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Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend is Charles Dickens last completed novel (he would die before finishing The Mystery of Edwin Drood), serialized in 1864-65. My first introduction to the story came with the 1998 BBC adaptation, which is excellent, and it has remained one of Dickens’ novels that I enjoy the most.

Some critics have said that the River Thames (always just called “the river” in the story) is the true main character of the book. Filthy and polluted, the river is a source of both life and death. People earn their living on the river, drown and are resurrected in the river, follow the river towards their destination. It seems to contain all that is both good and horrible in England and much of the story and characters are connected to it in one way or another.

On the death of the old miser John Harmon, who made a fortune with dust mounds (he basically collected, removed and recycled rubbish), his long-banished son, also called John Harmon, must return to collect his fortune. But in order to inherit, the will indicates that he must marry a young lady called Bella Wilfer, whom he has never met. But a body is found in the river and it is believed to be his body. The money then passes to Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, good and unpretentious servants to Harmon.

As in all Dickens novels, it’s difficult to summarize his books because there are so many characters, whose plots weave in and out of each other’s. The body in the river is found by Gaffer Hexam, who earns a living stealing from the bodies he finds in the river. His daughter is Lizzie, who attracts the interest of the usually bored gentleman, Eugene Wrayburn. Lizzie also attracts the interest of her brother’s “decent” headmaster, a man who has been called the Norman Bates of Victorian literature: Bradley Headstone. Everything about him is described as decent, yet nearly everyone who comes into contact with him can palpably sense that something is off.

Mr. Boffin soon acquires a mysterious secretory named John Rokesmith, who falls in love with Bella Wilfer. Rogue Riderhood, who claims to be “a[n] honest man as gets my living by the sweat of my brow” working on the river, in reality lives up to his name of Rogue. The Jewish Mr. Riah is Dickens’ attempt to atone for creating the evil Jewish Fagin. Riah is kind and sympathetic and becomes the surrogate father to Jenny Wren, a friend of Lizzie’s. Mrs. Higden is the poor woman who possesses a horror of the workhouse. Con artists, villains, innocents, and unforgettable characters abound.

Gaffer Hexam and Lizzie look for bodies in the river – illustrated by Marcus Stone

Besides the river, another theme that seems to be consistent throughout the entire story is that of stalking. Everyone seems to be stalking someone, whether for good or ill. Stalking them, watching them, loving them from a distance, resenting them, searching for them, testing them. At one point Bradley Headstone is stalking Eugene Wrayburn, who is looking for Lizzie. The line between love and obsession seems a thin one at times.

Another theme, of course, is that of greed and the corrosive effect of it on people. Greed and lust for money – miserliness once one has money. Not to mention murder, jealousy, lust, greed, hatred, obsession, indifference…

Perhaps one of my favorite parts of the novel is this quote from Mr. Twemlow, an insignificant member of Society (Society being an entity that requires capitalization) who startles everyone by bursting forth at the end of the book after spending eight hundred pages being passed over and ignored and used more as a useful appendage at Society gatherings. I like this quote because it provides a more expansive definition of love. Love is a word used so often that it becomes nearly meaningless, but Mr. Twemlow inadvertently provides a beautiful description of love’s varied facets (which I will put in bold letters). Mr. Twemlow is referring to a marriage contracted by a gentleman to a woman from the bottom of society that has turned Society aghast (operating like a sort of hollow Greek chorus providing commentary on the events of the story, but woefully out of touch and bound by their rules and self-congratulations).

‘A gentleman can have no feelings who contracts such a marriage,’ flushes Podsnap.

‘Pardon me, sir,’ says Twemlow, rather less mildly than usual, ‘I don’t agree with you. If this gentleman’s feelings of gratitude, of respect, of admiration, and affection, induced him (as I presume they did) to marry this lady–‘

‘This lady!’ echoes Podsnap.

‘Sir,’ returns Twemlow, with his wristbands bristling a little, ‘YOU repeat the word; I repeat the word. This lady. What else would you call her, if the gentleman were present?’

This being something in the nature of a poser for Podsnap, he merely waves it away with a speechless wave.

‘I say,’ resumes Twemlow, ‘if such feelings on the part of this gentleman, induced this gentleman to marry this lady, I think he is the greater gentleman for the action, and makes her the greater lady. I beg to say, that when I use the word, gentleman, I use it in the sense in which the degree may be attained by any man. The feelings of a gentleman I hold sacred, and I confess I am not comfortable when they are made the subject of sport or general discussion.’

Gratitude, respect, admiration, and affection live on, though Society is too blinkered to notice.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2017 in Books

 

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Les Miserables (1952)

It’s a testament to the inherent power of Victor Hugo’s story that even in a lesser film adaptation of Les Miserables, something of that power comes through. The 1952 adaption by 20th Century Fox is definitely a lesser adaptation, but there is something about that story of a convict hunted by the law and struggling to do right that never fails to uplift: redemption, mercy vs. the law, love, suffering, persecution, and revolution – good stuff.

The story occurs during the reign of Louis XVIII, who was restored to the throne after the overthrow of Napoleon, and Louis-Philippe. The convict and fugitive, Jean Valjean, is portrayed by Michael Rennie, fresh off his success as Klaatu in The Day The Earth Stood Still. His nemesis, Inspector Javert, is played by Robert Newton (who ineluctably made me think of a pirate). Sylvia Sidney appears as the doomed prostitute, Fantine, and her daughter, Cosette, is played by Debra Paget. Cameron Mitchell is Cosette’s love interest, Marius. The Thenadiers are entirely eliminated from the film, along with their daughter, Eponine. The good bishop who shows mercy to Valjean is Edmund Gwenn (of Kris Kringle fame).

Adapting Les Miserables is always a challenge, though it certainly hasn’t stopped anyone. There are numerous adaptations. Characters and subplots have to be cut. The key seems to be creating a thread that holds it all together and keeps the film from turning into episodic snapshots. For the musical, the central thread can best be summed up in the song “Do You Hear the People Sing” – “will you join in our crusade/who will be strong and stand with me/somewhere beyond the barricade/is there a world you want to see.

In the excellent 1935 film – starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton – all other characters fade and the film becomes a deeply felt conflict between the two men, who represent mercy and the law respectively. Their interactions crackle with tension and Charles Laughton in particular is compelling as Javert.

Valjean (Rennie) and Fantine (Sidney)

That central tension is missing in the ’52 adaptation and the film becomes somewhat episodic and aimless. There isn’t a central focus. Part of the problem is the script and the other part is the cast. Robert Newton is a marvelous Long John Silvers and a marvelous Bill Sykes, but as Javert, he lacks the kind of concentrated intensity and conviction to make one believe that he would kill himself because of an inability to reconcile mercy with justice. As my sister put it, it’s like he chases Valjean into the sewers because he’s personally affronted that a convict would show him pity.

Michael Rennie himself looks rather dashing, occasionally reminding me of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in his voice and manner. He seems a bit young to be Jean Valjean. The years of suffering and conviction are missing. Which might explain why the last bit of the film turns into a kind of love triangle between him, Marius, and his ward, Cosette.

Debra Paget as Cosette by far gets the most to do of any Cosette I have ever seen. Cosette is usually overshadowed by Fantine, by Eponine. She often comes off more like a plot device, a motivation for nearly every character, rather than an actual character herself. However, in this version she is more integrated (somewhat at the expense of Javert). She knows the history of Valjean. She seems to have more freedom of movement, more agency (deciding whether to stay with Marius or go to England with Valjean). But the film plays around with the idea that Valjean loves Cosette and Marius certainly believes it, thinking Valjean is using Cosette’s gratitude to keep her near him. It’s an odd twist for the story to take, pushing it into soap opera territory.

On the whole, it is an underwhelming Les Miserables, but as I said, some of that inherent grandeur remains. It’s just such a great story. The confrontation between Javert and Valjean over the sickbed of Fantine. The chase in the sewer. The slaughter of the revolutionaries. The forgiveness and grace of the bishop towards Valjean. Javert’s suicide. Valjean confessing that he is the convict to a court about to condemn an innocent man. These are the moments that make it into every single adaptation and never lose their impact, though that impact varies. If you have to see only one Les Miserables, however, I would recommend the 1935 version with March and Laughton.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2017 in Movies

 

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Contraband (1940)

Contraband is a comic romantic spy thriller in the vein of The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich. It also marks the second time that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger worked together. Not as well known as their later films, or as Hitchcock’s early spy thrillers, Contraband nevertheless is an unexpectedly fun film.

Though the film was released in 1940, the story is set in 1939, before Britain was at war with Germany. Captain Hans Andersen (Conrad Veidt) is the captain of a Danish freighter bringing supplies to his homeland. But his ship is stopped by the British Navy. Though not yet at war, the British are in a state of military preparedness and are stopping all ships to check for contraband intended for the Germans. But while his ship is moored near London, Captain Andersen is drawn into the intrigues of several of his passengers, including the mysterious Mrs. Sorensen (Valerie Hobson).

When Contraband was released in America, it was titled Blackout, which Michael Powell later admitted was a more appropriate title. Nearly all of the story occurs during one night, with London subject to a blackout (nightly blackouts which would last for the entire war). All outdoor lights are off, windows are blocked with heavy curtains, cars drive without lights, air raid wardens roam the city looking for any light peeping through windows and warning people not to light matches, traffic signals are a pale fraction of their size, and pedestrians must grope their way through the city. It’s a fascinating look at London during the war, as well as a great setting for a story about German and British spies.

It is also fascinating to see Conrad Veidt – the king of silent German expressionist horror – in a heroic and lightly comic role. He even looks rather dapper and shares an unexpected, zesty chemistry with Valerie Hobson as two people who get a kick out of excitement and danger.

There is comedy in the story, verbal wit (several Nazis responds to Captain Hans Andersen’s introducing himself by saying they are the Brothers Grimm). Captain Andersen’s first mate, Axel (Hay Petrie), has a favorite brother who owns a restaurant in London, which is staffed by a number of Danes ready for a good scrap against the Nazis. The film presents Denmark and Britain as natural allies against the Nazis. Sadly, only a month after Contraband was released in Britain, the Nazis invaded Denmark.

Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson

Both Conrad Veidt and Emeric Pressburger were refugees from Nazi Germany. Veidt left with his Jewish wife in 1933, not long after they were married and Jews were banned from working in the film industry. Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew, though working in Berlin when Hitler came to power, and also left Germany. He would later become a British citizen and would form the extraordinarily creative The Archers production company with Michael Powell.

The plot of Contraband is fairly inconsequential. Like many of Hitchcock’s films, the journey and thrills are what count. It’s a fun film and I would definitely recommend it, especially if you are a fan of The Lady VanishesNight Train to Munich, Conrad Veidt, or Powell and Pressburger. And who isn’t a fan of at least one of those?

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2017 in Movies

 

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