Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Dustin Hoffman, The Black Dahlia, and bent coppers – Reviews #267

... in which I arrive five years late to the Line of Duty party to find that all the bent coppers have already been caught.

Black Dahlia Avenger by Steve Hodel (2003/2015) − In 2003, former LAPD homicide detective Steve Hodel held a press conference to announce that he had solved perhaps the most notorious unsolved murder case in American history: the 1947 slaying of the 'Black Dahlia', an aspiring actress named Elizabeth Short, whose brutally mutilated body was found in a parking lot in Los Angeles. The unforgettable appellation − often misattributed to tabloid hacks repurposing the film noir title, The Blue Dahlia − was actually Short's nickname in life, and, with the singularly horrifying manner of the body (cut in two with surgeon-like precision), may explain why it became such a sensational newspaper story. Yellow journalism fanned the flames of a tale that had everything − a beautiful victim, a sadistic villain, and innumerable conspiracy theories − turning the hunt for the killer into a dark parlour game, rather than it remaining what it should always have been: the search for justice after the death of a young woman, almost certainly murdered by an abusive ex-boyfriend. By 1950, she was a line in Sunset Blvd. Four decades later, James Ellroy revisited the crime in the dark, semi-fictional opening novel of his LA Quartet.

Hodel's theory, which made his book an international best-seller, is that the killer was his own father: a doctor, former musical prodigy and bona fide genius, by the name of George Hill Hodel. And for a third of its 500-page length, Black Dahlia Avenger − the name the killer gave himself, and Steve's self-appointed role here − is a gripping read: clumsily written and riddled with typos, but presenting a compelling narrative piecing together a timeline from innumerable press cuttings, fascinatingly documenting George's past, underscored by Steve's uneasy but loving relationship with him, and incorporating a remarkable gallery of supporting players, from Maltese Falcon director John Huston to surrealist, sadistic photographer Man Ray, and the big players in law enforcement in 1940s LA.

Then we get to the 'evidence' and it's sketchy as hell, Steve consistently going about a third of the way to proving something, and then considering the job done, and calling back to it, with an "as I have shown". The bits at the beginning were decidedly questionable too, including two supposed pictures of Short in George's personal effects which don't look like her at all (one of them has since been proven, by Steve himself, not to be her), but I'd hoped that was just the catalyst for his investigation, not a central part of it. Parts of the investigation at least support the case for further analysis of Hodel, Sr as a suspect − particularly handwriting comparisons − but the author seems conspicuously unable to differentiate between credible evidence, coincidence and batshit conspiracy theory. He'll also do things like (on p. 275 of the 2015 edition) show how his dad looked just like a composite picture, by airbrushing out his dad's moustache. Yes, OK, but your dad had a moustache. At one point he suggests, without further elaboration or investigation, that the "wealthy Hollywood man" being sought by police must have been his father.

"Who's your father?"
"George Hill Hodel."
"Ah yes, George Hill Hodel, the only wealthy man in Hollywood."

I do have some sympathy for Steve. His dad was clearly an awful, awful person − as evidenced by his rape of Steve's 14-year-old half-sister, of which he was cleared, but clearly guilty − and he may well have been capable of this crime. He may even have done it. But the author's obsessive attempt to link him to every unsolved rape and homicide in LA in the 1940s is less than convincing. His cries of a cover-up, as supposedly evidenced by the 1949 grand jury hearings into the failure to find the killer, are also patchy. In the 'Aftermath' section, added in 2005, we hear from Lt Jemison, appointed by the DA's office to look into the initial LAPD investigation, who attributes the failings to incompetence, rather than wrongdoing.

It's in the Aftermath section − missing, of course, from the original 2003 edition − that we realise Steve wasn't as mad as we thought. He may have begun the investigation because he decided that a photo of a random woman was Elizabeth Short, but his father really was a suspect, to the extent that he was bugged, and his phone tapped, by the DA's investigators. And there, in the transcripts, he seems to hint at some complicity in the Black Dahlia killing ("Supposin' I did kill the Black Dahlia? They couldn't prove it now"), while practically confessing to the murder of his secretary, Ruth Spaulding. But, as we see from Jemison's subsequent report, something cleared Hodel, Sr from suspicion, and he was eliminated as a suspect. Steve's contention that Jemison was being forced to drop the investigation into his father, and used the phrase "tends to eliminate him as a suspect" to show his unease, is unconvincing and not backed up by any evidence.

It's a frustrating book, then, and by no means 'case closed'. And while Steve clearly cares about Short, and makes a good fist of reclaiming her as a lovelorn young woman, rather than the dissolute slut painted by misogynistic cops and writers down the decades, he also wallows in the depravity and sadism of her murder and countless other murders of young women. I was suckered in by my fascination with Ellroy, LA noir and an unsolved mystery, but found myself feeling sickened, exploited and depressed by the end.

Hodel has since alienated most of his defenders by asserting that his dad was also the Zodiac Killer. (2.5)

See also: For a long time I avoided 'true crime', because it made me feel either guilty or unhappy. Those concerns were overridden by a couple of books which sounded too fascinating to neglect: Michael Finkel's True Story and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Now I may be back where I started.


The Folks That Live on the Hill by Kingsley Amis (1990) – Amis’s blinding wit can’t always rescue this poisonously misanthropic book about outwardly avuncular academic Harry Caldecote and his troubled family: the bereaved Clare, alcoholic Fiona, henproteckted Freddie, brutalised Bunty, and feckless, possibly criminal Piers, who exist in a Torily-realised London of crushing mundanity, waspish disgust and drab, brownly toneless multiculturalism. And at times even that voice fails altogether, turning in on itself to birth such laboriously self-satisfied sentences as the Amis of Lucky Jim would himself have lampooned, and necessitating that one read each of them several times to unpick the text, subtext, etc. That’s a parody of one of them.

There are others when the author’s unparalleled, deliciously English turn of phrase still dazzles, Amis cramming deadpan observations and dismissive putdowns into exposition and description, places where most other writers wouldn’t dare (or indeed bother). But he’s forever punching downwards, the malevolence and jaundice of his worldview rendering his work less than human, while he articulates the working class experience about as effectively as David Mitchell attempting a cockney accent. Or Andrea Leadsom. Occasionally, particularly towards the end, he offers his characters a little solace and understanding – if not a lifeline – but for far too long Amis seems to treat his characters with contempt, smugly revelling in not only their imperfections, but in the misogyny and absence of compassion that he mistakes for charming roguishness.

It’s also boring: rooted in a time and place (the Primrose Hill of 1990) that seems not only fleeting but also desperately uninteresting, people by characters whom it’s difficult to care about, since the man who created them can’t really be bothered. Amis displays flashes of lucid empathy – particularly in the deeply moving final chapter – where he effectively humanises and empathises with Clare, while I found the passages dealing with why an alcoholic like Fiona drinks truthful and even profound, but the bulk of this detached, inert book has uninteresting characters doing almost nothing aside from thinking about why they dislike one another, a prejudice that ultimately I couldn’t help but share. (2)



CINEMA: Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970) – This revisionist Western from Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn is unfocused when it should be freewheeling, and cartoonish in a way that undermines its seriousness and integrity, but it has a few vivid moments, and helped pave the way for not only Blazing Saddles and Altman's Buffalo Bill, but Jarmusch’s deadpan Dead Man and Costner's brilliant Dances with Wolves, which also portrayed the bluecoats of the U. S. Cavalry as lying, duplicitous murderers.

Dustin Hoffman is Jack Crabb, at 121 years old the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn (or 'Custer's Last Stand'), that monument to arrogant, genocidal, imperialist complacency. During the film's 139 minutes, Crabb becomes a multitude of genre archetypes, from orphaned pioneer kid to gunslinger, Indian to Indian Fighter, medicine man to town drunk, hermit to trail scout, as the film swings wildly between sincerity and surrealism, subversion and sex comedy.

It’s possible to be both cartoonish and deftly satirical – Frank Tashlin did it with his 1957 masterpiece, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? – but Little Big Man is far too erratic to sustain that for more than a few minutes of time, drifting from its fine opening 30 into spoofs of Stagecoach, Shane, The Searchers and My Darling Clementine and some risible sex comedy little better than what you’d find in a Carry On film (the same year, Peckinpah interrupted his superb, elegiac Western, The Ballad of Cable Hogue with Benny Hill-like inserts), even if having Faye Dunaway deliver it means that you can at least gorge yourself on her translucent beauty (those cheekbones, fuck me).

Its passages in the Indian camp are often affecting, sensitive and richly ironic, deeply rooted in a wise, glowing humanity, and blessed with a fantastic performance from Chief Dan George as Hoffman’s adopted grandfather (George played a similar role in Clint’s The Outlaw Josey Wales). There are also flashes of brilliance in Penn’s direction: Sunshine framed in the tepee doorway, silence after a killing, and the chilling and unforgettable first appearance of the cavalry – announced by Hoffman’s desperate sprint through the camp-site, which is captured on handheld camera, and eerily, masterfully utilising the music and iconography of the bluecoats familiar from a hundred films in which they were the heroes (perhaps most memorable, Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

But the film as a whole is a bit of a shambles: tonally incoherent, frequently and offputtingly aloof, and rarely as pointed and furious as it needs to be: Richard Mulligan’s Custer is amusingly trivial, but playing him as a vainglorious imbecile makes him seem more like Maid Marian and Her Merry Men’s Robin than the deluded, arrogant bigot of history, and the climactic battle – crucial to the whole picture – is irritating and badly-staged, trading comprehension for what it imagines wrongly to be visceral excitement, and then trading any vestiges of that for low comedy and sledgehammer satire.

Hoffman is also way out of his depth for much of the film. Perhaps he’s here as a post-modern joke – because you wouldn’t expect to find a titular Jewish nebbish as a Western hero, because his recognisable persona only really makes sense in 1970s America – but he seems merely miscast, and cast adrift by a script that chucks out its sense of anger and purpose not only at will, but for not discernible reason, aside from the instant gratification of a cheap laugh. (2.5)



Here are some thoughts on Line of Duty. My 8,000-word fan theory on how the length of Vicky McClure's hair relates to the scale of her inner turmoil is still to come.

Line of Duty: Season 1 (2012) – OK, I'm finally diving in. A principled counter-terrorism officer (Martin Compson) botches a case and winds up in anti-corruption, where he's asked to investigate the charismatic, popular Tony Gates (Lennie James), whose crime-solving stats are off the scale. It's not great timing for Tony, who's just helped his mistress (Gina McKee) cover up a hit-and-run, or perhaps for ambitious young cop Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), trying manfully to get on his team. This gripping, consistently surprising cop series is simply too far-fetched and melodramatic at times, but it's also beautifully acted – especially by James and McClure – with above-average dialogue from creator Jed Mercurio, and intelligent, extremely effective direction, with a blue tint to proceedings, and characters up-close-and-personal, or dwarfed by monolithic buildings or the enormity of their burdens. Its greatest virtue, though, and it has a few, is its scope of characterisation. It's not non-judgemental, exactly, it's more that it's even-handed, with Mercurio assured in his ability to economically, and without warning, skewer our sympathies: to engender sympathy for a villain or cause us to rage at a hero's sanctimony. That shifting perspective, allied to an impeccably-plotted narrative, saw me race through the bulk of this in one sitting. (3.5)


Line of Duty: Season 2 (2014) – A sometimes stunning second season: a bit messy, a bit silly, but keeping you guessing throughout, and with a fantastic performance from Keeley Hawes. She’s DI Lindsey Denton, the sole survivor of a hit on a protected witness, and so ripe for investigation by Steve (Martin Compston), Kate (Vicky McClure) and their hard-nosed, Roman-nosed boss (Adrian Dunbar). But is she a criminal mastermind, a victim or something else entirely? Line of Duty can be gimmicky at times, with a bit of screenwriting-by-the-book – the oldest trick in that book being to give every supporting character a quirk (like the pathologist with a heavy cold in the first series), or to half-inch your highlights, the hospital sequences here using tricks familiar from both The Godfather and Nighthawks – but it’s also thrilling and gripping and with truly great set-pieces, including the powerhouse interview sequences that are its calling card, and are now prefixed by that ominous, unpleasant honking on the tape.

The show does a good job, too, of drawing you in, both by developing its characters and by withholding information about them: that tends to work better when you’ve got an actor like Mark Bonnar (as a questionable DCC) rather than Sacha Dhawan (whose performance I found both flat and unconvincing), a truth underlined by McClure working wonders with a somewhat underwhelming subplot about an affair. Former Ken Loach discovery, Compston, is also so effective – and defines the tone and feel of the series – with a very definite style that initially struck me as woodenness, but is a sort of unyielding, unpolished and awkward stoicism. The important thing, I think, is just how wrapped up in this all I became: it’s possible to pick holes in it, perhaps even to pick it till it unravels, and I don’t think it quite matches The Shadow Line – that weird, dark and bleak vision of endemic moral and professional corruption – but I just can’t wait to return to it. I’ve started Season 3 already. (3.5)


Line of Duty: Series 3 (2015)
– One of my problems with the (delightful) French cop drama, Spiral, is that is has no memory: it ended its first series on a cliffhanger that was never mentioned again, while undercover agent Sami disappeared from the series for four years, and wasn’t brought back again until the writers got a bit stuck in Series 4. Line of Duty looked to be going down the same route for a while, but by the beginning of Series 3 it became clear that the revelations of its past two seasons hadn’t been forgotten about, they’d just been put on a timer, and they were about to blow. The result is the best season yet, taut, compelling and compulsive, giving two knockout characters – historically corrupt DI, Dot Cottan (Craig Parkinson), and it’s-way-more-complicated-than-that DCI Lindsey Denton (Keeley Hawes) – extraordinarily gripping storylines.

This one kicks off with hotheaded, bullying tough-nut Danny Waldron (Daniel Mays) shooting dead a suspect, and dressing it up as self-defence. As always, it takes a little time to acclimatise to the new characters (I just want to see Ted, Steve and Kaaaaaate), but Mays is explosive and arresting (ironic, really), and his storyline’s topicality is just the sort of thing TV should be doing, even in this showy, tabloid way. The other new cops are less than convincing – with the supporting cast members either average (Arsher Ali) or actively poor (Leanne Best and Will Mellor, who was once excessively rude to my secondary school am-dram group at a charity event) – but our intense personal investment in these people (and particularly the relationship between Steve and Kate) informs the programme’s balance of characterisation and rug-pulling revelation, which reaches fever pitch in the final two episodes (the last a bumper edition).

Its imperfections, particularly its underwhelming bit-players and concessions to ridiculousness (not to mention unnecessary inaccuracy) can frustrate, because it is so nearly great. As it is, it’s great fun: addictive, immersive and with passages of brilliance. A mention too for Neil Morrissey, whose supporting bits are always welcome, even though the second series changed his storyline from one of quiet, bitter pathos to one of astounding and off-putting cynicism. (3.5)


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