I like mystery stories. I also like the movies they inspire. But in preparing for the B-Masters' Edgar Wallace roundtable, I noticed something curious about classic English mysteries and their adaptations into film and video.
Take Edgar Wallace: his work has inspired a ridiculous number of films... and even if these movies didn't always stick very faithfully to his stories, they've at least kept his name alive, even among people who have never read any of his books. Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers have both been treated well by British television, if not necessarily by the movies. As for Agatha Christie... phooey. But there are certain other great mystery writers of the same era — writers who hit their peak around the time of Wallace's death, the so-called "Golden Age of Detective Fiction" — whose work is conspicuously absent from the silver screen. This is a mystery as much in need of explanation as any locked room murder.
Now, it's easy to see why there are no movies based on Michael Innes: most of his books are unfilmable. Innes, né J.I.M. Stewart, was a scholar who wrote his crime stories as literary jokes — though even if they were intended as jokes, they often succeed as novels beyond the expectations (or capabilities) of many serious novelists. But their chief strength is their delight in the English language, and the more familiar you are with English literature (particularly Shakespeare) the more you will find to enjoy in them. But as far as adapting them for the screen, big or small, I don't know where you'd start. It would be like trying to taxidermize a jellyfish: once you'd finished, you'd have nothing left of the original worth preserving. So I can understand why the only Innes novel I know that's been adapted for the screen (albeit with heavy alterations) is... Walt Disney's Candleshoe.
But Archons of Athens! Where are the movies based on John Dickson Carr?
I've been asking this question to myself ever since I discovered Carr's books as a child. If ever there was a charismatic sleuth who deserved to be put in the movies — burn me if he ain't! — it was the hot-tempered, irascible Sir Henry Merrivale, in the series Carr wrote under the name "Carter Dickson". And if not Merrivale, then why not that carbon copy of G.K. Chesteron, Dr. Gideon Fell? Yet except for a handful of long-forgotten TV episodes, several of them from non-English speaking countries, neither detective has appeared on screen. Nor, for that matter, has Carr's first series detective, the sinister French police inspector Bencolin... though oddly enough, Carr's least interesting series character, Colonel March of the Department of Queer Complaints, had his own TV series in the 1950's (where he was played by Boris Karloff!).
It's not as though Carr and his best work were unknown. Before the end of the Second World War he was acknowledged as one of the mystery genre's leading talents. It's true that his later, post-War work was marred by his lack of sympathy with the changing times. Then, too, he had always refused to allow allow his work to be edited; and as his style became ever more mannered and anachronistic this became a significant problem. Also, Carr suffered a stroke in the mid-1960's that led to a further decline in the quality of his writing. Still, vintage Carr has always found a receptive audience, and there have been regular revivals of his work since his death in 1977 (though at present, in 2011, the "Carter Dickson" novels seem to be inexplicably out of print).
Carr excelled at three things: first, he was the master of the locked-room mystery. In his novels, he created a bewildering array of seemingly-impossible crimes, for which his detectives always found rational explanations. For instance: in "The Three Coffins", a man in a paper mask apparently walks into another man's room, kills him, and then disappears — not only from the room, but from a house surrounded by unbroken snow. He then seems to travel invisibly (and always without footprints) across the snowy streets, where he shoots a man at point-blank range... in front of witnesses who swear the victim was alone. In "The Curse of the Bronze Lamp", observers watch a woman walk through the front door of her own home... only to disappear without trace, unseen by anyone within. In "My Late Wives", a suspected serial killer is seen by a witness standing over the corpse of his latest victim — yet he somehow manages to dispose of the body from a house surrounded by police. Baldly stated, these all sound like Edgar Wallace gimmicks (though Carr, for the most part, played fair with his readers and avoided hidden death-traps and secret passages). But this brings us to the second thing at which Carr excelled: atmosphere. His improbable crimes are given such a convincing presentation that it isn't until we've put down the book that we start to think how ridiculous it all seems.
The typical Golden Age detective story, usually taking place in a country house full of stock characters, is often referred to as a "cosy"... but there's usually nothing cosy about a Carr novel. Whether it's the location — the eerie abandoned prisons of "Hag's Nook" or "The Skeleton in the Clock"; the disused army combat school in "My Late Wives"; the reptile room of a zoo during an air raid in the Blitz (in "He Wouldn't Kill Patience"); or Henry IV's ancient crumbling tower in "He Who Whispers" — or whether it's the sheer ghastliness of the crime itself — a man, already dead, twitching on the floor with the gilt-painted hand of an enormous clock sticking out of his neck ("Death Watch"); a woman's body, sand stuck to her sightless eyeballs, toppling out of a wardrobe ("My Late Wives"); or the disquietingly bizarre spectacle of a man found dead at the Tower of London, a crossbow bolt stuck through his body and a stolen hat (much too large for him) jammed over his head — Carr's improbabilities are much more likely to raise a chill than a derisive chuckle.
But all this is leavened by Carr's third talent: comedy. I don't mean the high-brow literary humor of Michael Innes, or the wit and high spirit of Edgar Wallace or the early Allingham novels... I mean pure, raw, laugh-out-loud low-brow comedy. It's particularly evident in the Henry Merrivale books — I'm thinking in particular of the auction room scene and the low-speed chase in "Skeleton in the Clock", or the ingeniously plotted mayhem that makes up the action of "The Punch and Judy Murders" — but the funniest of them all (notwithstanding a lot of dated humor about alcohol) is the Dr. Fell novel "The Blind Barber", which Anthony Boucher called "a farce about murder". I made the mistake of re-reading "The Blind Barber" for the first time in 15 years (thinking I'd outgrown its juvenile humor) on an airplane. By the time I got to the marionette performance at the end, I was howling with laughter, and frightening the other passengers1
1. For those of you who have read the book, let me just mention three words: "I was Charlemagne." You're giggling, aren't you? I am, too, every time I think of it.. Not all of Carr's books have this sort of slapstick comedy in them, and not all of his attempts at humor are particularly successful, especially to modern readers; but at his best, he's brilliant. When he first started writing the Merrivale novels, a rumor went around that his books were actually written pseudonymously by P.G. Wodehouse — that's how good he can be. What makes his comedy all the better is the fact he can turn around at the dénoument and make us cringe in horror at the very things we'd laughed at a hundred pages earlier.
Two of these strengths — the ability to create a terrifying atmosphere, and the ability to provide some good, solid comic relief — translate very well into cinema. What I've come to realize, though, is that Carr's main claim to fame — his ability to come up with truly baffling locked-room crimes — is much more of a liability. These seemingly impossible situations require a lot of explanation, and even if the explanation is accompanied by flashbacks it's still going to eat up a lot of screen time. More damning, though, is the fact that some of those explanations, no matter how well they read on the page, are going to look much less convincing when you see them brought to life by real-live human beings. The Dickson novel "Seeing Is Believing", in spite of its title, would fare particularly badly if we actually saw the crime unfold; and novels like "The Problem of the Wire Cage" or "The Man Who Could Not Shudder", in which the locked-room explanations are particularly weak, would lose their last remaining shreds of dignity if they were filmed exactly as written. And then, there are some Carr novels ("The Three Coffins", for example) whose solutions are just too complicated to be translated into a purely visual medium.
These practical problems never really occured to me until I had a chance to see a movie that was adapted from Carr's work.
Only four of Carr's novels have been translated to the big screen so far. None of them are particularly well-known, and none of them feature his series detectives. The Man with a Cloak (1951), starring Joseph Cotten, is based on a short story, "The Man from Paris". "The Emporer's Snuff-Box" was filmed as That Woman Opposite (aka City After Midnight) in 1958 (and remade in Japan in 1982), while "The Burning Court", Carr's finest novel, was filmed in France by Julien Duvivier in 1962. But the movie that opened my eyes to the impracticality of bringing Carr's neatest puzzles to the screen was made before any of these: it was Dangerous Crossing (1953), starring Michael Rennie and Jeanne Crain, adapted from Carr's radio play "Cabin B-13".
If you stop to think about it, an ocean liner is as good a "locked room" setup as any real locked room, or snowbound country house, or impenetrable tower — maybe even better. After all, if someone commits a crime while the liner is far out at sea, there's nowhere for the criminal to run... and the suspect list would be strictly limited to the list of known passengers. It would be lunacy for anybody (other than an easily-detected stowaway, which for detective-story purposes would be cheating) to commit a murder aboard a ship. That's probably why Carr turned to passenger ships several times in his career2
2. Though the less said about "Panic in Box C" (1966), the better.: in "The Blind Barber" (1934); recounting Sir Henry Merrivale's chaotic wartime crossing in "Nine — and Death Makes Ten" (1940); and then again with "Cabin B-13", which he wrote in 1943 while serving as writer and editor for the American radio series "Suspense".
In "Cabin B-13", a pair of newlyweds book passage on a liner voyaging from New York to London. The Brewsters are so wrapped up in their whirlwind courtship that they almost miss the boarding: they're the last two passengers to arrive. After they check to make sure their luggage has been delivered to their cabin — Cabin B-13 — Ricky Brewster goes to stash their travel money ($10,000, all of it his wife's) with the ship's purser, while Anne Brewster (voiced by The Leopard Man's Margo) goes to wave farewell to the crowd at the dock.
As the ship pulls away from the harbor, Anne runs into the ship's doctor (Philip Dorn [I Remember Mama]) by the rail. When she casually mentions that she's traveling in Cabin B-13, he protests: there is no such cabin, just as there are no thirteenth floors in most hotels. When the two of them go to investigate, they find there is no trace of the Brewsters' cabin. The B-deck stewardess checks her list, and finds no record of anyone named Brewster aboard the ship... though she does find Anne listed under her maiden name. Traveling alone. She's supposed to be in cabin B-16, where her luggage — and only hers — is waiting. Anne goes to the ship's second officer, who greeted the passengers as they came aboard (the first officer being down with the flu), and asks him to confirm that she arrived with her husband. Unfortunately, the second officer swears that she arrived alone... and that no other passenger arrived after her.
A search of the entire ship reveals no trace of Ricky Brewster, or his luggage... or the $10,000 of his wife's money he planned to give the purser. Indeed, Ricky might never have existed, except as a figment of Anne's imagination. Anne, who has recently suffered from a brain fever and is not in the best of health, is horrified: clearly this is some sort of conspiracy, like the old story of the woman whose mother disappeared from a hotel in Paris (in the famous urban legend, the old woman had died suddenly of the plague in her daughter's absence, and the horrified hotel staff had erased all trace of her existence to avoid a scandal). The truly horrible thing is that Anne can't prove she's married at all. The couple's courtship had been so brief that nobody in Anne's limited circle even knew she'd met Ricky Brewster, let alone married him. Anne is distraught, and as she gets more upset the ship's officers start to believe she's dangerously unhinged.
The ship's doctor, on the other hand, isn't convinced that Anne is imagining things. It would be distressingly easy, he suggests, for someone to have waylaid Ricky Brewster and robbed him of his cash, then tossed him overboard. After all, Brewster (if he exists) never made it to see the purser. Yet there's another possibility that's occured to him, one that's even more devious. If he's right, there may be another disappearance soon: Anne's.
I think I've suggested enough in this little synopsis to reveal what's really going on aboard ship, and what Ricky Brewster's disappearance really means. The level of mystification is just right for a 30-minute radio play, and doesn't hold up to close scrutiny... it all depends on certain questions never being asked, and certain others being answered in a particularly limited way. Still, if the mystery doesn't really hold up, it doesn't really have to: five minutes after "Suspense" had finished, the average listener would be (say) laughing along with Jack Benny, and the whole thing would be forgotten... except for the memory of a pleasant chill.
Things are different with a feature length film. Dangerous Crossing is more than twice the length of the original radio play. This gives the audience plenty of time to reflect on the goings-on and their relative plausibility.
The movie immediately takes a different direction from the radio play: we see the newlyweds, John and Ruth Bowman, coming up the gangplank with a crowd of other passengers. In "Cabin B-13", it was crucial for Anne to arrive last, so the second officer could (truthfully) assert that she arrived with no other passenger. I was a little thrown off by this on my first viewing: I couldn't figure out how they'd established the whole "locked room" aspect of the story if Ruth Bowman wasn't noticed arriving.
I was further disconcerted to see that the love-struck Bowmans sweep into Cabin B-16... where the stewardess is waiting with their luggage. B-16 already? I remember wondering; How can that be? And how will they explain the stewardess seeing them together like this? Ruth is later movied to her "proper" cabin, B-18, when she claims her husband has disappeared; cabin B-16, far from not existing, is simply not engaged for this trip.
But my final bewilderment came when John Bowman disappeared before the ship had even left the harbor.
That was the moment that opened my eyes. That's when I realized that the movie had no intention of recreating Carr's impossible situation. I almost did a double-take when, out of the corner of my eye, I thought I spotted something on-screen that gave the whole game away. On a second viewing, I was prepared for the moment and froze the frame...and sure enough, for the sharp-eyed viewer, the film provides the whole explanation for the mystery before the mystery has even been revealed.
That got me thinking about the problem of filming a John Dickson Carr story. I suddenly realized that the original "Cabin B-13" simply didn't work when it was expanded to feature length... when the "impossible situation" gimmick was shown to us at the end, rather than described by the voices on the radio and filled in by our forgiving imaginations. For the film version, scriptwriter Leo Townsend (Beach Blanket Bingo) turned "Cabin B-13" from a whodunnit (or a whozagonnadoit) into a film noir: the audience is allowed to catch a glimpse of the real villainy early on, and the suspense of the plot no longer hinges on figuring out an impossible situation. Instead, the film makes us wait to see how far Ruth will play into the hands of her tormentors without realizing it.
For Ruth, already unbalanced from her illness, is being Gaslighted... driven toward madness by the insistence that her beloved husband is a figment of her imagination. She's right in imagining there's a conspiracy out to get her, but she's completely mistaken about who's behind it, and who's involved in it (and the conspiracy is a bit wider in the movie than in the play). As Ruth realizes that someone's playing games with her entire life, she begins to get crafty... or rather, she imagines she's being crafty. In fact, in her weakened condition, she's actually making it easier for everyone around her to judge her as really being insane. Everything she does to try to rescue herself actually drives her deeper into the conspiracy.
From a visual perspective, Dangerous Crossing is a little staid by film noir standards. Rather than relying on off-kilter camera angles or chiaroscuro lighting to emphasize Ruth's gradual mental collapse, Dangerous Crossing relies most on Jeanne Crain's performance — which is admirable: she strikes just the right blend of resilience and fragility, and since it's Ruth's strength that gets her in the most trouble, Crain has many chances to blend the two into a very sympathetic portrayal. There are some effective noir-ish sequences set in the Atlantic fog, as Crain's Ruth finds herself pursued on-deck; and director Joseph M. Newman (This Island Earth)'s judicious use of close-ups more than makes up for the lack of fancy camerawork.
The expanded screenplay also introduces a host of red-herring suspects in the passenger list. These don't fool us for a minute, but they add to the feeling of menace, and help us empathize with Ruth's growing panic. The movie's climax, having more time to unfold, is actually better than Carr's original, which seems rushed; the basic action is unchanged, but the timing makes all the difference. Still, oddly enough, even though the film has tried to be more plausible in its approach to the plot against the girl, it actually comes up less plausible in explaining the killer's payoff. In the radio play, it was simply a matter of getting away with the $10,000 (in 1940's money; a tidy sum) after Ricky and Anne had been disposed of. In the film, the plan to collect is much more complicated, and wouldn't stand up to a moment's investigation.
Dangerous Crossing may not be one of the classic noirs; nor is it an ideal adaptation of a Carr mystery. Nevertheless, it's still a good solid suspense film, with excellent performances from Crain and from Michael Rennie as the heroic ship's doctor. The movie was remade for television in the 1990's, under the title Treacherous Crossing, with Lindsey Wagner in the lead role.
I haven't seen the remake, but its listing in the IMDb got me thinking: if nobody's interested in adapting Carr's novels, why not use some more of his radio scripts instead? After all, they were written to be dramatized. There's one in particular I think could be adapted very well: a young couple is invited to a villa in Italy where a gruesome crime was committed centuries ago. The villa is supposedly haunted by the victim's vengeful ghost. After a night-time tour of the house, the couple returns to the drawing room... only to find the view out the window has changed: the entire modern world has disappeared, leaving only field and forest. From the distance, a ghastly shape straight out of M.R. James comes crawling out of the darkness toward them... Yet in spite of the Gothic horror atmosphere, this turns out to be the setup for a very modern crime, with a very simple explanation.
But in the meantime, there are still the books. Of the Gideon Fell series, the funniest are "The Arabian Nights Murder" and "The Blind Barber"; among the cleverest are "Death Watch", "The Three Coffins" and "He Who Whispers" (which, by the way, features a really ghastly method for commiting a murder, based on the memoirs of Cagliostro). Of the Henry Merrivale books, I can recommend "The Judas Window", "The Punch and Judy Murders" and "The Skeleton in the Clock" — this last not so much for its mystery, which is weak, but for its story, which is tightly-knit and at times very, very funny. Of his other novels, "The Burning Court" and "The Emporer's Snuff-Box" are among the best, which probably explains why both of them actually were adapted for the screen... Of the two adaptations, it's "The Emporer's Snuff-Box" that was translated most faithfully, in That Woman Opposite. Never heard of it? I'm not surprised. In fact, That Woman Opposite helped me understand even better why John Dickson Carr hasn't been better-represented in the movies... but that's a different review.