Tag Archives: police procedural

The Nile Hilton Incident (Sweden-Denmark-Germany 2017)

Noredin (Fares Fares) interviews the singer (Hania Amar)

The Nile Hilton Incident is an intriguing film, not only in its presentation of an exciting crime thriller in a precise location, but also as a film production which invokes a specific kind of response. In its own way it’s the perfect case study for ideas about global film.

This  film is a product of a familiar Nordic co-production set-up. It’s a Swedish-Danish production with German co-production money. The writer-director Tarik Saleh is Swedish and so is his leading man Fares Fares (who was actually born in Beirut). The female lead Mari Malek is a Sudanese refugee who spent four years in Egypt before gaining asylum status in the US and building a successful career as a DJ, model and actor. The film is photographed by Pierre Aïm, whose early success shooting La haine in 1995 marked him out as a filmmaker to watch. Much of the cast is Egyptian but also features North African actors and others from Arabic-speaking diasporas in Europe. The film’s dialogue is almost completely in Arabic and the original intention was to shoot the street scenes in Egypt. But, presumably because of the plot’s dénoument in the Tahrir Square protests of 2011 and the portrayal of State Security forces, permission was denied by the Egyptian authorities. The production was forced to transfer to Morocco with interiors shot in studios in Sweden and Germany. With all these ingredients the film might have struggled to achieve any form of coherence, let alone represent the crowded streets of Cairo. But based on my experience of watching Egyptian films and walking the streets of cities elsewhere with a similar feel, it all worked for me.

Salwa (Mari Malek), the Sudanese maid is a witness

The trick in a film like this is to manage to combine a story with universal elements and enough aspects of local culture to be convincing. One of the few ‘popular’ Egyptian films to get a UK release in recent years is Clash (Egypt-France-Germany 2016) and The Nile Hilton Incident doesn’t look out of place in such company. Police officers appear in both films but otherwise the genre frameworks are a little different. Noredin (Fares Fares) is a middle-aged police officer with a degree of seniority in a police district close to Tahrir Square in Cairo. He is shown doing  his rounds by car with a younger sidekick Momo. He accepts bribes from street traders and eventually we realise that the district is the fiefdom of Noredin’s boss (and uncle) Kammal. When Noredin is called to a murder scene he discovers the body of a glamorous nightclub singer in a Hilton hotel bedroom. The police already there don’t seem too concerned but Noredin believes the murder is the work of a professional killer.

The film’s narrative becomes familiar as soon as Noredin spots a clue and begins to pursue it. It will lead him eventually to another singer and to a seemingly respectable politician. He will also recognise that the hotel maid is a crucial witness. Noredin himself is a sad figure and he operates as a kind of modern Chandleresque investigator. He’s no white knight and his sense of honour is compromised by his acceptance of baksheesh, but he’s still our hero and we want him to come out on top even though he makes plenty of mistakes. Noredin could also be a Jo Nesbø character or any one of the police investigators across the world who try to deal with celebrities and politicians and find that their bosses don’t always support them. The maid is Salwa, a Sudanese worker whose status could be easily undermined. This character and her narrative importance again situates the film in line with Nordic noirs – the asylum seekers who shouldn’t be working (as maids or trafficked as prostitutes) and who won’t usually co-operate with police because of fear of deportation. In this sense Cairo is a city with an élite who need an ‘invisible army’ of illegals to keep them in comfort – as in most major Western cities.

Trouble in the streets.

In the final section the narrative becomes more specifically ‘Egyptian’ when it involves demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The trouble erupts on Egypt’s National ‘Police Day’, the starting point for the Egyptian version of the ‘Arab Spring’. The other scene that intrigued me is when Noredin visits his contact, the Lebanese singer, in a nightclub. While this is another familiar element in a US/UK/French etc. film noir, it is also an element in Egyptian films in which any excuse for a song or dance performance is usually taken, especially that of a Lebanese singer who is a beautiful woman. I’m sure Tarik Saleh wants his film to be shown in Egypt. Given the shooting ban this seems unlikely, but perhaps audiences will still find it via streaming services, satellites etc. I have no idea how the film would fare in Egypt – would the mix of Arabic dialects be a problem? Outside Egypt any audience with a love of film noir should enjoy the film immensely.

Here’s the UK trailer:

Beck (Sweden 2015: Series 5)

Peter Haber and Mikael Persbrandt in the first of the Series 5 films of BECK

Peter Haber and Mikael Persbrandt in Rum 302, the first of the Series 5 films of BECK

I was surprised and delighted when five Beck films were picked up by the BBC and broadcast recently on BBC4. The first film I watched was enjoyable and entertaining but it seemed to miss the most important element of the famous series of books – the critique of Swedish society. However, I’ve watched four more and these new films have now definitely won me over.

Martin Beck is important as arguably the first protagonist of what has for the last seven or eight years become known as ‘Nordic Noir’ in the UK and elsewhere. (I’m sure it has been called something slightly different in Scandinavia for several years.) The ten novels by the team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (living together as a couple) were written between 1965 and 1975. All ten novels were adapted for the cinema, some outside Sweden. (I discuss Bo Widerberg’s 1976 Beck film The Man On the Roof here.) The earliest film adaptations featured different actors playing Martin Beck but a series of six Swedish-German films in 1993-4 all featured Gösta Ekman as Beck. The current sets of films began in 1997 and (like the later Wallander films) are new stories using the central characters. Per Wahlöö died in 1975 and Maj Sjövall has not to my knowledge written any more Beck stories, so the 30 films since 1997 all use new stories.

The importance of the original 10 novels was that the writers, Marxists both, attempted to offer a critique of Swedish society. This meant a level of realism in the police procedural and a level of political awareness and moral commitment by Beck himself. This in turn inspired later writers such as Henning Mankell (who wrote an introduction for the most recent UK translation of the first Beck novel Roseanna first published in 1965). And it was this element that I thought was missing in the first of the films broadcast by BBC4. I realise now that this was the last film of ‘Series 4’ from 2009. In Sweden the 90 minute films have tended to go straight to DVD with only occasional theatrical releases, though I believe the more recent films have appeared first on TV in Sweden.

The four later BBC4 screenings are of the 2015 films from Series 5. Beck is played (as in all 30 films) by Peter Haber, a veteran Swedish actor in TV and film, best known outside the country perhaps for the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in which he played Martin Vanger. Haber is perfectly cast as Beck, embodying the character introduced in Roseanna all those years ago. The others in the team have been ‘updated’ and Beck now leads a team of five. His right-hand man is Gunvald Larsson (Mikael Persbrandt), almost the polar opposite of Beck but also complementary – someone decisive, cool under pressure but perhaps too quick to act, even if he is often shown to be correct. The two officers who do most of the leg-work are Oscar and Jenny and at the start of the fifth series, a new member is introduced in the form of Ayda, a young ‘civilian’ brought in as a research and IT expert. Ayda might be seen as the indicator of the influence of the recent explosion of female investigators in Scandinavian crime fiction. Her character’s name (Ayda Çetin) suggests that she is from a Turkish migrant background. She speaks several languages and is clearly adept in both IT skills and police/intelligence procedures. When they first meet there is a potential clash with Gunvald (because Ayda is not a police officer) which Beck quickly attempts to avert. The script seems to be pointing towards a future narrative involving Gunvald and Ayda.

In the third film of Series 5, Oscar is developed as a character partly through the coincidence that his wife is in the final stages of pregnancy at the same time as one of the characters in the case the team is investigating. Oscar is being teased, especially by Gunvald. He is a ‘new man’ in many ways and perhaps he is a little naive but he is a reliable and competent police officer. All this comes into focus when Jenny is asked about what it is like to work on the team. She then gives her own analysis of what might happen when Beck retires and each of the others ‘moves up’ a place. She seems quite happy that she will then be third out of four and a new member will be the junior. I realised at this point that I had become much more aware of the individual characters in the team and I was getting much more out of the show. The stories too seemed to be developing much more in line with how the novels had originally worked out. I should also mention that another new character in Series 5 is the new head of the whole police operation. This is Klas Fredén and he seems a familiar character from procedurals anywhere. He’s much younger than Beck and very managerial with arrogance and a ‘touchy-feely’ manner. Significantly he is immediately shown to be completely wrong in over-ruling Gunvald – again perhaps foreshadowing future developments.

Martin Beck is a wonderful character who is gentle and understanding but still an efficient cop who doggedly sticks to his task and solves crimes through hard work rather than flashes of genius. The critique is not direct but the crimes are contextualised in terms of recognisable human behaviour and not something fantastical. I’d very much like to see more of the thirty films please BBC4. In the meantime the arrival of The Bridge 3 is eagerly awaited.

Nordic Noir TV films are discussed in Chapter 9 of The Global Film Book.

Mystery Road (Australia 2013)

Jay (Aaron Pedersen) with his father's Winchester rifle

Jay (Aaron Pedersen) with his father’s Winchester rifle

This is one of the most interesting films released so far in the UK this year. Writer/director/cinematographer Ivan Sen sets out his intentions like this:

From the writing stage, I wanted Mystery Road to have a timeless, classical feel. A feel that was reminiscent of Hollywood films of the 60s and 70s which were more dialogue based and relied little on music and trickery. I wanted this film to have a quiet, almost trance like atmosphere, where the music became the words spoken from the characters. (Press Pack)

Sen refers to his film as a ‘murder mystery’ but I’m not sure that is the most useful descriptor of its possible categories/genres. It’s certainly ‘crime fiction’ and a ‘police procedural’ which explores the classic trope of the loner police officer seemingly up against not just the bad guys, but also the local community and his own police colleagues. The setting is an outback town in Western Queensland, a town with a significant indigenous Australian community. Jay Swan is himself an indigenous Australian (I’ll use ‘Aboriginal’ from here in since that’s the term Sen himself uses in the Press Pack) who has gone to the city to become a detective. He has returned to his home town and a spacious house on the ‘right’ side of town. His ex-wife and teenage daughter are still living on the ‘estate’ on the ‘wrong’ side. The crime fiction is flavoured like the recent Nordic variety with an exploration of the social issues of the outback communities.

Jay’s first big case is the murder of a teenage Aboriginal girl (and a friend of his daughter). He soon becomes aware of the lack of co-operation he can expect from everyone. In many ways he’s like the new sheriff in the classic Western. According to the producer David Jowsey:

Mystery Road is a Cowboy Western film, and that evolved through determining the look and the attitude of the lead character. Aaron [Pedersen] was always going to be the lead in the film . . .  and Ivan wanted Aaron looking like a cowboy. He wears a cowboy hat, he slings a pistol and he’s wearing cowboy boots. Once that was established the film itself became a Western.

Having these clear signals means that there is none of the confusion (for me at least) found in Ivan Sen’s previous film Toomelah (2011). On that film, Sen worked with non-professionals and because he didn’t want a full crew to intimidate them he performed all the production roles himself. By necessity, this gave the film with its hand-held camerawork a rough look. Mystery Road by contrast gives Sen the cinematographer a full supporting crew (and the budget to include several aerial sequences) as well as a cast stuffed with Australian stars of film and television – including a cameo appearance by the veteran star of 1970s Australian cinema, Jack Thompson. They all do an excellent job.

The Western and procedural tropes are well-used. Jay’s role as the detective refers to the figure of the Aboriginal ‘tracker’ in earlier Australian generic narratives – often used ‘against’ his own people. This kind of ‘turncoat’ character also turns up in American Westerns with the Native American tracker or, more recently, the Native American detective (e.g. in Thunderheart (1992)). Further parallels can be found in African-American police procedurals such as Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1994). The clearest Western references are in the iconography of hat and boots, the glorious landscape shots and in the almost intimate scenes between characters, shot in close-up, in bars, interrogation rooms and over fences. True to his intentions, Sen allows dialogue and camerawork to make the narrative ‘sing’ – though there are also sound effects like the howling of the wild dogs (real or imagined).

I’ve looked around for writing on the film and I came across this piece on ‘Ferdy on Film’ an American blog (but I think that the writer might be Australian). Roderick Heath offers a very detailed review of the film (perhaps too much detail if you want to avoid narrative spoilers) in the context of genre filmmaking in Australia. While praising many aspects of the film he finds the dialogue weak and argues that Sen can’t effectively marry a genre piece with something ‘artier’ – citing the obvious naming of locations amongst other flaws. (The body is found near ‘Massacre Creek’ off ‘Mystery Road’ and the film ends on ‘Slaughter Hill’.) I’m not sure what to make of this. It’s probably something to do with film reviews. I just accept the dialogue for what it is and similarly the use of names, visual clues etc. Heath gives an example of of weak dialogue:

Sen’s ear for dialogue remains occasionally weak and largely humourless. Even as he tries admirably to create scenes charged with a constant—perhaps too constant—sense of elusive, cryptic menace, he undercuts the effect with clanger exposition lines like, “But then, your old man was the head stockman around here for ages,” when a rancher comments on Swan’s eye for horse flesh.

The narrative point here is that we need to know various things about Jay’s background. Some of them we can pick up easily from what we see – Jay doesn’t drink alcohol for instance. This is re-inforced by a comment his ex-wife makes suggesting he used to drink heavily. The knowledge about Jay’s father could have been given via a photograph perhaps, but the dialogue exchange is quite subtle I think. The rancher is a racist who is quietly goading Jay, here pointing out that he knows exactly who Jay is – and implicitly pointing to a local hierarchy. Later in the exchange Jay will ask the rancher how much land he has – in order to point out that he has much to leave to his children whereas the locals like Jay’s father have little to leave to their children (except the Winchester rifle, a heavily significant bequest by Jay’s father to his son). I loved these quiet but menacing exchanges, but perhaps that’s just a personal taste.

Audiences across the world have learned how to read Westerns and American film noirs but these Australian outback narratives require cultural knowledge that is difficult to pick up except from similar films. Sometimes it’s the white Australians who seem the most mysterious. There is a sequence in Mystery Road in which Jay goes out to meet an old man who had filed a report about wild dogs near Mystery Road. These eight minutes with Jack Thompson don’t seem to have any direct bearing on the crime narrative (and the wild dogs are similarly not fully ‘explained’). Perhaps the Thompson cameo is just a character study that fills in the background? I was reminded of the eccentric figures who inhabit the wonderful Wake in Fright (Australia 1971) re-released in the UK in the last year. There is a tendency amongst critics to want to separate genre from ‘arthouse’ so that the lacunae of the latter should not ‘spoil’ the purity of the former. Personally, I like my genre films to have layers and to present puzzles that can’t be resolved in just a single viewing. Mystery Road is going to be worth seeing a second time and possibly a third. Thoroughly recommended, the film (from the small distributor Axiom) is only likely to stay briefly in cinemas where the big screen brings out the best from the cinematography – so see it now if you can.

Here’s a trailer but note that the music isn’t there in the film itself and the trailer over-emphasises the action. But it does give a good idea of the landscape!

Keeper of Lost Causes (Kvinden i buret, Denmark/Sweden/Germany 2013)

An uncharacteristically 'sunny' image from THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES with Nikalus Lie Klas (left) and Fares Fares

An uncharacteristically ‘sunny’ image from KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES with Nikolaj Lie Kaas (left) and Fares Fares

This is the first adaptation of the crime novel series from Jussi Adler-Olsen. It’s a classy production written by Nikolaj Arcel, photographed by Eric Kress and starring Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Sonja Richter. (Richter and Kaas were leads in Open Hearts (2002).) Director Mikkel Nørgaard is making the transition to features after several TV series including Borgen. Everything works as it should but there is something lacking for me. Several commentators have suggested that the film looks like the first episode of a TV series. I can see this argument and it stands up when you consider that both of the series of Wallander adaptations included feature-length episodes that were released in cinemas. Perhaps if this had been a primarily Swedish rather than Danish production that is what would have happened here. But what do I know? This film adaptation was the major homegrown box-office winner in Denmark in 2013 and a second film adaptation is already in the works.

The crime narrative category here is the ‘cold case procedural’, which has already produced successful TV series in the UK and US. Adler-Olsen’s central character is Carl Mørck, a highly-respected and successful detective in Copenhagen who makes a wrong decision on a job and is ‘punished’/’hidden’ by his superior by being put in charge of ‘Department Q’ buried in the basement of police headquarters. The boss expects him to just file reports on cold cases but of course Carl starts to investigate them. He is assisted by Assad, played by the experienced Lebanese-Swedish actor Fares Fares. This is the character that gives the novels their unique flavour. Carl is sullen and resentful and never smiles but Assad is hard-working, sensible, pain-staking, conscientious etc. – but also cheerful and quite comic. The ‘banter’ between the two is engaging and, for me, is the saving grace of the novels. Some of the comedy comes from Assad’s less than perfect grasp of Danish and the cultural differences between the two.

A more typical image of the stygian gloom of Department Q and the familiar wall of photos associated with the investigation.

A more typical image of the stygian gloom of Department Q and the familiar wall of photos associated with the investigation.

The cold case here involves a junior politician from the Democrat party in the Danish parliament. She disappears on a ferry trip when she is travelling with her brother who has a disability which affects his social skills. The police report is perfunctory and the assumption is that the woman committed suicide by jumping into the sea. What follows is an investigation that uncovers a story that is frankly not that unfamiliar if you’ve watched/read a reasonable amount of Nordic crime fiction over the last few years. (Some plot points are similar to those in Killing 3 and The Bridge 2.) Through a series of flashbacks that are intercut into the procedural we soon get to realise what is going to happen to Sonja Richter as the missing woman – and eventually why it is all happening now. This is certainly ‘Nordic noir‘ in the sense that it is very dark, both in its look and in the theme – yes, this is another narrative in which a man does unspeakable things to a woman. But this time there isn’t an avenging female investigator (the books have been compared to Stieg Larsson). The other feature of ‘Nordic noir’ is the focus on a social issue/critique. Or at least it is in the Swedish instance. The Danish stories seem slightly different but in the only novel I’ve read from this series the theme does include a critique of inequality. It also seems to have more complex plotting than Keeper of Lost Causes. I will watch the second film when it is released as it promises a more critical edge in discussing the Danish middle classes. I’m also interested in how the filmmakers develop Assad’s character (and the possibility of a third, female, member of the team).

Chapter 4 of The Global Film Book includes a case study on ‘Nordic Cinema’.

The Man on the Roof (Mannen på taket, Sweden 1976)

The media on the street during the climax of The Man on the Roof (screengrab by DVD Beaver)

Nordic crime fiction is one of the major trends in contemporary film and television with successful Nordic titles often prompting swift American remakes. If you want to go back to the source of many of the celebrated elements of the Swedish police procedural, the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö offer a good place to start. This couple, good Marxist socialists both, wrote ten immensely popular police procedurals in the 1960s and 1970s featuring a Stockholm detective and his team. The stories all manage to critique what the authors saw as the flaws in Swedish social democracy. It is this political imperative which has survived in the work of Henning Mankell and others. All the books were made into films or TV series in Sweden and overseas. The best of the films is often said to be this 1976 adaptation by the celebrated Swedish director Bo Widerberg. Widerberg was the young turk of the Swedish ‘New Wave’ in the early 1960s and one of the more radical directors who was critical of Ingmar Bergman’s status within Swedish film culture.

The novel’s title is The Abominable Man – a reference to a police lieutenant who is lying in a hospital bed when he is attacked and brutally murdered, almost filleted with a bayonet. Martin Beck and his colleagues begin an investigation but just as they solve the mystery, the murderer takes to the rooftops with a selection of powerful snipers’ rifles and the police authorities have to devise a safe way of disarming him.

Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt as Martin Beck. Eastwood or McQueen he isn't, but not a police inspector to underestimate either.

The key feature of the film is its realism. Widerberg shoots on location and the action sequences in the film have a strong documentary feel which is also evident during the long police procedural sequences. The casting of a leading Swedish comedian of the period Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt as Martin Beck and the sheer ‘ordinariness’ of the rest of the team adds to this ‘realism effect’. (Lindstedt was the son of a Social-Democratic Party politician and started his career in a socialist youth theatre group according to Wikipedia.)  The film is generally very well thought of – bearing comparison with the best Hollywood crime films of the 1970s (comparisons are made with The French Connection). The critique here is not of police corruption in the Hollywood sense (i.e. drugs, extortion etc.), but something more akin to the systematic failure of police teams to do their job properly – and then to cover up the evidence with collective amnesia and a refusal to take complaints seriously. This approach shifts the focus from a single rogue to the system itself.

Overall I was very impressed with this film (presented on a Swedish Region 2 DVD with English subs bought online from Play.com). The quality of the transfer to DVD is very good. I was a Widerberg fan in the late 1960s and early 1970s but I don’t remember this getting a UK release. I did feel that one or two of the decisions during the sniper incident seemed a bit odd, but then I reflected on how Hollywood would have played it and concluded that the bungling of the Swedish approach is much more like real life and the mistakes we all make. It might be interesting to compare this with some of the other Martin Beck adaptations. After watching this, it doesn’t seem so surprising that Walter Matthau should have played Beck in the US adaptation of another Sjöwall/Wahlöö novel The Laughing Policeman (novel 1968, film 1973). The setting is changed to San Francisco and the character names are changed but the cast looks strong Louis Gossett Jr, Bruce Dern and Joanna Cassidy in a small role. Anybody seen it?