take a jaundiced view of how faithful peace officers are to due process.
More basically, consider the representation of the Mumbai slums. Doubtless the title slants the case from the first; Beaufoy claims to have invented the word “slumdog,” though Ram is called a dog at one point in the novel. The insult, and the portrayal of Mumbai, has made some critics find the film sensationalistic and patronizing. Most frequently quoted is megastar Amitabh Bachchan’s blog entry.
If SM projects India as [a] Third World dirty underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations.
Soon Bachchan explained that he was neutrally summarizing the comments of correspondents, not expressing his own view. In the original, he seems to have been suggesting that the poverty shown in Slumdog is not unique to India, and that a film portraying poverty in another country might not be given so much recognition.
It’s an interesting point, although many films from other nations portray urban poverty. More generally, Indian criticisms of the image of poverty in Slumdog remind me of reactions to Italian Neorealism from authorities concerned about Italy’s image abroad. The government undersecretary Giulio Andreotti claimed that films by Rossellini, De Sica, and others were “washing Italy’s dirty linen in public.” Andreotti wrote that De Sica’s Umberto D had rendered “wretched service to his fatherland, which is also the fatherland of . . . progressive social legislation.” Liberal American films of the Cold War period were sometimes castigated by members of Congress for playing into the hands of Soviet propagandists. It seems that there will always be people who consider films portraying social injustice to be too negative and failing to see the bright side of things, a side that can always be found if you look hard enough.
Moreover, Neorealists made a discovery that has resonated throughout festival cinema: feature kids. Along with sex, a child-centered plot is a central convention of non-Hollywood filmmaking, from Shoeshine and Germany Year Zero through Los Olvidados and The 400 Blows up to Salaam Bombay, numerous Iranian films, and Ramchandi Pakistani. Yes, Slumdog simplifies social problems by portraying the underclass through children’s misadventures, but this narrative device is a well-tried way to secure audience understanding. We have all been children.
There is another way to consider the poverty problem. The representation of slum life, either sentimentally or scathingly, can be found in classic Indian films of the 1950s. One of my favorites of Raj Kapoor’s work, Boot Polish (1954), tells a Dickensian tale of a brother and sister living in the slums before being rescued by a rich couple. (Interestingly, the key issue is whether to beg or do humble work.) Another example is Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land, 1953). Later, shantytown life was more harshly presented in Chakra (1981), shot on location.
And of course poverty in the countryside has not been overlooked by Indian filmmakers.
Slumdog may have become a flashpoint because more recent Indian cinema has avoided this subject. In an email to me Patrick Hogan (who hasn’t yet seem Slumdog) writes:
There was a strong progressive political orientation in Hindi cinema in the 1940s and 1950s. This declined in the 1960s until it appeared again with some works of parallel cinema. Thus there was a greater concern with the poor in the 1950s–hence the movies by Kapoor and Roy that you mention. There are some powerful works of parallel cinema that treat slum life, but they had relatively limited circulation. On the other hand, that does not mean that urban poverty disappeared entirely from mainstream cinema. At least some sense of social concern seemed to be retained in mainstream Indian culture, thus mainstream cinema, until the late 1980s.
However, at that time Nehruvian socialism was more or less entirely abandoned and replaced with neo-liberalism. In keeping with this, ideologies changed. Perhaps because the consumers of movies became the new middle classes in India and the Diaspora, there was a striking shift in what classes appeared in Hindi cinema and how classes were depicted. As many people have noted, films of the neoliberal period present images of fabulously wealthy Indians and generally focus on Indians whose standard of living is probably in the top few percentage points. . . . I don’t believe this is simply a celebration of wealth and pandering to the self-image of the nouveau riche–though it is that. I believe it is also a celebration of neoliberal policies. Neoliberal policies have been very good for some people. But they have been very bad for others. . . .
In this neoliberal cinema (sometimes misleadingly referred to as “globalized”), even relatively poor Indians are commonly represented as pretty comfortable. The difference in attitude is neatly represented by two films by Mani Ratnam—Nayakan (1987) and Guru (2007). The former is a representation of the difficulties of the poor in Indian society. The film already suffers from a loss of the socialist perspective of the 1950s films. Basically, it celebrates an “up from nothing” gangster for Robin Hood-like behavior. (This is an oversimplification, but gives you the idea.)
Guru, by contrast, celebrates a corrupt industrialist who liberates all of India by, in effect, following neoliberal policies against the laws of the government. Neither film offers a particularly admirable social vision. But the former shows the urban poor struggling against debilitating conditions. The latter simply shows a sea of happy capitalists and indicates that lingering socialistic views are preventing India from becoming the wealthiest nation in the world. Part of the propaganda for neoliberalism is pretending that poor people don’t exist any longer–or, if they do, they are just a few who haven’t yet received the benefits.
Paradoxically, then, perhaps local complaints against Slumdog arise because the film took up a subject that hasn’t recently appeared on screens very prominently. The same point seems to be made by Indian commentators and by Indian filmmakers who deplore the fact that none of their number had the courage to make such a movie. The subject demands more probing, but perhaps the outsider Boyle has helped revive interest in an important strain of the native tradition!
Finally, the issue of glamorizing the exotic. Some critics call the film “poverty porn,” but I don’t understand the label. It implies that pornography of any sort is vulgar and distressing, but which of these critics would say that it is? Most such critics consider themselves worldly enough not to bat an eye at naughty pictures. Some even like Russ Meyer.
So is the issue that the film, like pornography, prettifies and thereby falsifies its subject? Several Indian films, like Boot Polish, have portrayed poverty in a sunnier light than Slumdog, yet I’ve not heard the term applied to them. Perhaps, then, the argument is that pornography exploits eroticism for money, and Slumdog exploits Indian culture. Of course every commercial film could be said to exploit some subject for profit, which would make Hollywood a vast porn shop. (Some people think it is, but not typically the critics who apply the porn term to Slumdog.) In any case, once any commercial cinema falls under the rubric of porn, then the concept loses all specificity, if it had any to begin with.
The Slumdog project is an effort at crossover, and like all crossovers it can be criticized from either side. And it invites accusations of imperialism. A British director and writer use British and American money to make a film about Mumbai life. The film evokes popular Indian cinema in circumscribed ways. It gets a degree of worldwide theatrical circulation that few mainstream Indian films find. This last circumstance is unfair, I agree; I’ve long lamented that significant work from other nations is often ignored in mainstream US culture (and it’s one reason I do the sort of research I do). But I also believe that creators from one culture can do good work in portraying another one. No one protests that that Milos Forman and Roman Polanski, from Communist societies, made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Chinatown. No one sees anything intrinsically objectionable in the Pang brothers or Kitano Takeshi coming to America to make films. Most of us would have been happy had Kurosawa had a chance to make Runaway Train here. Conversely, Clint Eastwood receives praise for Letters from Iwo Jima.
Just as there is no single and correct “Indian” or “American” or “French” point of view on anything, we shouldn’t deny the possibility that outsiders can present a useful perspective on a culture. This doesn’t make Slumdog automatically a good film. It simply suggests that we shouldn’t dismiss it based on easy labels or the passports of its creators.
Moreover, it isn’t as if Boyle and Tandan have somehow contaminated a pristine tradition. Indian popular films have long been hybrids, borrowing from European and American cinema on many levels. Their mixture of local and international elements has helped the films travel overseas and become objects of adoration to many westerners.
I believe we should examine films for their political presuppositions. But those presuppositions require reflection, not quick labels. If I were to sketch an ideological interpretation of Slumdog, I’d return to the issue of how money is represented in an economy that traffics in maimed children, virgins, and robotic employees. Money is filthy, associated with blood, death, and commercial corruption. The beggar barracks, the brothel, the call center, and the quiz show lie along a continuum. So to stay pure and childlike one must act without concern for cash. The slumdog millionaire doesn’t want the treasure, only the princess, and we never see him collect his ten million rupees. (An American movie loves to see the loser write a check.) To invoke Neorealism again, we seem to have something like Miracle in Milan–realism of local color alongside a plot that is frankly magical.
Perhaps this quality supports the creators’ claims that the film is a fairy tale. As with all fairy tales, and nearly all movies I know, dig deep enough and you’ll find an ideological evasion. Still, that evasion can be more or less artful and engrossing.
So it seems to me enlightening and pleasurable to see every film as suspended in a web, with fibers connecting it to different traditions, many levels and patches of film history. Acknowledging this shows that most traditions aren’t easily exhausted, and that fresh filmmaking tactics can make them live again. Thinking historically need not numb us to surprises.
The amount of Web writing on Slumdog is exploding. Go to GreenCine for a good sampling of commentary from late 2008. The film’s technique is discussed in Stephanie Argy, “Rags to Riches,” American Cinematographer 89, 12 (December 2008), 44-61. Boyle shows his camera to Darren Aronofsky at Slantfilm. Kim Voynar of Movie City News reviews, critically, the Slumdog backlash.
For a more detailed rationale for this entry’s suspension of value judgments for the sake of analysis, try my earlier blog entry here. Noël Carroll discusses question-and-answer structures in narrative in several books, notably The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990), 130-136. On recent Indian action movies, see Lalitha Gopalan, Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres in Contemporary Indian Cinema (London: British Film Institute, 2002). The quotations from Giulio Andreotti come from P. Adams Sitney, Vital Crises in Italian Cinema: Iconography, Stylistics, Politics (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 107; and Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 26.
Thanks to Cathy Root, who is at work on a book on Bollywood, for advice and links. Thanks as well to Patrick Colm Hogan and Lalita Pandit for corrections, information, and ideas.
PS 2 Feb: David Chute, expert on Indian cinema, has written a helpful and balanced entry on Slumdog at his Hungry Ghost site.
PPS 14 Feb: From another expert on Indian film, Corey Creekmur, at the University of Iowa, some further ideas and references on the childhood motif:
I would emphasize that establishing a film’s narrative direction through childhood events is a dominant narrative trope in popular Indian cinema, animating many famous “golden age” examples, including Raj Kapoor’s Awara (1951), Mehboob Khan’s Anmol Ghadi (1946), and Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955), along with a number of the major 1970s films starring Amitabh Bachchan, which often carry childhood traumas into the adult character’s life. The story of brothers growing up on two sides of the law is also a Hindi film staple, central to Bachchan’s emergence as a superstar in Deewar in 1975. It seems to me curious that Slumdog Millionaire’s Western filmmakers draw on these conventions more fully than the source novel [Q & A] by a non-resident Indian does.
I attempt to explain the decades-long cultural function (and eventual waning) of this narrative trope — often achieved through a specific formal device (a dissolve from boy to man) moving from the lives of children to adults (skipping over adolescence) that I call the “maturation dissolve” — in an article “Bombay Boys: Dissolving the Male Child in Popular Hindi Cinema,” in Where the Boys Are: Cinemas of Boyhood, ed. Murray Pomerance and Frances Gateward. (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2004). In that essay I suggest that some of the Hollywood examples — as well as Citizen Kane — you mention could have inspired the Indian examples, but also suggest certain Indian sources (the childhood love of the god Krishna and his consort Radha, which informs all versions of Devdas) as well. Since I’m citing myself, I’ll also note a recent essay on the “Devdas” phenomenon in Indian cinema: “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through Devdas,” which appears in Indian Literature and Popular Cinema: Recasting Classics, ed. Heidi R. M. Pauwels (Routledge, 2008). By the way, you might also enjoy a website devoted to popular Hindi cinema by my colleague Philip Lutgendorf (with whom I regularly teach Indian cinema classes). Most of the entries on his site are his, but as you will note, sometimes he lets me put my two cents in there as well: http://www.uiowa.edu/~incinema/
PPPS 21 February: Several scholars comment on the film’s representation of the Dahravi neighborhood and the multilayered significance of Indian protests against Slumdog. See today’s New York Times here and here.