February 15, 2013

Great Fireside Evenings.

Three of the most pleasant and comforting words in the language are fireside, book, and wine.  They form a natural ménage à trois.  What follows is not to be taken too solemnly.

Arsene Lupin - you know him not, but to generations of European readers he was the French Sherlock Holmes. Alas, Holmes was on the side of the law, a stodgy enterprise. But Lupin was a burglar.  A gentleman burglar.  A burglar with wit and style. It was a thrill to watch him work.

And, indeed, you could watch him work, for Lupin-like the anarchists in The Four Just Men-liked to announce his crimes in advance, the better to turn theft into sports. In the most famous of the Arsene Lupin stories, he breaks into a house, takes nothing, but leaves a card for his unwitting host: "Arsene Lupin, gentleman burglar, will return when the furniture is genuine."

And how about this note, to a person so paranoid that he has had his house sealed, so that no one but staff may enter:

There is, in the gallery in your castle, a picture of Philippe de Champaigne, of exquisite finish, which pleases me beyond measure. Your Rubens are also to my taste, as well as your smallest Watteau. In the salon to the right, I have noticed the Louis XIII cadence-table, the tapestries of Beauvais, the Empire gueridon signed 'Jacob,' and the Renaissance chest.  In the salon to the left, all the cabinet full of jewels and miniatures.

For the present, I will content myself with those articles that can be conveniently removed. I will therefore ask you to pack them carefully and ship them to me, charges prepaid, to the station at Batignolles, within eight days, otherwise I shall be obliged to remove them myself during the night of 27 September; but, under those circumstances, I shall not content myself with the articles above mentioned.

Accept my apologies for any inconvenience I may cause you, and believe me to be your humble servant, “Arsene Lupin.”

P.S. Please do not send the largest Watteau. Although you paid thirty thousand francs for it, it is only a copy, the original having been burned, under the Directoire by Barras, during a night of debauchery. Consult the memoirs of Garat. And I do not care for the Louis XV chatelaine, as I doubt its authenticity.

There's something delicious about a man who commits non-violent crimes with panache - it's almost as if he's liberating the art and furniture, rescuing them from people who take pleasure only in owning them. The French thought so, anyway: Starting in 1906, Maurice LeBlanc pounded out twenty volumes of stories about Lupin, all in the neat, near-non-fiction style of de Maupassant and Flaubert. (Inevitably, Lupin would confront Sherlock Holmes. Guess who won?)  Later, there were plays, movies, even comics. And the character was easy to update-on television, Lupin morphed into “The Saint.”

Lupin is at once a 19th century figure and a modern rogue: “Why should I retain a definite form and feature? Why not avoid the danger of a personality that is ever the same? My actions will serve to identify me.” All he cares about is his art. It gives him pleasure to commit a crime even while locked in a jail cell. And because disguise and indirection are his greatest skills, it thrills him to announce, with all candor, “I shall not be present at my trial - Arsene Lupin remains in prison just as long as it pleases him, and not one minute more.”

It is great fun to try and outguess Lupin. Consider dressing the part while you savor these tales. A smoking jacket or a silk robe. What we need to drink here is something complex that reveals its secrets slowly.  Montrachet maybe? And Chopin?  After a while, Lupin's cracked morality starts to make a great deal of sense, and your mind drifts. By the third or fourth story, you'll be contemplating a jewel theft. And why not? Mrs. X doesn't really appreciate that necklace. And it is insured.

February 5, 2013

The Tube at 150

No, not your old T.V. tube.

From a bomb shelter for families during the Blitz to the lair of a cannibal troglodyte, the London Tube has in its time played many parts. As the London underground celebrates its 150th anniversary, I picked 10 onscreen appearances.

Underground (1928) Director Anthony Asquith
Many feature films have included sequences shot on London’s famous underground railway but this 1928 production by talented young prodigy Anthony Asquith was the first. The tube had been an integral part of London life for well over half a century by this time and the first thing you notice about the film is how incredibly familiar the scenes filmed on the underground feel. All our favorite protocols (giving up seats, reading over people’s shoulders, invasion of body space) and other tube-specific behavior are exhibited here.
The story – told in beautifully spare, elegant film making language with the odd experimental flourish – concerns the convoluted love lives of four young Londoners and culminates in a thrilling chase over the roof of the Lots Road power station.

Bulldog Jack (1935) 
Director Walter Forde
The underground provides the backdrop for the thrilling climax to this fast-paced comedy-thriller variation on Sapper’s thick-ear Bulldog Drummond adventures. Jack Pennington (Jack Hulbert) steps into Drummond’s shoes when the latter is injured in a car accident and crosses swords with master criminal Morelle (Ralph Richardson on maniacally splendid form), who’s intent on stealing some jewels from the British Museum.
Our hero tracks Morelle down to his hide-out in the disused (and fictional) tube station of Bloomsbury (an idea based on Brompton Road Station having been recently closed in 1934), leading to a chase on a runaway tube train.

Christmas under Fire (1941) Director Harry Watt
Few scenes in this Ministry of Information short could be more poignant or better capture the spirit of British fortitude in the face of adversity than those showing the capital’s citizens sheltering overnight in London underground stations during the Blitz. Makeshift coat pegs line the tube tunnel walls as all around families lie on platforms with blankets and battered suitcases, with an occasional Christmas tree, trimmed and bedecked with tinsel, serving as a reminder that this is the traditional season of peace and goodwill.

Passport to Pimlico (1949) 
Director Henry Cornelius
When the residents of Miramont Place, Pimlico discover that they are in fact subjects of the ancient Duchy of Burgundy, they decide to escape the rationing and privation of post-war Britain by declaring themselves foreigners.
In one of the film’s funniest scenes, they flag down and board tube trains to impose document and custom checks on the bemused passengers. While one tourist is delighted  to have his passport stamped ‘Pemberton’s Stores – Received with Thanks’, most of the travellers are hostile to the intrusion, particularly when asked if they are carrying any “muskrats, mealworms, motorcycles, hashish, prepared opium or agricultural machinery.” The scene descends into chaos when a magician, asked if he has any livestock, releases a suitcase full of doves into the already overcrowded carriage.

Under Night Streets (1958) 
Director Ralph Keene
Circa 1958, British Transport Films (BTF) was the classiest industrial film production unit in the world. Among nationalised transport concerns, London Transport (LT) came second, after British Rail, on BTF’s client list. And London Underground sat atop the pyramid of LT’s operations…
Enter Under Night Streets: an elegant middle-of-the-track study of four hours of overnight fluffing, mending and reconditioning of tube lines by over 1000 staff. Skilfully compressed into 20 minutes by documentary veteran Ralph Keene, it’s a mini-masterpiece of transport film making, as stylish but stately, self-respectful and proficient, as LT’s nameless nocturnal employees. 

Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966) Director Gordon Flemyng
The Dalek invasion has left London a bombed-out shell, not unlike the post-Blitz scenes of the Second World War. The survivors have formed a resistance and set up their headquarters in a secret room in the depths of Embankment underground station, the entrance hidden behind a poster warning of the dangers of drinking rainwater. There they prepare weapons to fight the ‘motorised dustbins’ patrolling the streets.
Although much of the film is studio-bound, there are some evocative shots of London, including the sight of a Dalek emerging from the Thames – the moment when Dr Who realises that he’s facing his greatest nemesis.

Death Line (1972) Director Gary Sherman
The underground, with its labyrinth of tunnels and disused stations, is a prime location for a horror film and Death Line makes great use of the creepy setting. In an abandoned station between Russell Square and Holborn, the descendants of railway tunnellers trapped by a roof collapse in 1892 have lived and bred, feeding on unsuspecting passengers.
Now only one of the troglodytes survives and, diseased and pustulent, he goes in search of a new mate to continue the line. Sickness and interbreeding have reduced him to little more than an inhuman creature; the only phrase he can utter is the one which he has heard echoing through the warren of tunnels over the years: “Mind the doors!”

Hidden City (1987) 
Director Stephen Poliakoff 
In Stephen Poliakoff’s directorial debut, visitors to underground London are taken on a trip to the past as disused stations and bunkers house archives of secret documents and films.
Academic James (Charles Dance) is persuaded by the enigmatic Sharon (Cassie Stuart) to look for clues to a film-related mystery in the Kingsway tram tunnel and in a deep level shelter under Tottenham Court Road which was used by Eisenhower during the Second World War. Hidden City serves as a reminder of the history that is tucked away in the real parts of the underground that are no longer used for transport.

Sliding Doors (1998) Director Peter Howitt
Forget God, it’s the London underground that determines destiny in Peter Howitt’s smart romantic comedy. Two different realities unfold for Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow), depending on whether or not she catches her tube (the underground scenes were shot at Waterloo and Fulham Broadway stations). In one alternate universe she returns home to discover her boyfriend’s infidelity, in the other she carries on oblivious.
Like Muriel’s Wedding (1994), Sliding Doors is misremembered as a lightweight date movie, but its themes of relationship breakdown, miscarriage and death add a pleasing counterpoint to the froth, and its nifty gimmick, reminiscent of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, works very well.

Skyfall (2012) Director Sam Mendes
“Welcome to the London rush hour,” the new head of Q Branch teases agent 007 (Daniel Craig) during a tense pursuit on the underground. “Not something you’d know much about.”  It’s true that James Bond is more commonly found in casinos or in exotic locales, but for this 50th anniversary entry in the spy series director Sam Mendes brought Bond home to London for much of the action.
Pursuing escaped cyber-terrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) from MI6’s subterranean HQ, Bond tunnels out onto the platform at Temple tube, where his progress is thwarted by a swarming metropolitan throng. Seeing Silva board a westward-bound Circle line train, 007 goes one better than the most time-pushed commuter, leaping over the electrified tracks onto the rear of the rapidly departing carriage.

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich