Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I Met a Murderer

In 1939, the forgotten English filmmaker Roy Kellino made a home movie with his then-wife, Pamela Kellino (later Pamela Mason) and an unknown actor in his late 20’s, James Mason. Kellino shot the film himself, in the farmlands of Northern England; he and Kellino and Mason collaborated on the story. The result was an eighty-minute thriller called I Met a Murderer (1939).

The film, which screened at Film Forum as part of its Brit Noir series, must be the WASPiest B-Movie ever made; replete with images of farm dogs running over the hills, farmers carrying rifles and pipes, wooden bridges crossing over brooks and stone-leaden architecture. It is also, for its time a conventional film. Conventional here is used in the best sense of the word; it adheres to various melodramatic traits of studio films of the time (and to an extent, today). It features an orchestral music score almost throughout the entire film, and has customary close-ups of the actor’s faces at the right moments. It’s story is one of extreme formula; a man-on-the-run story that Hitchcock was riding to the hilt at the time. In this particular version, Mason plays a dutiful, hardworking farmer with a wife who can’t stand him or his farm anymore. In retaliation against his strict rules and treatment of a somewhat dim farmhand, she shoots his beloved dog. In retaliation, he shoots her. Although he plans the stay on the farm, his neighbor’s daughter is finds the spot (not very inconspicuous) where he has buried his wife and starts digging. The last shot of Mark we get is of him is a distant fade of him jumping a wooden fence and running away from his farm. From that point on, he is on the run from Scotland Yard, but along the way he meets another wayward soul named Jo—a novelist of all things-- played by one of the most gorgeous women to appear on the English-speaking screen, Pamela Kellino (later, Mason). Jo acts as if she wants to aimlessly frolic and vaguely seduce Mark. But Jo comes to be revealed as a most unusual femme fatal who knows exactly what his predicament is, and is using him as fodder for her own imagination.

I Met a Murderer feels like it is a series of sequential ideas for a story shouted out by friends on a long car trip. Yet it still visually adheres to the story; first in the wide-open vistas of Mark’s farm, then in the slow pans and dolly’s through the countryside as Mark and Jo run from the law. But within this form, there are various stylizations that would not appear in mainstream films for several more decades; the camera zips from an object to a characters face at intense moments; animals are featured prominently as things that humans use Each scene starts with a conventional establishing shot before delving in to any specifics, but this is because the locals ask for it; this region of England, blanketed by hills and lapses of forest, by mellow streams and farm after farm is the least typical place to set a chase film. Its sheer beauty does not need color to be admired, and rural set mysteries or chase films such as Fargo or Badlands come to mind from time to time. As with those films, Murderer uses the landscapes as one with the psychology of the characters, though to a far more subtle degree. This is unusual for such a low-budget, often campy film, and is perhaps Murderer’s most admirable attribute.

Unfortunately, what tends to cut into the film’s visual obsessions is its awkwardness. In the scene where Mark and Jo first meet, on a rainy night under an overpass, she offers him a cigarette, but takes none out of her pocket; he offers her one of his own, but she says she does not smoke; she has been standing in a tentative position, as if over-excited; then we see a sudden close-up of her in which she seems to be standing rigid position and the background looks different. The awkwardness in this scene stems from the visual, the written and the actor’s gestures, and it glares elsewhere in the film; Jo’s hairstyle, for example, seems to change from shot to shot. The exposure is not always good (the film was shot entirely on location, rare for it’s time) and frames are missing from the print. Not all of these faults are necessarily faults of the filmmakers, and much of the time it is hard to care anyway. In one scene, Jo and Mark are pulled over by two policemen for speeding. Jo gets out of the car and seductively apologizes to the officers for her mistake. The affect she has on them is the same affect she has on the audience; in clear view of all the errors, we just let it go.

(James Mason, I Met a Murderer; Director Roy Kellino.)

I Met a Murderer is an imperfect yet genuinely independent film from a long time ago that bears interesting similarities with the low-budget Indies of today. As with many Indies today, it is overstuffed with ideas, imperfectly acted, imperfectly shot, but endearing nonetheless. This appears to be the ideal feel for an independent filmmaker’s debut; Jarmusch captured it with his early features, Wes Anderson captured it in Bottle Rocket, and even a movie like Napoleon Dynamite was greeted the-imperfect-little-film-that-could. But unlike those movies, I Met a Murderer did not accept any particular niche audience that it will appeal to. It did not take the quirks of previous movies and update them for it’s own style, either. Murderer comes from a time when there was no such thing as niches in a large-scale sense and the main duty of a filmmaker was to tell an interesting story and tell it so people could understand it. This is probably the ultimate convention Murderer adhered to, and in this way it can both be labeled a ‘B-Movie’ and is just an entertaining story. If more independent filmmakers simply returned to conventions these days and stuck to their stories rather than their quirks, perhaps we could have a real independent film resurgence. Convention is the lifeblood of storytelling. 

(Pamela Mason)