Watching ‘Distracted’, with its constant contrasts, gives one the sense of being a child in a cinematic sweet shop, real and surreal, a shop designed by M. C. Escher. The audience is enticed along a hall of mirrors, catching glimpses of Melville, Fellini, Tarantino. We are never quite sure what we see, what sleight of hand is at work, what card is being forced upon us. Unlike ‘Noirish Project,’ viewers are no longer along for the Odyssey, but are watching a detective film in which THEY are the detectives.
As we distill the black and white linguistics from the multi-hued para linguistics, questioning motivation, method and montage, we realise there is simply too much evidence, too many layers to analyse in detail. Therefore, what follows is merely a focus on selected aspects of the film; one could write a monogram on this film that rewards repeated viewings.
I shall give a brief plot outline before offering an objective, then a subjective interpretation, the latter being the movie memories the film evokes. Finally, I shall suggest one possible reading, knowing that it is merely one out of …who knows ? Surely, a different reading(s) from each viewer. D is for duality, the black and white of the film, the intertwining of black and white elements in the characters, their disappointments, disillusions, disgust, deceptions and D is for distraction but who is doing the distracting and whom is being distracted ?
Plot & analysis
Notice how the back light shifts, left to right, from pure, innocent white to grainy, jaded grey. Mountjoy (left) meet Baker.
DI Baker is partnered with DC Mountjoy to investigate the murder of a young lady, Zoe. Baker is due to leave the police within days and appears disinterested, while Mountjoy is desperate for a quick resolution, to help save his failing marriage. The pair interview Zoe’s flatmate, then her aunt, learning of Zoe’s sexual proclivities, and of an ex-boyfriend, Tony.
Baker steals some underwear from Zoe’s house, and uses these to receive messages and clues about the case. Baker & Mountjoy arrest Tony and expose him to noise torture. During one session, Baker ‘hears’ a confession, yet it is absent when the recording is played back. Exhausted, and fearing for his sanity, Baker goes home, but is troubled by his ‘visions’. He receives another message and phones Mountjoy.
Baker leaves the job, and Mountjoy thanks him for solving the murder … Tony has confessed … and for giving him a good report. Baker becomes a private investigator, while Mountjoy’s success has come too late. His wife has left him.
The wrath of Baker, the “legendary,” inspector, contemptuous of his Captain, preparing to leave and damn the consequences, Achilles reborn. The obsequiousness of Mountjoy as blind as Achilles’ chronicler, stifled by protocol, obsessively following every rule yet unable to see reality. A detective of intuition, one of procedure, an allusion to Sherlock Holmes, 221B, an ironic play on happiness, both names comprising two syllables. Such is the world we have entered and we should be prepared for conflicts, contradictions and ambiguity, and not forgetting that every Achilles has a heel. What is Baker’s ?
“I’m bored,” Baker proclaims when asked why he is leaving, yet immediately undermines this assertion explaining that he really feels under-appreciated; he does the work, others take the credit. His ego demands recognition, thus his leaving will be an act of revenge.
During the investigation, Baker curtails a conversation with Mountjoy, stating, “I don’t want to talk about it,” before doing exactly that, “I had one of my visions, again.” The ‘vision’ or madness issue is central to our understanding of Baker as he questions, several times, his sanity before his junior partner, displaying a frailty, foregrounding a character fault. “I’m going out out my mind,” is repeated with minor variations, as Baker plays Catch 22 with himself, for Mountjoy’s benefit … just Mountjoys ?
Implication over literalness; we shall encounter more of this, further on, but first a short sketch of Mountjoy, a woefully uxorious pen-pusher who is continually projecting his anxieties onto his report grading. Mountjoy is only comfortable working within rules this does, after all, negate the need for thinking. His marriage is in serious trouble, his wife making (impossible ?) demands of him: a promotion, to loose weight. Their motivations for solving the crime ? Baker’s, to show how indispensable he is, Mountjoy’s, to have personal and professional security. How well they work together is demonstrated when they interview Catherine, Zoe’s flatmate.
The grieving friend, dressed in black but looking like a classic femme fatale or silent film vamp, seems “More than happy,” with the presence of the two men in her room. She refers to herself as a “Traditionalist,” with a certain amount of “Wildness,” a lady who, she carefully enunciates, does not “Sleep around,” (although no one inquired about her private life). She and Zoe were close, “As close as friends can be,” leaving us to infer whether that in- or excluded a sexual relationship. Her whole delivery infuses every comment with a palpable sexual charge, noticeably her insistence that she is “Happy to continue,” with the interview, an invitation that is repeated … and repeated.
Catherine provokes Baker at one point, mentioning that Zoe adhered to the principle of ‘free love’. The Inspector visibly recoils in disgust and as this is filmed in Close-Up, we know it must be deeply significant. We’ve learnt a little about Zoe, maybe a lot about Baker.
At one point, Baker asks directions for Zoe’s room and, after taking some panties from a drawer and slipping them into his pocket, suggests the interview be terminated. Both Catherine and Mountjoy engage Baker in a polite passive-aggressive farce of staying or leaving, Mountjoy being oblivious to the undertone in Baker’s voice demonstrating how he needs things explained, needs to be told what to do. Did he once act impulsively ? Was Baker betrayed in love, and what are his intentions with the underwear ? We discover the answer to the last point shortly after … or, possibly uncover more questions.
Baker is at home when he suddenly gets pains in his head. We see a very short insert of a mouth, in colour, talking. Baker questions the voice, he cannot hear what it is saying. Then he knows what to do. He puts the panties, procured from Zoe’s house, on his head and is able to ‘hear’ the message … except, the message is from Catherine, not Zoe. We need to retrace our steps.
When Baker excuses himself, to go to Zoe’s room, we have a verbal visual cut that is, Baker asking for directions and then we see him in a room. We assume that it is Zoe’s room, but let’s break down the scene. Baker leaves but the camera stays in the main room, showing Catherine and Mountjoy talking, so some time passes before we see Baker, framed in a Dutch angle  entering a room.
Similar to ‘Noirish Project’, the majority of this film is shot with a static camera, therefore any deviation makes a statement: we are entering a different sphere (such as when the film suddenly turns colour and we see Catherine’s mouth). Then we have another effect: the camera fades to black, momentarily, and fades in with Baker standing at a chest of drawers. More time has passed. We presume it is Zoe’s room, but it may well be Catherine’s. No matter how close the flatmates were, it is more reasonable to suppose that the message would come from the owner of the clothes.
Baker’s legendary powers have been revealed. The agony it appears to cause him also gives him the insight to ask the right questions to unlock cases. Elementary ? far from it …
We have heard the message before, when Catherine was talking to Mountjoy. Baker wasn’t in the room but he may well have overheard the conversation while he was in one of the bedrooms. The audience already has this information. However, this ‘involuntary memory’ triggers another. He phones Mountjoy and mentions a diary he saw on Zoe’s bed. In the bedroom scene, we do see Baker look off-camera but, typically, we do not see the object of the gaze. If it were the diary, then he would have been in Zoe’s room and therefore the panties would logically be Zoe’s. The ‘vision messages’ are in fact nothing more mystical than recalled conversations from his subconscious.
So why does Baker take the underwear ? Is this the Achilles heel, a fetish that stops him from looking at Zoe’s diary, a valuable piece of evidence ? A shop designed by M.C. Escher, indeed. Where is this taking us ? Clearly, as with all great mysteries, we are not going to find out in the first act. What will we encounter along the next hall of mirrors ?
Czech New Wave & David Lynch
Cineastes are very generous people, enthusiastically sharing new films, and when they become directors, they love to put film references, blatantly or subtly, in their movies. In ‘Distracted’, I noticed several such references, but two seemed to permeate the film: the work of the Czech New Wave, and that of David Lynch .
I detect an old Eastern Bloc atmosphere, not throughout the entire film, but certainly in the police station scenes. The rooms are bare, only the most basic furnishings, pipes are exposed and the telephone, rotary dial (as shown in the first still) doesn’t work. Later we will see recordings made on a reel-to-reel, while Baker’s small sports car looks magnificently retro.
The station is predominately white, the darker secrets of the interrogations rooms, the criticisms of the broken system, the shortages and shortcoming whitewashed over. Just look at how shocked Mountjoy is when he hears Baker speak the unspeakable.
Baker knows he will not raise above the rank of DI. Maybe his results are applauded but not his methods. Maybe he is simply not a party member, and he has to take orders from those who are loyal to the State, regardless of ability. Totalitarian states are not known for being meritocracies.
Czechoslovakian filmmakers infused their art with the national characteristics of humour and irreverence, shifting from realism to surrealism, splicing in (seemingly) unrelated images, and mocking the oppression that governed, then dictated their lives. Baker’s “Captain” represents the hierarchy, the government, the system.
Although the Captain is not shown, I imagine him as a character from Miloš Forman’s ‘The Fireman’s Ball’ (1967), bungling and awkward, comically incompetent. However, two other films could help us decode more about the sidekick Mountjoy.
The sudden insertion of colour shots, the striking Close-Ups of Catherine’s mouth, and the contrasting colours of the heretofore unmentioned Battenberg cake remind me of the wildly surreal ‘Daisies’ (1966) by Věry Chytilové while the seemless moves from reality into dream, inner thought or allegory make me think of ‘The Cremator’ (1969) by Juraj Herz. The film uses techniques from these two film to ingeniously relate Mountjoy’s backstory … and tell us more about Baker.
I will define surrealism, for this essay, as the incongruous combination of two everyday items, here, a walk in the woods, and a man selling cakes from a makeshift stall. Mountjoy shows us, symbolically, why his marriage is failing. He is enticed, siren like, to the cake seller, and easily persuaded, so easily tempted to partake of this ‘forbidden fruit.’ His wife has imposed a diet on him but, as the seller points out, “Your wife isn’t here, now.” Having no money, Mountjoy immediately barters his watch, a “Solid gold,” watch, a wedding present, for some transitory sensual pleasure. The symbolism is obvious; Mountjoy had an affair, which his wife discovered.
“What have I done ?” Mountjoy cries, as the cake-seller runs away with the watch, “It was a mistake, just a silly mistake,” but one that can’t be undone. A marriage destroyed, ironically, by a piece of Battenberg, a cake invented, amidst Victorian values (and hypocrisy), to celebrate a wedding . In this sequence, DI Baker helps Mountjoy, returning the watch to him, which could be read as Baker saving Mountjoy’s marriage. At any rate, we are not yet finished with our cake-seller; he shall return.
A final nod to the Czech New Wave is the Cacophony Room, a special area of the police station where Tony is taken and exposed to noise to ‘encourage’ him to be more open about Zoe’s murder. The scene reinforces the earlier similarities to a non-democratic society as Tony has no lawyer, and the police seems to operate without rules or supervision. Reel-to-reel recordings are easy to erase. Furthermore, despite the scene showing a suspect being coerced into confessing, even tortured, pleading “No more cacophony !” the scene is more comic than shocking, especially when the film is speeded up and we see Tony rolling along the floor, covering his ears. Another example of Czech black humour. Now, let’s use the cacophony to lead into a director famous for his innovative use of sound in film, David Lynch 
Each man delights in the work that suits him best
The links to ‘Twin Peaks’ are immediately apparent; the murder of a young lady, off-screen, and the subsequent investigation, a diary, a map to a secret place in the country. We encounter a range of idiosyncratic characters, each one appearing to have an interesting story, or two, of their own. As has been frequently mentioned on Twin Peaks posts, we don’t care about Laura Palmer, we only care about who killed her. In ‘Distracted’, we don’t even really care who killed Zoe. Our attention is on Baker and his methodology and, to a lesser extent, Mountjoy’s domestic soap opera.
Additionally we have the main detective receiving messages in dreams or visions while, similar to many Lynch productions, there is an element of surrealism, of ambiguity, of uncertainty. Viewing ‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001), a second time is different to the first due to the information we later have, think we have, might possibly have. Our third has the same effect on our second … and so on .
Having said that, the experimental side of ‘Distracted’ is much more restrained. As with the Czech similarities they merely reflect my own feelings and tastes. Allow me one final comparison.
For me, the main Lynchian touch is the use of sound, although with a dramatic difference. Noise, effects, a non-musical soundtrack helped define ‘Eraserhead’ (1977). Conversely, both ‘Distracted’ & ‘Noirish Project’ are notable for their total absence of music, just minimal ambient diagetic sounds so the use of sound, of experimental noise as a torture, is especially germane.
Finally, and again, this is my impression, the cake-seller is not unlike a character from ‘Twin Peaks’, is not physically dissimilar to the Fireman, as like him, he holds clues for the audience … vital clues, so now it’s time for me to deliver my verdict.
I do not believe that Baker has occult powers, or can receive messages. I base this on the fact that what we hear is merely a repetition of Catherine’s dialogue with Mountjoy. However, Baker does appear to hear something. Let’s go back to our cake-seller. The two meet in the country and have a little banter. Maybe the seller doesn’t just retail but also makes the cakes, he is, in fact … a baker. We have Baker talking to a baker, ergo a man talking to himself.
Baker’s weakness, his Achilles’ heel, is his mental illness. He is leaving the job for this reason, despite the blasting and bombardiering. He mentions this throughout the film, and we can see his ‘trance-like’ states as physical representation of this. Yet, doesn’t Baker mention his disability too often ? In a film so complex, isn’t this answer just a little too convenient ? Our work is not yet complete. Back to our notebooks.
Baker has ‘incidents’. They must be genuine because there is no one else in the room, no one watching, no one that is … except us. All the time, it is the audience that has been distracted. We have been lead up and down this Escher-like narrative, listening to voices that aren’t really there (hence the telephone that rings but has no one respond when picked up). Watching a full-grown man with panties on his head dance around, reciting nonsensical words is, at the very least, liable to attract our attention … to distract us, but distract us from what … the truth ? Baker’s success is down to his method, not his madness. He gets confessions by coercion.
The coda ? Mountjoy receives his watch back from Baker in the country, but this has a different symbolism. Mountjoy is now taking the baton from Baker, he will become disillusioned and cynical, as indicated by our last scene of him … drinking Bells whisky, the same brand Baker drank when they first met.
As for Baker, he moves from catching criminals to catching cheating spouses being too free with their love. A bit of revenge on cheating wives ? He seems a man in pain, so maybe that explains his methods of extracting confessions. But, it’s not really him, and it is certainly not helping, so that is his real reason for leaving. Now, he is free, no tie and no ties. He can choose his working hours, and methods and no one can tell him what to do. He has his book, the sun is shining and he is free. At last, he is free.
The illogical logic of M.C. Escher
 The Dutch angle is usually credited to Dziga Vertov’s 1929 ‘Man With A Movie Camera’, but have a look at Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1926 ‘A Page of Madness’, a silent that, like Murnau’s 1924 ‘The Last Laugh’ does away with inter-titles. All three are amazing films, maybe a subject for a future blog.
 There are even some connections between the two, as Lynch likes experimenting with film, and many Czechoslovakian films were abstract, surreal and experimental. Lynch has also worked with the City of Prague Orchestra, while in ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’, a poster of Franz Kafka prominently hangs in Gordon Cole’s (played by Lynch) office. I don’t attach any significance to these, it just an interesting coincidence for cine buffs.
 The cake, from 1884, is generally thought to have been invented for the wedding of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria and Prince Louis of Battenberg, though not all historians agree.
 James and I share similar tastes in cinema, but occasionally we diverge, and I believe this is such an example. I’m a Lynch fan (with reservations, naturally), but I’m pretty damn sure James is not so impressed by him.
 By the same token, watching ‘Distracted’ affected my view on ‘Noirish Project’. It will be very interesting to see the final film in the “triptych.”
Torrential rain illuminated by a single street light, a face emerging from the shadows, anxious and tense, a clock ticking, pounding agonisingly, a policeman appearing unexpectedly, the essential key dropped down a drain, precision planning, split-second timing, tough times and tougher men.
Such are the images evoked by the crime sub-genre ‘Film Noir’ (1) yet we, the audience, can sense that this is not what we are about to witness in ‘Noirish Project’, written and directed by James Devereaux.
I’ve known James for several years, so I have to recuse myself from a review or critique, and instead focus on the plot, the cinematic choices used in telling this story and what I think happened – clearly there is some ambiguity, equally clearly I will be discussing the entire film, so in the modern argot there will be spoilers.
To set the scene, I’ll give the synopsis, after which …
I’ll spill the beans on what goes down so listen and listen good … go to James’ website, rent or buy the film, watch it real close, then come back and read my two cents’ worth.
This is taken from the official website:
Bleak, melancholy, neorealist feature film masquerading as film noir. A couple of low-lifes try to make some quick cash but end up just waiting around.
Noirish Project is a melancholy and gently comic feature film about Billy, who steals his family’s precious pearls and hands them over to low-life Jimmy (played by James Devereaux), who in turn takes them to a fence. But when the pearls turn out to be fake, Jimmy barely escapes from the fence with his life, let alone the pearls. Billy and Jimmy endevour to get the pearls back before Billy’s family finds out they’re gone, but when the fence goes missing, they realise their story has only just begun.
Shot in black and white, Noirish Project is a neo-realist fantasy, featuring moments of peculiar poetry and gentle comedy.
Additionally, there exists a prelude short, giving some back story, but I’ll just focus on the main film. Characters studies and plot will be followed by a section on cinematic technique, then my conclusion.
The title itself conveys all the information we need; this is not Noir but Noir-ish(2). Unlike the Hollywood Noir formula, with meticulous planning, boosting, hi-jacking and heists, this is a ‘project’, reminiscent of an innocent school activity; innocence and (perceived) experience as personified by the two leading characters.
The reversal of Noir conventions is further evident in the naming of the characters. The strong, regal-sounding James, William and Richard are softened to the familiar Jimmy, Billy & Dickie. Another detour from genre is the blatant disregard to the film-makers’ mantra: ‘show, don’t tell.’ What makes the film so intriguing is that almost nothing essential to a Noir film is shown … it is all told, and told by Jimmy. Therefore, our interpretation of the film relies on how much we trust him, by extension, how much we trust his narrative. This cinematic ‘project’ hangs on the literary concept of the ‘unreliable narrator’. So what do we know about said narrator ?
Our first view of Jimmy is telling. He is shown in MEDIUM-LONG shot, walking along the street, and when he realises he’s been seen, he pulls his cap further down and slips into a side street. We often see him walking away from the camera, or with his back initially turned to us, before swinging around, as if he’s been composing himself for a performance, an act.
Throughout the film, with one exception, mentioned later, Jimmy hides under a cloth cap, and wears a long black coat, buttoned up to the top, a metaphor for how Jimmy plays his cards close to his chest and is, literally and figuratively, giving nothing away. His hands are often in his pockets, which we perceive to be deep; Billy will more than once encounter the expression ‘short arms, long pockets.’ (3)
Jimmy’s language is full of portentous saying, aggressive expletives and admonishments not to apologise. He is certainly playing his part, verbally.
As for Billy, he seems a man out of time, a misfit, anachronistically resembling a refugee from Renoir’s ‘La Règle du Jeu‘ (1939), alongside US literary icons Holden Caulfield and Ignatius J. Reilly (‘Catcher in the Rye’ 1945- 6 / 1951 & ‘Confederacy of Dunces’ 1960s published 1980) (4). Billy wears a dinner suit and bow tie (a ‘Dickie’ bow) and protects his head with a fur cap with ear flaps.
Jimmy has to work, to earn his crust, Billy is protected and pampered; so much is indicated by their outfits. Jimmy is also taller than Billy and uses this advantage on occasion. He will be the dominant character in this tale, and all tales needs a McGuffin to set the wheels in motion … but first, the two protagonists need to be in the same scene. Not so easy when the evasive Jimmy seems hell bent on evading Billy.
Finally, around three minutes into the film, they start a conversation. Jimmy speaks in cliches, conveying urgency and danger but, characteristically, avoiding specifics. What follows is exposition, and a further clue to the path the film will take. There is a robbery, a jewel theft, [not shown in the film], jewels pass to an intermediary, then to a fence (5) [not shown], the fence declares the jewels fake and almost kills the intermediary in anger [also, not shown]. The previous sentence could concisely encapsulate a typical Noir plot … but this is not a typical Noir plot. Furthermore, it is the audience who has to be on their guard. We have not been shown any of the above action, we only have direct and indirect speech to go on. The plot, as the saying goes, thickens, so let’s clarify.
Billy is the thief. We learn that he has stolen some pearls from his own family. Our view of Billy as an innocence is suddenly altered, his act is both cowardly and detestable (from Greek drama we know that crimes against the family never end well). Jimmy is the intermediary; he is not the fence but knows someone who is, a certain ‘Dickie’. Or does he … ?
I’ve termed such a situation ‘opennism’: to describe a situation which has multiple interpretations, and where the reader or viewer is much more involved, indeed has to be an active contributor to the story. Thus, the viewer can accept everything Jimmy says as the truth and enjoy the film on that level.
However, for me, the interplay between characters, the changes in power, the dynamic swirls seem indicative of something deeper. Jimmy looks a guy with something to hide, and I want to find out what makes him tick.
The potential for ambiguity starts immediately. The pearls, Jimmy informs Billy are fake … at least, according to Dickie. How many permutations does that simple sentence generate?
ONE: All is 100% true
TWO: Dickie knows the pearls are real, knows Jimmy can’t tell a genuine pearl from a breathe mint and lies to him, to avoid paying. Jimmy, humiliated, leaves without the pearls, trying to save face.
THREE: As above but when Jimmy protests, Dickie gets aggressive to forestall any further discussion, and gets rid of Jimmy.
FOUR: Dickie sees they are real and offers a price. Jimmy takes the money, lying to Billy, claiming he was almost killed to explain the lack or pearls and money.
FIVE: There is no Dickie. Jimmy is flattered that Billy thinks he is part of the underworld and plays along, seeing how far he can take it.
Billy himself questions Jimmy’s reply, doubting Dickie’s appraisal (to be clear … Dickie’s response as related by Jimmy). All that we know for sure is that Billy is left without the pearls (fake or otherwise).
What follows is the Hitchcockian ‘McGuffin’: to retrieve the pearls, to put them back before his family notices, a return to the status quo although he will still be in debt and won’t be able to flee, “To Mexico,” [that ultimate goal for crooks in US Noir films]. To do that, he has to convince Jimmy to revisit Dickie, and thereafter the film turns into a quest full of challenges to be overcome and dangers to be meet and, as the synopsis promises … a lot of waiting.
First stage is to return to the ‘scene of the crime’. Jimmy takes Billy to where he (claims) to have met Dickie. It appears to be some sort of clinic, a very basic clinic with a receptionist, whose occupation is signified by a single telephone, and a doctor, an older man in a suit, with a stethoscope serpent-like around his neck.
Jimmy is unable to communicate with the receptionist, who speaks like a witness caught by the police, afraid to squeal: “I don’t know nothing, I’m a nobody.” The doctor appears, perturbed and aggressive, demanding to know what is happening. Despite Jimmy’s explanation (for Billy’s benefit ?) the doctor claims to know nothing about any pearls, nor to know anybody by the name of ‘Dickie’, furthermore, he seems unduly unsettled when he hears that Jimmy has been, “Asking questions.”
The doctor then breaks the Hippocratic Oath by nearly breaking Jimmy’s arm, knocking his cap off and pushing our anti-heroes out of the building. Instead of following Jimmy and Billy, we remain in the clinic and listen to some very dubious dialogue, a text-book sexual harassment case. However, the ‘receptionist’ plays along, willingly, possibly suggesting that another type of film is about to be made at this location, and explaining why the ‘doctor’ was so anxious to clear the set.
Back outside, we have some more revealing character development. Jimmy, so easily threatened and beaten by the doctor, tells how he could have snapped the doctor with just a click of his fingers. He further suggests going for a drink in Dickie’s local and, setting a repeated pattern, asks Billy to wait. Jimmy later returns with some more reported speech: Dickie isn’t in the pub but the bar staff said that he was on his way. In fact, they were preparing his drink right now. Unfortunately [with a theatrical show of hands on chest], Jimmy has left his wallet, “In my other coat.” The audience may wonder if Jimmy even owns a second coat, but Billy is taken in and, despite the perfunctory protests, Jimmy accepts the offer of a drink. There follows a long take, in shallow-focus, of Jimmy and Billy playing pool or snooker, for nearly ten minutes. All that time, Dickie fails to appear.
Jimmy phones Dickie and engages in a very friendly conversation, but again, this seems put on for Billy’s benefit as we don’t see Jimmy paying for the call, nor do we hear any voice at the end of the line. The banter makes it sound as if Jimmy hasn’t seen Dickie for a long time, as opposed to a few hours ago, while Jimmy signals to Billy with smiles and repeats the name ‘Dickie’ more times than is necessary or natural. The upshot … Dickie will come to meet them so now they wait outside at a train station … and wait.
The Beckett parallels are obvious, albeit with one difference; only Jimmy knows if Dickie really intends to come or, as I posited earlier, if there even is a Dickie.
Tension builds as the characters, and the audience wait .. and wait. We hear the sound of trains arriving, twice … but as in Beckett, “Nothing happens.” Finally Jimmy goes to phone Dickie and offers to buy some coffee, with Billy’s money, naturally. In his absence, Billy asks how he will recognise Dickie (an issue that didn’t seem to occur to Jimmy, further strengthening the theory that Dickie was never going to arrive). The answer is shown, but again is literary: Billy wears a sign saying, “Dickie.”
Time passes, Billy portraying his innocent side, plays with a yo-yo. Not only does he play with a yo-yo but he evidently carries one with him. Later, innocent as a babe, he falls asleep, only to be awoken by Jimmy. The quest takes another turn. They must visit Dickie in his country home. There is, of course, no coffee for Billy, “There’s no time for coffee !” yet when Billy says he’s hungry, Jimmy agrees. We can presume that Jimmy’s had enough coffee, while he was off-screen, but is also hungry. Of course, Billy will be paying.
We cut to, appropriately enough, a waiting room and wait, then ride a prosaic commuter train to a country station.
A further dichotomy arises, that of city and country. Jimmy, a city dweller is out of his comfort zone, and what starts as a pleasant city-break, a walk in the woods takes a more ominous turn as Billy realises that Jimmy doesn’t know the way, that he has been lead in circles (in both senses) and loses his temper, though it is more childish petulance than macho aggression.
Finally, Jimmy sees the house, or perhaps we should say a house. This is far removed from a reclusive, inconspicuous country getaway. It resembles a Baronial manor, an estate run by the National Trust. Unsurprisingly, Jimmy instructs Billy to wait, at quite a distance, and unsurprisingly the wait is long. Billy falls asleep.
Jimmy has the pearls, in a black, plastic bag. Billy sees them and is content. The quest is over, now the return to the city. Under a soulless station underpass, Jimmy offers to buy Billy a drink … he was given some money, he alleges, from Dickie. For Billy, this day has been a rite of passage. He has failed in his criminal endeavour, and maybe also lost faith in Jimmy. He built Jimmy up, in his imagination, as someone ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. Now he’s not so sure. Billy declines the offer and exits with a, “See you around,” which is code for ‘I hope I don’t see you around.’
As for Jimmy, he has a little money in his pocket, whether from Dickie, or Billy, maybe even his own which he had all the time. He walks alone, pondering his day, then goes to a cafe, drinks coffee and watches the world go by.
The film uses, exclusively, a static camera (6) and the opening shot, is rather Zen-like in its framing. We see the city, the Docklands area of east London occupying the lower part of the frame, the upper devoted to the sky. The division sets a visual theme of two opposites (innocence / experience, city / country, breaking the law/ being caught), areas clearly demarked, not unlike a Rothko painting.
Mr Devereaux’s London story has similarities with ‘Tokyo Story’ (1953) by the Japanese director Ozu, also known for making films with a static camera exclusively. As in the aforementioned film, ‘Noirish’s’ opening shot has movement, here provided by two Tube trains, who could easily represent the two characters. One trains enters, slowly laboriously making its way across the screen, while a second train enters from the opposite direction at speed, leaving the shot while the first train is still trudging by. We first see Billy, sitting at a cafe, then Jimmy, walking rapidally.
We also feel how this will be ‘Noir-ish‘. The scene starts in clear day, not a rainy night and unlike the frantic, fast-cutting in action films, we have a long, very leisurely take. The film will use long takes frequently, many shots lasting well over a minute, in contrast to what audiences expect from a crime caper. By my calculation, the entire film is composed of just 150 shots. Compare that to the contemporary ‘Bourne’ films with an average shot length (ASL) of around two seconds (7) .
The static camera sets up the scenes rather theatrically. Characters enter and exit the scene [usually] from the sides in the city, while the transition to the country enables Jimmy and Billy to enter from the back of the scene and walk towards the camera. The viewer is allowed time to consider the action or situation as the camera often lingers a numbers of seconds after the actors have made their exit, and we are allowed to view the scene, as if that too were a character. The camera is passive, not active; will that reflect the ultimate actions of the characters ?
The static camera / long take dynamic is taken to the extreme in the pub interior scene, the pool scene. This could be a homage to Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ (1948), shot in ten-minute takes, at the time, the maximum length of a film reel. In keeping with the film, we don’t see the game, just the players sitting and watching each other play and passing comment on the action.
The day ends with nothing gained, especially for Billy. He has a chance to repent, and his crime can be erased. It never happened. Throughout the film that are symbolic clues to indicate what could be the future if things had developed along a different trajectory. Jimmy and Billy are so often shown trapped or enclosed against walls, doors and windows. Waiting at the station, the pair are framed against a wire fence, resembling a prison yard with nothing but wasteland and a thick, high wall in the background. A police siren wails and even in the waiting room, a security camera can be seen, observing them.
During the train ride to the country, we have some focalisation, where we see Billy as Jimmy sees him; Billy has a false beard on. This could be a comic interlude, indicating Jimmy’s fatigue, a semi-dreaming state, or it could be a deeper realisation, that maybe Billy isn’t all that he seems. He too is putting on a front and Jimmy should be on his guard against this ‘innocent’. Jimmy has handled stolen goods, but Billy is the actual thief. So who is the worst of the two ? The final scenes, dialogue free, pure cinema, hold, I believe, the answer.
After Billy leaves, Jimmy walks, from the right into shot, as the train entered in the opening shot. He leans against a wall, framed, again like the opening shot, in the lower half, the upper showing a nondescript building. He smiles to himself. The film CUTS TO:
A street scene, two house doors next to an antique, bric-a-brac shop. The scene cuts back to Jimmy, in the Zen framing, thinking what happened, what could have happened.
Jimmy looks in the shop window. How easy to buy a cheap set of pearls and keep the real pearls. Billy would probably never know, and even if he did, what could he do ? He couldn’t beat Jimmy physically, nor could he report him to the police, nor hire someone from the criminal classes to beat Jimmy – Jimmy is the only person he (believes) to operate in that milieu. Like taking candy from a baby. Is that what Jimmy does ? The answer, for me, lies in a subsequent shot.
Jimmy is shown, back to camera, typically, walking away from camera, in a covered retail area. Concrete bridges create a heavy shadow on one side of the frame. Jimmy starts to move to the shadow … then changes his mind. He walks in the light and out of shot. Back at the antique shop, we see him look in, turn … and walk past the shop. He doesn’t go in, he doesn’t con his friend.
London may hold 8 or 9 million stories but Jimmy knows his isn’t one of them. He’s no Bogart or Mitchum, no Belmondo or Delon. He goes into a modest cafe, alone, and thinks about his day, how he played at being gangster, a life of thrills and danger but now he’s safe, protected behind a thick pane of glass, and watches the world, watches other people … watches.
Alfred Hitchcock: British film director, famous for crime and suspense movie.
Yasujiro Ozu: Japanese film maker, famous for his use of the static camera and low-angle ‘tatami’ shot. While the camera remains fixed, there is so much movement within the shot.
Jean Renoir: Regarded as one of the best ever French film directors
Mark Rothko: US artist
(1) A style of crime film popular in the 1940s and 50s, often with many night scenes and shadows, hence the name ‘noir’ which means black in French. The films were often about gangsters or criminals planning to rob banks, or rich people, then escaping but they were usually caught or killed by the police.
(2) The – ish suffix is applied to words to mean ‘a little bit,’ ‘to an extent.’ Examples would be,
“Are you free now ?” “No, I should be ready at 5-ish,” meaning some time around 5 o’clock.
“What colour is that ?” “It’s kind of blue-ish.”
(3) An humorous English expression to indicate a lack of generosity, meanness and selfishness.
(4) Famous and canonical ‘modern’ US fiction by J.D. Salinger & John Kennedy O’Toole, both of whom were troubled and ‘out of time’, but that is beyond the scope of this blog.
(5) Slang term for a person who buys stolen goods and then sells them to other people.
(6) The camera does not move at all. Characters can enter and exit the scene. Several directors use this style of filming, to various extents, in their films but I will draw comparisons with Ozu.