Way before Peyton Place and the like, with this novel Stanley Ellin once again demonstrated his ability to stay ahead of the literary curve, using the investigation into a domestic death to explore the petty (and not so petty) jealousies and betrayals lying behind the facade of suburban respectability.
I offer this review as part of Rich’s celebration of 1952 mysteries over at Past Offences; Bev’s Vintage Golden Age Mystery Challenge; Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for reviews, click here); and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, today hosted by BV Lawson at In Reference to Murder
“You don’t have to worry about wiping off the lipstick” she said. “I’m not wearing any.”
Stanley Ellin’s sophomore effort details the fallout from a murder in Sutton, a small town about 100 miles out of New York City. The narrative is subdivided into five sections, one for each member from a single household who all get to narrate their own story. First is Junie, the 19-year-old domestic who works for the Ayres family at 161 Nicholas Street. Mrs Ayres (Lucille) rules the roost, looking after her weak-willed husband Harry and their children Robert and Bettina. Junie also does some extra chores for their new neighbour, flame-haired temptress Katherine Ballou, a successful commercial artist who recently moved in at number 159. The arrival of her friend, cynical charmer Matthew Chaves, and his involvement with Bettina, sparks off a series of family dramas culminating with Junie’s discovery of la Ballou’s dead body at the bottom of her cellar after an apparent accident. When Lucille next takes over the narration, we learn that the death was definitely murder and that she really isn’t too sorry to see her neighbour go:
“So I stood over the serpent that lay with her head crushed in the dust, and knew the nightmare was over”
It turns out Harry had been having an affair with Ballou and he is the next to narrate the story, detailing his year-long adventure into romance. This is the longest of the five sections, covering the whole period of the affair and its sad but inevitable conclusion once the domineering Lucille puts her foot down. The children then take over the narration, providing complimentary but contrasting views of the events, embroiling the butcher, Bob Macek, Junie’s dim lug of a boyfriend, who becomes the prime suspect. Central to the narrative structure is the role played by outsiders Chaves and Ballou (whose name unfortunately kept making me think of the Jane Fonda comedy Western Cat Ballou, based on the 1956 novel by Roy Chanslor), who have shaken off the pretensions of small town living in favour of a seemingly more honest big city vision. It is through this contrast that the theme of the book is revealed, examining the way that on the well-to-do Nicholas Street appearances are much more important than reality, where what the neighbours think is much more important than what you actually do (as long as you don’t get exposed). This is how the young Chaves explains it to Bettina:
“My dream is just you and me, Betty, and to hell with success and all the trimmings”
As we progress through the narrators in the Ayres household, switching perspectives as we go, we eventually reach a conclusion, one that reveals the motive and the events leading to the death, what was important about who had access to the eponymous spare key to Ballou’s house and also, in a nice reversal, who the actual detective is (the formal investigator, town sheriff Morten Ten Eyck, is really not up to the task). This is a very satisfying novel, one that updates the epistolary, multi-narrator approach of Wilkie Collins (and, more recently, Kenneth Fearing) to tell an intimate story amid some well-drawn and plausible characters so that we can examine the roots of a crime and consider how such things might happen in the real world and who should truly be held responsible.
In France in the late 1950s a series of film critics, including Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Agnes Varda and Jacques Rivette launched the Nouvelle Vague (‘New Wave’), an iconoclastic movement that sought to shake up what they perceived as the staid state of cinema of the day. The first of them to make the move behind the camera was Claude Chabrol and in 1959 adapted Nicholas Street into À double Tour (which means ‘double lock’ but the film was mainly released either as Leda or as Web of Passion in English-speaking territories). A very young Jean-Paul Belmondo (who briefly appears nude in one scene straight from the book) co-stars as Chaves, here turned into a Hungarian named ‘Laszlo Kovacs’ (a name also attached to Belmondo for his role in Godard’s Breathless, which followed shortly afterwards). Of course, it is also the name of the Hungarian cinematographer who made his name in the 1960s but at that point had no real credits to his name but none the less it may have been a nod to him.
It is not surprising that this book appealed to Chabrol, with its critique of middle class hypocrisy, and his films are at their considerable best when focusing on provincial life, highlighting the foibles of the petite bourgeoisie. Thus, Ellin’s tale proves an excellent foundation on which for him to build, though it has to be said, this is not a complete success. Set in a picturesque part of the countryside (it was filmed at Aix-en-Provence), the basic plot is very faithfully derived from the novel, though it dispenses with the multiple narrators, using a complex flashback structure that is handled with great virtuosity but which, some critics complained, also derails the momentum of the film, which is partly true. There are also many superficial changes: Katherine Ballou is now Léda Mortoni (Antonella Lualdi, who incidentally turned 83 last month) while Macek is Roger, a muscle-bound milkman instead of a butcher. Harry and Lucille Ayres become Henri and Thérèse Marcoux, and instead of running a hardware store he is now the owners of a vineyard.
The novel is fairly claustrophobic – we never see inside Ballou’s home, only her cellar, and the story plays out in three locations: the Ayres home, Ballou’s New York apartment and Chaves tiny little room where he tries to convince Bettina (in the film Elisabeth) to throw away convention and settle for love rather than material possessions. The film, with its beautiful locations and eye-popping colour (courtesy of the great Henri Decaë), is much more expansive and the tone on the whole is lighter, even vaguely comedic, especially in the beginning when, like in the book, Junie (now changed to Julie) taunts her nosy neighbour (now the gardener) by parading in her underwear in the morning. Music-loving Richard is now much more openly lusting after her, though as played by André Jocelyn he is rather manic and peculiar all the way through. Belmondo too, for the first half at least, plays the role in a fairly antic fashion – once Léda’s body is found however the film turns darker and less frivolous.
The comedy is somewhat overdone, and the love scenes between Henri and Léda fail to convince due to the very wooden playing by Lualdi, who is certainly pretty enough for the role but is otherwise stiff and unconvincing throughout. By comparison Madeleine Robinson as the overbearing wife is much more powerful and engaging, which does tend to unbalance the story as we never really share or understand Henri’s passion for Léda. Equally, while the long romantic tryst shown in flashback where Léda and Henri wonder though fields of yellow, green and red flowers ultimately seems a bit trite because there is no rapport between the two actors and the presentation seems to go overboard in trying to compensate for this. The revelation of the murderer appears fairly early on, 20 minutes before the end, leading to a very long and technically impressive flashback, expertly edited and staged, showing what actually happened. This is actually an improvement on the novel as the motivation is clearer and psychologically a bit more convincing but it is a failing of the film that, for all its formal dexterity (Chabrol was a close student of Hitchcock), we don’t really care enough about the central characters. This is not the first and last time that such a charge would be levelled at the French auteur …
DVD availability: In the UK the film is available from Studio Canal as a standalone release or as part of the very nice Jean-Paul Belmondo Collection box set, under its original title, and it looks absolutely first-rate with bright and bold colours and the right aspect ratio too. In the US it has been released also under its original title on DVD by Kino.
À double Tour (1959)
Director: Claude Chabrol
Producer: Ralph Baum, Raymond Hakim, Robert Hakim
Screenplay: Claude Chabrol, Paul Gégauff
Cinematography: Henri Decaë
Art Direction: Bernard Evein, Jacques Saulnier
Music: Paul Misraki
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Antonella Lualdi, Madeleine Robinson, Bernadette Lafon, Jacques Dacqmine
I offer this review as part of Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘book I had to borrow’ category (as it turned out I only had this one in Italian – thanks Mum and Dad, as ever). And it’s my second bingo too!