Thursday, April 28, 2022

I Start Counting (1969)

I Start Counting, directed by David Greene, is an unjustly overlooked 1969 British drama/thriller and we can be extremely thankful to the BFI for making so many of these intriguing 1960s British obscurities available to us.

Wynne (Jenny Agutter) is a fourteen-year-old Catholic schoolgirl. She lives with her mum, her two brothers and her granddad. Wynne is hopelessly in love with her older brother George (Bryan Marshall). George is 32 but he’s not really her brother, not biologically, because Wynne is adopted. It’s still a potentially awkward situation. Of course Wynne is hardly the first teenaged girl to develop an inappropriate crush on an older man. Most girls just grow out of things like this, and George doesn’t seem to be the least bit interested in taking advantage of the situation. In Wynne’s case though it’s a fairly serious crush.

There’s also a crime thriller plot here. There’s a serial killer operating in the neighbourhood, a serial killer who kills girls.

Wynne gets the idea that maybe George is the murderer. She doesn’t have any really strong reasons to suspect him and fourteen-year-olds do tend to have overactive imaginations.

What’s important to both the emotional and crime plot strands is that Wynne is at an awkward age. She’s beginning to have both sexual and emotional feelings for men and for this reason she is perhaps not thinking all that clearly. Nobody going through puberty, male or female, is going to be thinking clearly. And she has no experience of life.

The past is a constant disturbing presence in her life. When she was a very small girl George’s fiancée Clare was killed in an accident and Wynne was the one who discovered the body.

The old house in which they lived has been scheduled for demolition so the family has been re-housed. Wynne goes back constantly to the old house, trying to recapture the happiness they knew there (or that she imagined they knew).

Wynne and her best friend Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe) play games in which they pretend to summon Clare’s spirit. They’re really just innocent games, a way of dealing with a past trauma, but they add to the complications of Wynne’s emotions.

And of course Wynne is a Catholic so there’s some guilt for her to deal with. It has to be said though that the religious aspect is a very very minor part of the film.

Wynne convinces herself more and more of two things that may not coincide with reality - that George is a killer and that she is going to marry him. Wynne’s fixations on these ideas lead to trouble and to plot complications.

This movie is a murder mystery, a suspense film, a coming-of-age film, a movie about the difficulty of letting go of the past and a kind of fairy tale. For the most part these disparate elements are combined with surprising skill. It has to be admitted that as a whodunit it’s a washout - once the serial killer plot kicked in and the three suspects were introduced it took me thirty seconds to figure out the identity of the killer, and I was right. In fact it’s so obvious that I assume that the film-makers intended us to know the killer’s identity right from the start. What matters is that Wynne doesn’t know, and this lack of knowledge on her part determines all her subsequent actions.

As a suspense film it’s very effective. There are some nice scares, the suspense parts of the movie take place in suitably creepy locations and we really can’t be certain how it’s going to end.

One really interesting thing about this movie is that Wynne is not mad. She lives partly in the past (we get quite a few flashbacks) and partly in a world of fantasy (and we get some fantasy sequences), but not to an extent that would be unusual or pathological in a fourteen-year-old. It’s crucial to both the suspense and coming-of-age strands of the plot that Wynne is at an age when she has not yet left the world of childhood completely. She has not yet learnt that reality isn’t always the way you want it to be. She has not yet learnt to distinguish between her fantasies and the real world. She’s a perfectly normal girl and she’s going through a perfectly normal stage of growing up. It just happens that in her case this process is happening at a time when a serial killer is loose and her inability to see her fantasies as fantasies could have terrible consequences.

There’s a definite fairy tale vibe as well but it’s done very subtly. This is certainly not a comedy but it’s not unrelentingly grim. There’s plenty of humour.

The acting is excellent from all the key cast members but it’s Jenny Agutter’s movie. It’s an extraordinary performance by a sixteen-year-old actress in a very demanding rôle. She’s always entirely believable.

Another interesting thing about the film is that it’s not in any way a feminist film (there’s absolute zero politics in this movie) but it deals with the emotional life of a young woman in a remarkably sensitive and sympathetic manner. And although Corinne is a less important character she’s also treated sensitively. She has her flaws, but mostly they’re just the result of immaturity. She’s also trying to navigate her way towards adulthood. Both girls behave foolishly at times but we fully understand why they do the things that they do.

David Greene had a long and busy career as a television director. He made a lot of TV movies. His include some incredibly interesting movies such as the totally bonkers high camp 1972 Madame Sin with Bette Davis and the excellent and criminally underrated 1968 spy thriller/romance Sebastian as well as the thriller Gray Lady Down and the musical Godspell - the guy was nothing if not versatile. Writer Richard Harris had an extraordinarily distinguished career in television. You name a great British TV series and you can be confident he wrote scripts for it.

The BFI Blu-Ray is packed with extras, including an audio commentary by film historian Samm Deighan, several interviews, short films and a bonus feature film, the children’s film Danger on Dartmoor (written by Audrey Erskine Lindop who wrote the source novel for I Start Counting). The transfer is excellent. 

I Start Counting is a very ambitious and complex film and it’s absolutely enthralling. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Women Are Like That (1960)

Women Are Like That (Comment qu'elle est?) is the fifth of the Lemmy Caution movies starring Eddie Constantine. It was released in 1960.

Peter Cheyney was one of a number of English crime writers in the 30s and 40s who aped the American hardboiled style (another notable example being James Hadley Chase). Their knowledge of the American underworld, American police procedures and American culture in general was gleaned entirely from Hollywood movies and American novels which gave their books an odd distinctive quality. Cheyney enjoyed his greatest success with his Lemmy Caution thrillers. Lemmy Caution is an American FBI agent. He likes whiskey and he likes women. He also likes getting into trouble.

The books were hugely popular in Britain but even more popular on the Continent and the French film adaptations enjoyed immense success. They made gravel-voiced granite-faced American singer-actor Eddie Constantine not just a star but a pop culture icon.

Like the books the Lemmy Caution movies have a definite tongue-in-cheek quality. They’re hardboiled but with an emphasis on action and wisecracks.

Most of the movies were directed by Bernard Borderie and he wrote or co-wrote most of the screenplays. Women Are Like That was based on Cheyney’s novel I'll Say She Does.

In Women Are Like That Emmy is on assignment in Paris. His orders are to keep a low profile. Lemmy has his own ideas about what keeping a low profile means. The first thing he does is to start a brawl in a girlie bar. That gets him arrested. The French police are irritated and they’re even more irritated when they discover that they are going to have to co-operate with this impossible man. They have their orders.

The case involves a super-spy named Varley. No-one knows what Varley looks like, but the police have a lead and Lemmy has a contact in Paris who knows something. Lemmy meets his contact in an art gallery (after trying to pick up the lady who runs the gallery).

The frail in the art gallery is Isabelle (Françoise Prévost). She gives Lemmy the cold shoulder, and then suddenly she’s interested. He should smell a rat. To his credit he is suspicious, but not suspicious enough.

There’s another dame who could be involved. Lemmy is working with French cop Demur and Lemmy suspects that his secretary Danielle is working for Varley.

But there’s yet another dame mixed up in this, Général Rupert’s niece Martine (Françoise Brion). The general is in charge of the French end of the investigation. Martine happens to bear a striking resemblance to a glamorous lady spy of Lemmy’s acquaintance and it occurs to Lemmy that this could be useful. He needs a break, given that the man who could have helped him break the case has been murdered.

A case involving three beautiful dangerous women. They’re the cases Lemmy really enjoys.

There’s a pretty decent plot here, with the necessary spy thriller twists.

Much of the success of these movies is down to Eddie Constantine’s wonderful performances. Maybe he wasn’t the world’s greatest actor but he knew how to play Lemmy Caution. He also knew how to make a character who was on the surface arrogant and pushy into someone audiences would love. The more obnoxious Lemmy is to his colleagues and his superiors the more we love him. We also don’t mind his outrageous womanising because he’s so blatant. No woman is going to get mixed up with Lemmy unless she really wants to. And lots of women do want to get mixed up with him.

These movies are I’m afraid rather politically incorrect, but they’re so shameless and unapologetic about it that no reasonable person could object.

Unfortunately the only option for seeing these movies still seems to be grey-market English dubbed versions. Luckily they’re the sorts of movies that are even more fun in grainy prints. And the dubbing is quite well done.

If you’ve never seen any of the Lemmy Caution movies you’re in for a treat. They’re clearly modelled on American crime B-movies but with a French twist. And if you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of the great Eddie Constantine you’re in for an even bigger treat. This is what B-movie acting is all about.

Women Are Like That is wonderful entertainment. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Larceny (1948)

Larceny is a 1948 Universal crime picture for which some film noir credentials have been claimed.

Rick Maxon (John Payne) and Silky Randall (Dan Duryea) are a couple of confidence tricksters. High-class confidence tricksters. They’re just pulled off a major yacht club swindle in Florida. There never was a yacht club and there was never going to be one but they’ve collected a quarter of a million (a huge fortune in 1948) in membership fees.

Now it’s time to move to pastures new. Mission City in California sounds ideal. A quiet respectable community full of retired millionaires. This time they’re pitching a phoney war memorial.

The idea is to get the city manager in their pocket, and they plan to do that by getting his daughter Deb Clark (Joan Caulfield) mixed up in something crooked. Then they can blackmail him.

It’s a sweet plan but even before it’s put into operation there are signs of trouble on the horizon. The trouble is going to come from Tory (Shelley Winters). Tory is Silky’s girl but she and Rick have been playing around. And Silky doesn’t like other guys playing around with his girl.

Rick arrives in Mission City and initially things go even better than he’d dared hope. Rick is posing as an old army buddy of Deb’s husband. Her husband Jim was killed during the war and in Mission City he’s revered as a great war hero. The idea is to persuade Deb that what Jim would have wanted was for her to establish a boys’ club. Jim had been actively involved with the local Youth Athletic Association. Rick persuades Deb that a boys’ club on the grand scale, with tennis courts and a swimming pool, will prevent boys from getting involved in crime and immorality. It will be not just a war memorial but a memorial to her late husband.

Deb is a real bleeding heart and she swallows Rick’s idea hook, line and sinker. She starts making plans for a huge fund-raising drive.

But Rick has a problem. Silky had shipped Tory off to Havana to keep her out of trouble but she didn’t go to Havana. Now she’s in Mission City. She wants to continue the affair with Rick. Rick begs her to keep a low profile but Tory is not the kind of gal who knows how to do that.

And Silky doesn’t trust Rick so he’s sent a couple of his goons to keep an eye on him. Sooner or later Rick or Tory will make a false move and then things will get real interesting real fast.

The script throws Rick quite a few nasty curve balls as the story progresses.

Rick is a very smooth operator. It’s a joy to watch him in action. It’s a terrific performance by Payne. Rick is as crooked as they come but he could charm the birds out of the trees. We can’t help thinking he’s despicable but we also can’t help worrying about what’s going to happen to him.

Dan Duryea is perfect as Silky. Silky is a dangerous guy. He can be as smooth as his name suggests but where Tory is concerned he’s a ticking time bomb.

Shelley Winters does the femme fatale routine very effectively indeed. This is one of her very best performances.

The weak link is Joan Caulfield as the Good Girl. Deb is too good to be true. She’s as wholesome as freshly baked bread. And she’s so naïve that we find it difficult not to despise her a bit. She’s too naïve to be sympathetic, and too virtuous to be believable or interesting. Right from the start our sympathies are going to be with the Bad Girl. Joan Caulfield doesn’t quite manage to make us care about Deb.

There’s plenty of full-blown noirness in this tale.

Kino Lorber have presented this movie is a lovely transfer with an audio commentary.

Larceny is not one of the truly great film noir classics but it’s still a fine movie that deserves to get more attention. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Leave Her To Heaven (1945)

Leave Her To Heaven is a 1945 romantic/crime melodrama which some people consider to be a film noir. I don’t think it’s film noir but it’s a great movie.

It’s based on a bestselling 1944 novel by Ben Ames Williams, and the differences between the novel and the film are subtle but extremely interesting.

On a train to New Mexico novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) meets Ellen Berent. She’s reading his latest novel but it’s sent her to sleep. When she awakens they start to talk and Ellen decides that Richard reminds her very much of her now deceased father, to whom she was devoted. As luck would have it both Richard and Ellen have the same destination. They’re going to be spending a holiday at Glen Robie’s ranch.

Also at the ranch are Ellen’s mother and her adoptive sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain).

Richard isn’t looking for a wife but he’s fascinated by Ellen. She has fallen obsessively in love with him. After a whirlwind courtship he finds himself married to Ellen, without quite knowing how it happened. Ellen had been engaged to rising District Attorney Russ Quinton (Vincent Price) but she breaks the engagement to marry Richard.

Richard and Ellen movie to Richard’s lakeside cabin at a place he calls Back of the Moon. It’s isolated but Ellen doesn’t mind that. She doesn’t need anybody but Richard.

There is a complication. Richard has a much younger brother, Danny. After a recent bout of polio Danny can’t walk properly and never will be able to. Danny is determined to go to Back of the Moon with Richard and Ellen, and Richard is determined to take him there although Ellen has made it very clear that she wants to be alone with her new husband.

Tragedy strikes, leaving Richard devastated. He does have one shred of comfort to which to cling. He’s going to be a father.

Tragedy strikes again.

The marriage becomes rather rocky, Ellen is jealous of her sister Ruth’s very obvious attentions to Richard, and his equally obvious attentions to her.

And then something happens which brings what’s left of Richard’s world crashing down on him.

One very significant difference between book and movie is that in the book Richard knows from the beginning exactly what happened on the lake. He is also practically certain he knows what happened on the stairs. In the movie he has no reason to suspect that there was anything suspicious about those events. That makes the behaviour of Richard in the film much less admirable, even reprehensible. His decision to dedicate his new novel to Ruth rather than Ellen seems cruel and spiteful and unjustified. It’s the sort of thing that any woman would regard as an insult.

In both novel and movie Ruth has a more-virtuous-than-thou butter-wouldn’t-melt in-my-mouth vibe to her but in the movie her behaviour comes across (to me at least) as scheming. When you know your sister is a jealous possessive woman it’s not a good idea to throw yourself at her husband. At best it’s unwise, at worst it’s conniving. Richard and Ruth are far less sympathetic characters in the movie than in the book.

That’s partly a result of casting decisions. Jeanne Crain is just a bit too glamorous as Ruth, a bit too obviously a threat to Ellen. Cornel Wilde’s performance as Richard is colourless and dull and we never have the slightest idea what is going on in his head.

It a weird way this turns out to be an advantage to the movie. It puts the focus squarely on Ellen, since she’s the only interesting character in the movie. Fortunately she’s a very interesting character indeed (which is helped by Gene Tierney’s riveting performance). We don’t care what happens to Richard and Ruth. We’re too entranced by Ellen. We want to know what makes her tick, and Tierney does an extraordinarily good job of letting us see into Ellen’s head.

Ellen is mad, but her behaviour makes sense from her point of view. She simply isn’t capable of seeing anything else as important other than her love for Richard, and her need to be loved. In the movie, compared to the novel, we can feel some understanding of her actions. They’re evil actions, but in Ellen’s mind they’re justified. And she really does have cause to believe that her love is under threat.

Perhaps if Richard hadn’t been so thick-headed and insensitive Ellen wouldn’t have snapped. Taking his new bride to Back of the Moon and bringing Danny along, with Danny occupying the bedroom next door with paper-thin walls so that everything that happens in one bedroom can be heard in the other - that was not really a smart move. Perhaps a smarter more sensitive man would have recognised Ellen’s desperate need to be loved, and for that love to be absolutely exclusive.

Gene Tierney gives one of the great film performances. Ellen is not sufficiently in control of her own actions to qualify as a true femme fatale in my opinion. I’ve already mentioned the problems with Cornel Wilde’s performance. Vincent Price is quite good as Ellen’s cast-off fiancé.

John M. Stahl was a director with a flair for melodrama. He does a fine job here. The famous scene on the lake remains possibly the most chilling moment in cinema history. There are several other memorable scenes - Ellen casting her father’s ashes to the wind being particularly effective, and important in revealing facets of Ellen’s character.

Leave Her To Heaven is melodrama but it’s great melodrama. Very highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed Williams' novel Leave Her To Heaven at Vintage Pop Fictions.

Leave Her To Heaven, the novel

Leave Her To Heaven was a 1944 bestseller by Ben Ames Williams. The 1945 movie is now much better remembered (in fact it’s one of the half dozen best Hollywood movies of the 40s). I’ve become very  interested in tracking down the source novels of some of my favourite movies. I was lucky enough find an affordable used copy of Williams' novel (it is of course long out of print).

The film followed the plot of the book fairly closely, with a few significant and extremely interesting changes.

If you're a fan of the movie the book is worth a look.

Here's my review of Leave Her To Heaven, the novel.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Larceny in Her Heart (1946)

Larceny in Her Heart, released in 1946, is the second of the five 1940s Mike Shayne movies made by Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). 20th Century-Fox had made seven movies starring Lloyd Nolan in the early 40s based on the popular Mike Shayne novels of Davis Dresser (written under the pseudonym Brett Halliday).

PRC revived the series in 1946 with Hugh Beaumont as Shayne. The Mike Shayne of the novels is pretty hardboiled but both the Lloyd Nolan and Hugh Beaumont Shayne movies are very much lighter in tone with Beaumont’s Shayne becoming a cheerful easygoing guy who seems to think that being a private detective is a great lark.

Mike and his girlfriend Phyllis (Cheryl Walker) are just about to take off on a vacation when a middle-aged man named Burton Stallings offers Mike a case, with a big fat retainer as an inducement. It’s about his missing step-daughter Helen.

Mike turns the case down but then changes his mind when a very distressed very dishevelled young woman arrives at his office and promptly passes out. Mike has reason to believe that this girl will make the Helen Stallings case ridiculously easy to crack, which will earn Mike a fat fee for virtually no work.

The dead body on the couch puts an end to Mike’s daydreams about easy cases. There’s only one thing worse than having a corpse on your hands and that’s having the corpse disappear again without explanation. And there’s one thing that’s even worse than that - having the corpse turn up again.

Mike also has Detective Sergeant Pete Rafferty to deal with. Rafferty has a grudge against Mike. Explaining a dead body to Rafferty might be tricky.

Shayne does have a lead. It’s always good to have a lead but when the lead comes in the form of a shapely blonde that’s even better. And this shapely blonde seems to be very friendly towards private detectives. She’s been a nurse at the Stallings residence. Mike already knows that screwy things have been happening there but he needs to know the details. Lucille (the shapely blonde nurse) might just to able to fill him in.

There’s also a gangster and a trumpet player, both of whom seem to have been interested in Helen Stallings. Mike goes undercover as a patient in a private sanitarium for rich drunks. That dead body continues to be a problem.

The one major flaw of American B-movies of the 30s and 40s is an over-abundance of comic relief. That’s a bit of a problem here but the comedy is amusing enough.

Hugh Beaumont is brimming with charm and gives a lively performance. He’s definitely the best thing about this film. The other players are all quite adequate.

This is a PRC movie so production values are at best basic but then (bearing in mind the words of wisdom of Jean-Luc Godard) all you really need for a private eye movie is a girl and a gun. This one has a reasonably OK story (although one or two incidents do get just a tad confusing) and some amusing banter as well as girls and guns.

Director Sam Newfield churned out countless B-pictures (he may have been the most prolific American director of all time). He does a pretty uninspiring job here although of course you do have to remember that PRC shooting schedules were incredibly tight. It would have been nice to have a bit more action and a bit less talking.

Some of the other movies in the series were adaptations of Brett Halliday novels but in this case Howard L. Shrock’s screenplay is an original story.

The big problem with this movie is that some key elements are left very obscure and some incidents don’t make a whole lot of sense. We’re told too many things rather than getting to see them.

All five PRC Mike Shayne movies have been released on DVD, on a single disc, by Classicflix. Larceny in Her Heart gets a transfer that is far from pristine but it’s OK. It’s better than Alpha Video quality. The sound is a little crackly at times but there’s no problem following the dialogue.

This is a movie for those who like their crime B-movies light and breezy. If you fall into that category there’s probably enough here to keep you happy but it’s a slight disappointment after the first of the PRC films, the excellent Murder Is My Business. If you’re going to buy the Classicflix set (and if you’re a B-movie fan you should) then Larceny in Her Heart is worth a look if you set your expectations at a modest level.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

The Captain’s Paradise (1953)

The Captain’s Paradise is a 1953 Alec Guinness comedy which leads some people to assume that it’s an Ealing picture, but it isn’t. It is however somewhat in the Ealing style.

Captain Henry St. James (Guinness) is the captain of a ferry boat which sails back and forth between Gibraltar and Spanish Morocco. Henry St. James has spent his life searching for the secret of happiness. Now he has found that secret. The secret is not to find the perfect woman. The perfect woman does not exist. In order to achieve perfect connubial bliss you just need to find two women. He has found two women who, between them, provide everything a man could want. In Gibraltar he has Maud (Celia Johnson). She is the model of English middle-class domesticity. His life with Maud is safe, secure, comfortable and utterly respectable. On his return from his latest voyage he brings her a present. It’s the kind of romantic gift that is sure to delight any decent middle-class Englishwoman -a new vacuum cleaner. Maud is beside herself with excitement.

In Spanish Morocco he has Nita (Yvonne de Carlo). Nita is Spanish. She is fiery, tempestuous, passionate and very very sexy. Nita is the sort of woman who would appreciate a vacuum cleaner as a gift. She wouldn’t know what to do with such a contraption. She’s the kind of girl who’d prefer to be given naughty lingerie. Nita was born to love, not to cook and clean.

It’s a marvellous arrangement and everybody is happy. The captain is happy, and both women are genuinely happy. Of course it can only work as long as his two lives and his two women are kept completely separate. Since they live in different countries that should be easy but you cannot afford to be careless. You cannot, for example, get gifts for the two ladies mixed up and give the ultra-respectable Maud a naughty sexy gift and give the sexpot Nita a sensible practical gift. Unfortunately that’s just what Captain St. James does. And it sets disturbing thoughts going in the minds of both Maud and Nita - Maud starts to think there might be more to married life than domesticity and Nita starts to wonder if there’s more to life than fun and sex.

And of course the evil day comes when Maud decides to fly over to Spanish Morocco to surprise her husband and the two women are inevitably going to meet.

You’re probably expecting a standard bedroom farce but this movie has a bit more subtlety. There’s actually quite a bit of focus on the two women who start out being pretty much stereotypes but gradually develop some complexity. They both start to want to break out of their assigned roles.

The opening scene with the firing squad is definitely not what you expect in a comedy.

Guinness is good, as he always is in such roles. Celia Johnson has the obviously less glamorous role but she does well with it, especially when Maud starts to develop a sense of adventure. Yvonne de Carlo has immense fun as Nita - she really is outrageous, and outrageously good. I had no idea Miss de Carlo was so adept at comedy. Incidentally much of her dialogue is in Spanish. The two lead actresses dominate the movie.

There are solid supporting turns by the likes of Sebastian Cabot and Charles Goldner as the captain’s loyal First Officer Ricco.

An amusing sidelight is that in the original script St. James was married to both women. In the movie itself his relationship to Nita is rather vague. Clearly they’re living together as man and wife but sometimes it’s implied that they’re married and sometimes it’s implied that she’s his mistress. In 1953 film-makers had to be ridiculously careful about such subject matter if they wanted their movie released in the US and oddly enough it appears that a man having a mistress was considered less shocking than bigamy.

Kino Lorber have paired this movie with another nautical-themed Alec Guinness comedy, Barnacle Bill (which actually is an Ealing picture). It’s a good pairing since the two movie are similar but slightly different in tone. The Captain’s Paradise is more sophisticated but Barnacle Bill is much funnier.

I have no problems in principle with sophisticated comedies that try to have a bit of emotional nuance but a comedy has to be, first and foremost, funny. The Captain’s Paradise is gently amusing but doesn’t quite have enough comic spark. It’s worth a look but it’s a lesser Alec Guinness comedy.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

La Piscine (1969)

La Piscine (The Swimming Pool) is a languid 1969 romance with added crime and more than a dash of 60s decadence.

Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider) are staying in a swanky house and they’re fairly happy together. Jean-Paul is a failed writer who now works in an ad agency but he’s taking an extended holiday on the Riviera. Then Harry turns up. Harry and Jean-Paul are old friends. Everybody who knows them assumes that Harry and Marianne had a pretty serious love affair before she met Jean-Paul.

Harry turns up with his daughter Pénélope (Jane Birkin), which is a surprise. No-one knew he had a daughter. Harry works in the music business and he’s filthy rich. He arrives in a red Maserati.

Compared to Harry Jean-Paul seems like a bit of a failure. That’s only one of the factors that contributes to the increasingly tense atmosphere. Harry takes the sort of interest in Marianne that is probably not appropriate given that she’s his best friend’s girlfriend. Marianne is also a bit too flirtatious with Harry.

And Jean-Paul takes the sort of interest in Pénélope that is maybe not appropriate given that she’s his best friend’s hot young daughter.

Pénélope throws a bit of fuel on the fire when she tells Jean-Paul what Harry really thinks of him. She also reveals that Harry had no interest in fatherhood until very recently but now he’s become rather obsessed by it. He really likes it when people think that Pénélope is his girlfriend rather than his daughter.

The tensions gradually rise. Harry and Marianne engage in some fairly heavy flirtation. Jean-Paul and Pénélope see a lot of each other.

It ends in murder. We know who the murderer is, we see it take place, but since it happens a long way into the movie I’m not going to give you any hints as to the killer’s identity. All four main characters would have had plausible motivations. The murder is shot quite cleverly. It’s hard to decide if there was any degree of premeditation. The murder may have already been underway before the killer decided to carry it through to the end. It’s nicely ambiguous.

The police aren’t sure that it is murder but Inspector Lévêque has his suspicions.

The murder mystery is not really the point of the film, although the murder brings a number of emotional involvements to a crisis point. It’s those emotional entanglements that are the focus of the movie.

All four main characters are enigmatic. We’re never quite sure what they’re thinking and we’re never quite sure what their feelings for each other really are. At the beginning Jean-Paul and Marianne seem to be happily in love but later events will have us wondering just how successful their relationship was. Is Harry trying to rekindle his old romance with Marianne because he still loves her, or in order to humiliate Jean-Paul, or to reassure himself about his masculinity? That red Maserati suggests a man with a need to assert his masculinity. Is Marianne really interested in reviving her old love affair with Harry, is she trying to make Jean-Paul jealous, or is she just feeling vaguely bored and dissatisfied?

Has Jean-Paul fallen in love with Pénélope or is just a passing sexual infatuation? What is Pénélope feeling? She’s only eighteen. Is she just a teenager trying to play grown-up sex games, is she in love with Jean-Paul, is it an attempt to deal with her daddy issues? Does she realise that her actions could hurt others?

What makes it interesting is that we never get definitive answers to any of these questions, possibly because the characters themselves don’t fully understand their own actions. They inhabit a world of wealth and privilege in which selfishness is taken for granted. They are accustomed to seek pleasure from both love and sex but they’re not accustomed to taking responsibility.

Alain Delon is moody and slightly mysterious as Jean-Paul. We suspect that Jean-Paul is dissatisfied with his life but won’t admit it. He seems vaguely tormented, in the brooding but sexy manner that Alain Delon did so well.

Harry is pretty obviously a creep but rich creeps who drive Maseratis get away with a lot. He’s superficially charming with a slightly cruel edge. Harry thinks that everybody thinks he’s a great guy. Maurice Ronet nails Harry’s personality pretty well.

Romy Schneider is perfect. Jane Birkin is of course gorgeous and she makes Pénélope interestingly complex. We have no idea what Pénélope is up to. She might not be up to anything. She may be just bored. She views her father with a certain amount of amused scepticism. She’s pretty obviously attracted to Jean-Paul. It’s a fine performance as a teenager out of her depth.

Criterion’s DVD (they’ve put it out on Blu-Ray as well) offers some nice extras.

La Piscine was a huge hit at the time. It was a major boost to Romy Schneider’s career and it made Jane Birkin a very hot property. It enhanced director Jacques Deray’s reputation (it was a deliberate change of pace for him). It’s either an art movie with major commercial appeal or a commercial movie with major artistic overtones and it works successfully on both levels. It was that rare kind of movie that audiences loved and film scholars could get excited by.

A brilliant subtle slightly disturbing movie. Highly recommended.