Thoughts on Genre, and The Disappearance of Alice Creed

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is not a film that anyone would ever call great, but  in these dire filmic times it’s a real achievement. It is a three-character piece with genuine claustrophobic intensity. Interestingly, it was not first a play, for it certainly feels like one. This is perhaps its greatest failing. For a film, the point at which the audience knows that no more characters will appear in the film is usually where diminishing returns set in. This is only partly true for ‘Creed. Still, that quality of existing in a closed universe finally does take a toll on the narrative. The last forty minutes begins to feel tedious, and the surprises not at all surprising.

This particular sub-phylum of the hostage genre is also so familiar at this point (and what isn’t familiar at this point?) that it works against the parts of this film that have real resonance. The acting is of a very high quality, assuming one can accept the RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) tendencies of all involved. Two ex-cons kidnap the daughter of wealthy man in order to extort two million pounds ransom. That’s the basic plot. The “surprises” remind one a bit too much of the Chris Nolan school of cleverness, but the characters have enough magnitude to more or less overcome this. The best parts of the film are the stretches without surprise or over-amped tension. The claustrophobia is the actual center of the film, and the small locked apartment where the hostage is kept has the existential ambiance of a Beckett play.

In any event, it’s not a film that is going to last over the years, and I doubt in ten years it will seem quite as good as it seems now. Gemma Arterton is certainly luminous in her slatternly way, and along with Eddie Marsden and Martin Compston, they all occupy the space given them with a kind of weird psychosexual pathology that makes the entire affair pretty fun to sit through.

But why is it that the film never manages to rise above its premise?

Since we have had a good deal of discussion about directors vis a vis Sarris’ American Cinema, it’s worth thinking about how this debut film of J. Blakeson fails, finally, to deliver the mise-en-scene that more rigorous directors of genre manage to do. The Val Lewton oeuvre, or even stylists like Sam Fuller or Otto Preminger, all think more deeply about the inherent poetics of film than does Mr. Blakeson. Not to say the film is badly made, quite the contrary. It’s just that it seems to find itself sinking to a level more in keeping with the failed promises of a John Huston or, indeed Chris Nolan. There is something lacking in the way the camera never finds a personal style, never expresses something beyond what the text suggests is appropriate for the scene. There is the sense that cleverness in plot devices must be given preference, and therefore the cumulative sense of poetics is stillborn. The claustrophobic room, for all its creepiness and existential anxiety, is somehow always a bit too pat, always just set dressing. This is a bit paradoxical, and I admit I cannot put my finger on the problem with any precision, because, as I’ve said, the atmosphere of the locked apartment is viscerally oppressive.

I recently watched Pumpkin Eater, Jack Clayton’s film from 1964, with a script by Harold Pinter. I’d not seen it in quite a while and what struck me the most was how bad, actually, Anne Bancroft was. This was a performance of fake humility. Bancroft was always a poor man’s Patricia Neal anyway. But it is Clayton for whom we can place blame for the film’s ultimate failure. James Mason and Peter Finch are magnificent, but Clayton seems too attached to this being a vehicle for Bancroft and even with a sublime script by Pinter, one cannot but help feel how many chances are missed to deliver a film that transcends its foundational status as melodrama. In ‘Creed, the same problem exists, but in another form. Blakeson cannot find the film language to step beyond the tired genre format. It is, in the end, the reason a Hawks or a Fassbinder or even an Aldrich, manage to express something that cannot be found outside cinema. In films like Crash…. the indifference of the camera placement makes for just pure ugliness, while even the most minor of Lewton’s films is always composed with a serene intelligence. The films of lesser stylists like Minnelli or Walsh are still imbued with a distinct sense of cinema. They cannot have been anything but film. Journeymen directors like John Sturgis, at his best in Bad Day At Black Rock, manage, even despite some self-conscious framing and angles, something far deeper than one gets in ‘Creed. And stepping up to the level of a Losey (compare his work with Pinter scripts!) or a major director such as Antonioni, the sense of purpose in each shot is tangible and so acute at times (in the case of Antonioni) that story is secondary to the revelations of each composition.

The Hill, 1965

It is no doubt overstating the obvious here that Blakeson is not of that caliber. He will, however, I’m sure, have a very successful career, and in short order. The very lack he demonstrates in ‘Creed is a lack that protects the film from ever really penetrating to the level of a disturbance of the soul that would be career ending in today’s studio climate. What I end up taking away from the experience of ‘Creed, is the sense of slight depression that comes from investing more in the watching than I receive from the film work itself. It borders on kitsch for that reason. It also reminds us why great directors, and great actors, are so singular. Even if Kazan or Lumet are not major film visionaries, their sensitivity for their actors provided enough (often anyway) to raise some of their work to the status of classic. The classic being a film that will continue to yield new meaning and evolve as the society itself evolves. In The Hill, my favorite Lumet film, the ensemble acting is of such a high level that the film becomes a mythic meditation on authority and a genuine anti-war film. Today there seems a readiness to embrace the surface style (think of the wildly overrated Hunger by Steve McQueen last year) that one can be assured Blakeson will emerge as the new Nolan or the new Boyle.

Even Huston was sharp enough to know what to do with a Bogart (usually) or a Sterling Hayden. When Huston failed (think Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, or Man Who Would Be King) it was a failure of hubris and of intelligence. Huston was never going to do Lowry right, nor O’Connor. He did best with genre material that edged just outside its formula (Fat City). The final problem with ‘Creed is that it doesn’t want to step outside that formula. It almost does, and the actors certainly strain to give something deeper, but the camera isn’t there to allow it. That said, in an era of actors like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, and directors like Chris Nolan or Danny Boyle, or worse, the endless stream of Bruckheimer junk or Marvel comix flotsam, a work like ‘Creed is something close to truly satisfying.

John Steppling

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3 responses to “Thoughts on Genre, and The Disappearance of Alice Creed

  1. My first question was, “Where done you seen THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED? It’s even disappeared from being On Demand.” But you snuck to the Cinemas Palme D’or, didn’t you? DIDN’T YOU??!!

    I agree it’s not great, but is among the most satisfying films I’ve seen lately. Or nearly satisfying, as you would have it. Real fun to watch and surprisingly absorbing.

    SPOILER ALERT THIS PARAGRAPH: (But this surprise is revealed pretty early on). The film does contain a piece of significance that I don’t recall seeing in any other film yet. About a half hour in, we are surprised to learn that Eddie Marsden and Martin Compston, the kidnappers, are lovers, and that the booty they’re scheming to score will lend them a comfortable life of scoring each other’s booty. (Once they get the ransom money, their plans for the first two weeks are to fuck each other silly.) Why this is significant is that it’s the first time I recall “bad guys” who just happen to be gay, rather than bad guys who we, the audience, are supposed to dislike even more once we discover that they’re gay. In fact, we’re not supposed to dislike them particularly at all; or in any case, our allegiances to the characters shift throughout the film, including the kidnapping victim herself, Alice Creed. (On the other hand, maybe Eddie Marsden is supposed to be thoroughly repulsive, but I like him so much as an actor that I couldn’t help but like his character most of the time.)

    EVEN BIGGER SPOILER ALERT THIS PARAGRAPH: Now that I’ve said what I said above, I have to wonder if I’m wrong, because superficially, it does fall into the tired old-fashioned movie cliches about gay characters. That is, characters who, in this case, stoop to the crime of kidnapping are made even more morally reprehensible by being gay; and the even more important and consistent trope,* gay characters must pay for their sin by death, whether it be suicide or homicide. And here the gay men die and the straight woman lives (and triumphs). My instinct is that I want to forgive this film because it was so entertaining to watch, and I didn’t notice this continued cinematic pattern until after it was over (not until just now, in fact). And their being gay and dying at the end were weaved tightly into the plot rather than being gratuitously anti-gay. Oh, I know what it is that made me so forgiving. It’s perhaps the first movie where the gay characters — who are both bad and gay and who must pay for the sin of being gay with death — are not either pathologically evil (like Will Patton in NO WAY OUT) or stereotypical limp-wristed, lisping, swishy queens (like most movies and TV shows up to and including the coming out of Ellen DeGeneres), and that seemed so refreshing that I didn’t spot the tired cliches. But no; sadly, I now realize, it’s the same old shit as ever.
    * (this marks my debut of using one of Gunfighter Nation’s three most popular words [“trope”] in any context whatsoever, written, verbal, or otherwise; hope I used it correctly)

    Perhaps it’s worth pointing out as well that the Martin Compston character is actually bisexual. He’s way too turned on being dominated by Eddie Marsden to suggest that he’s straight at heart and merely experimenting or dabbling with homosexuality. Either way, the old playbook dictates that the bisexual or bi-curious must meet death as well, which he does. And as everything from THE CHILDREN’S HOUR to BASIC INSTINCT “teaches” us, being a lesbian is no better. Unless you’re a Kinsey 1 on the Kinsey scale, you are evil and must die; although the more sympathetic screenplays allow the characters to live out their lives provided they are lonely and unhappy and will suffer considerably. Although these tropes (!!!) are changing, THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED demonstrates that we’ve still got some ways to go.

  2. Ah, gulp, um, yes, yes, i WAS at the palme d’or cinema………

    but I think your question is quite relevant. And I dont think it actually is the same old paradigm of puritan punishment for sexual transgression. I think the two “bad” guys are punished for a lack of trust — and actually, Martin Compston is the one who betrays everyone. And yet we dont really dislike him. As he says to the Alice after choking her out — when she manages to get him chained to the bed, “why didnt you just listen?” He really, I think, just wanted this to go well, and he and Vic could then leave and fuck each other silly. I have no doubt thats what he wanted. I say this because had the two kidnappers not been gay (or bi) the result was likely the same, somehow. I think there are mitigating factors in this film, in terms of the narrative, that it would be a mistake to hew so rigidly to the structural idea of plot vis a vis character “traits”. The film is above average for the very reason that these characters are complex and we both love and hate them in equal measure. Yes they die, but I cant see this as an unconscious (or conscious) decision on the part of the author — its rather in the logic of hostage narratives. It also harkens back to films (speaking of Huston) like Treasure of Sierra Madre. Greed helps devour itself.

  3. I’d like to think you’re right, because as I said, I enjoyed the movie very much and didn’t think of these things until I responded to your piece. But it does fit the pattern I’ve seen over and over again my whole life too much to dismiss it.

    There were a couple of lapses in logic that took me out of the story into hyper-awareness that I was watching a film. One was that she would have had a LOT of trouble breathing with the sack over her head all the time. And when they mummified her for transference from the room to the van, she would surely have suffocated. Can’t remember the other thing, but hoo boy, it sure bugged me.

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