When did crime begin to pay?

I've been introducing some friends to the Ealing comedies. We started with the Lavender Hill Mob, which was showing at a few London cinemas in a restored print, and followed a couple of weeks later with Kind Hearts and Coronets. If you haven't seen either one, I'm about to spoil the endings. I'm also going to spoil the ending of Anatomy of a Murder so don't read further if you haven't seen those films.

The crooks in the Lavender Hill Mob don't get away with their heist and, though the ending of Kind Hearts is ambiguous, it's fairly likely that the central character there doesn't get away with his crimes either.

That ambiguity was a little too much for the Americans, however. An extra 10 seconds of Kind Hearts was filmed which did away with the ambiguity so that the film would comply with the US Production Code.

Watching those films raised a question that has puzzled me for years. When did crime begin to pay in the movies? The Ealing comedies are notable for their witty approach to ensuring that the crooks don't get away with it but they still put you in the position of rooting for the criminals, only to disappoint you at the end. They simply aren't allowed to give you the satisfaction of seeing Alec Guiness's bank robber enjoy his riches.

But we've also seen films in which the crooks to get away with it. Whether they are heist films or courtroom dramas with a twist, at some point it became acceptable for the bad guys to succeed. But when?

The Motion Picture Production Code provides a clue. The code set the boundaries of what was allowed on film. Obvious things such as nudity and swearing were prohibited. There were also rules about interracial relationships, homosexuality and, of course, crime. According to Wikipedia, the code required films to ensure "that throughout, the audience feels sure that evil is wrong and good is right".

The Wikipedia entry lists Anatomy of a Murder as one of the films that helped to bring about the Code's demise. That film deals with the trial of an army lieutenant who is accused of murdering an innkeeper. He claims that the innkeeper raped his wife.

James Stewart's lawyer manages to get the lieutenant acquitted but the end of the film casts doubt on the man's story. The innkeeper may not have raped his wife after all and the lieutenant may have killed him in a drunken rage.

So it's possible that the criminal got away with it in Anatomy of a Murder but, again, like Kind Hearts and Coronets, it's not explicit. My search goes on for the earliest film in which the criminals escape justice.

King, Bishop, Knight, Spy

There is a lot to love about the new film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It's beautifully directed and filled with impeccable performances. The scene in which Gary Oldman's Smiley recounts his meeting with his nemesis, Karla, is particularly stunning. The locations are wonderful and elements of the set design - a chandelier here, a fairground dragon there - make for some memorable scenes.

The film doesn't entirely avoid the perils of adapting a complex book. The first 20 minutes feel rushed as the film struggles under the weight of exposition and the closing montage is cheesy.

The script makes some inexplicable changes to the plot, few of which are an improvement. There are some inconsequential alterations: Jim Prideaux's mission takes place in Hungary, not Czechoslovakia, Ricki Tarr is sent to Istanbul, rather than Lisbon, and the Russian source is "Witchcraft" instead of "Merlin". There's no obvious reason for those changes but they don't make anything worse.

Peter Guillam, Smiley's right-hand man in Tinker Tailor…, runs MI6's 'scalphunters', the team that deals with the secret service's violent, dirty jobs. In the book he's straight but in the film he's gay. When Smiley warns him that he will be watched closely, Guillam goes home and makes his boyfriend move out. That provides a nice Hollywood opportunity to show what he is sacrificing for his work but does it make sense?

Presumably Guillam now thinks he's at risk of blackmail but given his job, surely that was a risk before? Is it possible that someone in his position could live with a man and expect nobody to notice?

More troublesome is the film's device for visualising the suspected Russian agent at MI6. The head of the service, Control, suspects one of his five key lieutenants. The film has him attach little photos of each man to chess pieces, implying that Control is having trouble remembering what his colleagues look like.

When Control briefs Prideaux he shows him the chess pieces. Each man is represented by a different piece. They need a code so that Prideaux can tell Control which man is the traitor. In this case, surely Control would choose King, Bishop, Knight, Rook and Pawn? Adding another layer by going for Tinker, Tailor, etc., just seems perverse.

Those are nitpicks, really. The only change that really irritated me - and one that significantly weakened the film - was the decision to open with Prideaux's failed mission. One of the joys of Le Carre's plot is that the precise details of the mission unfold as Smiley pursues his investigation and the film blows that in its desire to open, literally, with a bang.

This is a great film but not the masterpiece that many critics have claimed it to be.

No football colours

I watched Eastern Promises last night, David Cronenberg's film about the Russian mafia in London. It's generally excellent, with good performances from Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts and a strong script from Steven Knight, who wrote Dirty Pretty Things - another good film about the hidden side of immigrant London.

However, one moment in Eastern Promises jarred horribly for me. One of the characters is returning from a match between Arsenal and Chelsea. As he wanders through the crowd he chants Arsenal's name, baiting the Chelsea fans. The names of both clubs are mentioned clearly and yet all the supporters are wearing weirdly generic clothing instead of anything official from either club. The 'Chelsea' supporters wear plain blue shirts, a little darker than Chelsea's actual shirts, while the 'Arsenal' fans wear plain red shirts and strange stripey scarves.

You can see what I mean in this clip, though be warned that it ends with some graphic violence and spoils a minor plot point if you haven't seen the film.

Was this done for licensing reasons? Do you need to pay Arsenal if one of your characters wears their shirt? I can't imagine why. I also find it hard to believe that the decision was made to protect the reputations of the fans concerned. It's obvious in the context of the film that the characters portrayed are gangsters rather than football supporters. The only explanation I can think of is cost: it's pretty expensive to kit out a few hundred extras in replica football shirts and scarves.

Whatever the reason, it's a bad decision. On the DVD extras much is made of the authenticity of the film. We are told, for example, that the tattoos the mobsters wear were meticulously researched. So why make such a strange gaffe with the football supporters? I can only assume Cronenberg was thinking of his American audience, knowing they wouldn't notice but, for a British viewer with a modicum of football knowledge, the scene ruins the suspension of disbelief.

A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death is showing at the BFI until tomorrow. I went to see it on Friday. It’s one of my favourite films but Friday was the first time I’ve seen it on a cinema screen. The print wasn’t great but the film remains amazing. The camera work is extraordinary, the special effects are ingenious and the story, though twee, must have been deeply affecting to 1946 audiences. Oh, and there’s a great performance from David Niven’s mustache, playing itself.

Reading up on the film afterwards I discovered a few interesting facts from the wealth of sources offered on this page.

The neurological condition suffered by Peter Carter, Niven’s character, is portrayed with extraordinary detail, much of which would pass unnoticed by anyone but an expert. According to Diane Broadbent Friedman, "this film depicts clinical details in such an accurate way that a clinician might diagnose the probable site of the lesion".

The film was commissioned by the British Government to build Anglo-American relations. Many Britons resented the American troops, who turned up late to the war, arriving well-heeled and well-fed in country brought to its knees by war. Powell and Pressburger’s script inverts this - something Todd Alcott mentions a lot as a key screenwriting trick - and the only prejudice in the film comes from an American aghast that the British hero has fallen for a Boston girl.

In attempting to bridge the gap between the two cultures, the film operates with great subtlety, as this review from Henry Coombs notes:

"Consider the scene in which Abraham Farlan (Heaven's prosecuting lawyer) plays a radio broadcast of a cricket match, and contemptuously says, `The voice of England, 1945.' Dr. Reeves (the defence) acknowledges the exhibit with a great deal of embarrassment, and then produces one of his own: a blues song from America, which Farlan listens to as though he's got a lemon in his mouth. Reeves looks smug.

"Snobbery? Well, I don't see why it's snobbish to condemn blues music - and that's not what Powell and Pressburger are doing, anyway. As the song is being played, we get a shot of the American soldiers listening to it: several of them nod their heads to the rhythm, perfectly at home. THEY don't find it incomprehensible. There's something valuable about the song and neither Reeves nor Farlan knows what it is. Reeves probably realises as much. All English audiences (and all Australian, Indian, etc. audiences as well) know without being told that there is something of value in the cricket broadcast, too; and that while Reeves understands THAT, he is unable to explain it to Farlan - hence the blues broadcast, which shows that people can understand each other without sharing an understanding of everything else. It's a clever scene."

Finally, the page also points to this funny sketch from Big Train: