Quiz the forty-fifth: Faces of death (Part one)

This week’s quiz presents a gallery of still photography. Very still photography. You might almost say these pictures have the stillness . . . of death. There’s some real detective work to do here as we look at a gruesome line-up of crime-scene glossies and polaroids. See how many of these cold cases you can crack.

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The Tell-Tale Heart (1941)

*. We begin, much to my surprise, with an epigraph. But not from Edgar Allan Poe, whose story this is. No, it’s from Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 2 verse 15: “The law is written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness.”
*. Hm. OK. I guess the application here being that the killer has a conscience. Is that it? It doesn’t seem very appropriate to me, especially as the story doesn’t strike me as having even a glimmer of a spiritual dimension. In fact, I think you have to work pretty hard to shoehorn any kind of a Christian message into Poe generally.
*. Still, this was Hollywood in 1941 and I guess they didn’t want to be too bleak. So we get the epigraph, and an ending where the hero’s confession signals his first step toward salvation. Again, that’s nowhere in Poe but every adaptation has its own unique interpretation.
*. There is an even bigger shift from the source than this though. Poe’s story is a madman’s dramatic monologue: manic, voluble, and intense. The young man in this film (Joseph Schildkraut) is a silent, retiring figure. I imagine this is how director Jules Dassin wanted him to be played, but it still seemed to me to be a poor performance, leaving it up to Dassin to evoke the killer’s anxiety by other means.
*. This is too bad, since “The Tell-Tale Heart” is above all an oral performance. It’s a voice that grabs us from its opening appeal (“why will you say that I am mad?”). All of that is missing here. Even more perversely, the sound of the beating heart is also dropped and instead rendered visually: with zooms into the young man’s ear or pans to a dripping faucet and a pendulum clock. And instead of hearing these items the score is used to signal the killer’s breakdown by way of creepy music.
*. As I say, this strikes me as very odd. The Tell-Tale Heart was Jules Dassin’s directorial debut and maybe he just wanted to show off what he could do in terms of shooting a film and cutting it rather than worrying about the soundtrack.
*. In his obituary for Dassin, Richard Schickel opined that The Tell-Tale Heart “was possibly the very first movie to be influenced by Citizen Kane (which came out less than six months before).” I don’t know. Schickel points to a number of what he calls “Wellesian tropes” that seem pretty generic to me. In any event, I think he’s right when he goes on to say that “MGM wasn’t a studio that encouraged innovation or eccentricity,” which led to Dassin’s immediately subsequent work there to be conventional and forgettable.
*. Is it proto-noir? Well, the young man is a bit of a noir hero. He’s weak, and is pressured into making a bad decision that he’s presumably going to have to pay for. The way he’s led off at the end really has a naturalistic feel to it. A feel that, again, has nothing at all to do with Poe but which is more a house style of American cinema at the time. Poe was too bizarre yet to be handled straight up, leading to the erasure of the fascination with the old man’s eye and making him out to be a tyrannical boss instead. The upshot being the assurance that in the end our world, or at least this world, still makes sense.

A Quiet Place (2018)

*. I enjoyed A Quiet Place, but was a bit mystified by the critical response. It is not a particularly inventive or original horror film.
*. It looked and felt to me like several other movies that had come out just a year or two earlier. The conceit of the hunted protagonists having to stay absolutely silent was used in Don’t Breathe. The survivalist family sitting out the apocalypse in a remote home was used in It Comes by Night. And the basic idea of the group bunkered down, again in a remote location, while groups of alien predators who have basically taken over the world roam outside was 10 Cloverfield Lane.
*. Indeed, the set-up here was so similar to 10 Cloverfield Lane that the studio originally intended to present the story as part of the Cloverfield universe. But it was deemed to be strong enough to stand on its own.
*. Added to this is the fact that the premise here isn’t very well developed. I was constantly asking questions. Shouldn’t the aliens, which look a lot like Pumpkinhead, be rather easy to foil? Can’t they just be distracted by sounds and blown away? It’s not like they have any tech of their own. They’re just bugs.
*. Some questions I had were later answered, in ways that made the original question even more puzzling. I figured, for example, that most of the animal life had been slaughtered off. Then we see a pair of raccoons being killed by an alien. How on earth did those raccoons survive so long? What about other forest creatures? I wondered why they hadn’t set the house up with a safe/panic room that was soundproofed that Evelyn could run to when the alien attacked. Then we later see that there is such a room set up in the basement. So why didn’t she go down there? I thought that the aliens had armour that protected them from being shot, but then we see one being blasted by a shotgun. If it was that easy, where was the army? If the monsters are so easily distracted by loud noises, why doesn’t the family make use of this more often? How can the aliens not hear the humans running, or even breathing for that matter?
*. I could go on and on about things like this. Or question who was growing all that corn over a year after contact. Corn doesn’t plant itself. Or where all that water was coming from that flooded the basement. I mean, that was a lot of water. Or why Lee and Evelyn were having a baby. Couldn’t they have picked up some condoms at the pharmacy?

*. I know in every movie like this there are questions that pop up, but A Quiet Place seems to have a lot of them. So many that it starts to become a distraction. Despite being so tight a package, it doesn’t make much sense and I just didn’t think the script was all that well thought out.
*. Even the theme of the family in distress (writer-director-star John Krasinski thought the film primarily “an allegory or metaphor for parenthood”) is simplistic and presented in a fairly mechanical way. There is a tragic incident. This leads to conflict between the father and his daughter. They are reconciled.
*. The thing that impressed people the most was the fact that there were only around thirty lines of dialogue in the whole movie, along with some sign language that runs with subtitles. Originally I think the plan was not to show subtitles, and I think that would have been better. We know what’s being communicated.
*. What I find interesting about this is how much it underlines the fact that in many such action-thrillers the dialogue is almost wholly superfluous anyway. What information does it impart? It reminds me of the time I was on a plane once and the in-flight movie was Armageddon and the person sitting beside me watched the whole thing, rapt, without earphones. This struck me as weird at first, but then I figured that hearing any of the dialogue in that film wouldn’t have made any difference to your enjoyment of it.
*. I guess I’ve sounded rather negative here. But as I began by saying, I thought A Quiet Place was good entertainment. The cast performs well. The second half has a number of decent suspense sequences, though they start to become predictable because they all play out the same way (someone is threatened until a noise is made that distracts the alien).
*. A horror classic it isn’t. It needed to be tightened up considerably. But as a creepy creature feature it’s definitely above average and worth checking out.

It Comes by Night (2017)

*. According to writer-director Trey Edward Shults the inspiration for this film lay in his reuniting with his dying father, a scene which is gruesomely re-enacted in the pre-title sequence here and which is then inverted at the end to provide a depressing frame. This business of saying good-bye was considered by Shults to be “the essence of what the movie was getting at.”
*. It’s a powerful personal theme to explore, but I think it loses something in being bolted on to such a conventional thriller plot. This is standard post-apocalyptic fare, of the kind that doesn’t bother with much fleshing out. A plague has wiped out most of humanity, leaving small groups of survivors scavenging for food and water. I don’t know why water should be such a precious commodity. Aren’t there still streams and springs? One gets the sense Shults didn’t think a lot of this through. He had the germ of the film in the opening scene and then just fell back on a standard bunker plot.
*. The title is another example of this same process of building up around images and ideas that aren’t well developed. The “it” has no clear meaning or referent. I’ve heard that it may refer to Travis’s dreams, but then shouldn’t it be “they” come at night? I’ve also heard that “it” may refer to the family’s fear, but then it seems to be present during the day as well. Shults’s own explanation is that the title came to him early on in the writing process and it just stuck in his head. He also said it might mean the need to rest, which comes at night.
*. This may be nit-picking. And it may not be, since the germ of a story and the title of the film are not nothing.
*. As for the film itself, it struck me as typical of a lot of the minimalist (low-budget) horror of this period, which seems intent on seeing how much it can squeeze out of extreme constraints, like setting most of the movie inside a single house. Think of the Paranormal Activity movies, or Don’t Breathe. These movies are all about the atmosphere.
*. The set-up is also pretty typical. The boarded-up house suggests the siege archetype, though it’s interesting that nothing is really done with this. Aside from the other family that shows up, there are no immediate external threats. This may be deliberately done to underline the ironic theme that the real enemy is within, or it may just be another example of a part of the movie that doesn’t really go anywhere or mean anything.
*. I think it does mean something, though mainly on a symbolic level. I’ve called this a bunker film, which is a sort of sub-genre of the siege movie. Unlike the traditional siege movie, a bunker plot has a small group isolated in a structure that they plan on living in for quite a while. It’s a survivalist fantasy along the lines of 10 Cloverfield Lane and other such films.
*. The other thing about bunker films is that they place an emphasis on the family, or of parodies of the family (A Quiet Place was next up). This is the essential human social unit that has to survive the apocalypse so such movies usually play up this angle in various ways. Of course, in this film it’s absolutely central. One can see the social anxiety being highlighted, with the nuclear family in need of something like a nuclear bomb shelter in order to survive in the twenty-first century.
*. The bunker seems an allegory for a lot of different things, but primarily of a world beset by troubles that is forced to turn on itself. The family that shows up on the doorstep might be terrorists or immigrants, but in the end it doesn’t even matter. However innocent, they are still the Other, a force of chaos and disorder, violators of the sanctuary, carriers of the disease of modernity.
*. On the one hand this seems pretty simple, but in the end I don’t think a whole lot is done with it. I keep coming back to the sense I had that Shults hadn’t thought everything through, or perhaps that he wasn’t that interested in following up on all the ideas he introduced. I’ve mentioned some examples of this already, but another example might be the vagueness of what happens to Stanley (the dog). What does happen to Stanley? I don’t mind a bit of mystery — I’m fine, for example, with not knowing what Stanley went chasing after in the woods — but how Stanley got back in the house and how he was killed just struck me as pointlessly enigmatic.
*. I think leaving this unexplained was intentional, but I don’t know how intentional. On the DVD commentary Shults says he never explains who opened the door, so he was at least aware of the blanks in the story. But he seems not to have been much bothered by it and what I don’t know is if he had a purpose in not saying what was going on. It seems a major point to me. Who would have killed the dog and why? Strangers? Someone in the house? Should the crisis that ends the film, the falling out between the two families, be brought on by a misunderstanding that has no explanation that makes any sense?
*. It’s a good looking movie that works up its few suspense sequences well. The ending packs an emotional punch that was unexpected. The small cast do their job. Despite all this, however, I didn’t come away from it thinking it was much more than was advertised. I wanted to read more into it, but didn’t get very far.

Night Moves (1975)

*. Night Moves is often characterized as a modern noir, with a plot about a decadent moneyed family’s seedy past that seems torn from the pages of a Ross Macdonald novel. It is typical of such stories that they involve complications they’re not very concerned about explaining.
*. In the case of Night Moves I think there’s more at work than just the usual casual indifference to wrapping everything up neatly at the end. It seems to me that the plot’s many unresolved mysteries are left intentionally vague.
*. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the death of Ziegler. Here’s Roger Ebert, who rated Night Moves one of his Great Movies: “The plot can be understood, but not easily, and not on first viewing, and besides, the point is that Moseby is as lost as we are. Something is always turning up to force him to revise everything he thought he knew, and then at the end of the film he has to revise everything again, and there is a shot where one of the characters, while drowning, seems to be desperately shaking his head as if to say — what? ‘I didn’t mean to do this’? ‘I didn’t know who was in the boat’? ‘In the water’? ‘You don’t understand’?”
*. If Arthur Penn, or screenwriter Alan Sharp, had wanted to have Ziegler explain something … anything … they could have. That they didn’t, and wanted to end on such a note, says something.

*. There are other deliberate mysteries. For example: what was Delly going to say on the voice message she left for Harry? Does Harry even go back to listen to it? Was Delly murdered? If so, was the intention to kill Ziegler as well? Why? Was there any significance to the fact that Ellen works in antiques and that’s what the bad guys are smuggling? Was there a connection between Delly and what was going on? As Vincent Canby asked, “Why does Mummy seek the return of the child, who she clearly detests?” Was Harry being set up, or was his involvement just an accident from the beginning? Why would they set him up? How would that work? It seems to me they would have done better to leave him out of it.
*. I don’t see where there’s any answer to these questions, or even much to be gained from speculating on them. They’re left unanswered and unanswerable on purpose or for a reason. The question then is, What’s the reason?

*. My guess is that it’s meant to underline Harry’s own confusion. There’s a reason that boat is named the “Point of View” and it’s stuck at the end going around in circles. Harry has a limited point of view that we never get outside. He just doesn’t have enough information to really solve the case, which seems to involve a lot more than he thought it did. Or that we thought it did.
*. The reason Harry is so limited in his point of view is that he’s a loner. He can’t get outside himself. This is why he only plays chess with himself, going over games that have already been played (or solved). This is why he can’t really be seduced. This is why his wife is leaving him. He doesn’t tell her anything important about himself. They don’t communicate. She’s as surprised to find out about what happened when he tracked down his father as he is to see Ziegler at the end.
*. Of course there’s plenty of irony in Harry being a specialist in investigating adulterous affairs and not even being aware that his own marriage is blowing up. For how long has Ellen’s cheating been going on? Months? Years? And note that he isn’t even suspicious when he finds out. He just stumbles upon her infidelity because he happens to be driving by the cinema she’s coming out of.

*. A couple of newbies in the cast demand attention. James Wood is here in one of his first films. He would have been in his mid-20s when it was shot but looks about ten years older and is already displaying his manic tendencies. Did he ever dial it back?
*. I’m not sure how old Melanie Griffith was in this, her credited debut. Either 16 or 17. And not only is she naked, she’s available. How did they get away with that?
*. Dede Allen was a celebrated film editor and a frequent collaborator with Penn. One of her hallmarks was an attitude toward continuity that seems at times like perversity. I’m not sure she always gets away with it. There are some really rough patches in this film that I couldn’t see much of a point to.
*. I love Tom picking up the conch shell and using it as brass knuckles. I wonder if that was improvised.

*. This is a movie I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand I don’t find it very compelling, whether because of the gaps in the plot or just the overall sense that it’s unclear what it’s about beyond the story of Harry Moseby’s unhappy life. Is it also meant to have something to say about America’s post-Watergate malaise? Hollywood?
*. But then there’s the good stuff. I like the cast, with Hackman really coming through as the not-nearly-bright-enough detective, Jennifer Warren doing a great turn as the ambiguous tomboy, and John Crawford as a beachcomber gone to seed. But most of all what has stayed with me are a handful of scenes that are indelible. The nude nymph Delly discovering the wrecked plane underwater. The almost grotesque dance that Tom and Paula do. And the final frantic game of charades that Harry and Ziegler conduct through those layers of glass and water, so suggestive of some meaning that’s getting murkier and further away from us all the time.

Devil’s Knot (2013)

*. I’m not sure what the point was. I’d read Mara Leveritt’s book of the same name on the West Memphis Three, and I’d seen the documentary trilogy of Paradise Lost films that Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made on the case and its fallout, as well as the 2012 Amy Berg documentary West of Memphis. It’s a hell of a story, but did it need to be made into a dramatic film?
*. It’s not like there was anything new to say. We still don’t know who was the responsible for the murder of the three boys. Much suspicion has been directed at Terry Hobbs, but the film can’t do anything more than continue to give him the side eye. Even Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon) is shown as having had her doubts about him all along.
*. I can see the attraction it may have held for Atom Egoyan. He’s been fascinated by these stories of murky guilt and the loss of innocence for a while. But his signature restraint seems an ill fit here.
*. In particular, I don’t know what it is with Egoyan and actors. Does he want them to play so stiff? The script is heavy enough with solemn and overly earnest dialogue. It’s like the cast only have a chance to appear human or natural when they’re not speaking, leaving Witherspoon to take over a couple of scenes just with her eyes. The effect is to bleed the film of almost any sense of tension or suspense, outrage or concern.
*. There’s not much else to say here. Colin Firth is miscast and never seems that comfortable in his role. The action moves at a sedate pace, but there’s so much information to get through that the larger story remains unclear in places even to those familiar with it. And finally we’re left unsure of where the film’s focus is ulimately being directed. When I asked what the point of this film was I didn’t just mean that it’s a story that’s already been told. I mean why tell this story in this way? Egoyan must have seemed an obvious choice, but at the end of the day I really don’t think he was the right guy for the job.

West of Memphis (2012)

*. Right around the halfway point of West of Memphis, a feature documentary dealing with the case of the West Memphis Three, producer Fran Walsh remarks how “this crime was not nearly as convoluted nor so twisted as the public were led to believe.”
*. On the particular point of the crime itself this may be true. A closer look at the evidence suggests that the murder of the three boys probably wasn’t a sex killing, or a case of Satanic ritual abuse, but rather just an act of rage. However, the case did become convoluted and twisted. Hence much of the fascination it has had.
*. Of course if you ask whether the imagination dwells the most on a crime solved or a crime unsolved the answer is going to be the latter. The hold on our imagination of cases running from Jack the Ripper to JonBenet Ramsey won’t let go because they are mysteries that have never been explained. There had already been a three-part documentary made on this case (the third part of which came out just before this film), and Atom Egoyan would make a dramatic feature out of it a year later. This is the sort of thing that happens when there’s no closure.
*. It seems to me that West of Memphis is really two movies that don’t always fit that well together. The first is the story of the three young men who were accused of the crime and their long legal struggle for freedom. The second is an invesitgation into the murders and who might have been responsible.
*. The first story I didn’t find that well handled. There’s too much emphasis placed on Demian Echols and his wife Lorri Davis. Echols was actually a co-producer on the film. The other two members of the WM3, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, are only briefly heard from at the end. In sum, I didn’t think there was anything new here, and while I have all the sympathy in the world for Echols, who ironically comes across as one of the most normal people we meet in the film, I didn’t find any of this material that interesting.
*. The second story is more complicated, being the unsolved mystery I mentioned earlier. Basically, the case is made for Terry Hobbs being the killer, and some of this made me a bit uncomfortable. There is evidence presented that Hobbs was a bad person, and I certainly wouldn’t be shocked if he were responsible. I don’t want to seem like I’m defending him. On the other hand, there’s nothing like a rock-solid case against him and a lot of the evidence is circumstantial or hearsay. A film about the miscarriage of justice in a rush to judgment shouldn’t be this quick to point fingers. At the end of the day Hobbs is still only a person of interest.
*. What I found most interesting about West of Memphis is that it’s a story of guilt and innocence, but not in the expected way. It’s the system that is being judged and the guilt is on the part of the authorities who not only did nothing to pump the brakes on this (literal) witch hunt but who actively encouraged it. It’s depressing how we see all the minor players in the drama recanting their testimony and confessing their sins but none of the men who actually had any power over what was going on. This is, sadly, how it often works. Admitting to anything leads to liability, and that’s something no one wants to risk.
*. While I’m in broad agreement with the stance that’s taken, judged as a documentary I think West of Memphis is only just fair. It tells a complex, convoluted story and I found the movie had a tendency to track that story’s wanderings, slipping in and out of focus as it moved about. Still, as a record of an infamous case and its injustices it’s an important film with a message for all of us.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

*. I suppose the place we have to start talking about The Shawshank Redemption is with its cult.
*. The word needs some explanation. I don’t mean cult in the sense of an underground or indie favourite — The Shawshank Redemption is as far from that as you can imagine. Instead, I’m using cult to refer to the movie’s committed following, which (just to put my cards on the table) seems irrational to me.
*. When I say it’s irrational I’m talking more about the intensity of feeling the movie inspires rather than the fact that a lot of people like it. As is well known, for many years it was at the very top of the IMDb polls as the highest rated movie ever made (David Thomson: “Times are hard.”). And indeed it continues to hold a special, indeed singular place in many people’s hearts. This is one of those strange cultural facts that critics and commentators have for many years now struggled to explain.
*. I don’t think I can explain it either, aside from pointing out the obvious. It’s a feel-good movie with a message about the power of hope and the triumph of the human spirit. What’s not to like about that? Everything about it goes down as smooth as Morgan Freeman’s buttery narration, and while it mocks religious hypocrisy (a favourite target of author Stephen King) its own point of view is infused with spiritual feeling.
*. With regard to this final point, here’s a line about the film from David Thomson that I have to correct. Thomson writes that “It comes from a novella by Stephen King broadly dedicated to the notion that good nature will come through in the end, yet this is a principle that seldom operates in Mr. King’s customary horror works.” This isn’t true. King has always mocked organized religion, but his belief in a special providential force in the universe that sees to it that goodness and virtue receive their reward is almost always operative in his work. This is one of the things that has made him such a popular author, and which no doubt has contributed much to the staying power of this film.
*. Roger Ebert, a critic who could often be a reasonable proxy for an Everyman (I say that without any snark), had this to say about the Shawshank phenomenon: “Films about ‘redemption’ are approached with great wariness; a lot of people are not thrilled by the prospect of a great film – it sounds like work. But there’s a hunger for messages of hope, and when a film offers one, it’s likely to have staying power even if it doesn’t grab an immediate audience.”
*. So . . . hope. Redemption. The triumph of the human spirit. “No good thing ever dies” (that’s a quote from the film). There is a “hunger for messages” like this. The Shawshank Redemption is soul food for the needy.
*. It’s not to my tastes. I think it’s nicely turned out, but at the end of the day it’s such a hokey, clichéd  fairy tale I couldn’t get anything out of it. Instead of feeling uplifted at the end as Andy and Red meet for a chaste hug on that great, safely nondemoninational heaven of a beach in Mexico with all the money in the world I just thought to myself, “Well, that’s nice.” How much more can you read into a film so well-meaning and so bland? Its chief virtue is its simplicity, resilient to criticism and open to all manner of interpretation. Apparently there is a whole moral philosophy contained in the admonishment to “get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’,” but it’s a line that strikes me as meaningless. Am I trying too hard?