Black Butterflies / Les Papillons Noirs (2022) **** – Netflix

Not since Basic Instinct (1992) has there been such an obvious connection between sex and murder. Slow-burn French film noir throwback, every twist, unusually, is matched by emotional resonance. Over six episodes this turns into an absolute cracker with several shocking scenes and, for once, a post-credits scene in the final episode worth waiting for.

You do however need to give this time. The first episode is mostly confusing as it sets up the three main strands. But episode two contains such a revelatory twist thereafter you’re on a rollercoaster.

In the present day ex-con acclaimed but impoverished novelist Adrien (Nicholas Duvauchelle) takes up a not particularly well-paid ghost-writing job listening to grizzled old fella Albert (Niels Arestrup) recount his memoirs. Adrien, on the jealous side, has a tangled relationship with partner Nora (Alice Belaidi). Also in the present day a couple of cops, Carrell (Sami Bouajila) and Mathilde (Marie Denarnaud),  are working on a cold case, the death of renowned photographer Steven Powell.

Running parallel with these two tales we go delving into the romantic past of Albert and in particular his relationship with Solange (Alyzee Costez) back in the 1970s when the entire world was on a massive experimental binge. A couple of other elements pop up from time to time,  a small boy and his mother, Adrien and his stepfather, and an artist/tattoo artist Catherine (Lola Creton).

Eventually, it all comes together and when it does it packs an incredible punch, a real emotional wallop, as the lives of all concerned are turned upside down.

And while there is most definitely twist upon twist upon twist, what raises this above most movies/programs that rely just on twists, is the emotional impact of such changes, and above all, characters seeking identity, trying to work not just who they are but whether they like or are repelled by the characters they have become.

Chock-full of atmosphere, this will have you hooked from the incredible second episode which tumbles full-tilt boogie into a dazzling mysterious past. Mostly, it takes place in France but just for the hell of it we race to Brussels and Genoa, and timewise, there’s an important element that takes place at the conclusion of the Second World War.

Everyone is damaged one way or the other and as the series progresses you realize just how damaged. And one of the best parts of the series is that lives that should collapse under the weight of such heavy emotions find themselves taking an alternative route that occasionally provides solace and occasionally dodges the issues enough to keep them steady. But, of course, nobody can escape the past.  

While this is definitely on the raunchy side, it does set out to show the part sex plays in the lives of the characters, whether emotional crutch, expressing the full joy of falling in love, or desperate measure.

The characters are well-drawn, and as new personality details emerge, they take the story in different directions. In some respects it’s grounded by Albert, the kind of old guy who really knows how to smoke, slipping the cigarette into his mouth old-style, sucking the life out of it, and for all his obvious dodginess a genuine human being seeking respite and redemption.

What Adrien discovers relates only too well to what he suspects about his own instincts and so he is as much disgusted as revelling in each new discovery. An ex-kick boxer, one of the running motifs is not so much being up for the fight, or in true private eye mode being able to hold your own in the fisticuffs department, but willing to accept physical punishment. That is matched by an understanding of the toll emotions can take on your life, especially if you lack the mental capacity to defend yourself against such intrusions.

And at the heart of the story is the mysterious, seductive, beautiful Solange, a different kind of femme fatale, perched atop beguiling innocence, at times unaware of the passions she unleashes, and yet, trying to find a way out of her own spiralling emotions, internal conflict typified by undergoing various abortions while so desperately wanting a child that she plays interminably with a doll’s house, her own reaction to the sexual act buried deep in her past.

I’ll admit the first episode is at timse heavy-going as writer-directors Olivier Abbou (Get In, 2019) and Bruno Merle (The Lost Prince, 2020) set out their complex stall, but the second episode is such a humdinger it more than makes up for it. The contrast between the free-wheeling free-spirited 1970s and the grungy contemporary look where responsibility brings an edge to everything is very well done. But while the violence would do Tarantino proud, contemplation of the creative process is as considered.

It probably helps that I’m unfamiliar with any of the actors because for me they carry no screen baggage. Nicholas Duvauchelle (Lost Bullet, 2020) carries off his first top-billed role superbly, making a terrific transition from a character almost playing a part to one who wishes he had done a better job of remaining an ordinary guy. On the basis of this, Hollywood should come calling for veteran Niels Arestrup (A Prophet, 2009) any time they’re looking for a crusty supporting actor.

Alyzee Costee, in her biggest role to date, certainly announces her presence, presenting the most complicated character of the lot, daughter, lover, mother, possibly the most intriguing female character of all time, beauty matched with fragility matched with toughness matched with an agility to switch persona at dizzying speed. This is what Netflix is best at, investing in foreign television programs, or just sticking their name on them, to bring them to global attention. This is definitely worth a wider audience

Homicidal (1961) ****

William Castle (The Tingler, 1959) was always a cult director but 60 years later this hits a contemporary bullseye with uncanny accuracy. It couldn’t be more Hitchcockian, down to the director making an appearance at the start and adopting the same lugubrious tones as Alfred Hitchcock did for his television series.

Bookended by two brilliant scenes, one of mystery, the other revelation, it’s only when you go back and unravel the way this has been put together you realise how fiendishly clever – and heartrendingly awful – it had been. Gender identity, in case you hadn’t guessed, is a central theme.

Castle wasn’t known for concentrating on any emotion beyond fear but this goes back to the most basic of all emotions. Who am I? How do I figure myself out? And even the acting – almost as black-and-white as the picture with one over-the-top character and one so weak he almost drains the picture of any life – makes more sense in retrospect.

Stunning blonde Miriam Webster (Jean Arless) checks into a hotel and offers bellhop Jim (Richard Rust) $2,000 to marry her that night on the understanding the marriage will immediately be annulled. Puzzled, and of course fancying his chances of sex as a tip, he drives her to local Justice of the Peace Alfred S. Adrims (James Westerfield) who demands an increased fee for getting dragged out of bed. In short order, Miriam murders him and his wife and escapes.

Turns out she’s not Miriam Webster. That’s the name of a florist in the town where Emily, her real name, looks after mute invalid Helga (Eugenie Leontovich). The real Miriam (Patricia Breslin) is half-sister to businessman Warren (George Marshall), returning home after a lengthy absence to claim his inheritance. At the age of 21, in a couple of days’ time, he falls heir to a $10 million fortune. Helga was his Danish nanny whom he resolved to provide care for after a heart attack.

But it’s soon clear that Emily hates her charge who can only communicate, and only to draw attention, by using a clacker to batter against her wheelchair. When Miriam visits Helga, Emily skips out, promising to return shortly, only to tell Miriam’s boyfriend Karl (Glenn Corbett) that she’s been detained and won’t be free to join him for a picnic.

Then she proceeds to smash up Miriam’s flower shop, in particular destroying anything that points to a wedding, and tearing up a photograph of Miriam’s half-brother. When Carl pops in, she knocks him out.

So what’s with all the wedding malarkey? You won’t be surprised to learn it’s something of a red herring, especially as Emily is already married to Warren, news that comes as a shock to Miriam.

Warren has the constitution of a weakling and looks the kind of boy who would have been trampled over as a child. Except, it turns out, he was bullied by his father, a driven businessman, and whipped by Helga to turn him into someone a lot sturdier, able to stand on his own two feet, and not get knocked around. If anything, he was inclined to be the bully.

Emily should have murdered the bellboy when she had the chance because of course he goes and rats on her and now there’s an illustration of her in the newspaper and the cops are on her trail having tracked down a Miriam Webster living in her town.

Naturally, Warren rejects the notion, but Miriam isn’t so sure. There was an incident in her bedroom and she had lied to Miriam about nipping out for a few minutes and something had been dropped among the debris in the florist shop that linked its destruction to Emily.

So if Emily’s married to a man who’s about to become a multi-millionaire and by far the richest guy in town and with who knows what influence that could buy…You see where this is going? Or if the deeply-in-love Warren could tolerate a wife with homicidal tendencies? Or if she would inherit should Warren have a nasty accident? You see where else this could be heading?

Well, it goes to none of those places. And I’m not going to spoil the climax by telling you exactly where it goes, but it’s a shocker for sure and just superbly done.

And once that revelation’s out in the open everything else makes sense – and doesn’t. For what is at its heart is something so jarring real and troubling, an emotion with consequence, that it neatly fits into one of the most compelling controversies of today.

Otherwise, it’s a perfectly good straight-up thriller, owing much to Psycho (1960), especially the knife-wielding killer, but with some thrilling moments and, in another contemporary salute, busting open the fourth wall with the “Fright Break” gimmick where at the height of proceedings the director literally stops the clock and gives the audience 45 seconds to get out of the theater if they can’t take any more.

If you think William Castle has managed some sleight-of-hand I’m going to have to fess up and say I’ve done the same but you’ll only understand what if you watch the film. Anyone who guesses it can let me know.

There’s a prize. A copy of my latest book, shipped to anywhere in the world, 1960s Movies Redux, Volume 1 – printed copy available now, e-book shortly.

Night, After Night, After Night (1969) ***

British giallo sets tough London cop Bill Rowan (Gilbert Wynne) hunting a Jack-the-Ripper type serial killer who has slaughtered his wife (Linda Marlowe). Chief suspect is leering cocky jack-the-lad Pete (Donald Sumpter) of the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am school of seduction. In an era when pornography and “perversion” were beginning to shake off the shackles of comformity and strippers, prostitutes, voyeurs and transvestites condemned as evils to be stamped out, this skirts the boundaries between sexploitation and heavy moralising.

Chief among those embarking on a moral crusade is hypocritical puritan Judge Lomax (Jack May) who spurns his attractive wife (Justine Lord) while indulging in cross-dressing. Needless to say, his clerk, ostensibly another upholder of the moral fabric, is a porn addict. As the body count grows, Pete manages to needle Rowan sufficiently for the cop to consider any nefarious means to put him behind bars.

Knives flash in the dark, the killer wears black leather, victims writhe on the ground as they are slashed to pieces, and coupled with the unusually high nudity quotient it is surprising that this picture passed the British censor. The movie never drags and there is enough incidental sleaze to keep the viewer interested. As a historical document, it details the point at which the country hovered between reined-in respectability and full-on sexual freedom.

Operating here under the pseudonym Lewis J. Force, Canadian director Lindsay Shonteff (The Million Eyes of Sumuru, 1967) conjures up a darker vision of a London so often presented in glorious tourist tones with nastiness seeping into every corner of society. Veteran Jack Lord (A Twist of Sand, 1968) captures well the double life of a decent man undone by what is perceived to be indecency and his later scenes are quite moving. Donald Sumpter (The Black Panther, 1977) is excellent as the taunting petty criminal while Gilbert Wynne makes a decent debut as a leading man. In small roles are Justine Lord (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) and Linda Marlowe (Big Zapper,1973 – directed by Shonteff).

Jack the Ripper was such an ingrained element of British culture that any movie featuring a similar villain gave audiences the creeps. British television cops were beginning to move out of the shadow of Dixon of Dock Green and into the new age of The Sweeney and while giallo did not catch on  among home-grown filmmakers there was considerably more focus on hardened criminals such as Get Carter (1971) and Villain (1971).

While the British B-film was moving increasingly towards sex comedy, this fits more succinctly into the Pete Walker sex’n’violence pictures of the 1970s which have attracted retrospective critical interest and for all its flaws, which can mostly be attributed to a low-budget, this is surprisingly impressive in places.

Hostile Witness (1968) ***

Shoddy initial release means this is unlikely to have been on your radar, but this entertaining courtroom drama plays on madness, involves minimal sleight-of-hand, employs some notable reversals as a defence strategy sinks under the weight of its own misplaced ambition.  Courtroom dramas were a scarce commodity in the 1960s, the sub-genre almost killed off by U.S. television hits like Perry Mason (1957-1966) and The Defenders (2961-1965).  Although, technically, Inherit the Wind (1960), Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) and To Kill a Mockingbird were of the same ilk, they did not rely on last-minute intervention or the normal twists and turns of legal dramas as evidenced by Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Hostile Witness only saw the light of day because Oscar-winner Ray Milland had starred in the Broadway version of the British play, author Jack Roffey experienced in the mechanics of this kind of fare after British television series Boyd Q.C. (1956-1964).

Daughter dead in a tragic car accident, top-notch Q.C. Simon Crawford (Ray Milland) is accused of killing the man he believed deliberately responsible. Unable to defend himself, he relies on his junior Sheila Larkin (Sylvia Syms). Circumstantial evidence links him to the crime. Questions surround his mental health, which disintegrated following his daughter’s death, especially after he cannot prove claims that would exonerate him. Casting around for the potential killer leads to a cul de sac, each clue that could absolve him rapidly dissolves and as he is soon fighting for his life. And as tension mounts, the defence team is soon in disarray, Sims quitting on a point of principle. Like all the best court cases the proof is in front of his eyes if only he could see it, and the traditional last-minute witness and twist does not disappoint. 

The courtroom aspect is very well done, great banter between the lawyers and swift and witty put-downs by the presiding judge (Felix Aylmer). While the story demands that Crawford remains off centre-stage at times, his presence, as a tense observer of proceedings that could spell his fate, calls on Milland to display probably the widest set of non-verbal reactions you will ever encounter. Syms (East of Sudan, 1964) is excellent in a role that offers greater scope than her usual female lead and while carrying a torch for Crawford she is more than capable to standing up to him and is ruthless in cross-examination. Geoffrey Lumsden (A Dandy in Aspic, 1968) tickles as a befuddled major and Raymond Huntley (later a success in Upstairs, Downstairs) sparkles as the grumpy prosecutor. To some extent, the picture plays on the film noir ethos that good guys often turn out to be anything but and Milland has the undoubted gift of looking both villain and hero dependent on the time of day.

By this point Welsh-born Milland was an odd refugee from Hollywood’s Golden Age, fallen far below the box office peaks of Billy Wilder’s The Long Weekend (1948) and noir turns like The Big Clock (1948). Apart from Dial M for Murder (1954) he was mostly became a television stalwart – the eponymous Ray Milland Show (1953-1955) and Markham (1959-1960) – and turned his hand to occasional direction. An unexpected dip into horror – The Premature Burial (1962), Panic in the Year Zero (1962) and The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) failed to revive his mainstream career and prior to Hostile Witness had only appeared in one other movie.

For a time Hostile Witness did look as if he would put him back on top after taking up an offer to make his Broadway debut in the play. Although not a stand-out hit, it ran for a decent 157 performances, then went on tour in the U.S. and later Australia, leaving Milland with the impression that, with himself directing to cut costs and running to a tight 24-day shooting schedule in Britain, it might just be the correct vehicle. Unfortunately, it was probably the staid direction that put paid to any prospect of box office success. A director like Billy Wilder or Hitchcock would have concentrated far more on character ambiguity and  made more of the unreciprocated romance and either tightened or opened up the original play to add more tension. Even so, it is pleasant enough viewing, not a dud by any means.

The Reckoning (1970) ****

Fans of Succession will love the boardroom battles and fans of Get Carter (1971) the gritty violence. Michael Marler (Nicol Williamson) is a thug whichever way you cut it. He’s a business hard-ass, at his nicest he’s obnoxious, at this worst brutal. He drives like a demon. Even in love, he’s fueled by hate, sex with wife Rosemary (Ann Bell) infernal. And all of this made acceptable, according to the left-wing tenets that underwrite the film, because he is a working-class man battling upper-class hypocrisy, never mind that his upper-class wife was hardly foisted upon him, nor that he was forced to live in luxury.

Unexpectedly, the film also explores other themes which have contemporary significance. Computers play a pivotal role and so does honor killing. The picture’s original title – A Matter of Honor – was ironic given that in the upper-class worlds in which Marler moved, courtesy of job and marriage, he is considered to have little in the way of chivalry. But in the working-class world he has escaped he must exact revenge according to a code of honor steeped in violence.   

This advert dates from October 1968, which gives an indication of how long the film’s release was delayed, not appearing until January 1970. Interestingly, the advert appeared in the U.S. trade magazine Box Office (October 28, 1968), suggesting Columbia had high hopes for the British production. The title here suggest a different approach to the movie.

The sudden death of his father sends Marler back to Liverpool where he discovers the old man was killed in a pub brawl. But the local doctor and the police, uninterested in complicating what must be a regular occurrence, view his death as accidental. So Marler takes it upon himself to uncover the culprits and wreak revenge, any kind of revenge on any kind of culprit, regardless of the fact that from the outset it is clear they will hardly be gangsters.  While contemplating violence, he strikes up a sexual relationship with the married Joyce (Rachel Roberts).

The story jumps between the back-stabbing corporate world to a scarcely less violent working class environment. The combination of charm and brute energy holds a certain appeal for Rosemary (Ann Bell) and helps keep him in the good books of his boss, but he is otherwise a bully, targeting the weak spots of anyone who stands in his way on his climb to the top, and while heading up the sales division of a company in trouble blaming everyone else for his own failings. And while scorning his wife’s upper-class friends is quite happy to enjoy the benefits of her lifestyle, the flashy car might be the result of his endeavors but not the huge posh house. Marler stitches up another associate with the assistance of another lover, secretary Hilda (Zena Walker), and his long-suffering wife finally takes umbrage at his venomous manner.

Marler hides his hypocrisy behind the façade of a left-wing class-struggle. John McGrath’s screenplay clearly intends Marler’s working-class background to provide him with a get-out-of-jail-free card as well as to launch an attack on upper classes seen as namby-pamby except when it comes to putting the poor in their place. The anti-class polemic has somewhat eroded over time but in its place can be found an accurate portrait of the social mores of ordinary people for whom, alcohol, the drug du jour, plays a massive part.  The going-home element is populated by endless terraced houses without a single parked car, vast caverns of pubs which host wrestling matches and are a tinder spark away from erupting in a brawl. This is in stark contrast to the high-living life Marler enjoys in London.

He has no desire to go back home, hasn’t visited in five years, escaping from there deemed a sign of success, and mostly returns metaphorically to draw on memories with which to scourge the upper-class and excuse his own behavior. 

Nicol Williamson (Inadmissable Evidence, 1968) delivers a tour de force, his screen presence never so vibrant, exhibiting the same raw appeal as Caine in Get Carter. At this point in his career, with a critically-acclaimed Hamlet on stage, he was perceived as the natural successor to Laurence Olivier and Columbia held up the release of The Reckoning to allow the Tony Richardson film of that stage production to pick up critical momentum. Oddly enough Rachel Roberts had not capitalized on her Oscar-nominated role in This Sporting Life (1963), this only her second movie in seven years. Initially coming across as brassy caricature, she soon softens into a surprisingly wistful character. Both Ann Bell and Zena Walker bring greater dimension to their characters rather than as adoring doormats. You can catch Paul Rogers (Three Into Two Won’t Go, 1969) and Tom Kempinski in supporting roles.

Director Jack Gold, who had worked with both Williamson and McGrath on his movie debut The Bofors Gun (based on the writer’s play), does a great job of capturing a particular period of British social history as well as allowing Williamson to stomp around in his pomp.

The Third Secret (1964) ***

Non-exploitative films about the psychologically vulnerable were thin on the ground during the 1960s and although The Third Secret is a bit talky nonetheless it does explore issues normally dealt with in heavy-handed fashion. Catherine Whitset (Pamela Franklin) the young daughter of a famous psychiatrist convinces television journalist Alex Stedman (Stephen Boyd) to investigate her father’s supposed suicide. Whitset needs the murder verdict because otherwise she will lose her home (no insurance payout on suicide). Stedman, Whitset’s patient, wants a similar outcome because his world would be turned upside down if the psychiatrist had committed a deed which he appeared steadfastly opposed.

The main suspects are all patients of the dead doctor – judge (Jack Hawkins), gallery owner (Richard Attenborough) and secretary (Diane Cilento). Although all outwardly successful socially-functioning upstanding members of society each is mired in mental agony – anger management, sexual inadequacy, depression, low self-esteem among problems addressed – defenses against which are perilously thin. Under sustained pressure each of the individuals will crack to reveal the cowering creature underneath.

But are they the killer or just condemned to torment? With the one man who could keep them sane removed from their lives, who knows what carnage they can self-inflict. All, even Stedman – given to bouts of terrible rage and drunkenness – seem capable of murder and there is every likelihood (as any viewer will guess) that his investigation could lead back to himself.

Director Charles Crichton (The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951) might have been suffering from low self-esteem himself having been unceremoniously dumped from The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and certainly the atmosphere is one of severity, not just characters teetering on the brink, but the black-and-white photography rendering London a wasteland, the tide on the Thames always out so the shore is just mud. However, his compositions do have style. The title’s explanation by the way is that the first secret is what you keep from the public, the second is what you hide from yourself, but the third is the truth.

Boyd (Ben-Hur, 1959) and Franklin (The Innocents, 1961) appear often on the point of hysteria, the girl’s high-pitched voice set against his growling outbursts. Attenborough (fresh from the heroics of The Great Escape, 1963) plays against type as a hand-wringing wannabe artist stuck in a role he despises. Hawkins, too, more used to heroic roles, is convincing as a man trying to escape his past. The neurotic Cilento has the best scenes, touching in her efforts to cling to normality. Judi Dench makes her debut in a bit part. The investigation takes the form of character analysis rather than “where were you on the night of…” which gives the picture an unique flavor, but best to know that going in rather than complain about the slow pace. If the psychological does not keep you hooked, there are sufficient twists to keep you watching.

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