Wed 12 Sep 2012
THE HOUSE OF THE ARROW. Associated British Pictures, UK, 1953. Oskar Homolka (Inspector Hanaud), Robert Urquhart, Yvonne Furneaux, Josephine Griffin, Harold Kasket, Pierre Lefevre, Pierre Chaminade. Based on the novel by A. E. W. Mason (Hodder, 1924). Director: Michael Anderson.
This is the third of three adaptations of Mason’s classic detective novel to the screen. The other two (1930 and 1940, respectively) are said not to exist. (If this is not true, I’d like to be corrected on this statement.) I first read the book a long time ago – a Modern Library Giant that contained two other works I also consider classics: Trent’s Last Case and Before the Fact – but alas, never since. (It has since been reprinted in an easy to obtain paperback bublished by Carroll & Graf in 1984.)
In any case, while I’d like to be able to contrast the book with the film, I cannot. My memory does not go back nearly that far, almost 60 years ago. So I must encourage you to take the comments that follow with as large a grain of salt that you can muster, but they are, I assure you, well intentioned and (I hope) worthy of further discussion.
As good as this movie is – and it is very good – I think what it displays is that no one can make a movie based on a work of detective fiction and have it work as well as it did in printed form. Movies and episodes of various TV series have been made that are excellent detective puzzlers, so it can be done.
I’d include the Jim Hutton season of Ellery Queen shows in the latter category, and many of the Murder, She Wrote series. You can name your own movies, including those made for TV, but I doubt that many of the ones you might bring up were based on printed novels or even short stories, if any at all, and if they were, I’m willing to wager that the original printed version was better.
I’m talking fair play detective fiction, mind you, not suspense thrillers, or noir fiction. Some of the Suchet versions of Poirot stories follow the originals closely, but are they better? I’ve been watching the first season of the Perry Mason television series, for example, and most of the shows I’ve watched are simply awful, with gaps in continuity and logic that are simply bewildering. Maybe they existed in Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels, too, and I’m willing to concede that maybe they were. I’m almost afraid to go back and see for myself.
Perhaps it’s that the pure puzzle category of detective fiction doesn’t translate well to film, or that film people simply don’t know how to do it. They have to jazz up Miss Marple and even Hercule Poirot so much, even to changing the endings (is that really so?), that they could change the names of all the characters and no one would have any ideas where the stories came from.
I think (but as I suggested above, I am not sure) that the producers of this cinematic version of The House of the Arrow intended to follow the story line of the book as closely as possible. I’ll assume that to be the case.
There are plenty of false trails for this to be true, although only a small number of suspects, a French manor house where the murder takes place (if it was indeed murder) so intricately filled with connecting rooms and corridors that Inspector Hanaud of the French Surete must carry floor plans of the building around with him as he goes, a mysterious poison brought back to France from South America (I believe) on an antique arrowhead, and a detective (the aforementioned Hanaud) who is the epitome of Golden Age detectives: jaunty, pugnacious, all-knowing, and positively beaming with delight to be confronted with a case that’s up the challenge of his abilities, of which he can assure you, are second to none.
And Oskar Homulka is positively the right actor for the job. Not particularly handsome, his flair for the dramatic, as well as the comic jest at just the right time, is right on, every moment of the film. The black-and-white photography is superb, near noir-like in the angles that are taken and the mood that is invoked. Dead is an old woman, presumably of natural causes, but some anonymous letters and a disgruntled would-be heir cause suspicion to be aroused.
But I confess, it took me two viewings to follow the story, and while I know who and why, I’m still not sure exactly sure how the many details that put who, why and how fit together in a nicely satisfying whole. Nor is this is not a fair play mystery, one in which you say to yourself “Of course,” and slap yourself on the head with a “Doh” when all is revealed. The book may be equally at fault in this regard. If any of you reading this have read the book more recently than I, or have better memories, can say yea or nay in this regard, please do.
A very enjoyable movie, nonetheless, in spite of this long and perhaps rambling preamble, with lots of thoughts and no complete answers on my part, I’m afraid, but if you’ve read this far, you really ought to see this movie, if it ever comes your way.