I imagine that in these frustrating times, when film studios have made 15-year-old boys their target audience, that those of you who love a good movie have had a similar experience to mine. You know, the one where you are so desperate to see anything in a movie theatre that you find yourself surrounded by the aforementioned youths in some prequel, sequel, or threequel from that vast, despicable entity known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You watch what passes for a plot unfold over the film’s 3+ hour length, listen to the cheers, and wonder what the heck is going on!
It seems like almost every other film released these days is related to the MCU, and while even some of its staunchest fans acknowledge that half these movies are dreck, they still feed the coffers of the studio machine to allow this industry to proliferate as quickly as a pile of infinity stones. Many of these fans could care less how well the film works as a film as long as they get the characters right and don’t deviate too far from the Marvel Comic Universe. These fans are especially susceptible to Easter eggs, those moments where the film plops out a bit of business or shows us a baffling prop that is a portent of things to come (meaning more and more sequels) – but only for the true fans. I have seen these reactions – the wild cheers from a bunch of teens in the row in front of me over the appearance of a mask or a prop or a rock or something that I cannot appreciate because I read Batman as a kid. I have scoffed at them and sneered and them and, most of all, envied them! And I have asked myself over and over again: when will someone make a movie that does the same thing for ME???
That day . . . is today!
If you follow along with me here even occasionally, you know that the film has to be a mystery, and here is where things get problematic. The classic style whodunnit fell out of favor a long while ago, replaced by psychological thrillers and slasher films. It’s hard to imagine a time when the studio system churned out so many more films a year and a great many of them were murder mysteries. I randomly selected three years on Wikipedia and discovered the following:
- 1929 has 18 mystery movies listed, including the first filmed case for Charlie Chan (Behind That Curtain), the first two filmed cases for Philo Vance (The Canary Murder Case and Greene Murder Case) and two Sherlock Holmes films.
- In 1935, 27 mysteries are mentioned, among them one case each for Perry Mason, Sexton Blake, and Ellery Queen and three Charlie Chan films.
- 1944 lists 20 mystery films, including Laura, Murder in the Blue Room, and entries in the Charlie Chan, Whistler and Inner Sanctum series.
Mystery series used to be hugely popular. Detectives who sprang from the page were heroes to many, and, given that many of their exploits were “B” and even “C” films made on the cheap, they provided plenty of product and revenue for Hollywood producers. Today, series are still popular, but movies are so expensive these days – and the cinema is in direct competition with TV and video games – that studios have focused on action heroes and plenty of FX. (Even Kenneth Branagh’s two forays into the Poirot-verse have been loaded with CGI and chase sequences.)
One can’t really fight the prevalent tastes, and so as far as movie-going, er, goes, I have been left largely out in the cold. This means that there is cause for hoopla to find that 2022 has brought no less than three mysteries in the classic vein. True, a lot of Christie fans turned their noses on the first entry, Branagh’s loose adaptation of Death on the Nile, but excitement grows for the imminent return of Daniel Craig as southern sleuth Benoit Blanc in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. It is currently making the rounds of the film festivals to acclaim; sadly, it will have only a limited theatrical release in October before it bows on Netflix in November.
Those of us excited for another case for M. Blanc have had to content ourselves with the second season of Only Murders in the Building (was anyone else left feeling discontented by that case?) on Hulu and a few tidbits on other streaming channels that I don’t subscribe to – yet. But lo and behold! A new film has opened with modest fanfare in theatres this week. It’s called See How They Run, and if the Marvel fanboys were sitting in the row above me, they would have watched in wonder as I cackled and howled at the dozens of Easter eggs lobbed at us from the screen. (I’m afraid these kids will never be caught dead watching this movie: they are currently hibernating in their coffins, waiting to emerge November 11 for the premiere of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.)
See How They Run is set in London’s West End in 1953 and opens on the night of the 100th performance of Agatha Christie’s surprise hit play, The Mousetrap. Screenwriter Mark Chappell has had the nerve to merge real-life characters with fictional ones, such as Richard Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sim, who originated the roles of Sergeant Trotter and Mollie Ralston, in order to create a murder mystery within a murder mystery.
Those of us familiar with the legend of The Mousetrap are aware that Christie inserted a clause forbidding any movie studio to make a filmed version of the story until six months after the play closed. Everyone went along with this demand because, as is stated in this film, how long could a modest thriller run?
By the hundredth performance, a few executives are getting nervous, including film producer John Woolf (Reese Shearsmith), who has hired American director named Leo Köpernick (Adrian Brody) and British writer Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo) to adapt the play to film. Köpernick is that staple of Christie, the Ugly American, and he has managed to foment hatred from his partners, as well as the cast, the play’s producer (Ruth Wilson) and the entire staff of the Savoy Hotel where he is staying.
It will come as no surprise that Köpernick is brutally murdered within the first ten minutes of the movie and the case is handed to weary Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell). Scotland Yard can’t be bothered to work on a case involving Agatha Christie because they are currently laser focused on the murder spree of John Christie at 10 Rillington Place, so Stoppard is assigned the one cop available, the plucky PC Stalker (Saoirse Ronan). Together, they try to piece together who murdered Köpernick and why.
Directed by Tom George, with cinematography by Jamie D. Ramsay, the movie is beautiful to look at, not only capturing the look and style of the early 1950’s but the style and glamor of a classic mystery. (The use of split screen adds a lot to the fun.) As a mystery – which, let’s face it, a lot of my readers care about the most – it’s good, not great. The trappings are all there: a colorful group of suspects, some nice twists and turns involving motive, and a lovely denouement that takes place at the home of a certain famous author. The screenplay is missing the clever clueing of Knives Out, and there is a problematic aspect to the fact that many of these characters were real people, although one of them – the best one – does something completely awful that you kind of wish might have really happened. (Maybe it did!!!!)
The real fun of this film is in its meta-fictional aspects. If you know me, you know that I love a good meta-tale as much as I love a good mystery, and See How They Run delivers the meta in spades. One Easter egg after another appears for Christie fans making me react in the theatre throughout the tight 98-minute running time like an aforementioned MCU teenager and assuring that I will have to see the movie again to find out what I missed. The only thing missing was some hidden scene at the end of the credits suggesting a sequel. I mean, why not? We could do twenty films about various members of the Detection Club and then have them all reunite for a final showdown against a League of Evil composed of Edmund Wilson, Raymond Chandler, and Julian Symons.
The cast brings their “A” game (and I don’t mean Avengers) to the proceedings. Saoirse Ronan is as perfect in this as rumors had whispered, and her partnership with Rockwell is a highlight. I think Christie fans in particular will get a tremendous kick out of this film for the very reason that it isn’t an adaptation of any of her works. It doesn’t give away the ending of The Mousetrap, but it cleverly incorporates many elements of that play into the mystery. It also has a lot to say (and quite humorously) about how Hollywood went about adapting – or attempting to adapt – the work of Christie and her ilk.
Most of all, I’m tickled to think how many of the references to Christie’s life and works other fans will discover. (Just who does that butler resemble, folks???) I wish a bunch of us had been sitting in a row, giggling and cheering together and making that grumpy kid sitting behind us very, very angry!
If anyone is into that, I’m up for seeing it again . . .