Friday, June 18, 2010

The Cry Of The Owl DVD review

Followers of this blog know that I am a big Patricia Highsmith fan.

For those who don't know of her, Patricia Highsmith was an alcoholic lesbian misanthrope with a fondness for snails - as in, breeding and keeping them as pets - and a very black sense of humour. She wrote (mostly) transgressive crime fiction from the point of view of outsiders, often men with women issues (or gender confusions), who are implicated in murder, and may or may not be guilty; we generally sympathize with them, in some cases hoping they get away with their crimes (as with the rather famous Ripley series, the first novel of which, The Talented Mr. Ripley, was made into a rather unsubtle - but still better-than-average - Hollywood film, as well as inspiring a French adaptation, Purple Noon; Ripley's Game has also been filmed twice, once with John Malkovich as Ripley and once with Dennis Hopper in the role, in Wim Wenders' The American Friend. The other really famous Highsmith film adaptation, of course, was of her first book - Strangers On A Train).
Highsmith had, by all accounts, rather difficult relationships with other people; she may or may not have had Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism, and was regarded as difficult even by her closest friends. It didn't keep her from a long and varied career. She worked in comic books for awhile, though to my knowledge, no serious work has been done to track down her contributions to the form; she also once illustrated a children's book, Miranda The Panda Is On The Veranda, which may have the first reference to snails in her literature (I gather there's a rhyme about a snail in a veil). She also wrote a rather famous lesbian novel, published for years under a pen name, The Price Of Salt. One of my favourite anthologies of her fiction is The Animal Lovers' Book Of Beastly Murder, which invites you to sympathize with various oppressed animals as they kill their owners; she also once wrote a story about a man killed by giant man eating snails, which I mentioned at some length in this post, some time ago. As dark as Highsmith can get, I often find myself laughing with glee at developments in her fiction - maybe there's something wrong with me, too, but I often find it very easy to identify with her characters, and with her often perverse agendas for them. Just as the novels of Philip K. Dick have been gradually mined for stories SF films, as people realize they prefigure an age of identity confusion, alienation and paranoia, so too Highsmith's books - with her troubled characters' loneliness, confused sexuality, guilty consciences, and antisocial or transgressive desires - are well suited for the time, and ripe for exploration by filmmakers.

For instance, consider The Cry Of The Owl, originally published in 1962. The story goes like this: an emotionally ruined man, after a messy divorce, takes to spying on a beautiful young female - a stranger - for the comfort it brings him. When she discovers that she is being watched, things take a turn for the weird, insofar as she is intrigued and wants to get to know him; it turns out she's not exactly normal, herself, which Robert, our voyeur, notices - he's more intimidated by her than she is by him, ultimately. Her boyfriend, meanwhile, whom she is in the process of breaking up with, discovers enough about the relationship to be furious, and conflict ensues, as he starts spreading vile rumours and digging for dirt from Robert's malicious and irresponsible ex-wife. Soon our protagonist is at the center of a murder investigation, being treated with mistrust, loathing, and suspicion for a crime that he did not commit; he is almost a Hitchcockian "Wrong Man," except he is too depressed and beaten down by life to mount an effective defense against himself, and can only look on in disappointment and bitterness as people distance themselves from him. Any gestures he might make can only work against him; death looms ever closer...
I so did not care for a previous French adaptation of the film, by Claude Chabrol, that I did not finish watching it, but I have good news for Patricia Highsmith fans: there is a remarkably faithful new adaptation, directed by Brit Jamie Thraves, filmed in Ontario, and co-funded by the Germans (who embraced Highsmith and took her seriously long before she was recognized in her home country; born in Texas, she died an expatriate in Switzerland, with some of her later work, like Little Tales Of Misogyny, appearing, I gather, in German translation before English language versions came out). The (utterly excellent and believable) leads are Paddy Considine (who looks wounded even when laughing) and Julia Stiles (who was the waitress in that nasty piece of Mamet, Edmond, directed by horror king Stuart Gordon). The characterizations are wonderful, with the actors managing to convey a great deal of unspoken meaning behind each glance or line of dialogue - Considine in particular has such an expressive face that, in scene after scene, he "says" so much more than he actually allows himself to utter. Thraves, who adapted the novel himself, has considerable talent for psychological realism, above and beyond even what Highsmith accomplishes. For instance, consider an early scene where a coworker bums money from Robert. In the book, Highsmith has the request laid bluntly at Robert's feet, but Thraves has the coworker subtly manipulate the conversation by front-loading it, explaining what he needs money for before revealing that he hasn't any and needs a favour. It's the kind of set-up that people who want to borrow something often employ, weaving a bit of a trap for their target before they get to the point, but I've never seen it so believably depicted in a film before. There are all sorts of nicely observed and psychologically true moments like this, subtle details that lend veracity to the story and are impressive in their own right...
About my only complaint with Thraves' adaptation is that, at least to my eyes, the novel is intended as black comedy, which Thraves is not so gifted at; he tends to play scenes for pathos that I think are meant to be rather funny, in a blackly over-the-top sort of way, as our poor hero's troubles mount. You'll have to bring your own malicious sense of humour to the proceedings to be able to fully appreciate what Highsmith was intending, but it's not that difficult to do. Still, this is a very faithful adaptation, overall, and for anyone with a flicker of persecution mania in their souls, the DVD is well worth checking out. Sadly, it's been slapped direct-to-DVD with minimal fanfare, support, or critical attention, at least for the North American release, which happened this month. Like the novels of Patricia Highsmith themselves, it will likely be better appreciated in Europe, where people are less frightened of acknowledging how fucked up the human heart can get... no matter how it might look from the outside...

7 Comments:

Blogger ammacinn said...

An odd addendum: I had another queer synchronicity involving Patricia Highsmith the other day. I was poking about my favourite Japanese book franchise in Vancouver, Book Off, and had this strikingly odd thought - flickering through my head with a feeling of unquestioned certainty - that when I looked down from the D's to the H's, I would find a Highsmith there - and it would be THE CRY OF THE OWL. I looked down, and was rather shocked to find that I was correct. It's only the second Highsmith I've seen at this store, where I've shopped for many, many years, and there was really no reason to think this book would be there (unless I glimpsed it peripherally and was subconsciously "aware" of it - I guess that's possible). Anyhow - having only a first edition, which is not exactly a "reading copy," I scooped it.... 'skinda weird, tho', eh?

7:10 AM  
Blogger anonymous said...

As a Patricia Highsmith fan myself I enjoyed this neat little review. I like how you gave readers some insight about her life and other works. I'm a great fan of The Cry The Owl novel and have seen both film adaptations. You found a gem in that Japanese bookstore of yours!

The french film adaptation failed to impress me too (although I watched both in entirety). Jenny is depicted closer to the original text in Jamie Thraves's version, where we see more of her intellect rather than her kitten-like childishness in the french film.

I stumbled on your post because the book cover art you included is my favorite of all the editions.

10:27 AM  
Blogger anonymous said...

As a Patricia Highsmith fan myself I enjoyed this neat little review. I like how you gave readers some insight about her life and other works. I'm a great fan of The Cry The Owl novel and have seen both film adaptations. You found a gem in that Japanese bookstore of yours!

The french film adaptation failed to impress me too (although I watched both in entirety). Jenny is depicted closer to the original text in Jamie Thraves's version, where we see more of her intellect rather than her kitten-like childishness in the french film.

I stumbled on your post because the book cover art you included is my favorite of all the editions.

10:27 AM  
Blogger ammacinn said...

Thanks! Glad a fellow fan read this. The link at the top is to a piece I did that was even more amusing, synchronicity-wise, re: Highsmith's sotry "The Quest for Blank Claveringi" - you should check it out.

10:44 AM  
Blogger ammacinn said...

Also - I just put a new post on my blog about Highsmith's little-known first published piece of writing, "Girl Campers." Check it out!

12:10 PM  
Anonymous Craig D. said...

I just recently watched this movie, and I was surprised at how much I liked it. It has a 13% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is ludicrous. It's the second best Highsmith adaptation I've seen, behind The American Friend. Strangers on a Train and Purple Noon are good movies but they significantly watered down the novels. The Talented Mr. Ripley, I thought, was a boring and pretentious mess that didn't understand the book at all. Ripley's Game isn't bad, but it lacks any style whatsoever, and John Malkovoch seems to be playing Hannibal Lecter, not Tom Ripley. The American Friend may not be faithful to the details of the novel, but it's far more faithful in spirit, and everything about it (the acting, the directing and editing, the atmosphere, the music) is wonderful.

It's interesting that you bring up Asperger's. Speaking as someone who has it (I've been diagnosed by two different psychologists) and who's read extensively about Patricia Highsmith's life (Joan Schenkar's huge biograpy, The Talented Miss Highsmith, is excellent), I can say that Highsmith was so inscrutable that it's really impossible to say whether she had it. I see traits of myself in her whenever I read about her, but she could seem one way on Monday and seem completely different on Tuesday. Also, obviously I'm biased, but I wouldn't blame her more unlikable traits on the disorder, if she had it. Some folks are just plain nasty people, and she could certainly be that at times.

By the way, Paddy Considine, the star of this movie, does have Asperger's. It occurred to me several times throughout the movie that his version of Robert Forrester had it as well, but it's useless to speculate.

I haven't seen the 1987 version, but it's on my Netflix queue. I may not like it, but it should at least make an interesting contrast.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Allan MacInnis said...

Glad this film is finding an audience! It really is a great Highsmith adaptation.

Now we just need a film adaptation of "The Quest for Blank Claveringi." Bring on the giant, man eating snails!

8:56 PM  

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