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Mesrine

Friday March 5, 2010 in 2009 cinema | crime

Mesrine was released in UK cinemas in 2009 and is now available on DVD. This four hour biopic of the French criminal Jacques Mesrine is divided into two parts, Killer Instinct and Public Enemy Number One. Roughly, the films cover Mesrine’s life in the 1960s and 1970s respectively and while both do differ in tone it is highly recommended that they are viewed in quick succession. Indeed, I found Mesrine so superb that I think this would be difficult to avoid. Vincent Cassel is excellent in the title role; mesmerising, frightening, sickly charming and most importantly believable as a ruthless – well, bank robber, gangster, political activist, kidnapper, cold blooded killer. Take your pick.

Vincent Cassel as Jacques MesrineBeginning in 1959, when the young Mesrine was a soldier in Algiers, the films follow him until his death in 1979. I’m not giving anything away here; Killer Instinct begins at the end as it were – in 1979, where Mesrine is followed by police and assassinated in the streets of Paris. It’s an incredible opening, extremely tense, and adds much to the effect of the end of Public Enemy Number One, when these events are chillingly replayed. The opening of Killer Instinct also hints at Cassel’s ability to play a man who ages two decades; he manages to convey both the physical and behavioural changes that happen over this time.

Killer Instinct charts Mesrine’s blossoming life of crime, beginning with his early rebellion against the constraints of his middle class family, to involvement with criminal lowlife and association with a powerful crime boss (a fine cameo from Gerard Depardieu). Mesrine’s relationships with others play very heavily throughout the two films. As the soldier in Algiers, we see him forced to execute a woman who is one of a group of prisoners. Hesitating, he kills her brother instead – an early sign of his insurgency and of his attitude to women. One that’s open to interpretation. Later, when his wife questions his growing association with the underworld, he lashes out and puts a gun to her head. It’s difficult to determine if this is purely bravado in front of his friends or something much deeper. Throughout the two films Mesrine finds it hard to differentiate between prostitutes and partners; he often confuses the two. If I had one criticism it would be that his relationship with his daughter, who is only glimpsed briefly, is never fully explored. But maybe in reality her presence in his life was only this fleeting.

Public Enemy Number One catches up with Mesrine as France’s most notorious and wanted criminal, escaping from countless prisons, fleeing from one courtroom with a hostage judge and charming the jury of another, almost a Robin Hood figure although the film is smart enough to gently remind that this isn’t really true. In one section, he forces a family to smuggle him away in the boot of their car after he has burgled a casino (he’s had the audacity to pose as a policeman to do this – audacity is what made him so successful for so long; in another scene he insists that the detective arresting him share a bottle of champagne). Towards the end of Public Enemy Number One he is shown violently abusing a journalist who has had the temerity to crriticise him in an article. Like all folklore villains, Mesrine reveals that his own selfish interests lie at his heart; he may be ostensibly charming but overstep the line and you are in trouble. And remember, it’s not “Mez-rine” it’s “Merrine”. He was very touchy about the pronunciation.

Cassel is a fascinating actor to watch, although by no stretch of the imagination handsome. Where Killer Instinct accustoms the viewer to his – let’s be kind here – distinctive features, rather large of nose and thickly moustached. the second film shows Mesrine as the master of disguise he became in a life on the run. A variety of wigs and beards ensue which again lead neatly to the assassination scene (where Mesrine is fashioned with a goatee and thick curly hair). Thankfully, the films don’t overdose on period detail in a way that, perhaps, Martin Scorsese would do, and the only excess I noted was Mesrine’s brief tenure in London shortly before his death where the soundtrack plays London Calling by The Clash and we’re shown amiable bobbies in Hyde Park. But mostly it refrains from romanticising the period 1959 to 1979.

Although highly watchable, Mesrine is by no means an original film. It unashamedly takes elements from The Godfather, Escape From Alcatraz, Papillon, Goodfellas and countless other memorable examples of the crime genre. At times it looks like it’s going to lurch into cliché but somehow always manages to remain interesting. One example of this is Mesrine’s time in a high security jail. His period in solitary confiement, stripped of all dignity, will be familiar to moviegoers, as is the archetypal exercise yard scene. This is where the lead actor, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Tim Robbins or in this case Cassel, step out into the bright sunshine of the prison exercise yard. Inmates wear denim shirts. Some play basketball, while others huddle around making deals or squaring up to one another. At least one is huge, bald and bearded. Wardens watch from high towers, training their sights on troublemakers. Mesrine plays to all of these cliches but somehow manages to make this fresh and exciting. The scene where he escapes armed only with a pair of wire cutters is one of the most exciting in recent cinema, as is the section where he attempts an ill-judged rescue attempt for inmates in the same prison.

I don’t feel sorry for Mesrine, although the film concludes with an interesting point and one made by the criminal himself. So smart, so fearless and so able to evade capture, the only choice for the establishment was to gun him down. Somehow this is unjust, that the authorities gave up attempting to catch and imprison him and took the easy option, were cowardly and cheated. And Public Enemy Number One ends with the impression that the police were well aware of this failure, and would have to always live with it.

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Dead Man Waking

Wednesday September 23, 2009 in television | crime

I’ve welcomed the return of Waking the Dead with open arms. It’s one of the best things on television in recent years. One of the many reasons to champion it is Trevor Eve, who continues to give a stunning performance in the lead role of Boyd, a fascinating, difficult and forever hard to read and unpredictable detective.

Trevor Eve and Tara Fitzgerald in Waking the DeadBoyd is, at times, quite a nasty piece of work, a likely reason why he’s so popular with viewers. He’s usually sullen and humourless, so miserable that he makes Inspector Morse look like Ken Dodd. Boyd is controlling and manipulative, often coming across as equally unlikeable as the villains he’s trying to catch. He gets what he wants, appearing at his most charming when there’s something clear in his sight (in an episode I shall call The Nasty Heart Surgeon he’s particularly friendly to a little girl, but only because her father is one of Boyd’s likely suspects). A viewer won’t go as far as shouting “boo, hiss!” at Boyd but is likely to say “you bastard!” at least once per episode.

Boyd has his demons, brought to the fore at the close of the last season with the death of his son. Consequently, he is a man who often appears on the brink. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly either. In fact he doesn’t take anyone at all gladly. And, this being a modern detective series, there’s no such thing as a softly, softly approach. When a suspect needs questioning they usually face Boyd full on, the rest of the team watching open mouthed behind a two way mirror, poised ready to pull him out if – and when – he goes too far. Grace (Sue Johnston) often steps in as the voice of reason when this happens (in The Nasty Heart Surgeon he leaves a female officer alone with a rape suspect, in the episode I shall call East European Illegal Organ Trading he deliberately sets off a sprinkler system in a bid to unnerve a suspect with a phobia about water). Grace is usually the best at calming things down (though she doesn’t actually say “calm down, calm down”, which might have been a neat touch considering her Brookside roots). Grace is the police psychologist. Boyd accepts her role but dismisses it where he can, viewing his own role as something more “concrete”.

your job’s all abstract … airy fairy … at least I get down to the nitty gritty.

The current series finds the team in a new headquarters, a dark and gloomy cavern where they look like leads in one of the sparser stagings of a Beckett play. In the opening episode Grace asks Boyd where her office is. He gestures to an unlit corner muttering “over there”. The most we can hope for in the way of lighting is a mean rationing of Ikea spotlights. The team unpick their cold cases, unsolved crimes from the past, by sticking post-its on a see-through wall. A very striking visual technique, something I’ve been trying to get for the office for ages. The almost gothic setting for the team HQ in Waking the Dead reminds me of the one in Torchwood, although this is possibly the only link between these two programmes you’re likely to see. Both though feature a team of experts who appear to operate just outside of the law (in The Very Nasty Heart Surgeon Boyd is investigated for breaking and entering). There’s also a very good share of strong female characters. Supporting members of the team also have a tendency to get killed off. No aliens of course, although the team leader does have a fondness for wearing long coats.

Waking the Dead does feature an inevitable quota of clichéd acting, here giving a generous amount of time to computer acting. Our team appear unaware of mouse functionality, and use all of their computer applications by furiously tapping away at the keyboard. At least everything is nicely keyboard accessible. Eve (played by Tara Fitzgerald) is particularly good on the computer. In the episode I shall call It Had to be Twins she constructs an entire 3D simulation of a house interior and peppers it with visual representations of DNA samples found at the crime scene. All by keyboard. Eve’s genius at forensics (Boyd often shows his silent exasperation at her thoroughness) is balanced by Spencer (Wil Johnson), who appears ostensibly as some no-nonsense muscle but is a man often deeply affected by things. Spencer is dropping hints that he wants to leave the team. With only two more episodes to go, I can’t help thinking that there might be something horrible in store for him.

The stories in Waking the Dead are at times preposterous and convoluted, although I always find them fascinating and always gripping. This is helped by the excellent performances. In It Had to be Twins, the lamest of plot devices (“ah, they were twins all along”) unfolded as a believable mystery stretching back to 1967 and featuring two interweaving stories that I found connected rather cleverly. “East European illegal organ trading” was particularly darkly themed, where the series was allowed to become its most Silence of the Lambs ish. For good measure, I also found a similarity with 28 Days Later where Spencer has a most disturbing encounter. Boyd was again allowed to be his horrible self, and became particularly agitated by Eve’s romantic involvement with a murder suspect. Cue one of the best “you bastard!” moments and Boyd at his most controlling.

At times, but only very rarely, does Waking the Dead give in to lazy plotting, such as Boyd’s ease of tracking down a rapist through a “relative’s” DNA in The Very Nasty Heart Surgeon. In the same story, one suspect hides evidence as a security measure against another; the second suspect finding this evidence all too easily. All in all, however, this is superiorly cerebral stuff and shows how far tv has come, with an irony being the presence of Trevor Eve. We can remember him fondly from Shoestring when he played the most amiable of detectives, and the antithesis of Boyd. But Shoestring was 30 years ago, and a world as quaint perhaps as Dixon o’ Dock Green. Perhaps Waking the Dead doesn’t really portray the world we live in today, only the tv version of it, but authentic or not I can still enjoy it just as much as Torchwood.

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Murder In Mind

Tuesday April 17, 2007 in books read 2007 | crime

Sigmund Freud visited New York in 1909 for his only trip to the US. His experience forms the backdrop to The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld, with Freud and Carl Jung joining a cast of both real and imaginary characters in this lengthy crime novel.

Jed Rubenfeld: The Interpretation of Murder

Although it might give that impression when first picked up, The Interpretation of Murder doesn’t cast Freud as a Sherlock Holmes character. Instead the sleuthing is left to two fictional characters, Dr Younger and Inspector Littlemore, the former a keen practitioner of psychoanalysis (and a fan of Shakespeare to boot), and the latter a conventional New York cop.

Murder and sexual perversion are at the heart of this novel. A girl is apparently murdered, with another left molested and disturbed. Younger and Littlemore to the rescue but … sorry … I can’t go on. Unfortunately The Interpretation of Murder is a real bore. Freud and Jung, by far the most interesting characters in the novel, remain mostly in the background as the increasingly convoluted plot takes hold. Rebenfeld may know his subject matter (he’s written a thesis on Freud) but he’s no novelist. This novel lacks pace, believability and any real sense of mystery. As a writer, I’d put Rubenfeld in the Dan Brown league. And that’s not a compliment.

The novel has been praised for the authentic depiction of Manhattan at the dawn of the 20th Century and in part I agree; the relentless building work as skyscrapers are rapidly erected, the social divides, the emergence of the automobile – by far the best part in the book is where the crazed villain of the piece hauls a distraught horse up in the air by a crane – but it isn’t substantial enough. And Rubenfeld let me down. Another interesting part of the novel is the description of the underwater construction of the foundations for New York’s bridges with workers risking their lives in the subterranean caissons. Alas the truth of this has to be stretched a little to serve the plot, which ruins the supposed ‘educational’ aspect of the book.

All in all, I was desperate to finish this novel and was glad when it was all over. Rather like Freud’s impression of America:

His face seemed much more deeply furrowed than it had been a week ago, his back slightly bent, his eyes a decade older. As I began to disembark, he called out my name….‘Let me be honest with you, my boy,’ he said, from under his umbrella, as the rain poured down. ‘This country of yours: I am suspicious of it. Be careful. It brings out the worst in people – crudeness, ambition, savegery. There is too much money. I see the prudery for which your country is famous, but it is brittle. It will shatter in the whirlwind of gratification being called forth. America, I fear, is a mistake. A gigantic mistake, to be sure, but still a mistake.’

Note to self: avoid bestsellers.

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